A controversial historical African leader and two Vietnamese women have been involved in a unique story that joins Africa and Vietnam in a recent period of history. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, also called Bokassa I, was one of the most controversial African leaders of the 20th century. Son of a village chief, Bokassa was born in 1921 in Bobangui, Central African Republic. After the loss of his father, he spent his childhood in local mission schools before joining the French army in 1939.
After twenty years of service in the French army, Bokassa distinguished himself during the first war in Indochina. The conflict erupted in 1949 when France ratified separate treaties recognizing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as independent and self-governing states within the French Union. This situation led to a war that lasted for decades.
While serving as a French soldier in Vietnam, Bokassa married a Vietnamese woman with whom he had a daughter. After being relocated, he ended up having to leave the two behind
In the early 1960s, Bokassa left the French army. He made this decision because he wanted to lead the army of the newly independent Central African Republic. On December 31, 1965, Bokassa plotted to overthrow David Dacko, the man who became the first president of this new African nation and declared himself president of the republic on January 1, 1966.
Once he became president of Central Africa, one of his first actions was to contact the French ambassador to find his daughter.
The two Martines
After years of searching, Bokassa learned that the South Vietnamese government had found his first family.
However, a local Vietnamese newspaper said Martine and her mother were impostors. The media said that the real Martine was a worker in a factory in Saigon. She traveled to meet Bokassa, showing photos from years before he left Vietnam with her and his mother.
When he realized that the other woman, known as “Big Martine”, was an impostor, Bokassa had the first girl imprisoned, but later relented and adopted her. The two Martines were married on the same day in 1973. The two girls received the same gift from their father to avoid any problem of jealousy.
The intriguing story of the two Martines had another chapter. From now on, he would be responsible for the death of the husbands of his two daughters. First, the death of the false Martine’s husband, Captain Oubrou. Bokassa accused Oubrou of instigating a coup to overthrow him and return Dacko to power. The coup failed. Oubrou was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death.
Bokassa would still have ordered the death of the husband of the other Martine, Dédé Abodé.
After this horrible incident, the fake Martine disappeared. She was probably strangled or shot before being secretly buried somewhere along the road. In the meantime, the real Martine has left Africa and now runs two Vietnamese restaurants in France.
Bokassa: a controversial African leader
Bokassa was the first part-African leader to gain international recognition.
But in 1976, to consolidate his power, Bokassa issued a decree transforming the republic into an Empire. He followed in the footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte, his great political influence. A year later, he crowned himself Emperor with the title of Bokassa I. By this time, the international community had started having problems defining where his eccentricity ended and becoming a crazed leader.
He later became known for his autocratic and unpredictable policies. Human rights abuses have skyrocketed, including the killing of thousands of people.
He had personally participated in the massacre of 100 schoolchildren by his Imperial Guard. In 1979, French paratroopers led a military coup against him that restored the republic and reinstated Dacko as president. Bokassa went into exile, traveling first to Ivory Coast but later settling in France.
He decided to return to the Central African Republic in 1986.
In Africa, he was arrested and tried. In 1987, Bokassa was found guilty of the schoolboy murders and other crimes (although he was acquitted of cannibalism charges). His death sentence was later commuted and he was released in 1993. Bokassa died in 1996.