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Jean-Bedel Bokassa

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment concerns the life of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former ruler of the Central African Republic.

For 14 years, Jean-Bedel Bokassa ruled the African country of the Central African Republic, first as president than as emperor. And his reign had one of the most impressive coronations ever imagined. He also will be remembered as one of the cruelest rulers on the African continent.

Bokassa was born on this date in 1921.

He became "president for life" in 1965. But he later decided he needed a more proper title. So in 1977, Bokassa changed the republic to a monarchy and named himself emperor. And to commemorate the event, he hosted a lavish diamond-studded, Napoleonic-style coronation. The ceremony cost an estimated $100-million. Meanwhile, his citizens were starving and the country teetered near bankruptcy. During his reign, Bokassa squandered the national treasury. (The per capita income in 1984 was $270.)

Bokassa ruled with an iron fist and he expected nothing less than subservience. After he became emperor, he ordered his subjects to acknowledge his presence "from six steps away while making a slight forward indication of the head."

And he backed up his rule with violence. Some of those who disagreed with him disappeared.

There were also recurring reports that Bokassa liked the taste of human flesh. Those reports and many other accounts of his violent rule would surface after his reign. In 1979, he reportedly ordered school children killed when they refused to buy $25 school uniforms that bore his picture.

Bokassa was ousted during a bloodless French-backed coup in 1979. He fled first to the Ivory Coast and then to Paris, living there in exile. When he returned to his country unexpectedly in 1986, he was arrested and put on trial. The charges included at least 20 murders, embezzling $50-million in public funds during his repressive regime.

The stories that surfaced during the trial painted a picture of a terribly brutal, callous and insensitive leader. They included:

A woman who said Bokassa ordered her husband, a general, killed when he objected to Bokassa's advances toward his wife.

A cook who testified that Bokassa ordered a feast featuring a human corpse as main course.

He was found guilty of most charges except cannibalism and sentenced to death. However, Bokassa was spared when in February 1987, President Andre Kolingba, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

His countrymen and women still suffer today from Bokassa's rule.

Said one countryman during Bokassa's 1987 trial: "We know this man is the cause of our suffering. If this country is down today, it's not because people are lazy or have no resources. It's simply because one man got us down there because he was so selfish."

Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, The Negro Almanac

Discussion questions

1. Name the countries that border the Central African Republic.

2. What are the principal economic resources of the Central African Republic?

3. How many countries are on the continent of Africa? List them.

4. What is the connection between the Central African Republic and African-Americans?