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September 24, 2017

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C. Africans nostalgic for bloody 'emperor'

BANGUI, Central African Republic--In the nightmare of the strife-torn Central African Republic (C.A.R.), many citizens have begun to long for the "good old days" of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the emperor who became infamous for his brutality yet worked economic wonders in their eyes.

Some residents of the capital Bangui are openly nostalgic for the Bokassa era, which lasted from his military coup in 1966 until his overthrow in 1979, two years after a hugely extravagant coronation when the former soldier proclaimed himself emperor.

His fans point to his legacy in public works, including buildings, electricity supplies and transport, neglected by his successors in one of Africa's poorest countries.

"Kolingba came, he built nothing. Patasse came, he built nothing. Bozize came, he built nothing. Djotodia came, he built nothing," Daniel Nganazouri said, reeling off the names of successive presidents.

Then he simply pointed around. "But that building there, the tar on the road and even that electricity pylon, they were Bokassa's work. Even if he was a thief, he did a lot of good."

A group of young people listening in voiced their approval — though it was not unanimous.

"Fine, but he was still a dictator," said one of them, Faustin.

Jean-Bedel Bokassa was born in a village in 1921 and named after a saint, Jean Baptiste de la Salle. He became a rifleman in the French colonial army in 1931 and quit in 1962, after attaining the rank of captain and serving in Indochina and Algeria.

Still a soldier in the newly independent C.A.R., Bokassa seized power on New Year's Eve 1965, proclaiming justice and equality for all.

But during his long rule he became infamous for brutality, torture and summary executions.

He was also seen as a stalwart backer of France's sometimes meddling activities in its former African colonies.

Dubbed "a trooper" by France's Charles de Gaulle, Bokassa declared himself president for life and marshal of the army. He also converted to Islam before organizing a coronation modelled on that of Napoleon I, at an estimated cost of US$20 million.

No heads of state attended the ceremony, but France was represented by a government minister. Two of the six French horses brought in to haul the imperial carriage died in the equatorial heat, but guests were offered 60,000 bottles of champagne and Burgundy wine.

Then-French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who enjoyed hunting gazelles and other wildlife, developed close ties with Bokassa. However, when revelations emerged that Giscard had accepted diamonds from his African friend, the scandal contributed to his electoral defeat in 1981, when Francois Mitterand and the Socialist party swept to power in France.

'Better when he's back'

"People were paid under Bokassa. The Central African army was stable and even set an example for other African countries," said a waiter at the decaying Hotel Oubabangui.

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