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Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African empire, after crowning himself in 1977.

The coronation took place on 4 December 1977 at the Palais des Sports ;, on Bokassa Avenue, next to the Université Jean-Bedel Bokassa. To the strains of Mozart and Beethoven, wearing a twenty-foot-long red-velvet cloak trimmed with ermine, Bokassa crowned himself and then received as a symbol of office a six-foot diamond-encrusted sceptre.

The spectacle of Bokassa’s lavish coronation, costing $22 million, in a country with few government services, huge infant mortality, widespread illiteracy, only 260 miles of paved roads and in serious economic difficulty, aroused universal criticism. But the French, who picked up most of the bill, curtly dismissed all such criticism. ‘Personally,’ said the French Cooperation Minister, Robert Galley, who represented Giscard at the coronation, ‘I find it quite extraordinary to criticise what is to take place in Bangui while finding the Queen of England’s Jubilee ceremony all right. It smacks of racism.’ At the end of a state banquet, Bokassa turned to Galley and whispered, ‘You never noticed, but you ate human flesh’, a remark that prompted his reputation for cannibalism.

Reminiscing in later years about the coronation, Bokassa told the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio, ‘It was the least the French could do to repay me for my services as a soldier fighting for their country, and for all the personal favours their politicians received when I became president.’

The ultimate irony was that less than two years after the coronation, as a result of Bokassa’s violent conduct, the French themselves felt obliged to step in and remove him from power. Bokassa’s propensity for violence became increasingly evident during the 1970s. In 1972, in a campaign against theft, he published a decree prescribing mutilation for thieves. As part of the campaign, he personally led a bevy of ministers to Ngaragba prison where he ordered guards to beat convicted thieves with wooden staves. As the convicts screamed in agony, Bokassa turned to a foreign newspaper reporter to observe: ‘It’s tough, but that’s life.’ Three men died and several others seemed barely alive. The next day, forty-two thieves who had survived the beating, together with the corpses of the three others, were put on display under a blazing sun on a stand in Bangui’s main square. When the United Nations Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, protested at the atrocity, Bokassa called him ‘a pimp’, ‘a colonialist’ and ‘dumb as a corpse’. His other exploits included assaulting a British journalist with an ivory-tipped walking stick and attempting to strike a personal representative of Giscard d’Estaing.

The list of Bokassa’s victims at Ngaragba grew ever longer. ‘From 1976 to 1979,’ the prison director subsequently testified, ‘I executed dozens of officers, soldiers, diverse personages, thieves, students – under instructions from Bokassa.’ Some were beaten to death with hammers and chains. Bokassa was also said to hold kangaroo courts in the gardens of the Villa Kolongo, sentencing men to be killed by lions or crocodiles he kept there.

The events that led to Bokassa’s downfall started with student demonstrations in Bangui on 19 January 1979, in protest at an imperial edict that all pupils buy and wear new school uniforms. The uniforms were manufactured by a textile company owned by members of the Bokassa family and sold exclusively in their retail stores. The demonstrations were joined by crowds of unemployed youths and quickly turned into riots; one of Bokassa’s stores was ransacked. The riots were brutally suppressed by the Imperial Guard but strikes by teachers, students and civil servants continued.

In April, after further protests, scores of students were rounded up and taken to Ngaragba. One group of thirty students was stuffed into a small cell designed to hold one person; another group of twenty suffered the same fate. By the time the cell doors were opened the next morning, many were dead. Several witnesses claimed that Bokassa himself turned up at the prison and joined in beating and killing other students in detention. An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded: ‘In the month of April 1979, the massacre of about 100 children was carried out under the orders of Emperor Bokassa and almost certainly with his personal participation.’ In France, the media dubbed Bokassa the ‘Butcher of Bangui’.

No longer able to stand the embarrassment of propping up Bokassa’s regime, the French, after considerable prevarication, decided to remove him. On 20 September while Bokassa was on a visit to Libya, French troops stationed in Gabon and Chad, flew into Bangui, took control and installed David Dacko as president. Among the items they discovered at his residences were several chests full of diamonds, more than 200 cameras and accessories and a collection of pornography. At the Villa Kolongo they also found two mutilated bodies in a refrigerator. One body, with its head, arms and one leg missing, was identified as that of a mathematics teacher. When French troops drained the pond at Villa Kolongo, they came across bone fragments said to have come from some thirty victims eaten by crocodiles. The soldiers were told that other victims had been fed to lions kept in a nearby cage. When pressed by reporters about Bokassa’s eating habits, President Dacko readily conceded that human flesh had been a regular item on his menu and had been served on occasion to foreign dignitaries. Bokassa, for his part, always denied charges of cannibalism.

