Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012


He was charged with the most horrific crimes: cannibalism, mutilation, sadism, embezzlement and 38 murders.
Not me: Bokassa was accused of grotesque crimes
The ex-emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel-Bokassa, found himself in the dock in December, 1986, two months after returning from exile.
It was reckoning time: he was to come face-to-face with those he had tortured during his time as absolute dictator of one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Bokassa had seized power in a military coup in 1966, declaring ‘a new era of equality’ for this land-locked country in central Africa. In fact, there was to be equality for one man only - himself. With the help of Libya and France, he embarked on a 13-year orgy of excess.
His trial would not only expose his dreadful crimes; it would also reveal the hypocrisy of the foreign powers that had supported him.
A second Napoleon, or so he thought
The opening session began on 15 December 1986, taking place in the stiflingly hot chambers of the Palais de Justice in Bangui, the capital of Bokassa’s former fiefdom.
The world’s media had turned out in force, eager to report every lurid detail of his grotesque reign as emperor.
Bokassa hired two top French lawyers, aware that he would needed the very finest legal team if he was to escape the death sentence.
The 65-year-old ex-emperor cut a strange figure in court. He wore a smart, double-breasted suit, yet his gout-ridden right foot was clad in an open slipper. He followed the proceedings intently, losing his temper on occasions and interjecting strange comments and apologies.
Meet the family: or some of it
The prosecution witnesses shed much light on a regime of monstrous cruelty. One of his former cooks, Philippe Linguissa, recalled how he’d been called to prepare a special feast for Bokassa. The main course was a human corpse that the emperor kept stored in his walk-in refrigerator.
An impoverished place: Bokassa's fiefdom
Other witnesses described how they had broken into Bokassa's palace shortly after he was ousted from power. They were searching for relatives who’d been missing for years and were appalled to find corpses and human limbs stacked in the palace refrigerators.
One female witness testified that Bokassa had executed her husband, General M'bongo, because he’d refused to allow Bokassa to sleep with his wife.
When Bokassa heard her speaking in court, he displayed sudden contrition. ‘I take moral responsibility in the death of this general,’ he said as he started to beg the woman's forgiveness.
Loving husband to Catherine, one of many wives
One of the most damning testimonies came from a group of 27 youngsters, the only survivors of 180 children who were killed in April 1979 after they threw rocks at Bokassa's passing Rolls Royce.
They had been protesting over being forced to wear expensive school uniforms that they were obliged to purchase from a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.
Several of them revealed that Bokassa visited them on their first night in prison and ordered the prison guards to club the children to death. He then participated in smashing the skulls of five children with his ebony walking stick.
The trial gave a grim insight into the running of Bokassa’s notorious Ngaragba prison where inmates routinely had hands and feet chained to the floor.
Bangui - Bokassa's former capital
Under prison director Joseph Mokoa, prisoners either died of starvation or were strangled. Some were killed with repeated hammering.
Bokassa continually interjected during the trial. He expressed his dismay at being accused of such appalling crimes. He also denied ever personally ordering the torture of any of his subjects. Nor did he admit to keeping corpses in his palace.
As the evidence against him mounted, he tried to shift the blame away from himself and onto various ministers in his former cabinet.
Ngaragba prison: not a pleasant place
When he came to present his defence, he caused incredulity by stating: ‘I’m not a saint. I'm just a man like everyone else.’
As more and more alleged crimes came to the surface, Bokassa grew increasingly angry. At one point, he leaped to his feet and harangued the chief prosecutor.
‘The aggravating thing about all this is that it's all about Bokassa, Bokassa, Bokassa! I have enough crimes leveled against me without you blaming me for all the murders of the last 21 years!’
On 12 June 1987, Bokassa was found guilty of all charges, with the exception of those relating to cannibalism. There was insufficient evidence to convict him of eating his own subjects.
Giscard: supporter of Bokassa
Good friends: Gadaffi
Nor was it ever determined whether or not he served human flesh at a banquet given for French president Giscard d'Estaing.
The court acknowledged the many crimes leveled at Bokassa but found that the evidence was unimpeachable in only 20 cases. The ex-emperor wept silently as Judge Franck sentenced him to death.
But he was destined to escape the death penalty. Instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. In 1989, this sentence was reduced to 20 years and in 1993, as part of a general amnesty, Africa’s most notorious leader was set free.
In 1996, shortly after proclaiming himself the 13th Apostle, the ex-emperor died of a heart attack.
He was survived by his 17 wives and 50 children. 
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Thanks for the great read. what an amazing story.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! Of all the dodgy, post colonial African leaders, he was surely the worst! Giles

  3. Nice article, thanks for the information.
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  4. Great article! Just a small correction: the picture is of the city of Dubai and not Bang I.

  5. One of the lesser-known megalomaniacs of the late 20th century.

  6. love your books. I bought three White Gold, Nathaniels's Nutmeg and the Last Samurai. Big Fan! bendiciones