Fifty years ago, a new power settled in the Central African Republic: that of Jean-Bedel Bokassa , the putschist colonel who had just overthrown David Dacko during the New Year’s Eve coup. Fifty years later, many question marks persist about France’s attitude before, during and after this coup. The archives of Jacques Foccart , adviser to General De Gaulle for African Affairs, provide some answers. The newspaper was able to consult the national archives of documents that have become available since January 1st. Some are brand new.
January 1, 1966. Bangui is barely emerging from New Year’s Eve. A voice escapes from crackling radio sets. “ Central Africans, since this morning at 3:20 a.m., your army has taken over the power of the state. This voice is that of Jean-Bedel Bokassa , the chief of staff of the Central African army. Become the new strong man of Bangui. “ The Dacko government has resigned. The hour of justice has come. The bourgeoisie of the privileged class is abolished. A new era of equality between all is established. All agreements with foreign countries will be respected. »
Events rushed into the evening of the 31st and into the night. Bokassa , at the head of a motorized column of some 300 men and three Ferret armored cars, seized the post and telecommunications and radio broadcasting building. Then he blocked access to the presidency. Other soldiers entered the villas where the main regime officials reside and made arrests. The head of the gendarmerie, Commander Izamo was brutally arrested by the putschists. David Dacko , the president, was captured and had to sign, under the dictation of Captain Alexandre Banza , a letter by which he handed over his powers to Bokassa. Trucks and drums were drawn up on the runway of the airport to prevent any French intervention from Fort-Lamy, in Chad. The track was occupied by soldiers.
A roadblock was also erected in town, a Frenchman was killed trying to force it. While going to the hospital in the middle of the night, to obtain information about him, Colonel Mehay , the military attaché of the French embassy in Bangui, meets Bokassa who tells him about the blow. The information it collects is transmitted to Paris. They appear in a diplomatic telegram of which Jacques Foccart , Africa adviser to General de Gaulle, obtains a copy. “ Colonel Bokassa threw himself effusively into the arms of Colonel Mehay ,” the document says,and confirmed to him that he had just taken power, the only solution, according to him, to restore order in the State. Asked about the fate reserved for President Dacko , he declared that the latter had gone to him, without resistance, at the palace and had signed a document giving him all his powers. Bokassa assures that no harm will be done to President Dacko . That he was taken to the Roux camp – to his personal home – and that he takes him under his protection. To mark his good intentions vis-à-vis France, the putschist officer proposes ” to give 48 hours to the embassy of the People’s Republic of China to leave the RCA “.
Why did Bokassa seize power on this New Year’s Eve? The colonel very quickly gives his version of the facts. “ Given the high cost of living , he said at the microphone of a journalist, given the weak financial situation of the Central African budget, the peoples (sic) unanimously expressed their dissatisfaction. And the Chief of Staff, Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa , was asked by several hundred thousand of these peoples to take over the running of the country’s affairs. This version of a reversal of power wanted by the people, in the face of a corrupt state, is only a political stage play. It does, however, contain a grain of truth. Central African power has been led to its own implosion.
A secret rapprochement with Beijing
In 1964, the finances of the Central African state were at their worst. President Dacko announces to each minister an unsurpassable expenditure ceiling.
In an attempt to replenish the coffers, the Bangui authorities negotiated, in the greatest secrecy, a rapprochement with Beijing. On September 29, 1964, on the occasion of the signing of Sino-Central African cooperation agreements, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Trade Lu Nsu Chang announced the forthcoming establishment of diplomatic relations. A joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries will be published shortly. The French authorities are flabbergasted. The diplomatic telegram sent by the Bangui embassy on the 29th gives an account of this surprise. ” This evolution in the attitude of the CAR had been carefully kept secret” , says the text,and nothing had filtered through the entourage of the president’s advisers. This one seemed not to have made its seat in this business these very last days still, and seems to have decided only very belatedly under the pressure of its skilful partners who had to dangle in its eyes the advantages of a significant financial assistance. In any case, it is a lyrical Dacko who speaks during the ceremony. According to him, the Sino-Central African agreements are proof that the two countries have emerged from the era of foreign domination, to assert their national and international sovereignty.
