Poetic Injustice: Untellable tales of human flesh-eating from the Central African Republic
In 1977, when Parisian designers oversaw the lavish coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa as “Emperor” of the Central African Republic, were they aware of his alleged anthropophagy? In December 2013, when French troops descended on Bangui amid rumours of cannibalism in the market, was irony finally claiming the spoils? Recently returned from Centrafrique, KEVIN BLOOM considers a story almost too macabre to tell.
“This information is true,” said Captain Ahmat Nedjad Ibrahim. “Muslim flesh was eaten. They cooked the flesh in the market and ate it in front of the press. They prepared it a certain way.”
And so there we had it, yet more confirmation that public acts of cannibalism had taken place in Bangui during the final months of 2013, and that these acts, which appeared intimately linked to the phrase “potential genocide,” had played a central part in France’s decision to triple its troop presence in a country that President Francois Hollande considered “the poorest in the world.”
But if anyone appreciated the surreal twist here, the bizarre irony in the fact that France had once openly supported that most famous of alleged local cannibals, former President-for-Life Jean-Bédel Bokassa, nobody was saying a word—a circumstance concerning which we had a nicely developing theory.
For one thing, it was mid-August 2014 and we were up in the town of Bambari, meaning we were far removed in time (about four decades) and space (a full day’s drive along a crumbling road) from the site of those original anthropophagic allegations.
For another, the French soldiers stationed in the town were members of the Foreign Legion and so were not strictly French; they were from Morocco and South Africa and Australia, and therefore would be unmoved by our attempts to bait them on the hypocrisies of their employer.
And yet, as seemed to happen in this strange country at least twice a day, our theory refused to hold… because while neither the largely Muslim “Seleka” rebel group (of which Captain Ibrahim was national spokesperson) nor the largely Christian “anti-balaka” rebel group (whose spokesperson we had already interviewed in Bangui) had anything good to say about the French, they both refrained from saying anything bad about Bokassa. Given that Bokassa’s legacy had been officially “rehabilitated” in 2010 by Francois Bozizé—the recently ousted president whose brutality and viciousness had led, in December 2012, to the still ongoing civil war—it was a paradox that quickly became an irony amongst ironies.
Of course, we had only our limited Anglophone frame of reference to go by, and so we had no choice but to hang on to our old (and no doubt limited) questions. For instance, didn’t Paris foot the bill for the coronation of President Bokassa as “Emperor” of the Central African Republic in 1977, a coronation replete with Napoleonic eagles and Roman laurel wreaths that had been stage-managed by Parisian designers and couturiers? Wasn’t this the same Monsieur Bokassa that had frequently gifted former French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing with fistfuls of Centrafrique’s diamonds? The very same smiling dictator who, at the close of the state banquet during the aforementioned $22 million coronation, had turned to Giscard’s personal emissary Robert Galley and said, “You never noticed, but you ate human flesh”?
‘Twas, as the history books suggested, the same indeed: Bokassa ler; Saviour of the Republic; Man of Steel; Unparalleled Engineer; Artist and Guide of Central Africa; Man Made to Create Nations… the boy whose father had been beaten to death by a French colonial officer for daring to protest against the system of forced labour, and whose mother had committed suicide the next week, yet who had dealt with the tragedy not by rebelling against the coloniser but by joining him.
Fighting in the Second World War and Indo-China in the uniform of the French, the young Bokassa would eventually receive twelve citations for bravery, including the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. As one of France’s honorary own, he would be rapidly promoted during the rush to Centrafrique’s independence, and by 1964 would find himself chief of staff of the CAR national army.
On New Year’s Eve 1965, when Bokassa would forcibly seize power from his cousin David Dacko (whom, he felt, had been plotting to replace him), the French would demonstrate their tacit approval via their silence, and would not utter a word of disapproval until 1979, when crack troops would storm into Bangui to reinstall Dacko. In the interim, Charles de Gaulle would die from a ruptured blood vessel while playing a game of Solitaire, an event that would render Bokassa inconsolable. “Mon pere, mon papa!” he would weep in the presence of De Gaulle’s widow, “I lost my natural father when I was a child. Now I have lost my adoptive father as well. I am an orphan again.”
An event that, in turn, would beg the next (and arguably most significant) question: what did this loyal son of France have to do that was so terrible that Paris would finally feel obliged to dethrone him?
Emperor Bokassa’s mistake, it transpired, was his over-reaction to the refusal of Bangui’s students to procure school uniforms from a textile plant owned by the royal family. In April 1979, following yet another public protest against his imperial edict, around a hundred schoolchildren would be murdered on Bokassa’s express orders—an independent inquiry would find that many of these students had been killed by the emperor’s own hand, leading to the French media dubbing him the “Butcher of Bangui”.
