The idea that such service was evidence of any great loyalty to the French colonial empire was, however, a false one and in Africa, as in Indochina, the movement gained strength for the independence of the French African colonies and the dissolution of the French colonial empire. In 1960 Ubangi-Shari was granted independence from France as the Central African Republic, led by President David Dacko, a distant cousin of Bokassa. Like most who would come to power in post-colonial Africa, Bokassa was the son of a tribal chief and had aspirations for leadership which did not include playing subordinate to his distant relative. President Dacko gave Bokassa, no doubt because of his military record with the French as a company officer, command of the armed forces of the new republic. Granted those armed forces amounted to only 500 men but it was something Bokassa took very seriously and it was totally in keeping with local custom in post-colonial Africa for new national leaders to stock the government with their relatives.
This was done but, obviously, there was no longer any trust or loyalty between the two and Dacko began taking steps to replace Bokassa and disperse his supporters. However, he was not very subtle about this and Bokassa soon saw what was going on and decided to get rid of Dacko before Dacko could get rid of him. In the early hours of January 1, 1966, in what was called the Saint-Sylvestre coup d’etat, Bokassa and his chief subordinate Captain Alexandre Banza, seized control of the capital and, in due course, his forces captured and arrested President Dacko. Once in power, Bokassa promised a new era of equality for all, abolished the constitution and ruled through a Revolutionary Council. He promised that after his forces had eliminated corruption and communism, allowing the economy to stabilize, new elections would be held for a new national assembly and a new constitution. He banned opposition parties, outlawed begging and made employment mandatory. Anyone without a job could be imprisoned. However, he also banned polygamy and female circumcision, established a bus line in the capital, a ferry service on the Ubangi and used government funds to establish two national orchestras. He also broke off diplomatic relations with Communist China. In short, he did make some positive changes.
|Bokassa at his coronation|
|Idi Amin and Bokassa|
In 1979 what little tolerance in the international community that Emperor Bokassa had been shown began to erode. Key elements of this were the emergence of his partnership with the notorious Libyan dictator Gaddafi and the massacre of a large number of people protesting against rising food prices and a considerable lack of food at any price in Bangui. The French, on whose assistance Central Africa continued to depend, began to waver and the French government began to wish for President Dacko to return. The “last straw” for many was the repression of a student protest in 1979. As part of his campaign to make the Central African Empire look affluent and modern, Emperor Bokassa had ordered all students to wear school uniforms with his portrait on them which were rather expensive and, some might argue, rather crass and tacky. When the students protested, about 100 were killed by government forces with Emperor Bokassa accused of severely beating several of the children himself.
Tried and sentenced to the death in absentia for repression and the murder of political rivals, Bokassa nonetheless returned to the Central African Republic in 1986. He was immediately arrested and charged with a long list of crimes including treason, murder, corruption and cannibalism. He pled not guilty and at his trial denied all charges made against him, often attributing the crimes to others in the government or denying them completely. He was finally found “not guilty” of cannibalism but “guilty” on all other counts and sentencing him to death. However, in 1988 the then-President Kolingba, commuted Bokassa’s execution and shortening his sentence to 20 years in 1989. In 1993 Bokassa was released as part of a general amnesty. His remaining years were not long but just as ‘colorful’ as his time in power had been. He added to his accumulated 17 wives and estimated 50 children, proclaimed himself to be the thirteenth apostle of Jesus Christ and said that he regularly met in secret with the Pope. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 1996 at the age of 75. In 2010 he was legally rehabilitated by President Francois Bozize and praised for the stability of his years in power and his love of country.