As Sudan’s southern provinces prepared for independence in the early months of 2011, much debate went into choosing a new name for the would-be country. When the simple, self-explanatory proposal of ‘South Sudan’ emerged victorious, some complained of a lack of originality and a wasted opportunity.
But the act of choosing a new name for a country is one that has been far from unfamiliar in 20th century Africa. Since Ghanaian independence in 1957, a whole host of new labels emerged on the international stage. Often these names were even quite novel to their own citizens. Unlike new nations in Europe or Asia, Africa’s history of arbitrary colonial borders meant the governments of its emerging sovereign states often had no obvious nomenclature on which to fall back.
Firstly, attempts to distance new nations from their oppressive colonial pasts meant European descriptions (such as Rhodesia, French Sudan and the Gold Coast) were quickly off the cards.
Secondly, new states often inherited a disparate demographic makeup, with multiple ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. If a new name was to be adopted, it had to be acceptable to diverse populations.
A few fortunate African nations, however, did have the luxury of an ethnically or linguistically homogenous population within their borders and named the country accordingly – Swaziland had the Swazi people, Lesotho BaSotho, Botswana BaTswana, and Somalia the Somalis. Burundi and Rwanda were also fortunate enough to inherit clearly dominant linguistic groups – Kirundi and Kinyarwanda respectively – from which to draw their names. Uganda also derived its name from the ethnic group of its dominant sub-national kingdom, Baganda, though at 16.9% of the total population the decision was rather more tenuous. However, this method, while quite common across much of the rest of the world, is the exception rather than the rule in Africa.
One method that has proven popular has been to name the new state after a geographical feature. Almost a third of modern African state-names carry some reference to the country’s geography. These can derive from major rivers (such as the Rio de Camarões in Cameroon, the River Gambia in Gambia, the Niger River which runs through the Niger and Nigeria, the River Senegal of Senegal, and the Zambezi in Zambia), mountains (Mount Kenya and the Sierra Leone mountains), deserts (the Namib desert in Namibia), a lake (Lake Chad), or a resource (the Ivory Coast). Geographical inspiration has provided helpfully neutral names for nations often otherwise divided along multiple lines.
If the geographical description heralds from a local language then it is even better as a break with the colonial past has also been achieved. However, some geographically-inspired names have proven neutral enough to even survive the transition to independence. Gabon, for example, takes its name from a Portuguese description of the shape of the Komo river estuary. Furthermore, the Ivory Coast has opted to name itself after the very plunder Europeans were lured to in the first place despite the ivory trade being officially outlawed; by contrast, its neighbour Ghana rejected its colonial name of Gold Coast.
Yet the use of geographical names is not always chosen in the interests of establishing a workable neutrality. 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.
Another common naming method for African governments has been the dubious inheritance of powerful pre-colonial kingdoms or empires. At least eight African states have appropriated such names: Angola, Benin, Congo, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania and Zimbabwe.
Unlike more neutral geographical themes, this style of renaming has much to say of the men who utilise it. Many evoke images of a powerfully militaristic and expansionist past; an aggressive stance underlying the use of pre-colonial legacies to shore up modern sovereign legitimacy. Certainly, leaders from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have never been shy of asserting themselves on the international stage. And the historic states chosen, while usually territorially analogous, often happened to extend into the territories of their namesakes’ modern neighbours. For example, the Malian Empire extended right to the Atlantic coast, while the Maravi Kingdom (from which Malawi derives its name) extended into southern Mozambique and south-eastern Zimbabwe.
A particularly interesting case in the adoption of historical names is Eritrea. On its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the new nation chose to revive its colonial label despite some good historical African suggestions. In fact, the name Eritrea was a classic example of Italy’s attempts to relive its old Roman glories during the late-19th and early-20th centuries – Eritrea being an Italianised form of the Latin Mare Erythraeum meaning “Red Sea”.
But perhaps deciding against taking the name of a historical state was a sensible decision on the part of Eritrea. One of the best candidates, the Kingdom of Aksum, historically extended over much of northern Ethiopia as well as Eritrea, a fact which would have surely riled its belligerent neighbour.
Finally, some African nations carry names with a deeper meaning. Many of these have a historical legacy. The words Guinea and Sudan both derive from terms originally with vast geographical scope, meaning “black man” or “land of the blacks” – in Berber and Arabic respectively. Others are more progressive, such as Tanzania’s name eloquently encapsulating the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, or Liberia’s adoption of the Latin word for ‘free’.
Perhaps the most revealing example from this type of state-naming comes from Burkina Faso. Coined by Thomas Sankara in 1983, the name itself means ‘Land of Incorruptible People’, taking its first word from Mòoré and its second from Dyula, the two regional languages of the country. Although a rejection of the colonial past, the name Burkina Faso is unique in neither seeking to embrace historical glories nor settling for a neutral geographical description. Rather, the name serves as a statement of intent for the future – a positive direction on a clean slate. It is hopeful.
So, when the leaders of South Sudan chose its new name over a year ago they had a great deal of African precedent to inform their decision. Perhaps it is telling that such an obvious, passively geographical proposal was adopted. Many suggestions inevitably carried historical implications or failed to fully account for the diversity of communities in the anticipated nation. The internal struggles within African states struggling to settle on an identity have been painfully apparent over the last half-century – as much in Sudan as anywhere else – and the uncontroversial and unexciting nature of 'South Sudan' could have been seen as its very virtue.
But perhaps the choice was not as passive as it seems. The term South Sudan has accompanied its disparate population – often at war with each other as much as with the north – through their darkest hour, into triumphant independence. As one British-South Sudanese woman put it: "I grew up hearing 'the south'. It's something that people can identify with." And is that not what any government is seeking, in this continent of national fabrication? Something that will unite. Something that will drive forward the future of its people as one nation.
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