Jean Bédel Boukassa (The French Fiasco)

The Official Flag of Central African Republic.

Africa throughout its history has seen different reign of democratic and tyrannical leaders. The leadership inefficiencies could be linked to the outcome as to why Africa is languishing in poverty. African leaders are sometimes bent on proving to be undoubtedly autocratic and enhance the promotion of foreign interests.

The Central African Republic upon its Independence from French rule on 13th August 1960 was governed by the country’s first president David Dacko. Well, it seemed the political stability and the restoration of democracy was only short lived.

Jean Bédel Boukassa

Jean Bédel Boukassa having gone through the ranks of the military in 1966 overthrew the country’s first president David Dacko. He must have been dissatisfied with the Dacko governance and felt he could have been a better alternative. Ripping apart the country’s first constitution, Boukassa later in 1972 declared himself “President for life”. Two years after the declaration, he named himself “Marshall of the republic”. Boukassa was above all a greedy leader who sought to accumulate everything for himself without any consideration of the people he had intended to protect. He was obsessed with two things – Grandiose titles and all things French. He developed great interest in Napoleon Bonaparte whom he considered his idol. We shall see how he copied Napoleon’s political and social lifestyle.

And just as how Napoleon conveyed the French Revolutionary Republic to the French Empire in 1804, Boukassa decided he was going to convert the Central African Republic to the Central African Empire. This he believed would set the republic on a global footing and respect acclaimed within the continent. During a presidential visit in 1976, Boukassa told the then French president Giscard D’estaing of his plans to celebrate the establishment of the empire with a lavish coronation ceremony. Boukassa then asked the French president for monetary assistance in funding his inauguration. Giscard D’estaing despite being resilient and thoughtful towards the idea agreed for a number of reasons. He needed his country to continue the control of the republic’s mining agency of uranium and diamond. He also needed to further ties with the republic because it was aligned with French policy. But most importantly, France funded the coronation in exchange for a breakaway from the then Libyan leader Gaddafi. Gaddafi at that time wasn’t in favor of French imperialism and was considered a threat. So the coronation which stood to be one of the most disgraceful coronation ceremonies went as planned.

With the backing of the French president, Boukassa’s coronation took place on the 4th December 1977. The coronation cost was an estimated 30 million dollars which amounted to just over a quarter of the government’s annual budget. In preparation for the event, a committee was setup to completely transform the country’s capital. Streets were scrubbed clean, old buildings were furnished and repaired. A French sculptor was commissioned to design Boukassa’s imperial throne. A team of 30 french artisans were hired to build a gold plated bronze throne worth an estimated 2.5 million dollars. 8 white horses were imported from Belgium to pull Boukassa’s royal carriage. Over a dozen more horses were imported from France to carry the royal horsemen that accompanied his carriage.

The Coronation attire.

The very same 200 year old company that embroidered Napoleon’s military uniforms was commissioned to create Boukassa’s coronation attire. 13 different outfits were ordered at a total cost of $145,000. Boukassa’s coronation gown alone cost over $72,400. His imperial crown was produced by a French drooler which was founded under the reign of Napoleon. Along with the imperial sceptre and sword, Boukassa spent around 5 million dollars on jewelry alone. To ensure his guests were driven around the city with style and suitable comfort, 60 brand new Mercedes Benz vehicles were ordered from Germany. The cars were first shipped to neighbouring Cameroon and then flow to the CAR and to the capital city of Bangui at a cost of $5,000 per vehicle. The CAR is a landlocked region (surrounded by total land) which explains why the cars were flown in.

Boukassa needed the world to witness his coronation so his first invitees were fellow emperors Hirohito of Japan and Iranian emperor Reza Rahlavi. Shamefully, they both declined. Infact, no president attended the inauguration. All other African leaders with the exception of the Prime Minister refused to attend. Notably, the French president who had funded the coronation to the surprise of many refused to attend. Of the 2,500 international dignitaries invited, only 600 accepted the invitation.

On the day of the event, the procession began with 8 of Boukassa’s 29 children leading the parade. They were then followed by Jean Béden Boukassa, the heir to the throne. His wife Catherine, the favorite amongst Boukassa’s nine wives then walked up to the throne to be crowned empress of Central Africa before Boukassa was himself invited to walk across the 800 metre red carpet to his coronation. He was dressed in a floor lines velvet gown decorated with 785,000 tiny pearls and 1.2 million crystal beads. At exactly 10:43 AM December 4th 1977, Boukassa was officially proclaimed “Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Central African people United within the national political party, the movement for the social evolution of black Africa”.

By the end of this ceremony, Boukassa had spent the equivalent of the quarter of the empire’s annual budget on coronation. You see, Boukassa’s casebis an example of the type of defeated mindset that has plagued many of Africa’s leaders. The psychological subjugation of self defeat could make a perfect argument for Boukassa’s actions.

Jean Bédel Boukassa in the military.

Long before his rise to power, Boukassa witnessed first hand the brutal impact of French rule. His father was killed for staging a village rebellion against the French. He witnessed the death of his own father at the age of 6. His mother later on committed suicide leaving him and his 11 siblings behind. Well, one might think that these experiences would have prompted a sense of action and the will to alleviate the suffering of his people. However, it may have had an opposite rebound on Boukassa as it sought to engrain a sense of ultimate submission and inferiority complex to French interest. From the age of 18, Boukassa would dedicate his life to the French.

Just two years after his grand coronation, Boukassa was forced out of power by surprisingly the French government and former president Dacko was reinstated.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583

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