Boganda in 1958
|1st Prime Minister of the Central African Republic autonomous territory|
8 December 1958 – 29 March 1959
|Succeeded by||Abel Goumba|
|Born||4 April 1910|
|Died||29 March 1959 (aged 48)|
Boukpayanga, Central African Republic
|Cause of death||Airplane explosion|
Michelle Jourdain (m. 1950)
|Church||Roman Catholic Church|
|Ordained||17 March 1938|
Barthélemy Boganda (4 April 1910 – 29 March 1959) was the leading nationalist politician from what is now the Central African Republic. Boganda was active prior to his country's independence, during the period when the area, part of French Equatorial Africa, was administered by France under the name of Oubangui-Chari. He served as the first Prime Minister of the Central African Republic autonomous territory.
Boganda was born into a family of subsistence farmers, and was adopted and educated by Roman Catholic Church missionaries. In 1938, he was ordained as the first Roman Catholic priest from Oubangui-Chari. During World War II, Boganda served in a number of missions and after was persuaded by the Bishop of Bangui to enter politics. In 1946, he became the first Oubanguian elected to the French National Assembly, where he maintained a political platform against racism and the colonial regime. He then returned to Oubangui-Chari to form a grassroots movement in opposition of French colonialism. The movement led to the 1949 foundation of the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa (MESAN), which became popular among villagers and the working class. Boganda's reputation was slightly damaged when he was laicized from the priesthood after marrying Michelle Jourdain, a parliamentary secretary. Nonetheless, he continued to advocate for equal treatment and civil rights for blacks in the territory well into the 1950s.
In 1958, after the French Fourth Republic began to consider granting independence to most of its African colonies, Boganda met with Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle to discuss terms for the independence of Oubangui-Chari. De Gaulle accepted Boganda's terms, and on 1 December, Boganda declared the establishment of the Central African Republic. He became the autonomous territory's first Prime Minister and intended to serve as the first President of the independent CAR. He was killed in a mysterious plane crash on 29 March 1959, while en route to Bangui. Experts found a trace of explosives in the plane's wreckage, but revelation of this detail was withheld. Although those responsible for the crash were never identified, people have suspected the French secret service, and even Boganda's wife, of being involved. Slightly more than one year later, Boganda's dream was realized, when the Central African Republic attained formal independence from France.
Boganda was born to a family of subsistence farmers in Bobangui, a large M'Baka village in the Lobaye basin located at the edge of the equatorial forest some 80 kilometres (50 mi) southwest of Bangui. French commercial exploitation of Central Africa had reached an apogee around the time of Boganda's birth, and although interrupted by World War I, activity resumed in the 1920s. The French consortia used what was essentially a form of slavery—the corvée—and one of the most notorious was the Compagnie forestière de la Sangha-Oubangui, involved in rubber gathering in the Lobaye district.
In the late 1920s, Boganda's mother was beaten to death by the company's officials while collecting rubber in the forest. His uncle, whose son Jean-Bédel Bokassa would later crown himself as the Emperor of the Central African Empire, was beaten to death at the colonial police station as a result of his alleged resistance to work. Boganda's father was a witch doctor who had engaged in cannibalistic rituals.
During his early years, Boganda was adopted by Catholic missionaries. As a boy he attended the school opened at Mbaiki (the administrative centre for the Lobaye prefecture) by the post's founder, Lieutenant Mayer. From December 1921 to December 1922, he spent two hours a day with Monsignor Jean-Réné Calloch learning how to read, while spending the rest of his time performing manual labour. On 24 December, he was received into the church under the name Barthélemy, in honour of one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ who was believed to have worked as Christian missionary in Africa. Father Gabriel Herrau sent Boganda to the Catholic School of Betou and then to the school of the Saint Paul Mission at Bangui, where he completed his primary studies under Mgr Calloch, whom he would consider his spiritual father. The missionaries there, encouraged by his intellectual promise and pious demeanour, helped him continue secondary studies at small seminaries in Brazzaville and Kisantu (under Belgian Jesuits) before he moved on to the great seminary at Yaoundé. On 17 March 1938, fulfilling an ambition he had had since age twelve, he was ordained and became the first Roman Catholic priest native to Oubangui-Chari, as the colony was then called. He ministered at Bangui, Grimari and Bangassou, and in 1939, his bishop denied his request to join the French Army. He was needed at home, as many Frenchmen involved with the church had been recalled to the metropole to fight in World War II, during which he served in a number of missions.
