Jean-Bédel Bokassa, from 1966 to 1976 second president of the Central African Republic (CAR) and self-styled ruler Bokassa I of the Central African Empire from 1976 to 1979, was born on February 22nd, 1921 in Bobangui, Middle Congo, French Equatorial Africa as one of twelve children of a village chief.
Orphaned at an early age, Bokassa attended two local Christian mission schools. Originally educated to become a priest, he actually lacked the aptitude for study and the required piety for such a profession.
In 1939 he joined the French army as a tirailleur, an indigenous colonial infantry soldier. Following the creation of the Free French Forces by General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), leader of the government in exile determined to liberate France from German occupation, Bokassa served in one of its African units.
Promoted to sergeant major, he participated in Operation Dragoon, the Allied landing in Provence on August 15th, 1944, and fought in southern France and in Germany in early 1945.
After the end of World War II, Bokassa studied radio transmissions in France and later attended officer training in Senegal. From 1950 to 1953, he saw combat in Indochina during the Anti-French Resistance War (1946-1954).
There he married a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl named Nguyễn Thị Huệ, who bore him a daughter, which he registered as a French national, but left Asia without his wife and child.
For his exploits in battle, he was honored with membership in the Légion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit, and decorated with the Croix de Guerre, a military award denoting citations earned in combat in foreign countries.
Already a lieutenant and after a twenty-year absence, Bokassa in 1959 was posted back to his homeland, which would gain independence on August 13th, 1960.
Having achieved the rank of captain, Bokassa left the French armed forces in 1962 to build a tiny CAR army of 500 men. Within a year he had risen from battalion commandant to Commander-in-chief.
Bokassa, very eager for recognition, frequently appeared in public wearing all his military decorations and was able to quickly rise through the ranks, thanks to the patronage of his cousin, the CAR’s first leader David Dacko (1930- 2003).
Dacko underestimated Bokassa, who on December 31st, 1965 used his position as supreme military commander to overthrow him during a plantation visit.
Aware of the Communist thread all over the continent, Bokassa declared himself President on January 1st, 1966, formed a Revolutionary Council, invalidated the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly.
On the other hand, a rather socialist economic plan that created huge nationalized farms and industries was implemented, but stymied by poor management.
Alleging that Chinese agents had been training and arming locals to start a revolution, on January 6th 1966 he cut off diplomatic relations with China and would reestablish them only a decade later.
In an effort to modernize the young, backward nation, polygamy, dowries and female circumcision were all abolished. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 55 had to provide proof that they had jobs, or else they would be fined or imprisoned and begging was banned.
Bokassa became known for his autocratic and unpredictable policies, including periodic reshuffles in which the power of the presidency was gradually increased. Over the years he managed to survive several assassination attempts.
After meeting Libyan revolutionary Muammar al-Gaddafi (1942-2011) in September 1976, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa to ensure ongoing financial aid from Tripoli.
Although theoretically impossible, in December 1976 he converted back to Catholicism, assumed the title Emperor Bokassa I and changed the name of his country to the Central African Empire.
In emulation of his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), he was crowned a year later in a lavish ceremony at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in the capital Bangui that cost more than 20 million US dollars, or one third of the CAE’s annual budget and all of France’s aid money for that year.
By this time Bokassa’s rule had effectively bankrupted the CAR and many observers considered him insane. His eccentric behavior and egotistical extravagance made him a laughing stock worldwide.
Following the substantiation of charges that Bokassa had personally participated in a massacre of 100 schoolchildren who had protested against paying for and wearing expensive, government-required uniforms with Bokassa’s image on them, he was doomed.
On September 20th, 1979 French paratroops carried out a military coup against him that immediately reestablished the republic and reinstated Dacko.
Bokassa, who was in Libya on a state visit at the time, went into exile in Ivory Coast for four years. Later he was allowed to settle in a suburb of Paris and enjoyed political asylum because of his service in the French military.
Sentenced in absentia to death in 1980 for the murder of numerous political rivals, like his coconspirator Alexandre Banza (1932-1969), he unexpectedly chose to return home on October 24th, 1986 and was arrested as soon as he stepped off the plane.
The old verdict was overturned and a new trial ordered for him on 14 different charges. On June 12th, 1987 Bokassa was found guilty of all crimes, though acquitted of charges of cannibalism.
His death sentence was commuted by President André Kolingba (1936- 2010) to life in prison in solitary confinement on February 29th, 1988 and then reduced to 20 years of imprisonment.
Due to a general amnesty Bokassa was freed on August 1st, 1993. As his health declined, he proclaimed himself the 13th Apostle and declared to have secret meetings with Pope John Paul II (1920 -2005).
He died of a heart attack on November 3rd, 1996 at his home in Bangui and in late 2010 was posthumously pardoned and praised by President François Bozizé (born 1946).