Bokassa sought asylum in France, but was turned away. He found refuge instead in Côte d’Ivoire. At a trial that took place in Bangui in his absence in 1980, he was accused of murder, embezzlement and cannibalism and sentenced to death. After four years in Côte d’Ivoire, he was allowed to settle in his chateau at Hardricourt, west of Paris. In 1986, feeling homesick, he decided to return to the Central African Republic. He was put on trial, found guilty of murder, though not cannibalism, and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted, first to life imprisonment, then to twenty years’ forced labour. In prison he turned to religion, constantly read the Bible and considered himself an apostle of Christ. After seven years’ imprisonment he was released and spent his last years in Bangui in the Villa Nasser, surviving on a French army pension. He died in 1996, at the age of seventy-five, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Berengo.

At the time of Uganda’s independence in 1962, Idi Amin was a newly commissioned officer, promoted from the ranks, with a military record that had already given British officials cause for concern. Virtually illiterate, with no schooling and limited intelligence, he had been recruited in 1946 to serve as a trainee cook in the King’s African Rifles. A man of huge physique, he had gained attention by excelling at sport and marksmanship and by displaying qualities of stamina and loyalty which British officers admired. For nine years he held the national title of heavyweight boxing champion. Posted to Kenya during the Mau Mau campaign with the rank of corporal, he was nearly cashiered for carrying out interrogations of suspects with undue brutality. British officers nevertheless considered him worthy of promotion as a non-commissioned officer; he duly rose to the rank of sergeant-major, the highest position then open to African soldiers under British rule. But he was never regarded as ‘officer material’. In the press of events leading to independence, however, as Britain searched for potential African army officers, Amin was considered an obvious possibility for promotion. Though failing to make much progress on special education courses to which he was sent, he nevertheless was given a commission in 1961 at the age of about thirty-six, one of only two Ugandan officers at the time.

Six months before independence, Amin’s proclivity for violent conduct became a matter of controversy. While participating in a military operation in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, Amin was accused of murdering three Turkana tribesmen. British officials in Nairobi dealing with the case wanted criminal charges brought against Lieutenant Amin, but the Governor of Uganda, Sir Walter Coutts, argued that to put on trial for murder one of only two African officers in Uganda shortly before independence would be politically disastrous. He asked instead that Amin should be returned to Uganda to face a court martial or other proceedings.

The decision on Amin’s future was left to Uganda’s new prime minister, Milton Obote. Obote recommended that Amin should merely be reprimanded. Thus reprieved, Amin continued his climb to the top. In 1964 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, given command of his own battalion and appointed deputy commander of the army. He soon became a familiar figure in the capital, Kampala, introduced into Obote’s inner circle, invited frequently to State House, provided with a Mercedes car and other perquisites and clearly trusted by Obote as a bluff, loyal and simple soldier who would do his bidding without too much scruple.

The early years of Uganda’s independence were a time of considerable optimism. Between 1960 and 1965, Uganda, with booming exports of coffee, cotton and tea, achieved the highest per capita growth in East Africa. A carefully constructed federal constitution had enabled the ancient kingdom of Buganda to retain a measure of internal autonomy, with its own parliament, the Lukiiko, and monarchic traditions, while allowing the central government in Kampala to maintain effective control nationally. As prime minister of a coalition government, Obote set out to accommodate the disparate ethnic groups on which Uganda was built. The broad division occurred between the Bantu groups to the south, such as the Baganda, and the Nilotic and Sudanic groups of the north, such as the Acholi and Langi, to which Obote belonged; but as much rivalry was to be found among southerners or among northerners as between the north and the south. In the spirit of cooperation that prevailed after independence, Obote supported the appointment of the Baganda king, the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa, as head of state in 1963.

Obote’s ambitions, however, were soon to tear Uganda apart. In common with many other African leaders, he set his sights on establishing a one-party state, arguing that tribal and factional groupings tended to threaten the stability of the country and that a one-party state was needed to forge a sense of national unity. His style of government became increasingly secretive and autocratic. Facing dissent within the cabinet, Obote arranged for armed police to burst into the cabinet room and haul five leading ministers off to prison. In what was tantamount to a coup, he then announced he was assuming all powers, abrogated the constitution, suspended the National Assembly, dismissed the Kabaka as president and appointed Amin as the new army commander. Two months later, in April 1966, he published a new constitution installing himself as executive president of a united state endowed with immense powers.

