Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s rise from soldier to sovereign is one the strangest tales of the 20th century. Stranger still are the connections between the African emperor and far-flung Vietnam.
November 1970: A young girl sells cigarettes on the streets of Saigon. Living in the capital of South Vietnam during the country’s bloody civil war is full of uncertainty for everyone, but life is especially hard for the destitute, 17 year-old Martine. She lives in a shack made of flattened beer cans with her mother, who regales her with stories about the father from a foreign land she doesn’t remember. Martine is half-black, but her age rules out any American GI as her father. Instead, her father was a member of another foreign army, the French to be precise, which fought an earlier war against the Viet Minh from 1946 to 1954.
Vietnam had for decades been a French colony, when in 1945, Japan took control of the region after ousting the Vichy government in the dying months of WWII. Following the defeat of Japan, Vietnamese nationalists declared independence, only to be confronted by France as it sought to re-establish control over its former colony. This sparked the first Indochina War, and France sent tens of thousands of troops to Vietnam to quell the Viet Minh. Many of the soldiers in the French army were recruited from France’s African colonies, including Martine’s father, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who hailed from what would become the Central African Republic, then a part of French Equatorial Africa.
Martine was not the only child of the unions between African soldiers and Vietnamese women, but her story is unique. In late 1970 she had little inkling that her father would soon re-enter her life accompanied by an international media frenzy. A fairy tale in the making, the lowly street girl would soon be reunited with her father, president-for-life of the Central African Republic, and eventually Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire.
Bokassa's rise from soldier to sovereign
Serving as a sergeant in the French army in Indochina, Bokassa had married Nguyen Thi Hue, and fathered a child with her. In 1953, he bid farewell to his family, as his tour of duty in Vietnam was coming to an end. Despite expecting to return to the county, Bokassa left Vietnam for Africa, yet the end of the conflict in 1954 saw the end of French rule in Vietnam, thus nullifying any reason for French soldiers to return. Separated from his family, Bokassa remained in Africa, serving in positions in other French colonies, before returning to the Central African Republic (CAR). When the CAR gained independence in 1960, President David Dacko tapped his cousin Bokassa to head the country’s newly established military.
Bokassa had by this point been promoted to captain, serving in the French military in Europe and Africa during WWII and in Indochina. He had received numerous medals for his conduct, including the highest order of France’s highest decoration, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. Bokassa was also given French citizenship and a military pension for his services.
Speaking in an interview late in life, Bokassa detailed his paradoxical relationship with France. “I fought for France in Indochina - oh yes Indochina. I fought against the Nazis with the forces of the Free French. I sacrificed my youth to France, even though France killed my father before my very eyes right in front of M’Baiki police headquarters. My father was a chief who opposed the colonial occupation. My mother killed herself shortly afterwards, in desperation. I was six years old. And yet I fought for France for twenty-two years.”
Bokassa’s post-war trajectory revealed two key elements of his personality, his love of women and insatiable ambition. Over the course of his life-time Bokassa had almost twenty wives, and over 100 children, although only fifty were recognized in any quasi-official manner. Nevertheless, Bokassa did not forget his first Vietnamese family, although he appears to have made little effort to reunite with them following his departure from Vietnam in 1953. During this time he even married another Vietnamese woman, Nguyen Thin-Than, although they divorced soon after his appointment as head of the CAR military in 1961.
From the beginning there were concerns among President Dacko’s supporters that Bokassa represented a threat. These suspicions were to be proven correct, as Bokassa’s close network of allies within military led him to eventually stage a coup against Dacko (with French support) in 1966. In backing Bokassa, Paris likely saw a chance to maintain its influence in the region, banking on Bokassa’s past service to France as an indication that he would tow whatever line la Métropole asked him to.
At this point, Bokassa appears hardly any different than other African strongmen who took control of weak post-independence African nations. However, Bokassa would soon emerge to become one of Africa’s most bizarre and fascinating dictators; rivalling Muammar Gaddafi at his most eccentric, and Idi Amin at his cruellest.
The (future) King and I
After consolidating his rule and enjoying the lavish Louis-Farouk lifestyle favoured by despots around the world, Bokassa began to wonder about his original Vietnamese family. In 1970, he contacted the South Vietnamese government and charged them, as well as the French consulate with the task of finding his missing daughter. Bokassa had registered his daughter as a French citizen upon her birth, and soon the search went out to track down a girl of corresponding age and description. This search soon unearthed Martine, whose mother came forward claiming that Bokassa was the child’s father.
