Barely four years after independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic (CAR) was in deep crisis; the economy was failing and poverty rampaging. In an effort to reform without the help of its colonial masters, President David Dacko turned to China’s Mao Zedong for help.
Mao supported him with aid in return for communist reforms. But within two years of the collectivist experiment, things grew from bad to worse. Resolved to save the country from a total breakdown, army commander and Dacko’s distant cousin, Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa seized power in 1966. What followed was a decade of dictatorship, poverty, and brutal abuse of power. Here are four ways he reminds us that absolute power was meant for no man.
1. Precursor to Tyranny
No cabinet member dared question his choice, for risk of death by crocodiles.
Like many radicals, Bokassa earnestly promised reforms against poverty and a return to democracy. Meanwhile, after experiencing the might of power, he soon realized that delegating authority would not allow him sufficient control to implement his will. Instead, he gradually augmented authority in all organs of the state.
To justify the change in intent, Bokassa affirmed that the assimilation of power was necessary for development. He rejected all policy alternatives and formed his own Revolutionary Council, which abolished the legislature and constitution.
In the absence of institutional criticism, he reshuffled the government at will. And within his 13-year reign, he would proclaim himself as President, Prime Minister, Party Chairman, Commander-in-Chief, and Emperor. No cabinet member would dare question his choice of office, else he risked death by crocodiles or firing squad.
2. Indiscriminate Brutality
Bokassa was severely overwhelmed by power such that by the end of his regime, he spent more time brutalizing his enemies than actually working on his development agenda. He had peasants massacred for protesting a hike in food prices and brutalized people for drunkenness. He was an absolute tyrant. Nobody was spared from his wrath, not even his cabinet members.
Innocent children were equally victimized by the mad emperor.
In a notorious case, he had one of his closest allies, Captain Alexander Banza, who was his Minister of State, brutally executed on grounds of treason. Banza attempted to overthrow Bokassa in a failed coup, motivated by the dictator’s maltreatment of him after he helped the dictator secure power as a co-conspirator in the 1966 coup. Bokassa severely mutilated him before having him dragged through the street and then fatally shot.
Innocent children were equally victimized by the mad emperor. He once had a baby injected with poison after he killed the infant’s father, a palace guard, for attempted assassination. More horrific was the massacre of roughly 100 innocent elementary school children in April of 1979.
Bokassa had earlier imposed an expensive school uniform mandate on pupils and their parents, with the costly uniforms manufactured by his wife’s company. During one of the subsequent protests, pupils hurled stones at his Rolls Royce, infuriating the Emperor. He ordered his guards to shoot the children. Many died from the onslaught while Bokassa and his guards beat others to death in jail.
3. Financial Recklessness
After declaring an empire in December 1976 with himself as the Imperial Majesty, Bokassa lavished one-third of the country’s budget on his coronation. In imitation of his idol Napoléon Bonaparte, he spent today’s equivalent of $80 million on the ceremony. His diamond crown alone cost $20 million. He even ordered a gold-plated eagle throne, a gold crown, and over 60,000 bottles of champagne for his guests. For a country that was already fiscally weak, this course of action easily bankrupted it.
He allowed many of his 17 wives and 50 children direct access to government coffers.
At no point did he genuinely express concern for the fiscal health of the country. Bokassa preferred to go on vacation and spend lavishly on fancy cars. He also allowed many of his 17 wives and 50 children direct access to government coffers, grossly enriching themselves and their cronies.
The absence of transparency gave Bokassa the freedom to plunder the country’s mineral resources for selfish returns. For example, he supplied uranium to France during the Cold War in exchange for military support and later admitted to sending diamonds worth millions of dollars to his associates and foreign allies.
4. Legacy of Poverty
Prior to assuming power, his economic plan was simple: rid the country of communism and eradicate poverty. However, what he did was the direct opposite; he nationalized all public entities and established personal monopolies over them.
With the private sector drastically reduced, people either worked for the government which struggled to pay salaries or retired to their farms. In the mines, the working conditions were extremely poor. People had very few gains from labor while Bokassa plundered an overwhelming percentage of the returns.
His horrific legacy is proof that absolute power can be a virus.
On the farms, rewards for production failed to justify the resources people invested and, soon, the Central African Republic was languishing in extreme poverty. To this date, the CAR is ranked as one of the poorest countries on earth. The country’s GDP didn’t recover until 9 years after France ousted Bokassa in 1979.
Nonetheless, it has been 21 years since Bokassa died a freeman in the comfort of his home in the capital Bangui, but for the millions affected by his greed and terror, his evil cannot be undone. His horrific legacy is proof that absolute power can be a virus, and as Barry Goldwater aptly remarked, “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. …and [they] must be opposed.”