When the Baganda parliament, the Lukiiko, tried to oppose him and rallied supporters, Obote ordered Amin to attack the Kabaka’s palace on Mengo Hill, three miles from Kampala’s centre. The palace was shelled and ransacked and several hundred Baganda died. The Kabaka managed to escape after climbing a high perimeter wall and hailing a passing taxi. He spent the rest of his life in exile in London, dependent on the dole and the generosity of friends, and died there of alcoholic poisoning in 1969. His palace, meanwhile, was turned over for use by Amin’s troops; the Lukiiko was taken over by the defence ministry; martial law was declared in Buganda; hundreds of Baganda were detained without trial; and Baganda political parties were outlawed. In 1967 Obote completed the rout by abolishing the kingdom of Buganda altogether, carving it up into four administrative districts.

Obote’s position seemed impregnable. Yet his regime had come to depend for survival largely on coercion enforced by the army and the police. Intending to reinforce his control of the security apparatus, he developed a secret police organisation known as the General Service Department, recruiting members largely from his own Langi tribe and giving it a free hand to arrest and imprison suspected opponents. He also cultivated a personal following among senior army officers and built up support among the large contingents of Langi and Acholi troops in the army.

Amin, invariably shrewd and cunning when it came to his own safety, matched Obote’s manoeuvres by enlisting loyal groups of Kakwa, Madi and Lugbara tribesmen from his home district in the West Nile region; he also recruited heavily from Nubian communities scattered in towns around Uganda, descendants of southern Sudanese mercenaries used by the British authorities to pacify areas of Uganda, who were related directly to Amin’s tribal group.

Their suspicions of each other intensified. Amin was implicated in the murder of the army’s deputy commander, an Acholi officer who supported Obote. Amin also faced accusations of embezzlement of army funds. Taking advantage of Obote’s departure from Uganda for a Commonwealth conference, Amin struck first.

Amin’s coup in January 1971 was carried out with remarkably little resistance from within the army and greeted in many parts of Uganda with relief and enthusiasm. Throughout Buganda, the news of Obote’s downfall brought rejoicing and popular demonstrations. Enjoying the role of national hero, Amin began by adopting conciliatory measures. He released political prisoners, lifted emergency regulations and made arrangements for the body of the Kabaka to be brought back from England for a traditional burial. He appointed a cabinet consisting mainly of highly qualified civilians drawn from the ranks of the civil service, the legal profession and Makerere University. After the first cabinet meeting, Amin’s new ministers came away impressed, so they remarked, by his good nature and common sense. ‘He was a model of decorum and generosity,’ wrote Henry Kyemba, the cabinet secretary. Amin’s early pronouncements encouraged a sense of optimism. He stressed the temporary nature of military rule, disbanded the secret police and promised free elections. He spent much time travelling by helicopter and by car from one district to another, listening to elders and addressing meetings.

Yet Amin never felt secure. Fearing a counter-attack by Obote supporters, he organised death squads to hunt down and kill scores of army and police officers he suspected of opposing him. Within a few months, mass killing of Langi and Acholi began. ‘It was impossible to dispose of the bodies in graves,’ wrote Kyemba.

Instead, truckloads of corpses were taken and dumped in the Nile. Three sites were used – one just above Owen Falls Dam at Jinja, another at Bujagali Falls near the army shooting range, and a third at Karuma Falls near Murchison Falls. The intention was for the bodies to be eaten by crocodiles. This was an inefficient method of disposal. Bodies were frequently swept to the bank, where they were seen by passersby and fishermen. At Owen Falls many bodies must have been carried through the dam over which the Kampala – Jinja road ran, but many floated into the still waters to one side, near the power station.

In place of the old officer corps, Amin promoted men from his own West Nile district and Nubians, some of them from the ranks of the army, some who were raw civilians, giving them control of special units he set up to snuff out dissent. They owed no loyalty other than to Amin; they were given unlimited powers; and they came to be regarded with utter dread.

Amin’s popularity soon dwindled. He had no interest in the business of government, nor indeed any understanding of it. ‘His English was poor,’ recalled Kyemba. ‘He read very badly and clearly had a hard time just signing prepared documents. As his first Principal Private Secretary, I never ever received a handwritten note from him. Amin had no idea how governments were run.’ Unfamiliar and impatient with the intricacies of administration, he ruled by whim, broadcasting his orders over the radio and plundering at will what he needed from the treasury. A huge proportion of funds was diverted to military expenditure. When budgets ran out, Amin routinely ordered the central bank to print more currency to ‘solve’ the problem. Ministers quickly learnt that to argue against him was both unprofitable and dangerous. Explaining his defection in 1975, Andrew Wakhweya, a finance minister, remarked: ‘The government is a oneman show. Impossible decisions are taken by General Amin which ministers are expected to implement. The decisions bear no relationship to the country’s available resources.’ As prices soared and consumer goods became unobtainable, disillusionment with Amin’s regime steadily spread.

