Jean-Bédel Bokassa (22 February 1921 – 3 November 1996), also known as Bokassa I of Central Africa and Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa, was the military ruler of the Central African Republic from 1 January 1966 and the Emperor of the Central African Empire from December 4 1976, until he was overthrown on 20 September 1979.
Bokassa's extended family decided that it would be best if he received a French education at the Ecole Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc, a Christian mission school in Mbaïki. As a child, he was frequently taunted by his classmates about his orphanhood. He was short in stature, but made up for this by being physically strong. In his studies, he became especially fond of a grammar book written by a French man named Bedel. His teachers noticed his attachment, and started calling him "Jean-Bedel". During his teenage years, Bokassa studied at Ecole Saint-Louis in Bangui, under Father Grüner. Grüner educated Bokassa with the intention of making him a priest, but realized that his student did not have the aptitude for study or the piety required for this occupation. He then studied at Father Compte's school in Brazzaville, where he developed his abilities as a cook. After graduating in 1939, Bokassa took the advice offered to him by his grandfather, M'Balanga, and Father Grüner, by joining the Free French Forces as a private on 19 May.
On 1 January 1962, Bokassa left the French Army and joined the military forces of the CAR with the rank of battalion commandant. As a cousin of the President David Dacko and nephew of Dacko's predecessor Barthélémy Boganda, Bokassa was given the task of creating the new country's military. Over a year later, Bokassa became commander-in-chief of the 500 soldiers in the Central African army. Due to his relation to Dacko and experience abroad in the French military, Bokassa was able to quickly rise through the ranks of the army, becoming the Central African army's first colonel on 1 December 1964.
Bokassa sought recognition for his status as leader of the army—he frequently appeared in public wearing all his military decorations, and in ceremonies, he often sat next to President Dacko to display his importance in the government. Bokassa frequently got into heated arguments with Jean-Paul Douate, the government's chief of protocol, who admonished him for not following the correct order of seating at presidential tables. At first, Dacko found his cousin's antics amusing. Despite the number of recent military coups in Africa, Dacko publicly dismissed the likelihood that Bokassa would try to take control of the country. At an official dinner, he said, "Colonel Bokassa only wants to collect medals and he is too stupid to pull off a coup d'état". Other members of Dacko's cabinet believed that Bokassa was a genuine threat to the regime. Jean-Arthur Bandio, the minister of interior, suggested to Dacko that Bokassa be placed in the Cabinet, which he hoped would both break the colonel's close connections with the CAR army and satisfy the colonel's desire for recognition. To combat the chance that Bokassa would stage a coup, Dacko created the gendarmerie, an armed police force of 500 and a 120-member presidential security guard, led by Jean Izamo and Prosper Mounoumbaye, respectively.
Dacko sent Bokassa to Paris as part of the country's delegation for the Bastille Day celebrations in July 1965. After attending the celebrations and a 23 July ceremony to mark the closing of a military officer training school he had attended decades earlier, Bokassa decided to return to the CAR. However, Dacko forbade his return, and the infuriated Bokassa spent the next few months trying to obtain supporters from the French and Central African armed forces, who he hoped would force Dacko to reconsider his decision. Dacko eventually yielded to pressure and allowed Bokassa back in October 1965. Bokassa claimed that Dacko finally gave up after French President Charles de Gaulle had personally told Dacko that "Bokassa must be immediately returned to his post. I cannot tolerate the mistreatment of my companion-in-arms".
Tensions between Dacko and Bokassa continued to escalate in the coming months. In December, Dacko approved an increase in the budget for Izamo's gendarmerie, but rejected the budget proposal Bokassa had made for the army. At this point, Bokassa told friends he was annoyed by Dacko's mistreatment and was "going for a coup d'état". Dacko planned to replace Bokassa with Izamo as his personal military adviser, and wanted to promote army officers loyal to the government, while demoting Bokassa and his close associates. Dacko did not conceal his plans; he hinted at his intentions to elders of the Bobangui village, who in turn informed Bokassa of the plot. Bokassa realized he had to act against Dacko quickly, and worried that his 500-man army would be no match for the gendarmerie and the presidential guard. He was also overwrought over the possibility that the French would come to Dacko's aid after the coup d’état, as had occurred after one in Gabon against President Léon M'ba in February 1964. After receiving word of the coup from the country's vice president, officials in Paris sent paratroopers to Gabon in a matter of hours and M'Ba was quickly restored to power.
