Jean-Bédel Bokassa ([ʒɑ̃ bedɛl bɔkasa]; 22 February 1921 – 3 November 1996), also known as Bokassa I, was a Central African political and military leader.
Who served as the second president of the Central African Republic (CAR) and as the emperor of its successor state, the Central African Empire (CAE).
This was from the Saint-Sylvestre coup d’état on 1 January 1966 until his overthrow in a subsequent coup in 1979.
Eleven Years as President
Of this period, Bokassa served about eleven years as president and three years as self-proclaimed Emperor of Central Africa.
Though the country was still a de facto military dictatorship, his imperial regime lasted from 4 December 1976 to 21 September 1979.
Following his overthrow, the CAR was restored under his predecessor, David Dacko. Bokassa’s self-proclaimed imperial title did not achieve international diplomatic recognition.
Tried and Sentenced to Death
In his trial in absentia, Bokassa was tried and sentenced to death. He returned to the CAR in 1986 and was put on trial for treason and murder.
In 1987, he was cleared of charges of cannibalism, but found guilty of the murder of schoolchildren and other crimes.
The death sentence was later commuted to life in solitary confinement, but he was freed in 1993. Bokassa lived a private life in Bangui, and died in November 1996.
Childhood and Family
Bokassa was born on 22 February 1921, as one of twelve children to Mindogon Bokassa, a village chief.
And his wife Marie Yokowo in Bobangui, a large Mbaka village in the Lobaye basin located at the edge of the equatorial forest.
Then a part of colonial French Equatorial Africa, some 80 kilometres (50 mi) southwest of Bangui.
French Ferstiere Company
Mindogon was forced to organise the rosters of his village people to work for the French Forestière company.
After hearing about the efforts of a prophet named Karnu to resist French rule and forced labour, Mindogon decided that he would no longer follow French orders.
He released some of his fellow villagers who were being held hostage by the Forestière. The company considered this to be a rebellious act, so they detained Mindogon.
13 November 1927
The company took him away bound in chains to Mbaïki. On 13 November 1927, he was beaten to death in the town square just outside the prefecture office.
A week later Bokassa’s mother, unable to bear the grief of losing her husband, committed suicide.
Bokassa’s extended family decided that it would be best if he received a French-language education at the École Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc. A Christian mission school in Mbaïki.
Classmates and Orphanhood
As a child, he was frequently taunted by his classmates about his orphanhood. He was short in stature and physically strong.
In his studies, Bokassa became especially fond of a French grammar book, by an author named Jean Bédel. His teachers noticed his attachment, and started calling him “Jean-Bédel.”
During his teenage years, Bokassa studied at École Saint-Louis in Bangui, under a Father Grüner.
Grüner educated him 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. He joined the Troupes coloniales (French colonial troops) as a tirailleur on 19 May 1939.
A corporal in July 1940
While serving in the second bataillon de marche, Bokassa became a corporal in July 1940, and a sergeant major in November 1941.
After the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, he served with an African unit of the Free French Forces.
And took part in the capture of the Vichy government’s capital at Brazzaville. On 15 August 1944, he participated in the Allied forces’ landing in Provence, France.
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part of Operation Dragoon, and fought in southern France and in Germany in early 1945, before Nazi Germany collapsed.
He remained in the French Army after the war, studying radio transmissions at an army camp in the French coastal town of Fréjus.
Afterwards, Bokassa attended officer training school in Saint-Louis, Senegal. On 7 September 1950, he headed to French Indochina as the transmissions expert, for the battalion of Saigon-Cholon.
First Indochina War
Bokassa saw some combat during the First Indochina War before his tour of duty ended in March 1953.
For his exploits in battle, he was honored with membership of the Légion d’honneur, and was decorated with Croix de guerre.
During his stay in Indochina, he married a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl named Nguyễn Thị Huệ.
After Huệ bore him a daughter, Bokassa had the child registered as a French national. Bokassa left Indochina without his wife and child, as he believed he would return for another tour of duty in the near future.
Upon his return to France, Bokassa was stationed at Fréjus, where he taught radio transmissions to African recruits.
In 1956, he was promoted to second lieutenant, and two years later to lieutenant. Bokassa was then stationed as a military technical assistant in December 1958 in Brazzaville.
Twenty Year Absence
And in 1959 after a twenty-year absence, he was posted back to his homeland in Bangui. He was promoted to the rank of captain on 1 July 1961.
