Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Bokassa, Jean-Bédel (1921–1996)

Dictator and self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic (Central African Empire). Born on 22 February 1921 in Bobangui, Moyen-Congo, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was a career soldier. He served in the Free French Forces during World War II, rising to the rank of captain in the French Army before leaving it in 1964 to join the Central African Republic's army. By the end of 1965, Bokassa had achieved the rank of colonel and was chief of staff of the armed forces. On 1 January 1966, he mounted a successful coup against President David Dacko, his cousin, who had plunged the African nation into economic chaos.

Once in power, Bokassa almost immediately abolished the constitution and ruled with an iron fist. He survived two coup attempts, one in April 1969 and another in December 1974, and also an assassination attempt in February 1976. In March 1972 he declared himself president for life; in December 1976 he declared an end to the Central African Republic and in December 1977 had himself crowned emperor of the new Central African Empire. During his despotic reign he managed to forge close ties with France, particularly with its president, Valéry Giscard d'éstaing, who for a time supported Bokassa's regime. In turn, Bokassa supplied uranium for France's nuclear weapons programs. By January 1979, however, following the massacre of civilians during a protest in Bangui, Giscard came under fire for his military and financial aid to Bokassa.

While Bokassa was visiting Libya, former President Dacko mounted a successful coup and overthrew Bokassa's regime on 20 September 1979, using French troops. After Bokassa's thirteen-year reign that had become increasingly bizarre amid allegations of cannibalism and crimes against humanity, Dacko restored a minimal semblance of order until he too was overthrown—for a second time—in September 1981.

In the meantime, Bokassa went into exile in France before returning to his homeland in 1986 to face charges that included treason, murder, and cannibalism. He was cleared of the cannibalism charges but was found guilty of the others and sentenced to death. In 1988 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment; he was eventually freed on 1 August 1993 during a general amnesty. Bokassa died on 3 November 1996 in Bangui.

John Spykerman


Further Reading
Titley, Brian. Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.
 

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