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Jean-Bédel Bokassa , also known as Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa and as Emperor Bokassa I (Bobangi, French Congo, February 22 of 1921 – Bangui, Central African Republic, November 3, 1996), was ruler of Central Africa from January 1, 1966 – first as a military dictator and then, as of December 4, 1976, as self-proclaimed emperor of the Empire Central African – until September 20, 1979, when he was overthrown by a coup d’état.

Bokassa’s Biography

Military career

Bokassa was born in Bobangi, Middle Congo, in the French region of Equatorial Africa, (now the Central African Republic). His father, Mindogon Mbougdoulou, was a tribal leader. His mother was Marie Yokowo. Bokassa joined the Free French Forces and finished World War II as a sergeant major decorated with the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre (War Cross). In 1961 he had already reached the rank of captain. He left the French army in 1964 to join the young Central African army. Cousin of President David Dacko, Bokassa rose to the rank of colonel and chief of staff of the armed forces.

President of the Central African Republic

On January 1, 1966, with the country involved in an economic crisis, Bokassa overthrew the authoritarian Dacko with a coup d’etat and assumed power as president of the republic and president of the government. Bokassa abolished the 1964 constitution on January 4 and began to rule by decree. Shortly after he was appointed secretary general of the MESAN political party: Mouvement por l’évolution sociale de l’Afrique Noire (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa, in French). A year later, in January 1967, he was the head of that political party, the only existing one.

A failed coup d’état in April 1969 was used by Bokassa to consolidate his power, and eliminate his main rival of the military regime, Colonel Alexandre Banza, who was summarily executed. In March 1972, he was proclaimed president for life by an extraordinary Congress of the MESAN convened for that purpose. In the same way, he was proclaimed Marshal of the country two years later. He overcame another failed coup in December 1974 and survived an assassination attempt in February 1976. This latest assassination attempt was the trigger that convinced Bokassa of the need to perpetuate himself in power even more and create a monarchical regime, already in force. May 1976.

After a meeting with Muammar al-Gaddafi, in September 1976, Bokassa decided to adopt a model of government inspired by the Libyan. Bokassa formally dissolved the government, resigned almost all the ministerial positions he had held, created the Conseil de la Révolution Centrafricaine (Council of the Central African Revolution), as the new state management body under his presidency. In October 1976, taking advantage of the visit to Bangui of Gaddafi, Bokassa decided to convert to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa . All this was just a calculated act to secure economic aid from Libya, since his personal plan to establish himself as monarch was already decided.

Central African Empire

On December 4 of that year, at the MESAN congress, Bokassa changed the country’s status from republic to monarchy and declared with great pomp the creation of the Central African Empire. The sovereign promulgated an imperial constitution, converted to Catholicism and crowned himself as Emperor Bokassa I in a lavish ceremony on December 4, 1976, which caused stupor in the rest of the world and had the massive presence of the people in Bangui . The full title of S.M. Bokassa I was Empereur de Centrafrique for the volonté du peuple Centrafricain, uni au sein du political party national, le MESAN, “Emperor of Central Africa for the will of the Central African people, united to the national political party, the MESAN”.

The Emperor justified the establishment of the constitutional monarchy arguing that by creating a monarchy it would help the country to “stand out” from the rest of the continent and gain the respect of the world. It was necessary to invest more than 20 million dollars (75 million in 2011 values) in the coronation of the sovereign, which was attended by the people. A special representative of the Holy See was present, although there was no presence of the foreign ruling houses at the event. The Emperor had the support of popular sectors, who still long for his regime. Many thought that Bokassa was crazy, and he was compared to the African dictator, Idi Amin, for his egocentric extravagances. The press rumored that occasionally ate human flesh.

Although when the new empire was created, it was said that it would be a constitutional monarchy, no important democratic reforms were made, and the repression of dissidents continued to be very hard. Torture was a widespread practice; it is even said that Bokassa himself participated in the interrogations. [citation required]

Despite the dictatorship, France continued to support Bokassa. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a friend and faithful defender of the emperor, and provided the regime with important economic and military aid. In response, Bokassa frequently took Giscard d’Estaing to hunting excursions in Africa and provided France with uranium, a vital mineral for the French nuclear weapons program. Over time, the French press became increasingly critical of the close relationship between Giscard d’Estaing and Bokassa, particularly after it was revealed that the emperor assiduously gave diamonds as a gift to the president. The memorial of the monarchical regime is still preserved.

End of the Empire

In January 1979, French support for Bokassa dropped considerably after riots in the capital Bangui led to a massacre of civilians by the armed forces. From April 17 to 19, an important number of school children were arrested after they protested against the use of expensive uniforms whose use was forced by the government. Around 100 died; the enemies of the sovereign spread the rumor that Bokassa participated in the massacres and that he had even eaten some of the bodies. [citation needed] Former President Dacko, supported by France, intervened with military force taking advantage of an official visit of the emperor to Libya. A coup d’état sponsored by France led to the end of the Central African monarchy on September 20, 1979. The republic was restored.

Exile, return and death

Once overthrown, the dictator of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, refused to receive him, since he did not represent any State. Bokassa decided to fly directly to Paris to ask the French president for explanations. His private plane landed near Paris and the French government refused any official contact with the ousted emperor, while multiplying his private efforts to find a host country, citing humanitarian reasons. In this way, Emperor Bokassa ended up in Ivory Coast, whose president, Houphouet-Boigny, was the only one who agreed to the requirements of the French government. However, Bokassa did not cease his efforts to return to his country and regain power. Helped by some French friends he got a plane with the intention of flying to Bangui in December 1983, but the operation was aborted at the last moment by the Ivorian authorities. Bokassa was then expelled from the Ivory Coast and returned to France, which on this occasion had no choice but to accept him. Bokassa was then established in a mansion he had acquired years ago in the vicinity of Paris.

Bokassa was sentenced to death in absentia in December 1980, but returned from exile in France landing in Bangui on October 24, 1986. He was arrested and tried for treason, murder, cannibalism and misappropriation of state funds. During the trial charges of cannibalism were lifted, which could not be proven. The Republican court sentenced the emperor to death on June 12, 1987. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in February 1988, but would later be reduced to twenty years.

With the return of democracy in 1993, President André Kolingba declared a general amnesty for all prisoners in one of his last acts as president; the former sovereign and other court addicts were released on August 1 of that year. He had 17 wives and more than 50 children. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 1996.

More Facts about Bokassa

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