Bokassa received substantive support from his co-conspirator, Captain Alexandre Banza, who commanded the Camp Kassaï military base in northeast Bangui, and, like Bokassa, had been stationed with the French army around the world. Banza was an intelligent, ambitious and capable man who played a major role in the planning of the coup. By December, many people began to anticipate the political turmoil that would soon engulf the country. Dacko's personal advisers alerted him that Bokassa "showed signs of mental instability" and needed to be arrested before he sought to bring down the government, but Dacko did not heed these warnings.
Dacko left the Palais de la Renaissance early in the evening of 31 December 1965 to visit one of his ministers' plantations southwest of Bangui. An hour and a half before midnight, Captain Banza gave orders to his officers to begin the coup. Bokassa called Izamo at his headquarters and asked him to come to Camp de Roux to sign some documents that needed his immediate attention. Izamo, who was at a New Year's Eve celebration with friends, reluctantly agreed and traveled to the camp. Upon arrival, he was confronted by Banza and Bokassa, who informed him of the coup in progress. After declaring his opposition to the coup, Izamo was taken by the coup plotters to an underground cellar.
A little after midnight, Bokassa, Banza and their supporters left Camp de Roux to take over the capital. After seizing the capital in a matter of hours, Bokassa and Banza rushed to the Palais de la Renaissance in order to arrest Dacko. However, Dacko was nowhere to be found. Bokassa panicked, believing the president had been warned of the coup in advance, and immediately ordered his soldiers to search for Dacko in the countryside until he was found. Dacko was arrested by soldiers patrolling Pétévo Junction, on the western border of the capital. He was taken back to the presidential palace, where Bokassa hugged the president and told him, "I tried to warn you—but now it's too late". President Dacko was taken to Ngaragba Prison in east Bangui at around 02:00 WAT (01:00 UTC). In a move that he thought would boost his popularity in the country, Bokassa ordered prison director Otto Sacher to release all prisoners in the jail. Bokassa then took Dacko to Camp Kassaï, where he forced the president to resign. Later, Bokassa's officers announced on Radio-Bangui that the Dacko government had been toppled and Bokassa had taken over control. In the morning, Bokassa addressed the public via Radio-Bangui:
Despite the positive changes in the country, Bokassa had difficulty obtaining international recognition for his new government. He tried to justify the coup by explaining that Izamo and communist Chinese agents were trying to take over the government and that he had to intervene to save the CAR from the influence of communism. He alleged that Chinese agents in the countryside had been training and arming locals to start a revolution, and on 6 January 1966, he dismissed the communist agents from the country and cut off diplomatic relations with China. Bokassa also believed that the coup was necessary in order to prevent further corruption in the government.
Bokassa first secured diplomatic recognition from President François Tombalbaye of neighboring Chad, whom he met in Bouca, Ouham. After Bokassa reciprocated by meeting Tombalbaye on 2 April 1966 along the southern border of Chad at Fort Archambault, the two decided to help one another if either was in danger of losing power. Soon after, other African countries began to diplomatically recognize the new government. At first, the French government was reluctant to support the Bokassa regime, so Banza went to Paris to meet with French officials to convince them that the coup was necessary to save the country from turmoil. Bokassa met with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou on 7 July 1966, but the French remained noncommittal in offering their support. After Bokassa threatened to withdraw from the franc monetary zone, President Charles de Gaulle decided to make an official visit to the CAR on 17 November 1966. To the Bokassa regime, this visit meant that the French had finally accepted the new changes in the country.
On 13 April 1968, in another one of his frequent cabinet reshuffles, Bokassa demoted Banza to minister of health, but let him remain in his position as minister of state. Cognizant of the president's intentions, Banza increased his vocalization of dissenting political views. A year later, after Banza made a number of remarks highly critical of Bokassa and his management of the economy, the president, perceiving an immediate threat to his power, removed him as his minister of state. Banza revealed his intention to stage a coup to Lieutenant Jean-Claude Mandaba, the commanding officer of Camp Kassaï, who he looked to for support. Mandaba went along with the plan, but his allegiance remained with Bokassa. When Banza contacted his co-conspirators on 8 April 1969, informing them that they would execute the coup the following day, Mandaba immediately phoned Bokassa and informed him of the plan. When Banza entered Camp Kassaï on 9 April 1969, he was ambushed by Mandaba and his soldiers. The men had to break Banza's arms before they could overpower and throw him into the trunk of a Mercedes and take him directly to Bokassa. At his house in Berengo, Bokassa nearly beat Banza to death before Mandaba suggested that Banza be put on trial for appearance's sake.
