A name is a significant element in the lives of Africans. A name of a person, place or artifact contains its essence and history. It can signal prosperity or doom, divide, or unite communities, and encompass the breadth of life and all its absurdity. The Central African Republic has a rich history but a rather simple and descriptive name.
The Central African Republic is a land locked country that is situated in the equatorial African region. It is surrounded by Chad, Cameroon, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan. It has a population of about 5 million people. The country is known for its diamond, timber, and uranium exports. As with many African countries with lucrative natural resources, it is marked by political instability, poverty and violence.
The Central African Republic was once a French colony known as Ubangi-Shari. It derived its name because the land is in between the basins of the Ubangi and Shari rivers. Ubangi-Shari was part of the French Equatorial Africa which was a federation of French colonies which included Chad, Gabon and the Middle Congo. As the struggle for independence from colonialists in the 1950’s and 1960’s intensified across the continent, it also reached Ubangi-Shari.
Barthelemy Boganda was a Roman Catholic priest who later formed the Social Evolution Movement of Black Africa and led Ubangi-Shari to independence becoming president of the Grand Council of French Equatorial Africa.
Boganda had a vision of a united Central Africa akin to the French federation model in the post-colonial era. He proposed that Ubangi-Shari and 9 neighbouring countries become a single entity in order to increase their power in the global system. It was to be named “United States of Latin Africa” and would unite countries that spoke Roman languages in the region.
The idea was too Eurocentric for the leaders of neighbouring countries and was rejected. Boganda was forced to abandon his grand plan of a united Central Africa. The outgoing French administrator, Pierre Kalck, advised Boganda to adopt the name Central African Republic to describe a stripped version of Boganda’s proposed union which included just Ubangi-Shari, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, and Cameroon. When the others rejected the unification plan, Boganda reluctantly agreed to accept the new constitution offered to Ubangi-Shari by France and renamed the now independent state, Central African Republic.
Boganda never became president of the Central African Republic as he died in a mysterious plane crash, only 8 days before he was to take over as President. The Central African Republic suffered another name change soon after. The country’s second president and coup leader, Jean Bedel Bokassa, declared himself emperor Bokassa I later renaming the country, the “Central African Empire”, in 1977. Bokassa’s predecessor, David Dacko, regained power in 1979 and reinstated the name.
It is unclear why Boganda changed the country’s name that had African context to a more bland, descriptive name but one assumes that he still had the belief that his vision of a united Central Africa would eventually materialize.