Article by Sam Wakeford. Edited by Stephen Woodward. Additional Research by Andrew Shepherdson.
In a century marked by such defining historical junctures as two world wars, man’s first steps on the moon and near nuclear Armageddon, it is hardly surprising the Central African Republic dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa has not received the coverage his remarkable personality deserves. Far from being another in a long line of African despots, Bokassa distinguished himself from his counterparts by being arguably the most infamous and bloodthirsty (quite literally) of them all by subjecting his countrymen to a sanguinary reign of terror that lasted over a decade. No better was this extraordinary African statesman’s irrational and compulsive personality showcased than by his lavish coronation of December 1977 of which the implications and legacy shall be considered.
Born in a rural village some 50 miles from the capital Bangui in 1921, Bokassa was a product of a colonial education system implemented across the vast French Empire. Following his education in first Bangui and then Brazzaville, Bokassa enlisted in the French Colonial Army where he saw combat in both the Second World War and the French Indo-China (1946-1954), receiving military decoration and distinction in due course. In additional to various other deployments and operations, Bokassa eventually returned to his homeland with his wife, whom he met in Indochina, and young son. It was here that Bokassa made the bold decision to leave the Colonial Forces in January 1962 in favour of a switch to CARS, the newly formed Central African Republic Army that was conceived following independence from France in August 1960.
As a veteran of various overseas campaigns and the cousin of CAR president David Dacko, it was not long before Bokassa’s experience and contacts elevated him through the ranks, leading to his inception as CAR’s 1st Colonel in 1964.
However, while Bokassa was seemingly taking purposeful steps towards a position of considerable power, his own personality and delusions of self worth, a common precedent throughout his premiership, were beginning to come to the fore. This resulted in tensions with Dacko throughout 1965 and culminated in the existing regime’s successful deposition in December of that year.
With power now successfully grasped, Bokassa set to work dismantling the political machinery of his predecessor. A Revolutionary Council replaced the now defunct National Assembly while a series of bizarre, draconian measures such as the prohibition of begging and initiation of a morality brigade swept the nation. It was against this backdrop that the political temperature began to rise and Bokassa’s position became increasingly untenable. Faced with domestic opposition and potential crisis, Bokassa somehow managed to survive numerous attempted coups and failed assassination attempts largely thanks to foreign support enjoyed as a result of the French monopoly over the Central African Republic’s bountiful mineral resources. Thus, having conquered such adversity, Bokassa was now able to stabilise his own political position and re-assert his authority on the biggest stage possible.
Using the façade of a new constitution and National Assembly that guaranteed human rights, Bokassa invited a reported 2500 foreign dignitaries to his imperial coronation, set for December 1977. Designated committees had worked hard all year in preparation for the Central African Republic’s biggest ever celebration; an occasion Bokassa was intent his 600 visitors would never forget. In a country blighted by such abject poverty that 66% of its 4 million population survive on less than 1$ a day, the opulence and profligacy of the occasion was something quite remarkable.
From the importation of 240 tonnes of the world’s finest cuisine to the sending of horsemen to equestrian schools in France to learn new riding skills in preparation for the parade, the coronation had just about everything. It was perhaps the ultimate expression of political stagecraft and spectacle. Costing an astronomical 22 million, a quarter of the Central African Republic’s entire annual budget, the coronation represented in many ways Bokassa’s own imperial dream; a dream in which he, as the African Napoleon, would bring swathes of people under his own personal kingship. Indeed, this can be gleaned by Bokassa’s physical appearance at the coronation in which he was adorned in the finest imperial clothes, seated on a golden throne and flanked by an enormous imperial eagle. Finally, the coronation was undoubtedly structured along theatrical lines that were intended to reinforce notions of hierarchy with Bokassa’s eventual grandiose appearance towards the end of proceeding finally drawing the performance to a dramatic close.
Narcissistic in character with an insatiable appetite for power and authority, Bokassa’s coronation was the embodiment of the elements discussed above in which he himself stood as the focal point of the nation. Whig histories of the individual and the cult of personality, as demonstrated by the record sales of biographies, continue to captivate the public and historian alike with perhaps one of the reasons for this the ability of such figures to divide opinion and provoke debate. Jean Bedel Bokassa’s coronation of December 1977 was intended as a celebration. Sadly, courtesy of the great material and economic hardship inflicted by one individual upon one of the world’s poorest countries, there was only one man benefiting from one of the twentieth century’s most decadent and outrageous celebrations.
Despite an extensive guest list including emperor Hirohito of Japan and Idi Amin there was a rather disappointing turnout from the world’s prominent dignitaries. Only 600 of the 2,500 foreign guests that were invited actually attended. Bokassa commented on this rather disappointing turn-out saying ‘They were jealous of me because I had an empire and they didn’t’.
Reaction in Africa to the Coronation was not what the new emperor had expected. According to Kenya’s Sunday Nation the event was Bokassa’s ‘clowning glory’ while in Zambia the Daily Mail heavily criticised his ‘obnoxious excesses’. The affair seemed to compound the racist stereotypes of white supremacists in South Africa and Rhodesia who claimed that blacks were irresponsible and incapable of self-rule.
Bokassa’s fall began in April 1979 when student revolts broke out, after which hundreds were arrested with some beaten to death. In September 1979 with Bokassa out of the country in Libya, French paratroopers were sent to the CAR and returned David Dacko to power.