This article explores the appropriation and translation of historical notions of “empire” into the modern era through close examination of the short-lived Central African Empire, imagined and brought to life by the flamboyant Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Curiously, in an era in which the formerly colonized francophone African nations were increasingly seeking to signal rejection of their French heritage, Bokassa presented his empire as a modern corollary to the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. This article draws on original research in French and US diplomatic archives to argue that we can understand the empire as a failed attempt to manufacture charisma, approaching farce before devolving into horror.
Jason Yackee is a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his JD from Duke University. He is currently working on a book-length historical project on nationalization and expropriation in post-independence francophone Africa.