On 12 April, Banza presented his case before a military tribunal at Camp de Roux, where he admitted to his plan, but stated that he had not planned to kill Bokassa. He was sentenced to death by firing squad, taken to an open field behind Camp Kassaï, executed and buried in an unmarked grave. The circumstances of Banza's death have been disputed. The American newsmagazine, Time, reported that Banza "was dragged before a Cabinet meeting where Bokassa slashed him with a razor. Guards then beat Banza until his back was broken, dragged him through the streets of Bangui and finally shot him." The French daily evening newspaper Le Monde reported that Banza was killed in circumstances "so revolting that it still makes one's flesh creep":
The "friendly and fraternal" cooperation with France—according to Bokassa's own terms—reached its peak with the imperial coronation ceremony of Bokassa I on 4 December 1977. The French Defense Minister sent a battalion to secure the ceremony; he also lent 17 aircraft to the Central African Empire's government, and even assigned French Navy personnel to support the orchestra.
On 10 October 1979, the Canard Enchaîné satiric newspaper reported - in what soon became a major political scandal known as the Diamonds Affair—that President Bokassa had offered the then Minister of Finance Valéry Giscard d'Estaing two diamonds in 1973. The Franco-Central African relationship drastically changed when France's Renseignements Généraux intelligence service learned of Bokassa's willingness to become a partner of Qadhafi of Libya. In early December 1979, the French council officially stopped all support to Bokassa.
After a meeting with Qadhafi, Bokassa converted to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa. It is presumed that this was a ploy calculated to ensure ongoing Libyan financial aid. When no funds promised by Qadhafi were forthcoming, Bokassa abandoned his new faith. It also was incompatible with his plans to be crowned emperor in the Catholic cathedral in Bangui.
In September 1976, Bokassa dissolved the government and replaced it with the Conseil de la Révolution Centrafricaine 'Central African Revolutionary Council'. On 4 December 1976, at the MESAN congress, Bokassa instituted a new constitution and declared the republic a monarchy, the Central African Empire. He issued an imperial constitution, announced his conversion back to Catholicism and had himself crowned "S.M.I. Bokassa Ier", with S.M.I. standing for Sa Majesté Impériale: "His Imperial Majesty", on 4 December 1977. Bokassa's full title was Empereur de Centrafrique par la volonté du peuple Centrafricain, uni au sein du parti politique national, le MESAN ("Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Centrafrican people, united within the national political party, the MESAN"). His lavish coronation ceremony and his regime were both largely inspired by Napoleon I, who had converted the French Revolutionary Republic of which he was First Consul into the First French Empire. The coronation ceremony was estimated to cost his country roughly 20 million US dollars.
Bokassa attempted to justify his actions by claiming that creating a monarchy would help Central Africa "stand out" from the rest of the continent, and earn the world's respect. The coronation consumed one third of the C.A.R.'s annual budget and all of France's aid that year, but despite generous invitations, no foreign leaders attended the event. Many thought Bokassa was insane, and compared his egotistical extravagance with that of Africa's other well-known eccentric dictator, Idi Amin. Tenacious rumors that he occasionally consumed human flesh were found unproven during his eventual trial.
Though it was claimed that the new Empire would be a constitutional monarchy, no significant democratic reforms were made, and suppression of dissenters remained widespread. Torture was said to be especially rampant, with allegations that even Bokassa himself occasionally participated in beatings.
The severe international criticism which followed upon the massacre of the students enabled former President Dacko to gain French support and led a successful coup using French troops while Bokassa was absent in Libya on 20 September 1979.
Bokassa's overthrow by the French government was called "France's last colonial expedition" ("la dernière expédition coloniale française") by veteran French diplomat Jacques Foccart. Operation Barracuda began the night of 20 September and ended early the next morning. An undercover commando squad from the French intelligence agency SDECE (now DGSE), joined by Special Forces' 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, or 1er RPIMa, led by Colonel Brancion-Rouge, landed by Transall and managed to secure the Bangui Mpoko airport. Upon arrival of two more transport aircraft, a message was sent to Colonel Degenne to come in with his Barracudas (codename for eight Puma helicopters and Transall aircraft), which took off from N'Djamena military airport in neighbouring Chad.
Bokassa fled to Ivory Coast where he spent four years living in Abidjan. He then moved to France where he was allowed to settle in his house at Haudricourt, west of Paris. France gave him political asylum because of the French Foreign Legion obligations.