After World War II, Boganda was urged by the Bishop of Bangui, Mgr Grandin, to complement his humanitarian and social works through political action. Boganda decided to run for election to the National Assembly of France. On 10 November 1946, he became the first Oubanguian elected to the assembly after winning almost half of the total votes cast and defeating three other candidates, including the outgoing incumbent, François Joseph Reste, who had formerly served as the Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa. Boganda arrived in Paris attired in his clerical garb and introduced himself to his fellow legislators as the son of a polygamous cannibal. From 1947 on, Boganda conducted a lively campaign against racism and the colonial regime. Soon realizing the limits of his influence in France (he served in parliament until 1958 but gradually detached himself from its activities), he returned to Oubangui-Chari to organise a grassroots movement of teachers, truck drivers and small producers to oppose French colonialism, although his previous attempt to set up a marketing cooperative among African planters of his own ethnicity had failed. On 28 September 1949, at Bangui, he founded the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa (MESAN), a quasi-religious political movement and party that sought to affirm black humanity and quickly came to dominate local politics. His political creed was summed up in the Sango phrase "zo kwe zo", which translated to "every human being is a person". Effectively, he was looking for equal treatment and civil rights for blacks within the French Union rather than independence, at least for the time being. He demarginalised large masses of people—women, youth, workers, poor cultivators—with the intent of unleashing the creativity of the Oubanguian people by placing them centre stage in the making of their country's history.
The movement was more popular among villagers than among évolué townsmen, whom Boganda considered servile and to whom he applied the derogatory term "Mboundjou-Voko" ("Black-Whites"). Additionally, he created the Intergroupe Liberal Oubanguien (ILO) in 1953, which aimed to elect an equal number of black and white politicians to the assembly, so that a united electoral college could be established. MESAN's activities angered the French administration and the companies trading in cotton, coffee, diamonds and other commodities. The Bangui chamber of commerce was controlled by these companies, and the men who gathered at this club strongly resented the demise of forced labour and the resultant rise of black nationalism. They hated Boganda in particular, viewing him as a dangerous revolutionary demagogue and a threat to their "free enterprise", and they resolved to get rid of him. They also set up local RPF branches to counter MESAN, and the presence of African Democratic Rally (RDA) in the other three territories of French Equatorial Africa posed some menace for MESAN, but by 1958, although other parties were allowed, they had been reduced to tiny groups. On many occasions, General Charles de Gaulle expressed his sympathy for Oubangui-Chari, which had supported de Gaulle's Free French Forces as early as August 1940, and refused to support the violent intrigues of the RPF against Boganda and his men. He received Boganda, by then head of the Grand Council of French Equatorial Africa and pushing for independence, in Paris in July 1958 and was in turn received at Brazzaville in August. The discussions there led to the General accepting Boganda's demands for independence and the endorsement of the French Community in September throughout French Equatorial Africa.
Boganda's attachment to the clergy weakened when he met and fell in love with a young Frenchwoman, Michelle Jourdain, who was employed as a parliamentary secretary. They were married on 13 June 1950, for which Boganda was expelled from the priesthood and cut off from the Catholic hierarchy's support. Boganda and Jourdain would later have two daughters and a son. The affair caused a minor scandal in Paris, but it did little to dent his popularity with his people. In the National Assembly he continued to battle, often in vain, against repressive features of the French administration in Oubangui-Chari. Arbitrary arrest, low wages, compulsory cotton cultivation, and the exclusion of blacks from restaurants and cinemas were all targets of his rhetoric.
