Until 1975, the country we now call Benin was known as the Republic of Dahomey. (Photo/ Footysphere)

What A Name Change Has To Do With National Identity, Even Democracy And Dictatorship

NINETEEN countries in Africa have changed their names in the last half-century or so – that’s just over a third of the African total. Most of them changed their names with the transition into independence in the 1960s and 70s, as the new nations tried to forge their own identity and assert their presence on the international stage.

Some of the name changes happened later in the independence era, sometimes as a new regime signaled a shift in the country’s outlook – such as when Thomas Sankara changed the name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means “The Land of Upright (or Incorruptible) Men” when he came to power in 1984.

In the curious case of Benin, the country was known as the Republic of Dahomey, named after the kingdom that flourished there between the 17th and early 20th centuries.

But a decade and a half into the independence era, the name was considered not inclusive enough because the historic kingdom only comprised the southern territory, home of the Fon people, who make up 40% of the population. Thus the “neutral” name Benin was chosen in 1975, named after the city and kingdom of Benin located in present-day Nigeria, which actually has no relationship to the modern nation-state of Benin.

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The country with the most name changes is the nation we now call the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997, Democratic Republic of Congo from 1965 to 1971 and Republic of Congo from 1960 to 1965; before that it was known as Belgian Congo (1908-1960) and Congo Free State (1884-1908) in the colonial era.

It is (probably) not a coincidence that this Congo is a nation that has suffered decades of dictatorship, war and repression, not to mention plunder and pillage by its politicians and myriad warlords and foreign invaders, including Rwanda and Uganda – perhaps more than any other in Africa.

At 2.3 million sq. kilometres, the country is the size of Western Europe but only has less than 3,000km of all-weather road, barely enough to cross the 2,500km-wide country in any direction, let alone service its population.

The rainforest climate means relentless rain and punishing humidity; without proper maintenance, roads, railways and bridges only last a decade at most, before needing to be completely overhauled. Cars are often useless, trucks break down constantly, and can be stuck for days and weeks at a time. It means that bicycles are the main form of land transportation through DR Congo.

People and goods need roads to travel on, but so do ideas and national identities (particularly in the pre-mobile, pre-digital age). With such a big chunk of the Congolese population unable to travel further than the distance of a bicycle, it means that a national identity is a contestable thing indeed.


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