Jean-Bédel Bokassa; The craziest African dictator ever

Jean-Bédel Bokassa; The craziest African dictator ever

Prior to this year, infact, this month, I’d never heard of this guy and you’re probably wondering who he is too and why you never heard about him – if he was indeed crazy. Well, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was a really crazy guy if you ask me and with all the really crazy things he did, it’s a wonder he is rarely spoken of among his likes of Gadaffi, Idi-Amin, Charles Taylor and others of that ilk. 

Disclaimer: You will not agree with everything you’re about to read, and that is perfectly okay. 

Jean-Bédel Bokassa, also known as Bokassa I, was the second president (11 years) and subsequent emperor (3 years) of the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1979. 

Like most dictators, his regime was characterized by coup d’etats, crimes, violent killings, torture, misappropriation of funds and lots of arbitrary decision making that favoured mostly the ruling class. He invalidated the first constitution and called it “a lifeless organ no longer representing the people” after which he declared himself president.

However, I want to focus on one aspect of Jean-Bédel Bokassa which is perhaps the most notable and embarrassing feature of his regime. I am talking about Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s obsession with all things European and more precisely, Napoleon Bonaparte which led to 

… one of the most embarrassing demonstrations of the kind self-defeating mindset that has plagued many within the African elite for the best part of the last century.

Because of this obsession, Bokassa wanted to convert the Central African Republic to the Central African Empire and become the emperor, just like Napoleon did in 1804, in a bid to become more “French.” Declaring himself “President for life” just a few years back simply wasn’t enough.

He wanted a lavish coronation ceremony to crown himself so he asked the then French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estain, for financial aid to do this. Even though Giscard initially didn’t want to, he finally agreed because Central Africa supplied France with Diamond as well as Uranium which was essential to France’s nuclear energy and weapons program in the Cold War era. Also, Giscard d’Estain allegedly agreed to fund Bokassa’s coronation in exchange for him cutting ties with Libya’s Gadaffi who was a source of anxiety for Giscard as Gadaffi was anti-French – Scratch my back and I scratch yours, eh?

Now, this coronation was held on 4 December 1977, which was a date that he chose because it also marked the 173rd anniversary of Napoleon’s grand coronation in 1804. 

Fasten your seat belts people, it gets crazier;

For the event, Bokassa built a huge throne in the shape of an eagle, made from solid gold estimated at $2.5 million. 8 white horses were imported from Germany to pull Bokassa’s gold carriage and as well as more horses to carry his accompanying royal horsemen. 

Bokassa used the same 200 yr old French company that made Napoleon’s coronation outfit to make his own 13 different outfits which cost a total of $145,000. His coronation gown alone which had 785 tiny pearls and 1.2 million crystal beads, reportedly cost $72,000 dollars. His imperial crown, sceptre and sword plus other jewellery cost an estimate of $5 million. All designers, artisans were sourced from France.

He ordered 60 Mercedes Benz from Germany for his guests to move around in style and comfort but because Central Africa is a landlocked country, the cars had to be transported through Cameroon at the cost of $5000 per car. He wanted the whole world to witness his coronation and so he invited two emperors, Hirohito of Japan and Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, both of whom declined. In fact, of the 2,500 international dignitaries invited, only 600 accepted the invitation and not a single president attended the event, even the French president who sponsored the event. 

Aside from the prime minister of Mauritius, no African leader attended the event. It is safe to say that Bokassa was an international embarrassment. Bokassa was quoted as saying the other African leaders were jealous because he had an empire and they didn’t. LOL.

During the official ceremony, He placed the crown on his head in the exact same way Napoleon did in 1804 and was proclaimed emperor of “Central Africa by the will of the Central African people.” He also crowned Catherine Denguiade, the third of his 17 official wives, whom he had kidnapped when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, as his Empress. 

By the end of this shameful coronation, he had spent one quarter of the empire’s annual budget. News about this coronation spread just like Bokassa wanted but the news mocked Bokassa calling him a “mad emperor” and his empire “sombre” thus casting shame and humiliation on the Central African “Empire” and the entire African continent.

His coronation which cost an estimated $30 million is described as 

 … one of the most wasteful and embarrassing events in African history.

Nobody’s gonna answer this question but I’m going to ask just like you’re already wondering, how on earth does someone spend such amounts of money just to be like someone else (Napoleon)? $30 million dollars is a whole lot of money now so just imagine its value then. 

But can we blame Bokassa? For someone who had witnessed his father die at the hands of brutal French colonial authorities with his mother committing suicide a week later and leaving him and his 11 siblings behind, this is not the reaction one would expect. In fact, it was like the experience did the opposite, implanting in him a deep rooted inferiority complex which manifested in his obsession with all things European (French.)

In case you didn’t get the driftThey (the French) colonized and brutalized his people, killed his parents and he’s like, I know they killed my parents and all but you know what, I’d rather just join them since I cannot beat them.
He more than “joined” them though, he wanted to “be” them.

You might be looking at Bokassa with judgemental eyes but his actions only represent the height that we Africans can go to when given the opportunity, just to be Westernised. Even today, a lot of us will grab anything that is Americanized or Europeanized just to “belong.” If this story teaches anything, it’s that we Africans need to change this defeated mindset that colonialism seemed to have imbibed in us. The mindset that accepts everything that is not African as good and everything African as inferior. 

If you’re wondering what happened to him at the end, here goes;

Ironically, it was the same Giscard who sponsored his coronation that brought an end to his rule. Although there had been growing dissatisfaction with his reign, the final straw came when he ordered the arrest of school children who were protesting the expensive uniforms that Bokassa insisted all school children wore with his picture on them. The children threw rocks at Bokassa’s passing Rolls-Royce. 100 of them were killed and Bokassa was rumored to have participated in beating the children to death at the jail, “smashing the skulls of at least five children with his ebony walking stick.”

In 1979, French troops invaded Central Africa leading to Bokassa’s exile to Ivory Coast and subsequently, France where he received political asylum because of his service in the French military. 

He was later tried for his crimes amongst which were cannibalism, embezzlement, treason. But he was granted amnesty and he died of a heart attack on 3 November 1996 at his home in Bangui at the age of 75.

Hm, African has definitely had its share of power drunk leaders. 

Sources;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-B%C3%A9del_Bokassa

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/the-central-african-republic-where-emperor-bokassa-ruled-with-violence-and-greed-1.1750805

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Written by
Maranatha
June 2020
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