Hoping to revive his popularity, Amin turned vindictively on Uganda’s Asian community. A wealthy, aloof, immigrant minority, controlling much of the country’s trade and industry, the Asians were profoundly disliked. In August 1972, in a move that was applauded not only by the African population of Uganda but in other African countries with unpopular Asian communities, Amin ordered Asians with British nationality to leave the country within three months. Their expulsion, however, benefited not the expectant African populace, but Amin’s army. The shops, the businesses, the property that the Asians were forced to leave behind, even their personal possessions, were seized as spoils by Amin’s cronies. Within a few months, the huge amounts of Asian wealth had vanished. Shops were stripped then left bare; factories broke down; trade was severely disrupted; entire sectors of enterprise collapsed. In the general exodus of the Asian community that occurred – some 50,000 left in all – Uganda lost a large proportion of doctors, dentists, veterinarians, professors and technicians. At a stroke, government’s revenues were cut by nearly 40 per cent. The overall impact on government services was disastrous.

Far worse was to come. After an abortive invasion that Obote supporters launched from Tanzania in 1972, Amin took revenge on civilians suspected of opposing him. Thousands died at the hands of his special squads. No one was immune. The chief justice was dragged away from the High Court, never to be seen again. The university’s vice-chancellor disappeared. The bullet-riddled body of the Anglican archbishop, still in ecclesiastical robes, was dumped at the mortuary of a Kampala hospital shortly after he had issued a memorandum speaking out about the ‘suspicion, fear and hidden hatred’ that the civilian population felt towards Amin’s forces.

One of Amin’s former wives was found with her limbs dismembered in the boot of a car. When Henry Kyemba reported the matter, Amin expressed no surprise and ordered him to have the dismembered parts sewn back on to the torso and then arrange for Amin to view the body together with their children. According to Kyemba, Amin was widely believed to perform blood rituals over the dead bodies of his victims. ‘On several occasions when I was Minister of Health, Amin insisted on being left alone with his victims’ bodies,’ he wrote from exile. ‘There is of course no evidence for what he does in private, but it is universally believed in Uganda that he engages in blood rituals.’ On other occasions, Kyemba witnessed Amin boasting that he had eaten human flesh.

As, one by one, civilian ministers were dismissed or fled into exile, bearing tales of atrocity and torture, Amin replaced them with military colleagues, mostly untrained and in some cases barely literate. All notion of orderly government ceased to exist.

Constantly needing to demonstrate his power and importance, Amin promoted himself to the rank of field marshal, declared himself president for life, and awarded himself military medals and titles like Conqueror of the British Empire; he also claimed he was ‘the true heir to the throne of Scotland’. He took sadistic pleasure in humiliating officials, usually men with wide education and experience, for whom he held an instinctive distrust. His treatment of expatriates living in Uganda, especially the British, was sometimes similarly demeaning. A group of British residents, inducted as army reservists, were required to kneel in Amin’s presence when they took the oath of loyalty, as a sign of his power over his former colonial masters. To impress African diplomats at a grand Kampala reception, Amin staged his entrance on a wooden litter borne by British carriers.

He enjoyed too playing a role on the world stage, firing off bizarre cables to foreign leaders. He wished President Nixon ‘a speedy recovery from Watergate’; offered Britain’s music-loving prime minister, Edward Heath, a post as bandmaster after his election defeat; advised Israel’s Golda Meir ‘to tuck up her knickers’ and run to Washington; suggested to Mao Tse-tung that he should mediate in the Sino-Soviet dispute; and proposed himself as head of the Commonwealth. In a telegram to the United Nations secretary-general, he praised the action of Palestinian guerrillas who had murdered Israeli participants at the Olympic Games, and he went on to extol Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. ‘Hitler and all German people knew that the Israelis are not people who are working in the interests of people of the world and that is why they burnt over six million Jews alive with gas on the soil of Germany.’ By threatening to execute a British lecturer who had written a manuscript describing Amin as a ‘village tyrant’, he became the centre of world attention. Pleas for clemency arrived from the Queen, the British prime minister, the Pope and some fifty heads of state.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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