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Jean-Bédel Bokassa

Jean-Bédel Bokassa (February 22, 1921November 3, 1996) was the military ruler of the Central African Republic from January 1, 1966 until his overthrow as Emperor on September 20, 1979.

Emperor Bokassa during his coronation

Born in Bobangi, Bokassa was a career soldier. He joined the Free French Forces and ended World War II as a sergeant major with the Legion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. By 1961 he had risen to the rank of captain. He left the French army in 1964 to join the army of the Central African Republic. Cousin of the President David Dacko and nephew of his predecessor Barthélémy Boganda, Bokassa rose to the rank of colonel and chief of staff of the armed forces.

On January 1, 1966, with the country in economic turmoil, Bokassa overthrew the autocratic Dacko in a swift 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 constitution of 1959 on January 4 and began to rule by decree.

In April 1969 there was an attempted coup, which gave Bokassa an excuse to implement even tougher reforms to consolidate his power. In March 1972 Bokassa made himself President for Life. He survived another coup attempt in December 1974 and an assassination attempt in February 1976.

After a meeting with Colonel Qadaffi of Libya, Bokassa decided to convert to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa.

In September 1976 he dissolved the government and replaced it with the Conseil de la Révolution Centrafricaine. On December 4, 1976, at the MESAN congress Bokassa declared the republic a monarchy, the Central African Empire. He issued an imperial constitution, converted back to Catholicism and had himself crowned Emperor Bokassa I in a lavish ceremony on December 4, 1977. The new regime was characterized by harsh suppression of dissenters.

Despite the country's decline into dictatorship, France remained a supporter of Bokassa. French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was a friend and loyal supporter of the emperor, and supplied the regime with much financial and military backing. In exchange, Bokassa frequently took d'Estaing on hunting trips in Africa and supplied France with uranium, a mineral which was vital for France's nuclear weapons program. As the years went on however, the French media grew increasingly critical of d'Estaing's cosy relationship with Bokassa, particularly after it was revealed the emperor had been giving the president frequent "gifts" of diamonds.

By January 1979, French support for Bokassa had all but eroded after riots in Bangui led to a massacre of civilians. On April 17-19 a number of schoolchildren were arrested over a protest over school uniforms and around 100 were killed. It was claimed that Bokassa had participated in the killings and even that he had eaten some of the bodies. Former President David Dacko was able to gain French support and lead a successful coup using French troops while Bokassa was absent in Libya on September 20, 1979.

Dacko remained president until he was overthrown on September 20, 1981 by André Kolingba. Bokassa had been sentenced to death in absentia in December 1980 but he returned from exile in France on October 24, 1986, he was arrested and tried for treason, murder, cannibalism and embezzlement. Following an emotional trial over some months he was cleared of the cannibalism charges but was sentenced to death on June 12, 1987. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in February 1988 and then reduced further to twenty years. With the return of democracy in 1993, Kolingba declared a general amnesty for all prisoners as one of his final acts as president. Bokassa was released on August 1. He had seventeen wives and a reported fifty children. He died of a heart attack.