The government in Paris would stall and dissemble for another few months, but would eventually send in the troops in September, while the wayward son was in Libya on state business. In the ensuing weeks, French forces would discover the following at Monsieur Bokassa’s various residences: chests brimming with diamonds; hundreds of cameras alongside a vast pornography collection; two mutilated bodies in a refrigerator (including the headless and armless torso of a mathematics teacher); bone fragments in a drained pond from the remains of some thirty victims eaten by crocodiles.
French reporters, upon asking President Dacko whether the accusations of cannibalism were true, would be told that human flesh was indeed a regular item on Emperor Bokassa’s dinner menu. Meanwhile, over in Anglophone Africa, a handful of observers would be reminded of that penultimate scene from one of William Shakespeare’s least loved plays:
Let me go grind their bones to powder small,
And with this hateful liquor temper it,
And in that paste let their vile heads be bak’d.
Come, come, be everyone officious
To make this banket, which I wish may prove
More stern and bloody than the Centaurs’ feast.
[He cuts their throats]
So, now bring them in, for I’ll play the cook,
And see them ready against their mother comes.
In Act V scene ii of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare puts his eponymous anti-hero in a chef’s hat, with the heads of his enemies, Demetrius as “Murder” and Chiron as “Rape”, reduced to meat pies for the benefit of their mother Tamora, who represents “Revenge”. The action, according to preeminent modern Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, runs something like a horror soap opera, “Stephen King turned loose among the Romans and the Goths,” which is a literary elitist’s way of saying that the play is amongst the bard’s worst. “I don’t think I would see [Titus Andronicus] again unless Mel Brooks directed it, with his company of zanies,” Bloom sniffs, “or perhaps it could yet be made into a musical.”
If, according to the world’s greatest living Shakespeare critic, the world’s greatest-ever playwright couldn’t pull off a work about the anthropophagic habits of an ancient Roman king, what hope do today’s storytellers—whether they be journalists, documentarians or novelists—have of doing justice to Bokassa I of Central Africa? Is it even possible to tell this story outside the framework of something like Mel Brooks’s The Producers (whose title was originally supposed to be Springtime for Hitler)? How do the victims in this very real African drama get accorded a respect in death that transcends macabre literary farce?
As we sat in Seleka headquarters in downtown Bambari, listening to the youthful Captain Ibrahim tell us his story, all we could do was uncritically take notes. “I joined Seleka for multiple reasons,” said the fighter with the soulful eyes, “but one reason mainly. During Bozizé’s time, Muslim lives were worth nothing. So the one night, when I finished my studies at the University of Bangui, I went for a party. Bozizé’s people caught me, and they brought me sixty kilometres down the Douala road. There were four of us they caught, and they put us all in a sack. I did not know the other three. They put us next to a bridge and started shooting. A woman came and opened the sack and noticed I was not dead. I was unconscious. I woke up and went back to Bangui to get my revenge.”
Photo: Seleka national spokesperson, Ahmat Nedjad Ibrahim (Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak)
For some reason, we felt compelled to believe Captain Ibrahim; perhaps it was his aura, his profoundly absent presence, which suggested that he had returned from the other side of death. We were less inclined, however, to believe his sidekick Djido Ibrahim Mahamat, who informed us that he was the one who had released the photographs of cannibalism to the international press—those pictures of the notorious “Mad Dog” feasting on Muslim limbs in the Bangui market, which had been published (unfortunately, unsurprisingly) in January 2014 in the UK’s Daily Mail.
“Were those photographs for real?” we asked Captain Ibrahim.
“Yes,” he said, “very real.”
There was an awkward silence, and then one of us made a joke.
“Seleka can’t eat the flesh of anti-balaka, because it’s haram, yes?”
The reference to Muslim dietary laws had the captain and his sidekick doubled over with laughter. Maybe that was it, then, why Titus Andronicus had to be farce, why Bokassa’s legacy as a “great nation builder” had been accepted countrywide, why the French would never have to take responsibility for Centrafrique’s terrible truth: because if you couldn’t laugh, it was possible you might never stop your tears. DM
Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak recently visited the Central African Republic on the final leg of their research into Africa’s 21st century transformation. Their book will be out next year. Their first two pieces from this series can be accessed below:
- Letter from Central African Republic: Blameless in Bangui
- Centrafrique in Crisis: Instagrams from the Edge
Photo: 1977 inauguration of 'Emperor' Jean-Bédel Bokassa. (source uknown)