Self-Proclaimed Emperor of a Tiny Nation, Who Kept Children’s Corpses in a Deep Freezer
The now largely forgotten Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996) was a military officer in the Central African Republican. In 1966, he launched a coup and seized power, then ruled that small nation as a military dictator until 1979. Erratic and prone to delusions of grandeur, Bokassa declared his small landlocked country an empire, and anointed himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire.
Bokassa had been a captain in the French colonial army when Central Africa gained its independence from France. The newly independent country’s president, a distant cousin, appointed Bokassa to head its armed forces. Bokassa showed his gratitude by staging a coup, ousting his cousin from power, and appointing himself president. An admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa emulated his idol by crowning himself Emperor of Central Africa. He then bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation event that cost about 80 million dollars and featured a diamond-encrusted crown worth 20 million.
Bokassa’s rule was marked by a reign of terror, during which he personally oversaw the judicial beating of criminal suspects. He also decreed that thieves were to lose an ear for the first two offenses, and a hand for the third. Additionally, Bokassa supervised the torture of suspected political opponents, then fed their corpses to lions and crocodiles kept in a private menagerie. He was also into cannibalism, as shown in Paris-Match magazine expose, which ran photos of a deep freezer in Bokassa’s palace, containing the bodies of children.
Bokassa’s rule featured many atrocities, of which best known was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 for refusing to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. Bokassa personally oversaw the murder of more than 100 of the children by his imperial guard. That caused an uproar, and soon thereafter, Emperor Bokassa I was deposed by French paratroopers.
The deposed ruler had a soft landing, however, and he went into a comfortable exile in France, financed by millions of dollars embezzled and stashed in Swiss bank accounts. The exile did not stay comfortable for long, however: within a few years, Bokassa had managed to waste his millions, and was reduced to poverty. Things got so bad that he made a brief reappearance in international news in the 1980s when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. Bokassa returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released in 1993. He lived another three years, before dying in 1996.
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