On October 12, 1964, the newspaper Le Monde noted that in the Central African Republic, Chinese diplomats “ obtained results whose psychological impact will be considerable throughout French-speaking black Africa. By promising long-term economic aid, which some doubtless believe a little hastily that it could take over from France, they have obtained recognition that nothing until then allowed them to hope for . Dacko , in fact, was considered ” one of the most committed French-speaking leaders in the so-called ‘reformist’ group, fundamentally hostile to communism “.
The Central African president acted discreetly. However, he insisted on explaining his gesture to the French authorities, during an interview with a French officer which took place on the same October 12. The newspaper was able to consult the report of this discussion. David Dack o explains that ” by recognizing the Beijing government, he had given satisfaction to the aspirations of the young elements of his entourage, Jenca, [ Jeunesse Nationale Centrafricaine, le mouvement de jeunes du MESAN, Ndlr], and allowed his country to appear less “dependent”. “The Officer Who Meets Dacko “took away from his interview the feeling that the new developments in Central African politics did not seem to reduce the attachment of this country to France or to portend some disaffection. »
No rejection of France, but a desire to diversify the diplomatic relations of the Central African Republic. In an attempt to emancipate his country without renouncing the help of the great powers, Dacko plays the balancing act. In June 1965, the Central African president reaffirmed his position of neutrality in front of the French press: “ The foreign powers would like our weak countries to put themselves directly in their political wake, which is not possible, because Africa must above all be African… and the Central African Republic wants, in the center of Africa, to be an exception. The fact of reaching out to the different peoples of the world does not mean that we immediately discard all that we have had as political friends or as political assistants in the past. What we want in the Central African Republic is to make a neutral state. Neutral to all powers in the world. It is this experience that haunts me. »
Bangui’s relations with China soon became a lever of diplomatic pressure vis-à-vis France. ” Since 1964 , explains Jean-Pierre Bat , the curator of the Foccart collection , the meadow has experienced a cycle of coups and Dackocomes in turn to fear being the target of a conspiracy. To this end, he would like to count on French protection, which still seems too lukewarm to him at this date. He fears external infiltrations through the borders or internal subversion. And he says it himself, he would like to be able to call on France for help and have the guarantee that France would intervene on the spot if necessary. Without this guarantee, he does not hide from the French Embassy that he will seek other counter-assurances by looking in particular towards Congo-Brazzaville… and that he will use – although he has hardly any craving for Chinese good offices. »
The weight of the progressive wing of the MESAN
Did Dacko ‘s Chinese blackmail help to discredit him with French officials? The Foccart fund does not say so. He simply draws a France in lack of certainty on the Central African president. Due in particular to the struggles of tendencies within the party in power, the MESAN, and the influence of the progressive tendency that he is tempted to listen to. A situation to which the French Embassy in Bangui returns, in a report devoted to the state of the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa. A copy of this report is kept in the Foccart collection .
We discover there the image of a divided structure… And which includes within it a group of young progressive intellectuals, “ the dynamic and aggressive wing of the party ”. The most virulent of them is François Pehoua , the director of direct contributions and insurance. In this group, according to the report, “ some lend an interested ear to Communist propaganda, especially if it emanates from Beijing .” “ President Dacko has mixed feelings for them. -says Ambassador Jean Français , author of the text-Not without nurturing some weaknesses for them, and while taking care not to see himself turned to his left, he fears them, because he knows that they dispute him. So it happens more and more frequently for six months, to give them satisfaction (…) hence his sudden changes of attitude and certain political decisions, including that of the recognition of the People’s Republic of China, which are not not without worrying neighboring heads of state. A little further on, the report denounces in Dacko a ” taste for procrastination “, which leads him ” to use public blame more often than effective sanctions “. Then this irrevocable comment: This policy made of compromise and firmness perfectly illustrates the winding way of acting of the president ”
Tensions are not only evident within the ruling party, MESAN. They also settle within the armed forces, where they are accentuated by the lack of means. Jean-Pierre Bat opens a new document on a work plan. “ In the Foccart collection , there is a file called the Bigeard file , which is in fact the implementation of the reform of the Central African army. Bigeard, the famous former officer of Diên Biên Phu and Algeria is responsible for setting up in the Central African Republic what is called “the reasonable plan”,that is, the creation of an economic army. The motto he attributes to the Central African army speaks volumes: discipline, abnegation, flexibility, pioneering spirit. Bigeard ‘s mission is to reframe the constitution of the Central African army within a very tight budget. »
“The Reasonable Plan”. An unknown aspect of decolonization. The Fifth Republic helps build the national armies of countries gaining their independence. But it directs them rather towards missions of maintaining order and political stability. The defense of the borders will be ensured jointly with the French forces.
