Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A military coup that brought Jean-Bédel Bokassa to power in the Central African Republic began a twelve-year dictatorship by a tyrant obsessed with his own power. Bokassa would declare himself emperor of the country while using benefactors such as France to maintain his power over a suffering population.

Summary of Event

On the first day of 1966, citizens of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) awakened to find themselves under a military dictatorship. The head of the country’s small army, General Jean-Bédel Bokassa, had overthrown the elected president, David Dacko, and appeared ready to end the corruption and incompetence that had permeated his predecessor’s government. Revolutions and Coups;Central African Republic Central African Republican coup (1966) Postcolonialism;Central African Republic [kw]Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic (Jan. 1, 1966) [kw]Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic, Military (Jan. 1, 1966) [kw]Dictatorship to Central African Republic, Military Coup Brings (Jan. 1, 1966) [kw]Central African Republic, Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to (Jan. 1, 1966) Revolutions and Coups;Central African Republic Central African Republican coup (1966) Postcolonialism;Central African Republic [g]Africa;Jan. 1, 1966: Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic[08780] [g]Central African Republic;Jan. 1, 1966: Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic[08780] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 1, 1966: Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic[08780] [c]Military history;Jan. 1, 1966: Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic[08780] Boganda, Barthélemy Bokassa, Jean-Bédel Dacko, David

A political and economic backwater of the French colonial empire, the C.A.R. may be one of the most misruled countries in a continent of misruled countries. Situated between the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert and the tropical region of equatorial Africa, the Central African Republic achieved independence on December 6, 1958.

The French maintained considerable political and economic influence over the new republic. The new country was a member of the French Community French Community (Communauté française d’Afrique, or CFA) franc monetary system in which the country shared a currency with other former French African colonies and had its currency controlled by a central bank under French authority. French agents served in the highest reaches of the government, keeping the French government informed about events within the republic. Much of the French involvement was necessary because of the lack of qualified officials to administer the government. Trained by the French and paid by the French, it was not unexpected that the officials would also be loyal to France.

The French might have enjoyed less influence if the first leader of the movement for independence, Barthélemy Boganda, had lived to serve. Having prepared his country for independence, Boganda proved to be a capable leader who was able to work with the French and the various ethnic groups in the country. His sudden death in a plane crash in 1959 lit the flames of conspiracy theories, as many of his countrymen believed that the plane had been brought down with explosives. The hint of a possible political assassination brought suspicion down directly on the French, who were accused of eliminating a leader who was too independent minded. The conspiracy saw the French as seeking a more pliable leader who would follow their direction.

Boganda’s successor, Dacko, proved unable to jumpstart the economy or free himself of French influence. At first he was willing to work with the French, taking their advice and eliminating the main opposition party that threatened to unseat him during elections. Following the tradition of the French colonial governors, however, Dacko’s administration proved incapable of performing even the most basic tasks of government. The country deteriorated economically and politically during his administration, with members of his cabinet and military leaders jockeying for political position and control of the country.

One of Dacko’s more powerful opponents, Bokassa, was the head of the republic’s tiny military. The top general in the C.A.R. had spent much of his adult life fighting in the French colonial army. His experience during the liberation of France and the colonial wars that followed World War II made him the highest ranking officer in the C.A.R. With his medals in hand and a reputation for bravery in combat, he settled in his homeland just as it achieved independence. As the best trained and highest ranking officer from the republic, it was logical that Bokassa would be assigned the task of building the C.A.R.’s army.

As the economic and political situation deteriorated, and as President Dacko proved unable to act, Bokassa asserted his military authority. As head of the army Bokassa repeatedly clashed with Dacko over military spending for the five-hundred-person “army” he commanded. During those clashes, Dacko threatened to fire Bokassa, but as was the tendency of the president, he did nothing and allowed the military problem to fester until it was too late.

In late 1965, Dacko offered to resign, but the officials around him, likely fearful of losing their jobs, convinced him to remain in power. The final months of 1965 witnessed considerable maneuvering among military and political officials. Dacko sought to build up the police force as a counterweight to the military, while Bokassa planned his own takeover of the government. The tangle of conspiracies surrounding the government had all of the major players planning assassinations of their rivals and Bokassa and Dacko competing for the loyalty of the national police and its leader, Jean Izamo Izamo, Jean .

As New Year’s Day approached, Bokassa and his subordinate Alexandre Banza Banza, Alexandre moved (Banza had led the military forces that pushed Dacko to resign). Banza would aid Bokassa in gaining power but would attempt a coup against Bokassa and was later executed for his troubles. By the start of 1966, Dacko was out and the Bokassa regime was in power.

The late 1965 military coup that brought Bokassa to power was successful for several reasons. One reason was the close tie between the C.A.R. and the French. With a significant portion of the country’s budget being provided by the French, the former colonial power had considerable influence over the C.A.R.’s political system. As long as Dacko proved to be a loyal ally of the French, his position was safe; in the mid-1960’s, however, Dacko began to make positive overtures toward China and Mao Zedong, who was trying to spread his country’s influence into the developing world. The promise of Chinese aid, both economic and military, and the opening of a Chinese embassy in Bangui were warnings to France that its ally was straying from the French orbit and a replacement might be sought. These actions would show the familiar Bokassa. The new president proved to be loyal to the French, who propped up his regime for some thirteen years until the former general’s antics became too distasteful and he was overthrown.


The history of the C.A.R.’s government began with the 1966 coup and the rise of one of the oddest and most brutal dictatorships in Africa. The fall of the Dacko regime served only to change the names of the government leaders who seemingly took their orders straight from Paris. However, Bokassa proved to be a leader who was even worse than Dacko, subjecting his country and people to thirteen years of misrule.

Bokassa became the laughingstock of the African continent even as his mental stability began to collapse. In 1976, Bokassa crowned himself emperor in a coronation that would have made former European monarchies blush. Bokassa also used France to remain in power even as he lost popular support.

Eventually, through mismanagement and corruption, Bokassa would bankrupt one of the poorest countries on the African continent. A series of riots in 1979 forced the French government to act, and Bokassa was overthrown by French troops, who installed the former president in power. Bokassa, though, would have his revenge. He would reveal his close relationship with high-level French politicians, which led to a scandal and to the defeat of a sitting French president in the 1981 election. Revolutions and Coups;Central African Republic Central African Republican coup (1966) Postcolonialism;Central African Republic

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Decalo, Samuel. Psychoses of Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Examines the lives and careers of three former African dictators, including Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. The Bokassa chapter discusses how the dictator made his country a personal plaything and cleverly used French support to maintain his power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2005. Examines every African country since its respective independence, describing in detail the economic and political upheaval of the continent and the many dictators and their repression of ordinary people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Titley, Brian. Dark Age. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Examines the rise and fall of Bokassa. Describes in detail his early life as a French soldier as well as his misrule of the one of the poorest countries in Africa. Bokassa’s odd behavior and his attempt at a political comeback and subsequent trial and death are also discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">York, Peter. Dictator Style. New York: Chronicle Books, 2006. An amusing and disturbing look at the excess practiced by some of the better-known and even unknown dictators, including Bokassa. Reveals the idiosyncrasies of dictators in the type of houses or palaces they kept, providing insight into the minds of disturbed rulers.

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Categories: History