Overwhelmed by the news, Bokassa quickly sent his daughter a one-way ticket to Bangui, the capital of the CAR. On a layover in Paris, he even managed to convince the French government to provide Martine with 2,500 francs worth of pocket money. The former street-vendor quickly went out and spent her allowance on a Cartier watch before flying on to Bangui. Upon her arrival, Martine was greeted by a band and honour guard, with national radio announcing her arrival across the country. Feted with traditional dances and tribute from tribal chiefs, Martine - who only spoke Vietnamese - was thoroughly perplexed, although her father, who spoke some Vietnamese, tried to explain the proceedings as best he could.
Such a joyous reunion would make for the perfect end to such a fairy tale, yet alas such a happy ending was not in store for Martine. Less than a month after her arrival in the CAR, Saigon daily newspaper Trang den, revealed that its own investigation into Bokassa’s missing daughter had proven that the girl known as Martine was a fraud. Moreover, the paper claimed that she had been deliberately planted by the French government to embarrass Bokassa. Furious at such duplicity, both by Martine’s mother (and if Trang den is to be believed, the French government), Bokassa imprisoned Martine, planning to deport her tout suite.
It was during this tumultuous time that Nguyen Thi Hue, the mother of the real Martine, came forward with pictures of her and Bokassa, as well as Martine’s birth certificate. One may wonder how many half-black seventeen year-olds called Martine could possibly exist in Vietnam, but as previously mentioned many African soldiers in French employ had fathered mixed race children in the early 1950s. Moreover, in 1953 - the year both Martines were born - French movie star Martine Carol (the French Marilyn Monroe) was all the rage, leading unsurprisingly to a wave of eponymously named children that same year.
After Nguyen Thi Hue came forth, the real Martine (in part identified by a recognizable scar) was quickly whisked away to Bangui, although without the fanfare heaped upon her imposter. In a surprise move, Bokassa was convinced not to punish the fake Martine, going so far as to officially adopt her as an act of grace on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday in 1971. The two Martines (now called Little and Big, or Fake and Real Martine) were welcomed into Bokassa’s expansive family as sisters.
The two sisters went on to live a strange parallel existence, with their father dressing them in the same outfits, and even auctioning them off for marriage at the same time in 1973. The fake Martine was married to Fidel Obrou, an army captain who eventually became head of Bokassa’s personal guard, and the real Martine married prominent physician Dr. Dèdèvodè. Remember these names, they will play important roles in the coming years.
The Central African Empire
Despite running the CAR as his personal playground, Bokassa’s ambition was not sated, and he began thinking of even more ways to aggrandize himself. To this end he declared himself president-for-life in 1972, and later a seven star field marshal in 1974. By the mid-1970s, Bokassa’s list of titles and accolades was ludicrously long, for he was already “minister of the interior, defence, agriculture, trade, industry, mines, transportation, and civil aviation & aeronautics - and the recipient of thirty-two self-awarded national orders, including first engineer, first farmer and best soccer player. He could truly say ‘L'etat c’est moi.’”
Yet even such an illustrious resume was not enough. Dissatisfied that no existing position was sufficiently exalted, Bokassa hit upon his master plan, endeavouring to create a station for himself that satisfied his sense of self-importance. To this end, he was inspired by his hero Napoleon, and in 1977 invested himself as Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire, in a lavish ceremony that would have met with approval from any Bonapartist or Bourbon tyrant of old.
Cladding himself in all manner of finery, Bokassa commissioned the same firm that had made Napoleon’s uniforms to outfit him and his entourage for his coronation, and organized the ceremony to fall on the same day - December 4th - as Napoleon’s own imperial ascension 173 years previously. Bokassa also invited the Pope to crown him emperor, as Napoleon had done in 1804. Eye-watering excess was on display everywhere, with Bokassa sporting a gold laurel crown, and a pearl and diamond studded ermine robe. One of the most striking symbols of the coronation was his giant golden throne in the shape of a eagle. The entire ceremony cost tens of millions of dollars, paid for with the country’s entire annual aid from France, roughly one-third of the national budget.
Upon becoming Emperor, the two Martines became princesses in a bizarre fantasy realm which no respectable country deigned to recognize. But this is where their journeys part. Bokassa’s increasing eccentricity and wanton brutality to his enemies - real or imagined - led some in country to foment dissent. Among these was the husband of fake Martine, Fidel Obrou. Positioned as the chief of Bokassa’s personal guard, Obrou and a cabal of other conspirators sought to remove him from power. To this end, Obrou and a dozen others staged an assassination attempt in 1976, seeking to eliminate Bokassa at Bangui airport.
