We can’t pay! No to the Emperor!
We won’t pay! No to the Emperor!”
Those were the chants that rang out across the main street of Bangui as scores of students marched along in protest against our ‘Emperor’. We were a little over a hundred in number but the frustration and strident defiance in our voices made it seem like we were over a million. Even though we were just “children”, we were also tired and angry with this self-proclaimed Emperor who with his iron fist had ruled our Central African Republic for over a decade. This Emperor that had selfishly stolen our once bright dream of independence.
Yannick, who was a few months shy of his 19th birthday, turned to face the crowd, urging us on as he shouted loudly clad in his all-black getup.
No to the Emperor!
No to Bokassa!”
The crowd cheered early and picked up the chant. We surged forward. Eagerly I yelled as loud as my voice would allow me. As if my voice could somehow bring change. As if it could somehow bring back the CAR I had known for just a few seconds as a toddler. I was barely a baby when David Dacko became the 1st President of the newly independent CAR. I have no recollection of the stories of growth, communism and reversion to a one-party state that I often heard my parents talk about.
My life had been dictated by one man, and one man alone.
And The General.
Who with every action he undertook, directly impacted my life.
I was a child when General Bokassa had come into power during a military coup that overthrew Dacko, with support from the French. Bokassa had been a soldier in the French army so securing their backing was not hard. Plus the excuse he used was “overly” simplified.
Dacko took a loan from Chinese. He MUST be Communist, so I (Bokassa) must take over. With French help of course. And just like that he was in control.
Looking back at that, I cannot help but laugh because now the Emperor himself has his own communist friends, friends like Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s President and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.
With that all our troubles began.
Unlike Dacko, Jean-Bedel Bokassa or General Bokassa was not really concerned about a one-party state. He did not want a party. He wanted to be president for life, and by any means necessary. My most earliest memory was not the tinkle of my parents’ laughter, it was my first encounter with how great of an extent General Bokassa (at that time) would go to be President for life.
I was barely walking when he sent orders for the capture and summary execution of his co-conspirator Alexandre Banza on trumped up grounds of treason. Banza had his arms broken by soldiers with Bokassa lending a hand in beating him and slashing him up with a razor. I had the rather unfortunate privilege to see Banza’s still breathing body while playing innocently near the army barracks as he was being dragged through the streets of Bangui before being shot. I remember faintly how bloodied his ripped clothes were and how swollen his battered body was. My mother had rushed to my direction and carried me away from that sight. But it was already too late. I was only 5 years old but that image had been seared into my mind. The image of what happened to anyone who dared to cross Bokassa, including his friends.
And more images followed. The frenzied killings didn’t stop there. Bangui’s streets bled. It was the Inquisition and the Witch hunt minus the religious oppression. The blood of opposers, activists and anyone Bokassa did not like. Bangui’s streets also dripped with sweat. The never-ending labour of the locals in former french equatorial guinea who were forced to seek employment in a crippling economy or risk being jailed. But Bokassa’s palace dripped in gold and honey.
Over the decades he flaunted and floundered about with the country’s wealth investing in luxury orchestras, hotels and over-the-top parties. We were working to suit his lifestyle. To suit his image of a luxurious CAR but only for the president and his faithfuls. We couldn’t even beg to feed ourselves because it didn’t suit his ideal CAR. My family always had to find other means. We all had to do all sorts of menial jobs to survive. That was just how we lived. to survive.
The world did not really pay us mind. No, Not even when he declared himself Emperor Bokassa I and spent over 50% of the country’s budget on one of the most expensive coronation ceremonies while we the people looked on painfully. He also renamed CAR, Central African Empire.
My family and many others could barely fend for ourselves but the Emperor was able to hire thoroughbred horses and luxurious Mercedes benzes to flaunt “his” imperial wealth.
And the world looked on.
Yes the French even wined and dined with him that day, while my family and I walked away from that ceremony with nothing on our mind but how to get our next meal.
And you think that would have been enough.
Ha! Now he has brought his extravagance on us children.
I, Hissene had never thought I would be here 15 years old and protesting against the “most” powerful man in the country. But I am today because I am angry. Angry that after all that, the Emperor wants us, children to wear expensive uniforms made by one of his wives because it has his face on it. Expensive uniforms that we are all supposed to buy on our own. First they were optional but when he saw no one was buying them, he decreed, in his infinite imperial wisdom that anyone not wearing it will not be allowed in schools.
No! I refuse to use my family’s hard earned money to fuel this man’s ego.
No! i refuse to use my last francs to buy a uniform with the face of the man i despise the most in the country!
I refuse to live like my parents anymore and tip-toe around this man! No, I will be a merchant of change! We are the winds of change in CAR and with that I yelled even louder,
“No to the Emperor! No to his Ego!” in reaffirmation as I marched onwards with the crowd.