The French colony of Ubangi-Chari, part of French Equatorial Africa, had become a semi-autonomous territory of the French Community in 1958.
And then an independent nation as the Central African Republic (CAR) on 13 August 1960.
On 1 January 1962, Bokassa left the French Army and joined the Central African Armed Forces with the rank of battalion commandant under then-commander-in-chief Mgboundoulou.
As a cousin of Central African 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 army. Due to his relationship to Dacko.
And experience abroad in the French military, he was able to quickly rise through the ranks of the new national army, becoming its first colonel on 1 December 1964.
Bokassa sought recognition for his status as leader of the army. He frequently appeared in public wearing his military decorations.
And in ceremonies he often sat next to President Dacko to display his importance in the government.
Jean – Paul Douate
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 this time Mgboundoulou no longer advocated Bokassa’s status as leader of the army.
At first, Dacko found his cousin’s antics amusing. Despite the number of recent military coups in Africa, he 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 government.
Jean-Arthur Bandio, the minister of interior, suggested Dacko name Bokassa to the cabinet. Which he hoped would both break the colonel’s close connections with the army and satisfy the colonel’s desire for recognition.
500 – member gendarmerie
To combat the chance that Bokassa would stage a coup, Dacko created a 500-member gendarmerie.
And a 120-member presidential security guard, led by Jean Izamo and Prosper Mounoumbaye, respectively.
Dacko’s government faced a number of problems during 1964 and 1965. The economy experienced stagnation, the bureaucracy was falling apart.
Lumumbists and Anyanyas
And the country’s boundaries were constantly breached by Lumumbists from the south and the rebel Anyanya from the east.
He was under pressure from political radicals in the Mouvement pour l’évolution sociale de l’Afrique noire (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa, or MESAN).
He made an attempt to cultivate alternative sources of support and display his ability to make foreign policy without the help of the French government.
Dacko established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in September 1964.
A delegation led by Meng Yieng and agents of the Chinese government toured the CAR, showing communist propaganda films.
Soon after, the PRC gave the CAR an interest-free loan of one billion CFA francs (20 million French francs).
Financial Collapse of the CAR
The aid failed to subdue the prospect of a financial collapse for the country. Widespread political corruption added to the country’s list of problems.
Bokassa felt that he needed to take over the government to address these issues—most importantly, to rid the CAR from the influence of communism.
According to Samuel Decalo, a scholar of African government, Bokassa’s personal ambitions played the most important role in his decision to launch a coup against Dacko.
Bastille Day Celebrations
Dacko sent Bokassa to Paris as part of the CAR’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.
Budget for Izamo’s gendarmerie
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 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, as had occurred after one in Gabon against President Léon M’ba in February 1964.
Word of Coup
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 served in the French Army. 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 CAR.
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. Dacko did not heed these warnings.
Early in the evening of 31 December 1965, Dacko left the Renaissance Palace to visit one of his ministers’ plantations southwest of Bangui.
An hour and a half before midnight, 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.
He was to sign some documents that needed his immediate attention. Izamo, who was at a New Year’s Eve celebration with friends, reluctantly agreed and travelled to the camp.
Upon arrival, he was confronted by Banza and Bokassa, who informed him of the coup in progress.
Opposition to the coup
After declaring his opposition to the coup, Izamo was taken by the coup plotters to an underground cellar.
Around midnight, Bokassa, Banza, and their supporters left Camp de Roux to take over Bangui. After seizing the capital in a matter of hours, Bokassa and Banza rushed to the Renaissance Palace.
In order to arrest Dacko, who was nowhere to be found. Bokassa panicked, believing the president had been warned of the coup in advance.
Search for Dacko
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 Bangui. He was taken back to the palace.
Where Bokassa hugged the president and told him, “I tried to warn you — but now it’s too late.” Dacko was taken to Ngaragba Prison at around 02:00 WAT (01:00 UTC).
In a move that he thought would boost his popularity with the people, Bokassa ordered prison director Otto Šacher to release all prisoners in the jail.
Bokassa then took Dacko to Camp Kassaï, where he forced the president to resign. In the morning, Bokassa addressed the public via Radio Bangui.
“This is Colonel Bokassa speaking to you. At 3:00 a.m. this morning, your army took control of the government.
The Dacko government has resigned. The hour of justice is at hand. The bourgeoisie is abolished. A new era of equality among all has begun.
Central Africans, wherever you may be, be assured that the army will defend you and your property … Long live the Central African Republic!