Unfortunately for the plotters, the attempt failed. Obrou and ten others were imprisoned and executed, with Bokassa seeking revenge on their families and tribes. The false Martine was not spared this reprisal. Having gone into labour hours after the news of her husband’s execution, Martine gave birth to his son. It appears Bokassa had vowed vengeance on Obrou’s child if it was a boy, and Martine was sent to a hospital overseen by Dr. Dèdèvodè, the husband of the true Martine. Despite Martine’s protests, the doctor injected the infant with various chemicals causing it to quickly turn blue and perish.
Despite this horrid event, Bokassa continued to view the false Martine as a member of the royal family, with the latter remaining in the household for another year. Then, just as quickly as she had entered the country, she disappeared. Bokassa claimed she had returned to Vietnam, an unlikely claim given that he would not have wanted her to implicate him in the child’s death. Martine disappeared during her drive to the airport, and was likely strangled or shot before being secretly buried somewhere along the road.
What makes a monster?
Alex Shoumatoff, who covered Bokassa’s trial for Vanity Fair in 1987 touched on the mystery surrounding Bokassa’s brutality. Musing on the issue, Shoumatoff writes: “some claim [Bokassa] was crazy from the beginning, permanently deranged by the loss of his parents [...] Others argue that he became a monster only after he took power [...] Still others believe he [displayed] the childlike, paranoiac comportment [...] of someone in the tertiary stage of syphilis, which he could have picked up in Indochina [...] Others say it was drink: he knocked off about a fifth of Chivas Regal a day: someone was always standing by, waiting to refill his glass.”
Bokassa’s increasingly brutal rule was quickly becoming an embarrassment for France, which had grown increasingly reluctant to support him as the decade wore on. Bokassa had long been on close terms with French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who visited the CAR twice a year to go elephant hunting with Bokassa as well as sample the local women. Bokassa kept Giscard supplied with ivory and diamonds, while the latter provided monetary and material aid to Bokassa’s perennially impoverished government.
Bokassa’s relationship with Giscard was in some ways the culmination of his obsession with all things French. Already enamoured with Napoleon, Bokassa was also a great admirer of Charles de Gaulle. Bokassa’s entire relationship with France is fertile ground for psychoanalysis, and any Freudian would find ample material to work with. Bokassa’s obsession with France is bizarre, with the country and its leaders, notably De Gaulle acting as a surrogate father for him. Indeed, attending De Gaulle’s funeral in 1970, Bokassa openly wept in front of De Gaulle’s family, calling out “Papa, Papa!” and claiming he had lost his adoptive father.
Bokassa filled the void left by the deaths of his parents with an idealized father figure in the guise of the French state, as embodied by de Gaulle. This quirk of Bokassa’s psychology only made the eventual withdrawal of French support all the more infuriating to him when it finally came.
What France giveth, France taketh away
Bokassa had already earned the ire of France for imprisoning and personally beating an Associated Free Press journalist over a typographical error caused by one of Bangui’s frequent blackouts. 1979 finally marked the end of French patience as, ironically, it was Bokassa’s love of uniforms that would be his undoing. During a trip to China, Bokassa was deeply impressed by the cadres of uniformly dressed Chinese students: Bokassa returned the CAR with a plan to reform the nation’s schools.
Specifically, he mandated that all students must wear new school uniforms designed by himself which could only be purchased from stores owned by one of his wives. From this whimsical, if rather benign proclamation, the seeds of Bokassa’s downfall were sown. In response to the costs associated with purchasing these new uniforms, several thousand children of public servants (who had gone unpaid for months) staged a peaceful demonstration, albeit while shouting the slogan “After the Shah, Bokassa!” - a reference to the recent ousting of the Shah of Iran that same year. In response, Bokassa ordered his guard to fire into the crowd, killing a dozen protesters.
Soon thereafter, a group of primary school students threw rocks at Bokassa’s car. This enraged the despot, who rounded up the children and had them locked in a prison, whereupon he ordered his soldiers to attack them. Of the circa 180 students who entered the prison, only 27 survived.
