Revered by Central Africans as a national martyr, his death is a public holiday in the landlocked country. Barthélemy Boganda, who had been a driving force in the creation of the Central African Republic, died in a mysterious plane crash on March 29, 1959, just before the country’s independence.
There was speculation at the time that sabotage caused the crash.
A Catholic priest who campaigned for freedom from the French, Boganda ultimately became the first prime minister of the Central African Republic (CAR) autonomous territory. He had intended to serve as the first president of the independent CAR but was killed in the mysterious plane crash before the CAR achieved full nationhood.
Since his death and independence, the country has suffered from political instability as most people say their leaders have failed them. Today, as schools, businesses and official government offices remain closed in remembrance of the leading nationalist and politician, many wonder what the CAR would have been like if Boganda had lived.
Boganda was born of a peasant family on April 4, 1910, in Bobangui, Moyen-Congo, French Equatorial Africa [now in the Central African Republic]. Adopted and educated by Roman Catholic missionaries, Boganda, in 1938, was ordained as the first Roman Catholic priest from Oubangui-Chari (now CAR).
He was sponsored by the Catholic missions as a candidate in the November 1946 elections to the French National Assembly and won against an administration-backed candidate. One of the pioneers of decolonization, Boganda maintained a political platform against racism and the colonial regime while he was at the French National Assembly.
But he soon denounced the missions and the colonial administration, and he left the French Catholic party (the Republican Popular Movement), as well as, the priesthood. He then formed a grassroots movement in opposition to French colonialism. This movement resulted in the formation of his own party in 1949 – the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa (MESAN) – that attracted people in rural areas as well as the working class population.
Some accounts state that Boganda was expelled from the priesthood and cut off from the Catholic hierarchy’s support after marrying a young Frenchwoman, Michelle Jourdain, who was employed as a parliamentary secretary.
The 1950 marriage caused a minor scandal, but Boganda was unfazed as he continued to fight for civil rights for blacks and equal treatment in the territory. He championed against low wages, arbitrary arrests, compulsory cotton cultivation and the exclusion of blacks from public places such as cinemas and restaurants.
He was briefly arrested in 1951 for “endangering the peace” after intervening in a local market dispute. Despite strong opposition by authorities, colonists, and missions, Boganda got re-elected to the National Assembly with 48 per cent of the vote. By then, he had become his country’s leading nationalist, and his party, MESAN became the majority party in the territorial assembly in March 1952.
With his popularity, it is documented that the French government realized it would be useless to oppose him, and hence, they made efforts to accommodate him. Despite being a strong anticolonialist, sources say that Boganda was also pragmatic, hence, he made deals with the colonial administration and European businessmen to gain his ends.
By 1957, Boganda had become the president of the Grand Council of French Equatorial Africa (which also included Chad, Gabon, and the French Congo). Using the platform to broadcast his views on African unity, he hoped for a federation of these states under African rather than French control.
Essentially, he called for the “Latin United States of Africa” – in which nations inside French Equatorial Africa, the Belgian Congo and Portuguese colonies would amalgamate into one political and economic body.
According to an article on Pretoria News, Boganda argued that such a union would provide stronger negotiating power and economic opportunity. However, by 1958, this dream was crushed, compelling Boganda to turn his sole attention towards the future of the Central African Republic
In 1958, 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.
It is said that De Gaulle accepted Boganda’s terms, and on December 1, Boganda declared the establishment of the Central African Republic. He became the autonomous territory’s first Prime Minister and under him, the government drafted a constitution for the country.
Then the unfortunate happened. Just prior to the legislative elections, Boganda had boarded a plane at Berbérati for a flight to Bangui on March 29, 1959, when the aircraft crashed in Boukpayanga in the district of Boda (west of Bangui), killing all passengers and crew.
Despite speculations that he had been murdered, no investigation or inquiry took place even though experts had allegedly found traces of explosive in the wreckage. Many suspected that expatriate businessmen from Bangui’s Chamber of Commerce, the French Secret Service, or Boganda’s estranged wife may have had a hand in his death.
By 1959, Boganda’s relationship with his wife had broken down, and there were reports that he thought of leaving her and returning back to the priesthood. She, however, had a large life insurance policy on his life, taken just days before the accident, sources say.
Boganda’s death left many shocked and his funeral on April 2 was attended by thousands who came to mourn their revered leader. Till date, his death remains a painful memory for people in Central Africa who consider him as a hero and father of his nation.
Some of the places named after him include an avenue in Bangui, one of the city’s largest high schools, a Château Boganda and Barthelemy Boganda Stadium.
For his role in championing equality and civil rights for blacks, Boganda is also hailed by scholars as one of the great leaders of Black African emancipation.