In September 1976, Bokassa dissolved the government and replaced it with the Conseil de la Révolution Centrafricaine ("Central African Revolutionary Council"). On 4 December 1976, at the MESAN congress, Bokassa instituted a new constitution, converted back to Roman Catholicism (he had briefly become a Muslim earlier in the year) and declared the republic to be a monarchy: the "Central African Empire". He had himself crowned "S.M.I. Bokassa 1er", with S.M.I. standing for Sa Majesté Impériale: "His Imperial Majesty", on 4 December 1977.
Bokassa’s full title was Empereur de Centrafrique par la volonté du peuple Centrafricain, uni au sein du parti politique national, le MESAN ("Emperor of Central Africa by the Will of the Central African People, United within the National Political Party, the MESAN"). His regalia, lavish coronation ceremony and régime were largely inspired by Napoleon I, who had converted the French First Republic, of which he was First Consul, into the First French Empire. The coronation ceremony was estimated to cost his country roughly $20,000,000—one-third of the country's budget and all of France's aid for that year.
Imperial Standard of Bokassa I
Bokassa attempted to justify his actions by claiming that creating a monarchy would help Central Africa "stand out" from the rest of the continent, and earn the world's respect. Despite invitations, no foreign leaders attended the event. Many thought Bokassa was insane, and compared his egotistical extravagance with that of Africa's other well-known eccentric dictator—Field Marshal Idi Amin. Tenacious rumors that he occasionally consumed human flesh were found unproven during his eventual trial.
Although it was claimed that the new empire would be a constitutional monarchy, in practice the country remained a military dictatorship. Emperor Bokassa retained the dictatorial powers he had possessed as President, and MESAN remained the only legally permitted party. Suppression of dissenters remained widespread, and torture was said to be especially rampant. It was subsequently proven at trial that Bokassa himself occasionally participated in beatings.
By January 1979, French support for Bokassa had all but eroded after riots in Bangui led to a massacre of civilians. Between 17 and 19 April, a number of high school students were arrested after they had protested against wearing the expensive, government-required school uniforms. Around one hundred were killed.
Bokassa allegedly participated in the massacre, beating some of the children to death with his cane. However, the initial reports received by Amnesty International indicated only that the school students suffocated or were beaten to death while being forced into a small cell following their arrest.
The massive press coverage which followed the deaths of the students opened the way for a successful coup which saw French troops (in Opération Barracuda) restore former president David Dacko to power while Bokassa was away in Libya meeting with Gaddafi on 20 September 1979.
Bokassa’s overthrow by the French government was called "France's last colonial expedition" by veteran French diplomat Jacques Foccart. Opération Barracuda began the night of 20 September and ended early the next morning. An undercover commando squad from the French intelligence agency SDECE (now DGSE), joined by Special Forces' 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, or 1er RPIMa, led by Colonel Brancion-Rouge, landed by Transall C-160 and managed to secure the Bangui Mpoko airport. Upon arrival of two more transport aircraft, a message was sent to Colonel Degenne to come in with his Barracudas (codename for eight Puma helicopters and Transall aircraft), which took off from N’Djamena military airport in neighbouring Chad.
By 12:30 p.m. on 21 September 1979, the pro-French Dacko proclaimed the fall of the Central African Empire. David Dacko remained President until he was overthrown on 1 September 1981 by General André Kolingba.
In 2009 Jean-Serge Bokassa, who was seven years old when the Emperor was overthrown, stated his father's reign was "indefensible".