Jean-Bédel Bokassa was born in Ubangi-Shar, one of twelve children to a village chief and orphaned from the age of 12. His father, Mindogon Mgboundoulou, was forced to organize the rosters to send his people off to forced labor for a French forester company among his duties as leader of the village. It was considered by Europeans to force these duties on the leaders of such African communities to ensure compliance. On becoming familiar with the teachings of a local prophet who taught resistance against forced labor and French rule. Mindogon decided to ignore the French companies orders and free some of his fellow villagers who being held hostage by the company.
The French company retaliated by, taking Mindogon to the town square, bound in chains, beat him to death, whereupon, his mother, Marie, took her life one week later. When you consider that slavery had been abolished some 120 years earlier in Europe, much like Africans in Libya in 2017, Africans were still being used as part of a forced labor workforce and prone to executions and punishment in their own country.
Taken in by his relatives, his extended family decided he should be educated in a French-language, Christian mission, École Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc in Mbaïki. As with most formal European education systems, you could consider Bokassa to have begun his indoctrination into the ways of European culture and service. His early education was difficult at times as he was bullied for being short in stature and an orphan, however he continued on as a teenager under Father Grüner at the École Saint-Louis in Bangui, and then Father Compte’s school in Brazzaville.
After graduating in 1939, his former mentor, Father Gruner advised him to join the army, where he became a rifleman for the colonial troops. France refused to offer natives education in their colony, but would take them on as soldiers, so it was no surprise that his mentors would steer this young African man to serve in the French military.
His military career could be considered to be of some distinction as he rose up the ranks to Sergeant major and participated in the Allied Forces landing in France and also fought the Nazi’s in Germany before they were toppled in 1945. He stayed with the French Army, residing at one time in the French coastal town of Fréjus. His military service for France continued, where he went on to officer training school in Senegal, before being posted the First Indochina war and collected the Croix de guerre des théâtres d’opérations extérieurs (French military award for combat in foreign countries) and it would not be his last award for serving the country that some would consider were complicit in the forced labor and murder of his father.
He left the service of the French army at the invitation of a distant cousin, who had just become president of Ubangi-Shari (having just gained its independence as the Central African Republic in 1960). President David Dacko, invited Bokassa to lead his armed forces and After a short period Bokassa sought power for himself and led a successful coup in 1965 under the guise of claiming the government had been infiltrated by Chinese communist agents.
As he established his position as leader, Bokassa displayed his French medals for bravery, demonstrating that the once bullied short orphan was now a formidable force of strength and masculinity. He dissolved the constitution and National Assembly and promised fresh ones would be formed, elections held, corruption tackled, the economy stabilized and he would gladly hand over power – once the communist threat had been eliminated.
You may consider, that he started off with some mixed changes for the country. He formed a ‘morality brigade’ which regulated employment between the age of 18 to 55 ( work or be fined or jailed). He regulated bars and dance halls in the the capital, abolished female circumcision, and updated the public transport system and in a bid to gain popularity, released all the inmates from prison, giving everyone a cause to celebrate his new regime.
In order to gain diplomatic recognition and prop up his reasoning for the coup, Bokassa cut diplomatic ties with China and secured diplomatic recognition from President François Tombalbaye of neighboring Chad. Soon after, other African countries soon fell in line to officially welcome the new president to the world stage. The French government was reluctant to support the Bokassa regime and he met with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou on 7 July 1966, but the French still remained reticent in offering their support to the man they once furnished with medals. In response, Bokassa threatened to withdraw from the franc monetary zone. Subsequently, President Charles de Gaulle decided to make an official visit to the CAR on 17 November 1966 which symbolized France’s acceptance and support.
