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.