Marcel Bigeard , who from 1960 to 63 led the 6th Overseas Combined Arms Regiment, RIAOM, based in Bouar, was called in December 1963 by President Dacko to prepare a plan to reorganize the Central African army. The army is sized at a minimum , it has 373 men on January 1, 1964. Alongside it, or facing it, the gendarmerie has 490 elements. Personal rivalries will arise out of this structural imbalance. Jean-Bedel Bokassa , who has been appointed as Chief of the National Defense Staff, is supposed to oversee the entire structure. He will not be able to impose his authority on Jean-Henri Izamo , chosen to lead the powerful gendarmerie.
Stephen Smith and Géraldine Faes , in their biography of Bokassa , Bokassa 1er , a French emperor , Calmann Lévy 2000, believe that a first incident between Bokassa and the men of the presidency occurred on March 29, 1965, during the ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of Barthélémy Boganda , the father of the nation. Bokassa arrived late in the locality of Bobangui where the commemorations take place. “ He was turned back by presidential security, who forced him to cross the river again and camp on the other bank with his men. “, write the two authors.
Ambassador Jean Français believes, for his part, that the conflict between Izamo and Bokassa broke out in broad daylight on June 18, 1965, during the commemorations of General De Gaulle ‘s appeal . A violent discussion opposes publicly, at the end of the ceremony, Colonel Bokassa to Commander Izamo . The Chief of Protocol, Commander Izamo and Commander Bangui intervened so that Bokassa did not read the celebratory text, in accordance with established tradition.
Whatever the starting point of these rivalries and resentments, they worsened during the year 1965. Fearing his sidelining, even his elimination… and furious to see the budgetary imbalance which between the funds allocated to the army and the gendarmerie, Bokassa decides to take action. In an interview given to the Belgian Radio-television of the French Community, shortly after the coup d’etat, he affirms that he and his cousin were personally threatened.
Despite the revolutionary atmosphere that prevailed in the region in the mid-1960s, despite rumors of repeated coups in the Central African Republic, France did not take steps to protect Dacko . The contrast with Gabon or Niger at the time is striking. In Gabon, the French army intervened in February 1964 to restore Léon M’Ba. In Niger, France became involved in the fight against the Sawaba movement to protect the power of Hamani Diori . Paris leaves it to the Central African Republic.
Did the French authorities drop Dacko by political choice or were they taken by surprise by lack of information? The information received from Bangui was, it is true, considerably impoverished in 1965… ” It emerges from the Foccart archives , by comparing the years 1964 and 1965 that for this last year, there is a cruel lack of information , explains Jean-Pierre Bat , and that he fails to capture the spirit of the times, the developments in Central African political life. There are two explanations for this: first, the change of ambassador. Barberot was a man of Foccart , Jean Français is a man of the Quai d’Orsay.Jean Français sends far fewer confidential letters to Jacques Foccart than did Barberot . Second explanation: the closure for budgetary reasons on December 31, 1964 of the post office of the French secret services, the SDECE, which made France blind and deaf. »
Much has been written about the role of Foccart and his networks in the coup. Some say Bokassa was quietly encouraged by French officials before his putsch. The documents that the newspaper consulted do not provide any answer on the existence or not of these encouragements. One fact, on the other hand, is established: despite the doctrine on the security of the square which has been forged since 1963, Paris did not consider it necessary to intervene in the hours and days which followed the coup d ‘State.
