Jean-Bedel Bokassa ruled the Central African Republic first as dictator, then as President for Life, then as Marshall and finally, for three short years, as the first Emperor of the Central African Empire. Despite the lack of international recognition of his newly-minted imperial status, Bokassa became the first African emperor since Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was crowned in 1930.
Bokassa took the visual trappings of Emperorship very seriously. Like emperors Napoleon of France and Faustin I of Haiti before him, Bokassa placed great importance on the visual culture of his Empire. He meticulously sought to establish his brand as a royal, managing the smallest details of his Regalia, which he modeled on Napoleon I's. While aspects of his extravagant coronation ceremony were of dubious taste—such as the enormous avian throne—there is a unifying aspect to the brand, and the solemnity and import that Bokassa placed on his enthronement were patent. And like the Black monarchs of Haiti, he was subjected to vicious and overtly racist derision in Europe.
Bokassa believed that a monarchical system, as an added value, would help distinguish his country from its neighbors. However, his theory was never put to the test as his short reign was sullied by violence and cruelty. Despite this, "he is now enjoying a surge of posthumous popularity in his homeland," as nostalgia for the short-lived empire sets in. In 2010, he was formally rehabilitated and awarded the nation’s highest decoration. More recently, the 40th Anniversary of his 1977 coronation was commemorated with a postage stamp issued by the CAR, where Bokassa's son is a leading politician.
Imperial Banner of Bokassa I. Credit: Vanja Poposki
Regalia of Emperor Bokassa I. Luxuriously crafted by the renowned Parisian firm Arthus-Bertrand (founded in 1803) the cost of the regalia was $5 million; the crown alone cost $2 million.
A crowd surrounds Bokassa's carriage after his deposal. (Image colorized subsequently.)