Why Does the Central African Republic Have Such a Boring Name?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 9 2012 5:19 PM

Why Does the Central African Republic Have Such a Boring Name?

Blame the French.

Joseph Kony.
A file photo taken in 2006 of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, which operates in the Central African Republic

Stuart Price/AFP/Getty Images.

A San Diego-based human-rights group has released a video documenting atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, the leader of a Ugandan rebel group that has been hiding out and killing people in the Central African Republic. Now that the Central African Republic has our attention, one has to ask: How did that country get stuck with such a boring name?

French bureaucrats got involved. The Central African Republic was once a French colony known as Ubangi-Shari, because the land is split between the basins of the Ubangi and Shari rivers. The leader of the colony’s independence movement in the mid-20th century, Barthélemy Boganda, had a grand vision for post-imperialist Central Africa. He wanted to combine Ubangi-Shari with nine other countries in the region that spoke Romance languages, to form something called “the United States of Latin Africa.” Leaders of the neighboring regions, however, did not like his idea. When they declined to join, Boganda had to abandon the grandiose name. At one point, the outgoing French colonial administrator Pierre Kalck recommended that Boganda adopt the name République Centrafricaine to describe a stripped-down version of Boganda’s proposed union, including just Ubangi-Shari, Congo-Brazzaville (now the Republic of the Congo), Chad, and Cameroon. When those partners rejected the coalition, too, Boganda decided to keep the French-inspired name for what had become a freestanding, independent Ubangi-Shari.

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Boganda didn’t explain why he abandoned the name Ubangi-Shari, but he may have hoped that his neighbors would eventually see the benefits of unity and join the Central African Republic. Boganda had a more cordial relationship with the colonial authorities than other African nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta and Patrice Lumumba, so he was probably more comfortable accepting a name proposed by the outgoing French administrator. And it’s not as though he was casting aside centuries of tradition: While Ubangi and Shari are indigenous words, the area was not known as Ubangi-Shari before the French arrived.

The Central African Republic did undergo one major name change in the years that followed. The country’s second president, the megalomaniacal Jean-Bédel Bokassa, declared himself Emperor Bokassa I in 1976, and started calling his domain the “Central African Empire” in the following year. The emperor’s predecessor, David Dacko, regained power in 1979 and restored the original name. (Boganda himself was never president of the country he worked so hard to found. He died under suspicious circumstances in 1959, one year before the republic gained full independence.)

The Central African Republic is just one of many perplexing country names in Africa. Ghana and Mali are named for pre-colonial empires that didn’t have the same borders as their modern-day namesakes. Cameroon is named after the Portuguese word for shrimp, which Europeans found in the country’s waters. And the names of both South Africa and Western Sahara are similarly bland, geographical descriptors.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard Bradshaw of Centre College and co-author of the forthcoming fourth edition of the Historical Dictionary of the Central African Republic, Pierre Englebert of Pomona College, Terry Lynn Karl of Stanford University, Kairn Klieman of the University of Houston, and Daniel Lincoln of the University of Massachusetts.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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