We had only taken a few steps when a swarm of soldiers surrounded us. Taken aback, we froze anxious about what actions the soldiers planned to take. Yannick motioned to all of us to keep calm and not make any sudden movements. The military troops were about 200 and had guns aimed at us, us a couple of children.
It was then I understood why Yannick asked us not to move. It was becoming clear what their orders were. It seemed they were to dissolve or capture us at any cost. In the midst of the soldiers, we saw the Emperor’s car, a posh Rolls Royce pull up. Murmurs spread through the crowd as the troops stared on at us for another two minutes when suddenly some children in the side flanks who were downright infuriated with Bokassa picked up stones and began throwing it at his car.
The Emperor barked a command at the troops from his car and they began to proceed, shooting blanks and throwing stones at us. I watched on as one of the soldiers took our squad leader Yannick, slapped him hard across the cheek and dragged him to a waiting transport van. I watched on as the soldiers began to round us up like sheep one by one. Some were dragged, others beaten, others kicked around but all were loaded in the transport van.
For a split second, I lost myself in the sight unfolding before my eyes. All around I was seeing children, some not even 14 years being dragged and bludgeoned like mules. Then i ran! In my haste, I almost tripped over another body. The sudden impact knocked the wind out of me. Shaken and winded, I slowly looked up, only to be met by the eyes of a crying and frightened child. He looked barely 10 years old and was bawling,sitting on the dusty ground. He seemed lost, confused and afraid. I knew I had to help him. I had to do something.
So I quickly grabbed him from the ground and run towards the nearby street corner with him in my arms. Just as I neared the corner, I saw one of my friends Gael from school who was also heading in that direction. I turned to see what was happening behind me and saw one of the soldiers gaining in on me. His features seemed to be contorted with silent rage and mere annoyance and he seemed determined to grab me!
Without thinking twice, I called out to Gael who was a couple of steps away and yelled “ Gael!! Catch!!” He turned at my voice and I signalled to him as I tossed the young boy into his waiting arms. Gael, a few inches taller and bigger than I was, caught the little waif with no problem. I flashed him a tired and nervous smile and gestured he go ahead. His face was riddled with worry but he nodded and run around the corner into the nearby forest.
Just as he disappeared, I felt a pair of heavy hands grab my soldiers and whip me around. My face connected to a fist.
I vaguely remembered being carried but when I woke up in a dark room with what seemed to be over 80 more schoolchildren from the protest, I knew I had been captured. Even though the room was dimly light, I could make out children who had been hurt, bleeding or cut of some kind. I could also hear groans of people in pain and crying. Some were also yelling and cursing their bad luck in being captured. The room was so packed there was no space to move, much more sit comfortably. There seemed to be no escape.
In the midst of all the noise of suffering, I could hear humming. A calming faint humming. It was a tune my mother used to sing to me when I was younger. The tune of our national anthem La Renaissance. Slowly, I joined the humming.
Meditating on the warmth the words brought:
O Centrafrique, ô berceau des Bantous!
Reprends ton droit au respect, à la vie!
Longtemps soumis, longtemps brimé partous,
Mais de ce jour brisant la tyrannie.
Dans le travail, l’ordre et la dignité,
Tu reconquiers ton droit, ton unité,
Et pour franchir cette étape nouvelle,
De nos ancêtres la voix nous appelle.
Au travail dans l’ordre et la dignité,
Dans le respect du droit dans l’unité,
Brisant la misère et al tyrannie,
Brandissant l’étendard de la Patrie.
Oh! Central Africa, cradle of the Bantu!
Take up again your right to respect, to life!
Long subjugated, long scorned by all,
But, from today, breaking tyranny’s hold.
Through work, order and dignity
You reconquer your rights, your unity,
And to take this new step
The voice of our ancestors call us.
To work! In order and dignity,
In the respect for rights and in unity,
Breaking poverty and tyranny,
Holding high the flag of the Fatherland.
The words reminded me that even though I may have sacrificed myself to save that young boy who was crying on the street, my efforts will not be for nothing.
As I looked around at the children suffering around me, I felt a sort of glowing peace, seething through me. peace knowing that that young boy would not have to suffer this inhumane fate.
“He really did even determine my final moments” shaking my head in disgust, “First my earliest memory, now my most-likely last memory”.
Resigned and tired, I closed my eyes and I prayed. I prayed that my fate would not be to be served as lunch to others as the Emperor’s cannibal rumours suggested. I prayed that my fate will cause something to happen. That no matter what happened I will find peace. That if I am supposed to die at this young age of 15, my death will mean something. Our protests will mean something. That it will cause the world to stop being passive and blind to our fates.
Someone would react. And maybe, just maybe they finally launch Operation Barracuda.
Just at that moment unknown to me, somewhere across the Ocean, my prayers were just about to be answered.