Returning to the Central African Republic in 1964, he became chief of staff of the army. He led a coup against president David Dacko in 1965, declared himself president, then president for life (1972), marshall of the republic (1974), and emperor (1977). His extravagant coronation all but ruined the country's economy, and he systematically looted the country for the 14 years he was in power. He claimed that Pope John-Paul II made him an apostle of the Catholic Church.
In 1979 the French engineered a coup to remove him from power and he fled to the Ivory Coast, and four years later, to France. In 1980 and again in 1986 he was condemned to death for, among other things, cannibalism (French soldiers, raiding his palace, the Villa Kolongo, found the bodies of some of his political opponents in a walk-in freezer and in the bottoms of the swimming pools), and the mass murder of 100 school children (who had refused to wear compulsory school uniforms manufactured by a Bokassa-owned company and sold only through Bokassa-owned stores), but the sentence was commuted to life, later reduced to 10 years at hard labor. His châteaux in France were confiscated, as were his palaces in the CAR. He lived the rest of his life in the ruins of his former palace in Bangui.
He had at least 17 wives and concubines and 55 children.
In 1953 Bokassa married a Vietnamese woman but abandoned her and their daughter to return to Europe. Many years later he searched for this daughter. Two different women arrived in the country claiming to be Martine Nguyen. One really was his daughter, but the other was an impostor. Instead of imprisoning or killing the impostor, or sending her back to Vietnam, Bokassa adopted her. Then he auctioned both women off as brides, and they were married in a double ceremony in the Bangui cathedral. The False Martine's husband, an army officer, was later a conspirator in a failed coup against Bokassa and was shot; she herself was murdered by Bokassa's bodyguards a year later. The real Martine's husband, a doctor, was murdered by Bokassa's enemies after the 1979 coup, and she herself now lives in Paris.
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