National Geographic : 2017 May
70 national geographic • may 2017 interrupt my guide. He seemed comforted to talk about the one leader nearly every Central African regards as a saint. In conversations with dozens of Christians and Muslims, I never once heard Jesus or Muhammad invoked, but Boganda was cited often. He was born into what was then the French colony of Oubangui-Chari, named for the rivers that defined its southern and northern borders. Private companies ran the colony with impunity, and any notion of justice was left to its admin- istrators. On Bastille Day, 1903, a French official in Kaga Bandoro allowed his men to execute an African prisoner by inserting a stick of dynamite into his anus and igniting it. “It is a bit stupid, but it will dumbfound the natives,” the official ex- plained. “After this they will probably keep quiet.” Boganda’s life reads like that of an Old Tes- tament prophet. Just before his birth in 1910, French forces killed his father during a raid on his village. Company guards clubbed his mother to death when she refused to collect wild rubber. The orphaned Boganda was taken in by a Ro- man Catholic priest, and he would go on to take his own vows, becoming Oubangui-Chari’s first native priest. He later served as its first native representative in the French National Assembly, becoming an outspoken critic of French rule. When independence was imminent, Boganda was the people’s clear choice to be their leader. He dubbed the nation the Central African Republic, designed its flag, and wrote the coun- try’s motto: “Equality for Everyone.” But on March 29, 1959, just before the first elections, a plane carrying Boganda exploded in midair. Today people throughout the country believe that the French were behind his death, despite France’s denials. The incident has colored the relationship between the countries ever since. “We were their colony, and they didn’t want to let us go,” the guide, a forest ranger by trade, said. “You can quote this, but please don’t use my name. The French still think we are their colony.” He pointed to the statues of the other five men, who had all served as president. “ When each one of these guys decided to go against the French, he was replaced by the next guy.” But the leaders who followed Boganda have their own sins to answer for, he said. Walking down the line of statues, he pointed an accusatory finger at the stern visage of each man, as if he were speaking directly to him. He described how they squandered the nation’s wealth, played favorites among the country’s numerous ethnic groups, and stirred deep resentment among the 15 percent of the population that is Muslim (the rest practice Christianity or animist beliefs). He stopped at the last statue, the man whom many Central Africans accuse of starting the Crisis, François Bozizé, an army officer who seized power in 2003. “He prom- ised the Muslims he would include them in his government, if they would help him take power.