Today, the second installment of my series on using the library as a time machine. Alongside a volume on Coup d’Etat: Pourquoi Faire? (Coup d’Etat: Why do it?) that discussed the development advantages of coup-initiated leadership, I found another Bokassa-era gem: VOEUX à l’occasion de 53ème anniversaire du Général d’Armée Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Président à vie de la République (WISHES on the occasion of the 53rd birthday of General Jean-Bedel Bokassa, President for Life of the Republic). The book, from 1974, is a glossy scrapbook. Each page contains a photo and that person’s accompanying birthday wishes for the fearless leader, with the entries organized according to social role: Central African government officials and civil society leaders, foreign heads of state, Bangui diplomatic corps, Central African diplomats abroad, business operators in Bangui. In many of the pictures, the subjects look unsure whether to smile or affect a serious pose.
Though no apologist for Bokassa (the excesses of his coronation as emperor, viewable on YouTube, make me nauseated in light of the dire circumstances the country faces today), I nevertheless find it thrilling, on one level, to discover such perfectly-preserved relics of an era of construction, however unsound its financing.
One of the things that stuck me was how the diplomatic corps stepped over themselves to praise Bokassa. The end of the Cold War has allowed for a bit more circumspection on that count, at least. American Ambassador William N. Dale wrote, “I know how the Central African people all look forward to this memorable event [of your birthday]. I allow myself to add to their happiness my wishes for your health, longevity, and big, constant success for your vigorous efforts in favor of development and prosperity in your country.” The French ambassador was even more laudatory.
If you read only the book of wishes, you might assume the birthday party was a slickly-organized, lavish success. And perhaps it was. But Bill Gribbin, #2 at the US embassy at the time, recalls in his Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training oral history that Bokassa's fests were frequently a bit haphazard:
Those of us who lived in the CAR will never be lacking for stories. One of my favorite ones involved an American astronaut who toured Africa. ... Anyway, Bokassa was something of a self-proclaimed space nut, so when these visitors came to the CAR, he immediately offered them great hospitality. In fact, he took them to his private game park in the north. ... the embassy staff was invited to a state banquet, which would be on the top floor of the one hotel there in town. The top floor was a garden terrace about 7 or 8 stories up. Since Bokassa didn't often entertain, this was a big event. So we were all "convoked," which is the term they used, so those of us from the American Embassy, all the cabinet ministers and most of the senior military authorities showed up on time and were escorted up to the top of the hotel. Every 10 feet or so was a young soldier with an Uzi who had been there since about two that afternoon. But the guests of honor and the president didn't show up, and they didn't show up, and they didn't show up. Although we sat down, we were not given anything to drink. A band played music so loud that we couldn't talk to anybody. So we waited from about eight o'clock till after 11, when the presidential party finally returned from the game park and showed up at the banquet. By this time, of course, the tropical dew had settled, and we were soaking wet, even though it hadn't rained. I remember that I kept worrying about these kids with these Uzis because they would nod off. I hoped that no dream would awaken them and cause then to spray the crowd. In any case, that event – the mix of enthusiasms and sheer self-centeredness - was very typical of Bokassa.
The most familiar of the birthday wishes came from the head of the Safari Hotel-Restaurant, today the Hotel Oubangui, a massive multi-story edifice along the river. Every afternoon at around 5, Bokassa would march to the hotel-bar, set on the rocks out amid the rapids, accompanied by a brass band in red, white, black, and gold uniforms, to take his customary sundowner whiskey. The hotel administrator wrote his wishes to “Dear Papa” and signed off “Please receive, Dear Papa, our huge happy birthday kisses.” “Baiser,” the word he used for kiss, has a variety of meanings. Colloquially, today, it means to screw over. The proprietor’s words thus take on another, originally unintended and yet more accurate in the longue durée, meaning.