- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

BANGUI, Central African Republic The once-shimmering palace of the Central African Republic's self-styled emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, rises up like a mirage from a palm-tree grove just 50 miles from the capital of Bangui.
The kitchen where Bokassa's chefs reportedly cooked the emperor's political rivals and served them to visiting foreign dignitaries is now alive with rats.
The bedroom where the self-proclaimed emperor slept, surrounded by piles of gold and diamonds, still bears the bullet holes of the French, who stormed the palace when they ousted him in 1979.
All this may change.
The 62 children of the late emperor, once the elite of this country but now dressed in rags and inhabiting buildings on the palace grounds, are working with some government officials to change the empty palace into a tourist attraction.
"We are very poor. The palace is all we've got left, We think people would be interested to know how the emperor lived," says Jean Mboma, a grandson of Bokassa.
The Central African Republic attracts around 4,000 tourists a year. A bloody coup attempt in May, the prevalence of banditry and inaccessibility of the country keep most foreign visitors away.
But officials say that not only foreign tourists would benefit from a Bokassa attraction. Central Africans need to know their history, too.
"He is an important character in the development of our country and also of the African continent. We need to preserve that history, whether it's good or bad," says Albertine Dounia, head of the national museum in Bangui.
However, opinion on the emperor is divided. Expatriates in this impoverished former French colony of 3.5 million recall Bokassa's ruinous 14-year reign with fondness. It was during this period that it became known as "the coquette."
"Things worked under Bokassa. The roads were good and the country was safe," said one diplomat. "The Central African Republic at that time was Africa's best-kept secret."
Former French President Giscard d'Estaing regularly enjoyed hunting trips with the leader, while yacht owners used to queue up to dock in Bangui's busy harbor, which today is empty.
Central Africans often cite the university, sports stadium and network of roads as achievements of the Bokassa era.
But not everybody remembers with nostalgia the ruler who ordered the clubbing of several children to death when they refused to buy his factory's uniforms. Bokassa is also remembered for spending an entire year's gross national product on a coronation in the style of Napoleon.
Residents at Kolongo, the location of one of Bokassa's many villas, say living next to the dictator was terrifying.
"My brother, who was a teacher, was walking home one night past the palace grounds. He was taken inside. We never saw him again. It was a frightening time," said Sima Fugaston, who makes a living selling the tall grasses growing in the derelict dens of the lions the president once kept.
"He used to scoop up beggars in his plane and drop them into the Obangui River," recalls a university professor.
Exhibitions on the leader are outlawed in the country.
"This is a sensitive subject. Any exhibition or restoration of Bokassa's properties needs to be done properly. This will take time," says Pierre N'Dickini, the director-general of tourism.
Largely for their own financial benefit, the leader's family wants to open the palace right away. They have written to international tourist bodies to request assistance and are petitioning the government.
But according to Constantin Ballangha, the president's younger brother and former head of security, who today spends his days sweeping leaves from the palace grounds, money is not the only issue.
"Central Africans need to judge Bokassa themselves. For too long we've been manipulated by the French. Opening the palace to the general public is a start in allowing us to do this," he says.

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