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Emperor of the Central African Empire
Jean-Bédel Bokassa was born in Bobangui on February 22, 1921. When he was six, his father was murdered for protesting policies implemented by the French Foresìère company. His mother committed suicide a week later, and Bokassa was subsequently taken in by missionaries. He was educated at Ecole Saint-Louis in Bangui and at Father Compte's school in Brazzaville, and graduated in 1939.
During World War II, Bokassa took part in the French Army's capture of the Vichy government capital at Brazzaville and the August 1944 landings at Provence. After the war he studied radio transmissions and attended officer training school, and subsequently served in Indochina and Algeria. For his service he was awarded the Legion d"Honneur and Croix de Guerre, and left the French Army with the rank of Captain on January 1, 1962. He then joined the military forces of the newly independent Central African Republic.
Bokassa quickly rose through the ranks and was named Army Chief of Staff by President David Dacko, his cousin, in 1964. Dacko gave Bokassa the position in an effort to reduce Bokassa's increasing popularity and flamboyance, but the effort failed because Dacko's government was unable to stem the country's economic problems or stop frequent border incursions by Lumumbists and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. But it was Dacko's establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China that finally prompted Bokassa to act against his cousin. With most of the military behind him, Bokassa led a successful military coup on January 1, 1965, and named himself President.
Within months of taking power Bokassa had invalidated the constitution and replaced the National Assembly with a Revolutionary Council. He gained international praise for implementing laws to legislate morality (including the outlawing of polygamy, dowries and female circumcision), establishing a public transport system in Bangui, and subsidizing the creation of two national orchestras. His cutting of diplomatic relations with China on January 6, 1966, further elevated his position within much of the international community. Bokassa's government was formally recognized by France in November 1966, and by most other Western nations soon after.
The country's rich uranium and diamond deposits helped Bokassa gain favors from both France and the United States, but failed to put much money into the nation's treasury. Bokassa's extravagant lifestyle kept the coffers almost empty, and dissent amongst the populace became more and more common. In April 1969, Minister of State Alexandre Banza, who had participated in Bokassa's coup, led his own coup attempt. The coup failed, and Banza was subsequently executed for treason. The country remained relatively peaceful for the next several years, despite Bokassa's increasing flamboyance and unpredictable behavior.
Bokassa promoted himself to full General in 1971, and proclaimed himself Marshal and President-For-Life in March 1972. He survived another coup attempt in December 1974, and, on January 2, 1975, voluntarily relinquished his position as Prime Minister in favor of Elizabeth Domitien in an effort to stem public opposition to his government. The effort failed, however, and he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in February 1976.
In September 1976, with public dissent growing and international support waning, Bokassa dissolved the government and replaced it with the Conseil de la Révolution Centrafricaine (Central African Revolutionary Council). Hoping to gain much-needed financial and military aid from Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa. The conversion did not last, however, as the promised aid never came, and he converted back to Catholicism within three months. On December 4, 1976, he instituted a new constitution that renamed the country the Central African Empire and proclaimed himself Emperor. The extravagant coronation ceremony consumed the nation's entire annual budget.
Despite his claims that transforming the country into a monarchy would make it more respectable within the international community, Bokassa's erratic personality, combined with increasing claims that Bokassa himself was torturing dissenters, led most Western nations to publicly condemn Bokassa. In May of 1979, the human rights group Amnesty International accused Bokassa of personally murdering (and, according to some, eating) 100 children who were imprisoned in Bangui for protesting the required wearing of very expensive school uniforms.
On September 20, 1979, France, wanting to restore order to its former colony, sent a corps of paratroopers into the Central African Empire, forced Bokassa to resign, and restored Alexandre Dacko to the presidency. Bokassa attempted to fly to France for refuge, but was prevented from landing there. He spent four years living in the Ivory Coast before being granted asylum by France in recognition of his previous French Foreign Legion service and allowed to take up residence at Haudricourt, his estate west of Paris. He was tried and sentenced to death in absentia by Dacko's government for the murder of numerous political rivals in December 1980. Despite the death sentence, Bokassa decided to return to the Central African Republic in 1986 and allowed himself to be taken into custody. A seven-month trial ended with a guilty verdict and another death sentence on June 12, 1987, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Andre Kolingba, and later reduced to twenty years. He was released under a general amnesty program on August 1, 1993, and he subsequently retired to a villa in Bangui.
Jean-Bédel Bokassa died of a heart attack on November 3, 1996, and was buried in the village of Berengo.
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This page was last updated on January 10, 2019.