On my first visit to Bangui, in 2003, I was arrested. Just three months had passed since Bozize’s coup, and an atmosphere of uncertainty dominated the city. Ransacked buildings, their remaining skeletons now locked and shuttered, gave the city center the appearance of a ghost town. Waves of paperwork flowed across the floors of looted civil servant offices. A statue of the ousted president, Ange Felix Patasse, was dressed daily in colorful drag, one of the few signs of playfulness amid the general tension.
My arrest came early one morning. A police officer emerged from the dawn shadows and berated me for taking a photograph. From my perspective, I was attempting to get a shot of an impossibly decrepit multi-story building (a ministry) that nevertheless housed many camped-out residents; from his, I had a captured an image of the monument to the founder of the nation, a site of prime national security interest. It was only after he pointed it out that I even noticed the pile of rubble and concrete that once memorialized Barthelemy Boganda. The ironies of the incident seemed telling.
I evaded arrest with my camera intact (my primary concern), but the officer required that I expose the film (yes, film!), so I lost the image.
Ten years later, in the library at the University of California at Berkeley, I finally found a photo of that building. It shone out at me from among the frontspieces of the book, Un Coup d’Etat: Pourquoi faire? a serious tome from 1973 devoted to explaining the wisdom of Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s coup, several years into his reign. The frontspieces consist of many photos of progress achieved under “cher Papa”: an Air Centrafrique plane on the runway, the Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, the maternity division of a hospital, and so forth.
Forty years after Fred-Patrice Zemoniako Liblakenze wrote the book (much of which consists of words of wisdom from Bokassa, as well as songs and other honorifics dedicated to him), his question is again timely, but only when asked with a valence opposite to that of the original. Why do it, indeed -- so much suffering, and so little to show for it besides destruction and mistrust.