On 29 March 1951, Boganda was sentenced to two months in prison following his arrest on 10 January for "endangering the peace" after intervening in a local market dispute (the "Bokanga incident" in Lobaye). His wife was sentenced to 15 days in prison, but neither served their terms. On 17 June, he was re-elected to the National Assembly with 48% of the vote despite the obstacles placed in his way by the administration and strong opposition by the authorities, colonists, and the missions, with two prominent French candidates seeking to oust him. At this time, he emerged as an extraordinarily popular messianic folk hero and his country's leading nationalist; MESAN became the majority party in the Territorial Assembly elections in March 1952. In this period he divided his time between his coffee plantation, his emancipation work and new political positions. In April 1954, an incident that would showcase Boganda's talent and appeal with crowds erupted at Berbérati. A white public works agent, who had recently been reprimanded for his brutality toward Africans, announced that his cook and the cook's wife had died. A riot broke out and the governor sent in parachutists while armoured vehicles patrolled the streets. Boganda hesitated to appear in a village that was not one of his strongholds, but did so anyway and declared before the rioters that justice would be the same for blacks and whites. Upon hearing Boganda's words, the crowd became calm and dispersed.
He played a crucial role at the beginning of internal autonomy (1956–1958), although the relatively conservative Boganda remained sympathetic to French interests and still did not advocate immediate independence. For Boganda, the 1956 election, in which he took 89% of the vote against another Oubanguian, was an uncontested speaker's platform with which the colonial administration had come to terms; the French had realised that opposing him would be dangerous and sought to accommodate him. That year he agreed to European representation on election lists in exchange for the financial support of French business leaders, and on 18 November, was elected as the first mayor of Bangui. On 31 March 1957, MESAN won all seats in the Territorial Assembly election; on 18 June, Boganda was elected president of the Grand Council of French Equatorial Africa (a forum he used to broadcast his views on African unity) and in May was appointed vice-president of the Oubangui-Chari Government Council (the French governor was still its president).
A pragmatist, Boganda spoke before the local assembly on 30 December 1957 in praise of the new Comité de Salut Economique, which envisioned joint administration of the economy between French colonials and MESAN territorial councilors (he called it "the union of capital and Oubanguian labour"), but lack of French investment and opposition by Oubanguians soon led him to turn away from the idea. With the numerous declarations of independence being made in much of Francophone Africa, Boganda advised that an independent Oubangui-Chari would face major economic problems from the onset. Instead, he advocated the independence of all of French Equatorial Africa and its integration into a United States of Latin Africa comprising the former French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonies of Central Africa; he intended for Oubangui-Chari to become a federal unit within that structure. However, such a federation proved unrealistic, foundering on the rocks of regional jealousy and personal ambition, and Boganda came to accept a constitution covering only Oubangui-Chari as the Central African Republic. Thus, after 1 December 1958, when Boganda declared the establishment of the Central African Republic as an autonomous member of the French Community, the name was applied only to the former Oubangui-Chari. On 8 December, the CAR's first government came into being with Boganda as prime minister; a French governor remained in the country but was now called high commissioner. The new government began by adopting a law banning nudity and vagabondage, Boganda's missionary education still showing through. Its main task, however, was to draw up a constitution, which was democratic and modelled to some extent on that of France; this was approved by the assembly on 16 February 1959. Formal independence came later, on 13 August 1960.