Giscard’s otherwise lenient attitude towards Bokassa had reached its breaking point, and he quickly ordered the French military to oust Bokassa in what became known as Operation Barracuda. While visiting Libya to acquire more funds from Gaddafi, French paratroopers seized the capital and abolished Bokassa’s short-lived empire. Bokassa sought refuge with Gaddafi, but the latter had his hands full with hosting the recently ousted Idi Amin of Uganda.
Bokassa’s hope for exile in France were also dashed, and he thus found himself stuck in his plane for several days on a French runway, as Paris refused to let him enter the country. Eventually, Giscard convinced the Ivory Coast to accept Bokassa. He stayed in the country for four years before angering his hosts by attempting to get mercenaries to smuggle him back to the CAR.
Ever since the coup, Bokassa railed against France on a daily basis, accusing Giscard of bedding his main wife, Empress Catherine. For her part, Catherine had ensconced herself in another royal property in Lausanne, pawning diamonds one at a time to get by. In revenge, Bokassa leaked information about Giscard's African antics to Le Canard enchaîné - a French satirical magazine, causing a scandal in France that played a large part in Giscard’s defeat to Francois Mitterand in the 1981 election.
By 1985 Bokassa managed to take up residence in Château Haudricourt near Paris, a giant estate which he could not even afford to heat. Continuing to dress in imperial regalia, Bokassa would stare for hours at the giant painting of the battle of Dien Bien Phu; the pivotal clash that heralded the end of French rule in Indochina, that hung in his residence. Even in his dotage, Bokassa continued to heap new titles upon himself, his most audacious being that he had been secretly anointed as the thirteenth disciple of Christ by the Pope himself.
As his assets were seized by the new CAR government, Bokassa became a penniless prisoner in his château, that is until he managed to fool his guards and escape under a false name to Bangui via Rome. Upon his arrival he was swiftly arrested by local authorities and a trial was begun. Some of Bokassa’s various cronies, including Dr. Dèdèvodè, had remained loyal to him and were also placed on trial. Several prominent individuals, including the good doctor were executed for their crimes.
Bokassa’s troupe of children has since scattered around the world. As of 2008 the real Martine runs two Vietnamese restaurants with her mother in France. One of the emperor’s children, Princess Kiki Bokassa, is a successful conceptual artist, who notes that her art has therapeutic value for her, helping her come to terms with her father’s legacy. Empress Catherine has since left Geneva to return to Bangui, where one of Bokassa’s sons, Jean-Serge Bokassa, is a member of parliament.
Crown Prince Jean-Bédel Bokassa Jr, who was chosen as Bokassa’s heir when he was just four, is a prominent socialite living in Paris. The son of the true Martine he, like his grandfather, is an avid fan of Napoleon, posing for photos while displaying Napoleon’s signature hand-in-shirt pose. Unlike other members of his family Jean-Bédel has been hesitant to return to the CAR. “I have not felt ready to go before,” he remarks - “I have been closer to Vietnam than to my home country. During many years, I have only spoken French and Vietnamese with my mother, never the local language [of] the Central African Republic, Sango.”
Not all of Bokassa’s progeny have managed to weather their father’s downfall as well as Jean-Bédel or the true Martine. Three of Bokassa’s children have been arrested for shoplifting, while two of his sons have been jailed in France on drug and fraud charges. Perhaps the most tragic fall from grace is the tale of Charlemagne Bokassa, who despite sharing the name of one of France’s greatest kings - another testament to Bokassa’s infatuation with all things French - lived for years in extreme poverty in the Paris metro where he was found dead in 2001, aged 31.
Bokassa himself was originally condemned to death, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison, then to a sentence of twenty years. In 1993, President André Kolingba, who had been Bokassa’s ambassador to Canada and Germany, pardoned him just six years into his sentence. In 2010, the now deposed President Francois Bozizé – who’d been Bokassa’s aide-de-camp – declared Bokassa’s “complete rehabilitation”. Bokassa spent the rest of his life in Bangui living a strange existence next door to the very people he had once terrorized.
Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio was one of the last people to interview Bokassa shortly before his death in 1996. During a break from interviewing the ex-emperor, Orizio was being shown the sights of Bangui, before something caught his attention. “I asked [the driver] if we could pull over," Orizio recalls: "Tossed to one side of the [Palais des Sports] stadium, under an arch of crumbling concrete, was Bokassa’s famous throne. It was rusty, but instantly recognizable, three and a half meters high, shaped like a Napoleonic eagle with two huge golden wings.”
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.