Bokassa, the Francophile
From January 1, Foccart explained to General De Gaulle that Bokassa was an officer he knew well, very Francophile. In his Journal de l’Elysée , he describes the scene. De Gaulle prepares for the 1966 vows ceremony. Vice-Admiral Philippon , his personal Chief of Staff, brings him a telegram from Bangui. De Gaulle turns to his Africa adviser “ What is this story? “ Foccart , immediately, is affirmative: “ Bokassa took power; bokassais an officer that I know well, he is very francophile. He had personal issues with Dacko and he must have thought it was either him or Dacko . He then ran the risk of taking power. »
The reflection that takes place within the French power in the days that follow obeys the same reasoning: Bokassa ‘s coup d’etat is not necessarily a bad thing for France. The newspaper was able to exploit a note drawn up by the Minister for Cooperation and given to the French President. The document, dated January 3, 1966, outlines the profile of the new strong man: “ Colonel Bokassa is a former captain of the French Army, who came from the ranks. A rough man, with a primary education, this senior officer also has a fairly flexible conception of honesty. However, deeply marked by his time in the French Army, he seems to have remained very attached to our country. »
This note is accompanied by a handwritten note that says a lot about the political line taking shape. It is signed by Minister for Cooperation Raymond Triboulet and is addressed to Jacques Foccart . “ I know that Foreign Affairs is preparing a statement condemning Bokassa ‘s takeover : it risks alienating him. I propose the recall of the head of the military aid office, Cdt Morin . He works with Bokassa and the latter will see in this sanction an indirect reproach of his attitude. In other words, Triboulet recommends a reprobation which will not insult the future.
Bokassa , the friend of France. On January 5, the military attaché at the French Embassy in Bangui, Colonel Méhay , drew up an information note in which he in turn testified: ” Since taking power, Colonel Bokassa has multiplied his manifestations of Francophilia . The very night of the putsch, he stopped in front of the Bangui Rock Club where Rotary had organized a New Year’s Eve, shouting “Vive le Général de Gaulle , vive les FFL, the French will no longer pay tax in the Central African Republic.” »
A text proofread and corrected by Charles de Gaulle is finally sent to the French ambassador in the Central African Republic. He asks her to limit relations with the new strong man as much as possible. He invites him to be vigilant to the consequences ” that a current acceptance on our part of the fait accompli would not fail to have with regard to the behavior of French-trained military cadres in other African countries “. The note also says that France will align itself with the position of the countries of OCAM, the Organization Commune Africaine and Madagascar, which seem ” a priori reserved “. Then these recommendations: ” You will not take any steps that could suggest that you are addressing Colonel Bokassain his capacity as Head of State and Government. You will ensure that your contacts with him take place outside your Embassy. You will also endeavor to visit him at his official residence. »
No official recognition, but the French authorities choose to let the Bokassa regime settle . They were quick to start looking for an officer who could be sent “ to meet Colonel Bokassa ”. In a note of January 22, 1966, transmitted to General De Gaulle by the services of Foccart , those of the general secretariat for the Community and African and Malagasy affairs, five names are proposed. It is finally a sixth officer, the military attaché of the embassy, colonel Méhay , who will be chosen to ensure the link with the putschist.
In its 1966 annual report, quoted in LAURENT Sébastien (dir), Les spies français parle , editions of the New World, 2013, Mehay , recalls that ” With him [ Bokassa ], the turn clearly initiated towards the East, by the abandonments successions of his cousin, was taken again towards the West. “ Méhay supports:” It should not be forgotten. The officer qualifies the criticisms of those who would reproach Bokassa for the dictatorial character of his regime: Admittedly, thanks to the army that he controls and which is loyal and devoted to him, he holds almost absolute power. There was, however, no deliberate abandonment of democracy, but rather a natural adaptation to the particular conditions of Africa and to the needs of the moment. And the officer concluded: “ Also, I am inclined to think that the interest of our country is, despite everything, to ensure that Colonel Bokassa remains in power as long as he is able to remain sufficiently reasonable.
” Reasonable ” ? The word seems to have taken on an elastic definition over the years, Bokassa pushing personal power and violence to the extreme… Paris will even help him to satisfy a whim, that of the imperial coronation in December 1977. In fact, it will take the massacre school children of January 1979 so that the Central African emperor would be released… and that he would finally be deposed by the French army during operations Caban and Barracuda. Ironically, on September 21, 1979, France returned to power David Dacko , the president whom it had not protected during the New Year’s Eve coup.