What would you do as a leader if you wanted to proclaim yourself as the emperor of your newly-named empire; however, your republic was among the poorest on the continent? For Bokassa I, the right thing to do was to blow a huge chunk of the annual budget to make everything golden— his throne, crown, even his clothes, and carriage. That’s exactly what he did and more during his lavish and excessive coronation in 1977.

Jean-Bédel Bokassa

Jean-Bedel Bokassa with Nicolae Ceausescu. (unknown, image comes from the National Archives, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bokassa was born to a village chief of Mbka, one of their 12 children. Their village was located in the Lobaye basin at the edge of the equatorial forest that was, at that time, part of the colonial French Equatorial Africa. His father tried to resist the French rules and forced labor but was detained and beaten to death in the town square. His mother could not bear the grief of losing her husband and committed suicide after.

He was a military officer and the head of state of the Central African Republic when the coup d’etat against the first and the then-Central African Republic’s President David Dacko on January 1, 1966. The coup d’etat was bloodless, with Bokassa forcing Dacko only to resign. He assumed the presidency and self-promoted himself in the media by showing off his French army medals, strength, masculinity, and fearlessness. He also threw away everything that the previous government established, including its constitution and National Assembly, and formed a new one that he called the Revolutionary Council.

The Preparation

To Bokassa, being the President was not enough, and he needed to formally proclaim himself the emperor of the nation that was renamed the Central African Empire.

During one of French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s visits in 1976, Bokassa brought up his plan: he wanted to proclaim the Central African Republic as an empire, himself as the emperor, and celebrate the occasion. He justified the plan by saying that creating a monarchy would help their country stand out from the rest of the continent and earn the rest of the world’s respect. d’Estaing’s suggested that they hold a modest coronation ceremony in the traditional African way, given they were one of the poorest countries on the continent. But “modest” was far from what Bokassa had in mind.

Taking inspiration from Napoleon, Bokassa scheduled his enthronement on December 4, 1977. Special committees were established to make sure the coronation would be successful.

They were anticipating receiving around 2,500 foreign guests, so a committee was in charge of finding the best accommodations for them— apartments, houses, and hotels that were even renovated if needed.

The streets that would be involved in the ceremonies were also scrubbed, repainted, and the beggars were taken off the streets.

The textile industry was also tasked to produce hundreds of new suits for their local guests: white for schoolchildren, navy-blue for middle-management people in the private and public sectors, and black for the cabinet ministers and senior officers.

To replicate Napoleon Bonaparte, his favorite figure, Paris sculptor Oliver Brice was asked to work on the throne and carriage. He arrived along with his team of thirty artisans to work on a two-tonne gold-plated bronze throne that was prized at $2.5 million. The coach bought in Nice, France was also refurbished and bedazzled in gold. Eight white horses were imported from Belgium to pull the coach, and a few dozen Normandy grey mounts to carry the “Hussars” escort that would accompany the carriage. A troop of Central African soldiers was also sent to Normandy, where they spent the whole summer learning how to ride horseback, the European way, as well as to balance on the back step behind Bokassa’s carriage.

Guiselin’s firm, which embroidered Napoleon’s uniforms, was also asked to create Bokassa’s thirteen outfits in association with Pierre Cardin at a cost was $145,000.

Lastly, to make sure that the guests would be taken in comfort and style around Bangui, 60 brand-new Mercedes-Benz were ordered from Germany, with the air freight alone costing over $5,000 per vehicle.

The Day of the Coronation

Jean-Bedel Bokassa arriving at the coronation ceremony. Image from <a href="https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/emperor-jean-bedel-bokassa-coronation-1977/">rarehistoricalphotos.com</a>
Jean-Bedel Bokassa arriving at the coronation ceremony. Image from rarehistoricalphotos.com

None of the presidents in Bokassa’s guest list arrived, not even Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Among the 2,500 international personalities that he invited, only 600 accepted.

On the day of his coronation, the procession began with eight of his 29 children walking down the red carpet, followed by Jean-Bedel Bokassa II, who was their heir. Catherine, his favorite among his nine wives and the new empress, walked behind him. Finally, Bokassa strode the red carpet to the band beating ou “The Sacred March of His Majesty.”

It was Bokassa who placed his own bejeweled crown upon his head, just like Napoleon did. The whole coronation was covered by 100 journalists they invited to ensure that there would be media coverage. When the grandeur and lavish occasion was done, the total bill reached around $25 million, around one-quarter of the empire’s annual budget.

“Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa
“Emperor” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, seated on his golden throne for his coronation, Bangui, Central African Republic. December 4, 1977. Image from rarehistoricalphotos.com

However, regardless of how regal his coronation was, it was not enough to secure the throne and his monarchy. After two years, France launched Operation Caban in 1979, after Bokassa had about 100 children killed for throwing rocks at his car. The bloodless coup abolished his monarchy and restored Dacko as the President who had been in exile in France for, at the same time returning the country to its republic state.  Bokassa himself fled to Libya for asylum when a panel of judges in CAR ordered his arrest for the murders of these children, and then accepted exile in France(perhaps in Dacko’s old apartment in Paris?) after the coup.  Foolishly, he returned to CAP in 1987, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.  This sentence was then commuted to life in prison a year later. In 1993, a general amnesty was declared that freed Bokassa and he finally kicked the proverbial bucket about three years later.