On the New Year Day of 1966, Jean Bedel Bokassa would overthrow the previous (but equally corrupt and totalitarian) administration in the Central African Republic. He would rule the country (which he renamed Central African Empire) erratically and eccentrically for next twenty years. For the better part of his rule, he would remain doggedly loyal to the French, who colonial army he first joined at the age of 18.
Renaming his country was inspired by Napoleon I, who converted the French Revolutionary Republic into an empire. This Napoleon-complex would culminate in Bokassa’s own coronation in 1977: wearing regalia styled on Napoleon, he rode in a carriage flanked by soldiers dressed as 19th Century French cavalrymen. By supplying the French with uranium, he secured a French battalion, 17 aircrafts and the French Navy Orchestra for his coronation. Despite generous invitations, no foreign leaders attended the coronation ceremony which took place over 2 days (the coronation itself lasted over 6 hours) and cost over $20 million–a third of his country’s annual budget and all of France’s aid that year. (The ceremony was organized by Jean-Pierre Dupont; Parisian jeweller Claude Bertrand made his crown, which included diamonds. Bokassa sat on a two-tons throne made from massive gold).
To create income, Bokassa had a great idea: in a nation with no established postal system, he issued stamps primarily to sell them to collectors and generate foreign income. On the stamps (except the ones with Bokassa on them) were writers like Jules Verne and Hemingway, scientists like Einstein and Tesla, and, most ridiculously of all, Maximilian I, the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor.
Bokassa enjoyed a close personal friendship with the then French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, whom he took on African hunting trips and once presented with two diamonds (which caused a great scandal when the press found out). By the end of 1979, d’Estaing was slowly losing his patience. With his alleged Libyan connections, his recent brutal repression of a student riot and rumors that he practiced cannibalism (and resorted even to feeding human flesh to the foreign representatives during the coronation), Bokassa was quickly becoming an embarrassment. D’Estaing authorized what was called “France’s last colonial expedition” (la dernière expédition coloniale française) to restore the former president David Dacko to power while Bokassa was away in Libya. Although sentenced to death in absentia, Bokassa enjoyed a comfortable exile in a chateau outside Paris with his 17 wives and 50 children.
Above photos were taken for Sygma by Yann-Arthus Bertrand. Hans Boeck’s pictures for Publication Zentrum which covered the entire 2-day ceremony were nominated for World Press Photo Awards that year.
(I spent a summer in Central African Republic — now thankfully being renamed, but in no better shape than it was under Bokassa — with a volunteer group a couple of years back, so you can say this post is somewhat close to my heart. 🙂 )