‘Emperor’ Bokassa and the empire that never was…
If it were not for the violence and sheer maltreatment of the poor then we would all quite surely laugh at history’s larger than life dictators whose chests proudly bear the medals never won, their heads wearing crowns encrusted with the jewels pillaged from their own mines, self-anointed generals, Presidents and in the case of Jean Bokassa, a self-made emperor.
The House of Bokassa was founded in 1972 in the Central African Republic and Jean-Bedél Bokassa was at once both the Marshall and the lifelong President as voted in by Jean-Bedél Bokassa . He had previously appointed himself to any of the top government positions he saw fit to ‘run’ and quickly set in place a system of government which operated by using violence, the threat of violence and the virtual bankrupting of a country already on its financial knees.
Thieves would be ordered to have bodyparts cut off whilst he oversaw the murder of one hundred school children whose parents had refused to buy their uniforms from a shop owned by one of his seventeen wives. His list of crimes against his own people ran as long as his list of honours, a man once courted by France and Giscard d’Estaing in particular. Bokassa’s notorious gift of diamonds to the then President was not enough to secure his throne and d’Estaing ordered a coup and Bokassa’s removal by French paratroopers in 1979.
It was easy to see why Bokassa felt aggrieved with the French. In return for French financial backing he rewarded d’Estaing with frequent holidays in Africa which would include hunting trips and elaborate dinners in luxurious surroundings. Whilst the French president enjoyed the trappings of office his country took delivery of Bokassa’s uranium supply for their nuclear weapons and energy supplies. By the late 19070s Bokassa’s illusions of grandeur had reached new heights of absurdity and, with the French army guaranteeing his security, he enjoyed a two day long ceremony making him emperor of the CAF. It was a ceremony which bordered and then tripped over the edge of fantasy, world leaders refused to attend but journalists from across the globe were there to gleefully report on such a bizarre event.
It was of course, no normal ceremony. Spending more than his country’s entire annual budget he ordered a diamond encrusted crown made by the Parisian artist Claude Betrand and sat upon a throne weighing some two tonnes and cast in the shape of an eagle. A man who managed to upstage Idi Amin in the absurdity stakes he single handedly ruined the country’s diamond business and by the end of his ‘reign’ most of his civil servants were left unpaid whilst his soldiers ransacked the wildlife population with their machine guns in search of ivory.
His legacy was as disgusting as it was farcical, how the French ever got themselves into allegiance with such an idiotic despot beggers both belief and questioning. For a French president to call him his ‘cousin’ perhaps tells one as much as they need to know. Having enjoyed a period of exile in Paris he eventually returned to the CAR where he was arrested on numerous counts including murder and cannibalism. But luck was on Bokassa’s side, when the judge sentenced him to death the then President demonstrated his objection to capital punishment and overturned the decision. Sentenced instead to life imprisonment in solitary confinement he enjoyed the fruits of a newly found democracy in the country with a Presidential amnesty declared for all prisoners in 1993.
In true Bokassa style he went on to announce he was the thirteenth apostle and a man who enjoyed frequent private meetings with the Pope. ‘His Imperial Majesty’ died in 1996.
Giscard d’Estaing remained conviniently quiet about his gifts.