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Bokassa was born in Bobangi , Moyen-Congo , in the Central African Republic (then a French colony called French Equatorial Africa). His father was a village chief. A career soldier, Bokassa 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 Dacko's 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, an attempted coup was the impetus for Bokassa further consolidating his power. In March 1972, Bokassa declared himself president for life. He survived another coup attempt in December 1974 and an assassination attempt in February 1976.
After a meeting with Moammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, Bokassa decided to convert to Islam and changed his name to Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa. It is presumed that this was a ploy calculated to ensure ongoing Libyan financial aid.
In September 1976, Bokassa 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. Bokassa attempted to justify his actions by claiming that creating a monarchy would help Central Africa "stand out" from the rest of the continent, and earn the world's respect. Over $20 million was spent on the coronation, but despite generous invitations, no foreign leaders attended the event. Many thought Bokassa was insane, and compared his egotistical extravagance with that of Africa's other well-known eccentric dictator, Idi Amin.
Though it was claimed that the new Empire would be a constitutional monarchy, no significant democratic reforms were made, and suppression of dissenters remained widespread. Torture was said to be especially rampant, with allegations that even Bokassa himself occasionally participated in beatings.
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 close 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 to April 19 a number of schoolchildren were arrested after they had protested against wearing the expensive, government-required school uniforms. 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 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.
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, and Bokassa was released on August 1. He had 17 wives and a reported 50 children. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 1996.
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