Born on the 22 of February 1922 to Mingodon Bokassa and Marie Yokowo. When he was 5 in 1927, Jean-Bedel’s father Mingodon was killed for resisting French Imperialism only for his mother Yokowo to commit suicide a week later due to the grief of losing her husband.
Although he was orphaned by the French activities in the Central African Republic, Bokassa joined the French colonial army in 1939 after finishing his former education. He served in French Army for over 20 years mostly abroad and later at the beginning of 1962, he formally joined the National Army of a less than 2-year-old sovereign state of the Central African Republic.
His rise to power started when he was tasked with creating a new modern Army by President Dacko. With a new army, Bokassa became a threat to the Dacko administration but the president on several occasions downplayed the fact that one day the rising star would oust him. On 31 December 1965, Bokassa overthrew Dacko’s government in a military coup.
Like any other dictator, Jean-Bedel Bokassa was drunk with grandiose titles and self-aggrandizement. In 1971, he promoted himself to full General, in 1972 he declared himself “President For Life” and in 1974 he further declared himself “Marshall Of the Republic.”
Jean-Bedel Bokassa was drunk with self-aggrandizement
Bokassa’s biggest idol was Napoleon, and just as Napoleon renamed the French Revolutionary Republic to the French Empire, the Central African Republic President For Life embarked on a journey to turn the country into a Central African Empire in 1976. According to him, the empire would have bigger global recognition and influence.
He went on to seek financial support from then French Finance Minister, Giscard D’estaing to organize his lavish coronation ceremony as the Emperor of the Central African Empire.
Giscard and the French did not support the idea of this ceremony but due to the fact France was heavily involved in the mining industry within the region, they did not want to cut those ties. They, however, offered to help but on further conditions that Bokassa cut ties with Libyan president Gaddafi and also reassured them access to the country’s mineral resources which he accepted.
With everything agreed, the new emperor of the new Central African Empire, and as Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Central African People, united within the national political party finally got his lavish coronation costing slightly over a quarter of the nation’s national budget on 4 December 1977. Bokassa chose this date because it was on the same date Napoleon was coronated in 1804.
Bokassa spent around $5 million on coronation jewellery and bought 60 new Mercedes cars from Germany to help his guests move around in utmost comfort. He invited over 2,500 international dignitaries but only 600 honoured the invitation with even the chief-funders of the ceremony not turning up.
When asked as to why fellow African leaders did not attend his ceremony, he answered that they were jealous of him because he had an empire, and they didn’t.
At the end of the ceremony, Emperor Bokassa I became a wide topic of discussion with many publications writing about his coronation though it received a negative reception.
Bokassa’s reign was characterized by gross human rights violations
His reign as the ruler of the Central African Republic was characterized by gross human rights violations including the killing of children and women. Countrymen who were against his rule were usually tortured, maimed, killed and some of these dehumanizing acts were done with his own hands.
His government was very corrupt and extravagant, and he often spent public incomes on personal ventures while a big number of citizens were hit by hunger. Bokassa survived a number of coups and assassination attempts during his dictatorship rule.
The last stroke on the camel’s back was in 1979 when more than 100 school children were killed by the National Forces led by the Emperor himself for protesting the expensive school uniforms.
The French Army invaded Bokassa’s Empire on 20 September 1979 and overthrew him with little resistance restoring the Central African Republic and David Dacko as President.
Bokassa fled to the Ivory Coast where he lived in exile up to 1986 when he returned only to arrested and tried for several crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He was later released in 1993 after President Kolingba pardoned him. He died of a heart attack on 3 November 1996.
Author: Katende Basajjabaka
Katende writes about sports and occasionally technology.