The shimmering white palace rises like a mirage from a palm tree grove in Berengo village. An empty airplane runway glistens in the midday heat next to vacant banqueting halls. A gargantuan statue of the former owner dominates the entrance, but the only sound today is the lapping of stagnant rainwater in the swimming pool. And then, of course, there are the kitchens, where chefs, according to their own trial testimony, roasted the great man's political opponents and sometimes served them to unsuspecting dignitaries. Many residents still feel a tremor of fear when they pass by. "My brother was walking home one night past the palace grounds. He was taken inside. We never saw him again," says Sima Fugaston, 66, who makes a living cutting grass and weaving it into brooms.
This is Palace Berengo, the living quarters of Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, whose nightmarish rule over the Central African Republic lasted from 1966 until a coup ousted him in 1979. The palace today is owned by the state and desperately needs repair. But unlike the country's many other dilapidated structures, Berengo may be restored to its former ghoulish glory if Bokassa's 62 children get permission to transform it into a tourist attraction. Visitors would be able to feast their eyes on the kitchens, the bedroom where Bokassa slept surrounded by pots of gold and diamonds, and Madame Bokassa's Italian-tiled boudoirs. The relatives, once the elite of the country but now mostly living in rags on the palace grounds, say they would be the tour guides. "The palace is all we've got left," laments Jean Mboma, Bokassa's grandson.
Unfortunately for them, this former French colony of 3.4 million attracts fewer than 4,000 visitors a year, owing to banditry and a paucity of attractions. Safaris have mostly ceased since poachers emptied the national parks of animals during the last coup in 1996. But some government officials say a series of Bokassa attractions would interest not just foreigners but residents, too. "He's an important character in the development of our country. We need to preserve that history, whether it's good or bad," says Albertine Dounia, head of the national museum in Bangui, the capital.
SWEEPING LEAVES. The Bokassa chapter was mostly bad. Expats fondly recall the good roads and relative stability. But not everybody wants to remember the bloodthirsty ruler who blew the equivalent of a year's gross national product on his "coronation" in 1977, and who died in 1996 after serving seven years in jail for murder. Bokassa exhibits are now outlawed. "This is a sensitive subject. Any exhibition or restoration of Bokassa's properties needs to be done properly," says Pierre N'Dickini, director of tourism.
Largely for their own benefit, the family wants to open the palace soon. They have written to tourist bodies in Europe to request funding and are petitioning the government. But according to Constantin Ballangha, the emperor's younger brother and former head of security, who today spends his time sweeping leaves from the palace grounds, money is not the only issue. "The Central Africans need to judge Bokassa themselves," he insists.
Jacob Mbaitadjim, the impeccably dressed Economics Minister, snatches folders out of drawers in a fruitless attempt to locate the country's GNP figure. "It's a paradox. Our country is rich, yet we are poor," he proclaims from his heavily carpeted office. The CAR has timber and fertile land, and above all diamonds, but with a GNP per capita of $290 in 1999, it is one of the world's poorest countries.
A series of strikes by state workers who haven't been paid in a year brought the republic to a standstill in January. Fighting in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has caused a refugee flood and fuel shortages. Worse, with more than 13% of people age 17 to 30 thought to be HIV-positive, the government predicts a fifth of the workforce will be wiped out in a decade.
Is there any hope? After all, this country once teemed with investors, as the line of yacht owners waiting to dock in Bangui illustrated. A December World Bank loan of $5 million may get the CAR through the next few months. But for the republic to regain its former charms, stability will have to increase and corruption decline. "Bangui la coquette has become Bangui le racket," laments Atniel Levy, an Israeli hotel owner. For the time being, his rooms probably will stay empty.
By Lucy Jones in Bangui
Edited by Harry Maurer