During his time as leader of his country, he survived coup and assassination attempts as his ostentatious lifestyle and poor political decisions left his subjects resentful. He was ruthless in dealing with political opponents and his execution of his enemies have been documented in many western publications. Time magazine reported the execution of Lieutenant Colonel Alexandre Banza, who was instrumental in establishing diplomatic ties for Bokassa at the beginning of Bokassa’s regime. A disillusioned Banza, who admitted to planning Bokassa’a removal from office, 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”. Like most infamous African dictators of the time he has also been accused of cannibalism during his reign.
Bokassa gained political support and financial aid from Muammar al-Gaddafi and French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who publicly stated he was “friend and family member”of Bokassas. France offered military and financial backing in exchange for Uranium for their weapons programme and other resources.
Bokassa’s admiration for the French statesman and military leader Napoleon, led to a rather Napoleonic coronation (1977), in which he claimed the title of the Emperor Bokassa I of Central Africa, and imported from Europe – horses and carriages, jeweled crowns and fur-lined robes, champagne and caviar, thrones and court musicians. The French Defense Minister sent a battalion to secure the ceremony, 17 aircraft to the new Central African Empire’s government, and French Navy personnel. Parisian jeweler Claude Bertrand made Bokassa’s diamond encrusted crown and for the ceremony Bokassa sat on a solid two tonne gold throne. The lavish ceremony cost more than the annual budget and lasted two days, an affair which his still remembered today in the impoverished, dilapidated capital.
Any yet within a short period, the newly crowned emperor of an African state, made enemies of the very powerful allies he had made. A number of erratic decisions alerted the French intelligence services to his plot to convert to Islam and strengthen his alliance with Libya. However this seemed to be a cynical ploy by Bokassa to secure financial aid from Gaddaffi. On realizing the aid was not forthcoming he switched back to Catholicism, with the intention of crowing himself as the monarch of a newly titled Empire of Central Africa. His reasoning being that it would elevate his country above all others on the African continent. As western publications mocked and claimed him to be in much the same vein as Ugandan leader Idi Amin, a flesh eating, insane tyrant the international community largely ignored him.
As food shortages ravaged his country, young students were rounded up for protesting and at least some hundred children killed. It was reported that he personally visited the incarcerated children where he beat some of his young captives to death with his cane. As international outrage demanded his removal. The French supported a coup by invading it’s former colony with a significant number of special forces and commandos. Bokassa, visiting Libya at the time, fled to the Ivory coast where he resided for four years. The former president, David Dacko, was restored to power and Bokassa was eventually allowed to return to France to live in a French Chateau in the suburb of Paris. In his absence, Bokassa had been tried and sentenced to death in 1980.
Whilst in exile, Bokassa found time to bring about the downfall of the French President and his former ally Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Publishers of Bokassa’s memoirs revealed that he had claimed to have shared women with the former president, who was a frequent guest, and given him a gift of quarter a million worth of diamonds when he was the Finance minister. The French courts ordered the destruction of all copies of the book and the President was not reelected due to the scandal. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing claims that he was part of Bokassa’s family seemed rather prophetic in retrospect.
Finding exile intolerable, he returned to his native country in1986 and was quickly arrested. The trial in brought testimony from various witnesses. Although many of his former servants cooks and ministers bore witness to his cruelty and torture, the poisoning of the new born baby, of a guard who tried to kill him, and various other terrible accusations, the charges of cannibalism seemed to generate the most morbid interest. President Dacko, among others, testified to the storage of victims, from the coup d’état of 1979, being kept in a cold storage room. A former cook claimed he had prepared the victims for consumption by Bokassa on occasion, whilst others claimed he had served visiting dignitaries human flesh at his banquets. Who knows if the man who had once had his father murdered by the French had at one time or another sat across the table and observed with complete delight, the French President dine on the flesh of one of his enemies?
Needless to say, as with most secret handshakes and deals of the elitist class, Bokassa, was tried, sentenced to death, commuted to 20 years in 1988 by President Kolingba and in 1993 declared an amnesty for all prisoners as his final act in 1993. Bokassa died at the age of 75, having had 17 wives and 50 children, of a heart attack no less.