Emperor Bokassa I also known as Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa and Jean-Bédel Bokassa was the military dictator from January 1, 1966 of the Central African Republic and from December 4, 1976 until his overthrow on September 20, 1979 the emperor of the Central African Empire. He is remembered for the brutal, arbitrary, brutal, corrupt and extravagant nature of his government while the people of the country he ruled lived in fear and poverty. The excesses of his regime are usually described as folies de grandeur.
Bokassa was born the son of the vilage chief of Bobangi, a village in the present Central African Republic, then French Equatorial Africa. He had 17 wives and a reported 50 children. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 1996.
A career soldier and veteran of the Free French Forces in the Second World War (during which he received the Legion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre) he also served in the postwar French Foreign Legion in French Indochina. He left the French army in 1964 to become an officer in the army of the newly independent Central African Republic. Rising through the ranks wasn't difficult because he was a cousin of Pres. David Dacko and nephew of Dacko's beloved predecessor Barthélémy Boganda. He was soon Col. Bokassa and chief of staff of the armed forces. In 1966 Bokassa overthrew his autocratic cousin in a coup d'état and assumed power as president of the Republic and head of the sole political party, the Mouvement pour l'évolution sociale de l'Afrique Noire (MESAN). Bokassa abolished the original 1959 constitution and ruled by decree. In his case that often meant by personal whim. In March 1972, Bokassa declared himself President for Life.
His regime survived not becuase he of economic rents collected from the French firms extracting natural resources of the Central African Republic but because on French foreign aid. When the Frencg government proved unwilling to fund his lavish spending, Bokassa went looking for new sponsors. He even temporarily converted to Islam, changing his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa after a meeting with oil rich Libyan dictator Moammar al-Qadhafi.
The Libyans proved too frugal for his tastes and taking his cure from Franch history he decided on another regime change. At the MESAN party congress on December 5, 1976 Bokassa declared his government to be monarchy, the Central African Empire. He issued an imperial constitution, re-converted Roman Catholicism and had himself crowned Emperor Bokassa I on December 4,1977, in a lavish ceremony clearly trying to copy Emperor Napoléon I Bonaparte who converted the French republic of which he was First Consul into the First French Empire. To the disappointment of 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 Central African people, united within the national political party, the MESAN"), almost no foreign monarchs chose to attend the $20 million coronation ceremony. His antics were also lampponed in the world press, especially in France.
Despite the country's descent into ever more embarrassing displays of authoritarianism and pretention, conservative French governemnts contincue dto back Bokassa. Conservative French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was a loyal supporter of the emperor who reportedly received lavish gifts, and supplied the Bokassa regime with much financial and military support. In exchange, France exploited uranium deposits in the Central African Empire, which was vital for the French nuclear force de frappe.
However, following the arrest, beating and killings of protesting schoolchildren on April 17-19 1979 the French government supported a coup d'etat by former Pres. Dacko conducted while Bokassa was absent in Libya on September 20, 1979. Dacko remained president until he was in turn overthrown on September 20, 1981 by André Kolingba. Bokassa fled to Côte d'Ivoire and later lived in exile in France near Paris. The French governemnt granted him political asylum becouse of his status as a veteran of the French Foreign Legion.