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.

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.

Video Explainer: Can Animals Be Homophobic?



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.