Boganda was poised to become the first president of the independent CAR when he boarded a plane at Berbérati for a flight to Bangui on 29 March 1959, just prior to legislative elections. The aircraft exploded in midair over Boukpayanga in the sub-prefecture of Boda (about 160 kilometres (100 mi) west of Bangui), killing all passengers and crew. No clear cause has ever been ascertained for the mysterious crash and no commission of inquiry was ever formed; sabotage was widely suspected. The nation was shocked at the death of its revered leader, whose funeral on 2 April at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Bangui saw a great outpouring of grief from thousands of Oubanguians. The 7 May edition of the Paris weekly L'Express revealed that experts had found traces of explosive in the wreckage, but the French high commissioner banned the sale of that magazine edition when it appeared in the CAR. Many suspected that expatriate businessmen from the Bangui chamber of commerce, possibly aided by the French secret service, played a role. Michelle Jourdain was also suspected of being involved: by 1959, relations between Boganda and his wife had deteriorated, and he thought of leaving her and returning to the priesthood. She had a large insurance policy on his life, taken just days before the accident. According to Brian Titley, author of Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa, there are good reasons for suspecting her involvement in the plane crash.
Abel Goumba, the vice-premier and finance minister whom Titley describes as "intelligent, honest, and strongly nationalistic", emerged as Boganda's logical successor. However, his close confidant and cousin, interior minister David Dacko, more likely to lead a regime deferential to foreign interests, was backed by the high commissioner, Colonel Roger Barberot, with the support of the chamber of commerce and Michelle Jourdain. He thus brushed aside Goumba and by 1962 had shut down the opposition, with MESAN becoming the country's single party. The events after Boganda's death are strongly evocative of other French efforts to maintain economic domination by ensuring that compliant leaders came to power in its former colonies. It also robbed the country of a charismatic leader in the Houphouët-Boigny or Senghor mould, whose prestige alone might have sufficed to retain civilian rule, which ended when Bokassa deposed the unpopular Dacko in 1966.
Boganda is not only considered the hero and father of his nation but also as one of the great leaders of decolonization in Africa; the historian Georges Chaffard described him after his death as "the most prestigious and the most capable of Equatorial political men," while political historian Gérard Prunier called him "probably the most gifted and most inventive of French Africa's decolonization generation of politicians." Among the places named after him are an avenue in Bangui, one of the city's largest high schools, a Château Boganda and Barthélemy Boganda Stadium. 29 March, the anniversary of his death, is Boganda Day, a public holiday. Boganda was also the designer of the flag of the Central African Republic, originally intended for the United States of Latin Africa.
Boganda is one in a long line of African political leaders who, in an attempt to develop specifically national political cultures, were presented (or presented themselves) as the great national leader, glorified and sometimes nearly deified. They were hailed as the fathers of their nations and considered wise in the ways of understanding the best interests of their peoples. Others who became particular objects of hero-worship include Léopold Sédar Senghor, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Moktar Ould Daddah, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Modibo Keïta, Léon M'ba and Daniel Ouezzin Coulibaly. Boganda did little to discourage wide circulation of tales about his supernatural powers, putative invulnerability and even immortality. Shortly before his death, a large crowd waited on the shore of the Ubangui River to see him cross by walking upon the waters. He did not show up, but apparently a good many people still believed that he could have made the miraculous crossing. More than just a charismatic political leader, he was seen as the "black Christ", a great religious figure endowed with extraordinary powers. Along with Congo-Brazzaville's Fulbert Youlou, who remained a priest while president, Boganda was not particularly concerned with his religious mission once he entered politics, but he unabashedly used the enormous popular respect for the Church and the cloth to political advantage. He successfully manipulated religious symbols (clerical garb, crosses, baptism, disciples, acolytes, etc.) for political purposes.
After his death, his mystique grew: he was a national martyr, and miracles were regularly attributed to him. The Boganda myth continues to exercise a strong hold on many people in the CAR, and it has frequently been used by his successors in their appeals for national unity. Those who were related to him even tenuously, such as Bokassa (who was from the same village and minority ethnic group, was the son of his mother's uncle, justified his coup using Boganda's name and created a cult of Boganda as founder of the party and state), or Dacko (who posed as the ideological successor of Boganda by championing for "national reconciliation" during the 1981 election) were able to capture some of his aura and use it to their advantage.
As Prime Minister of Oubangui-Chari
| Prime Minister of the Central African Republic