Jean-Bédel Bokassa 22 February 1921 – 3 November 1996), also known as Bokassa I of Central Africa and Salah Eddine Ahmed Bokassa, was the ruler of the Central African Republic and its successor state, the Central African Empire, from his coup d'état on 1 January 1966 until overthrown in a subsequent coup (supported by France) on 20 September 1979.
Of this period, he served almost eleven years (1 January 1966 – 4 December 1976) as president (the last four years as president for life). For almost three years he reigned as self-proclaimed Emperor of Central Africa, though the country was still a de facto military dictatorship. His imperial regime lasted from 4 December 1976 to 21 September 1979. Following his overthrow, the Central African Republic was restored under his predecessor, David Dacko. Bokassa's imperial title did not achieve international diplomatic recognition.
Born in Ubangi-Shari in French Equatorial Africa, the son of a village chief, Bokassa was orphaned at age 12. Educated in mission schools, he joined the French colonial army in 1939 as a private. He distinguished himself in the war in Indochina, winning medals and rising to the rank of captain. When Ubangi-Shari gained its independence as the Central African Republic in 1960, the new president David Dacko, who was his distant cousin, invited Bokassa to head the armed forces. In 1966, Bokassa used his position to oust Dacko and declared himself president. He then began a reign of terror, taking all important government posts for himself.
He personally supervised judicial beatings and introduced a rule that thieves would have an ear cut off for the first two offenses and a hand for the third. In December 1976, in emulation of his hero Napoleon, he appointed himself emperor of the Central African Empire, with a coronation ceremony in 1977 costing US$20 million ($80 million today), practically bankrupting the country. His diamond-encrusted crown alone cost $5 million ($20 million today). In 1979 he had hundreds of schoolchildren arrested for refusing to buy uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. Bokassa was reported to have personally supervised the massacre of 100 of the schoolchildren by his Imperial Guard.On 20 September 1979, French paratroopers deposed him and re-installed Dacko as president. Bokassa went into exile in France where he had a château and other property bought with the money he had embezzled.After his overthrow in 1979, Central Africa reverted to its former name and status as the Central African Republic. In his absence, he was tried and sentenced to death. He returned to the Central African Republic in 1986 and was put on trial for treason and murder. In 1987, he was cleared of charges of cannibalism, but found guilty of the murder of schoolchildren and other crimes. The death sentence was later commuted to life in solitary confinement, but just six years later, in 1993, he was freed. He lived a private life in his former capital, Bangui, and died in November 1996.