Many cities, states, towns, provinces, and countries in Africa have undergone a name change for a myriad of reasons. Often, this may be done for political/nationalistic reasons — to remove all traces of colonial rule, or to reflect the ideology of the government in power. In other instances, place names have been changed for purely commemorative reasons – perhaps to honour great leaders or important events in the country’s history.
Here is a look at five African countries that have undergone a name change at some point in their recent existence.
Burkina Faso/Upper Volta
President Thomas Sankara, the young and charismatic leader of what was then known as Upper Volta, officially renamed the country as Burkina Faso on 4 August 1984. He chose the names “Burkina” and “Faso” from the two major languages spoken in the country. The old name Upper Volta had been given by the French colonialists in reference to the Volta River that flowed through the area.
Burkina in the Mòoré language means “men of integrity” while Faso is the Dioula word for “fatherland”; put together, Burkina Faso means “land of the upright people.” A citizen of Burkina Faso is known as a “Burkinabe” – the suffix “-be” means “women or men” in the Fulfulde language, also widely spoken across Burkina Faso.
Sankara was thus able to use three main languages in his country to derive a name that expressed the values and ideals of his fellow citizens in languages that they understood.
Ghana changed its name from the Gold Coast in 1957 to reflect its new status as an independent country after it attained self-rule from the British colonialists. Ghana’s foremost nationalist leader Dr. Kwame Nkrumah renamed the country immediately after independence.
The name Ghana is believed to be in reference to the ancient kings (Gana) of the old Wagadugu Empire that ruled over the area now known as Ghana in medieval times. The new name was symbolic of the fact that every citizen of the new country was a potential king (or president).
Present-day Zimbabwe was known as southern Rhodesia between 1898-1964, named after British colonialist and businessman Cecil Rhodes. As early as 1960, however, African nationalists began to refer to their country as Zimbabwe. They went on to incorporate the name into the official titles of their many pro-independence organisations.
It is widely believed that the name Zimbabwe is a compression of the words “dzimba” and “dzamabwe” (meaning house of stones) in the Shona language, which is widely spoken in present-day Zimbabwe. The European settler community continued to use the name Rhodesia; however, in due course, both the native Africans and the Europeans settled on the name “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.” When the country finally attained independence from the British in 1980, it dropped the name Rhodesia to remove all vestiges of British colonialism.
Dahomey was the name of a powerful pre-colonial West African kingdom in what is now the Benin Republic. At its peak, the Dahomey kingdom spanned present-day Benin, Togo, and some parts of southwestern Nigeria. Dahomey was famous for its female warriors who were skilled in battle and often served as royal body guards.
In 1975, under the leadership of Mathieu Kerekou, Dahomey changed its name to Benin Republic. This happened 15 years after the nation gained independence from the French colonialists in 1960. The change was liked to the Marxist-Leninist ideals in which its new leader believed.
Tanganyika was the name of a sovereign state located between the great African lakes and the Indian Ocean that existed from 1961, when it gained independence from the British Commonwealth. Between 1962 and 1964 the nation referred to itself as the Republic of Tanganyika.
Old Zanzibar, on the other hand, consists of a group of small islands collectively known as the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Ancient Zanzibar had been ruled by a sultanate before the coming of Western colonial powers.
On 26 April 1964, Zanzibar united with the Republic of Tanganyika to form the People’s Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. In 1965, the republic combined the two country names into one new name: Tanzania.