Weekend Reading: How to Name Your African Nation


Ever wonder where the names of African nations, most of which have relative new national identities, come from?

One new problem the 20th century gave us, alongside the constant threat of nuclear war, has been how to name post-Colonial nation states.  Before now, this is relatively simple.  In Europe and parts of Asia, states have old, consistent names, even if the boundaries are constantly under dispute.  Naming conflicts are more about sovereignty than the names themselves.  In the Americas, things are even easier; with the locals exterminated or marginalized, who is to complain if you want a silly, made up name based on some local resource the Europeans wanted to exploit, like “Argentina” or “Brazil”?

Things have become more complicated since then.  In Africa especially, where political boundries were determined at random by Europeans, meaning national identity is a new thing for a lot of states, most of which have ethnic divides that mean there’s no unifying language to pick a name from without offending 2/3rds of the population. Most countries wanted to distance themselves from colonial names; Some countries chose to stick with European-given names, like Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea and South Africa, but even that is typically a direct response to what the neighbours are doing.  Other times you get a perfectly good name ruined by association with the dictator who gave you it, like Zaire.

Mobutu Sese Seko’s decision to change the name of the Republic of Congo (Leopoldville) to Zaire in 1971 must initially have seemed a rather progressive and pragmatic decision. The name itself seems the epitome of post-colonial neutrality. Taken from a Portuguese variant of a Kongo term referring to the river dominating the country, the choice seems to diplomatically reflect syncretic aspects of Congolese history – European as well as African. A rejection of the term Congo was also perhaps to be expected, since Mobutu’s heritage was rooted in the northern Ngbandi ethnic group rather than the dominant Bakongo. But Zaire soon came to embody a viciously autocratic state, synonymous with Mobutu and the brutal cult of personality he constructed around himself. Tellingly, a newly rebranded Democratic Republic of the Congo emerged on his death in 1997.

Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Most recently we have South Sudan playing it safe.

For an overview of the different strategies taken by African countries in naming themselves, head over to allAfrica.com, which gives us a good overview of the different ways to name an African nation.


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