Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Gambia Changes Its Name Back

Map of the Gambia: towns, roads, borders, and rivers, with scale shown.
Map by Evan Centanni. Contact for usage rights.

Gambia Name Change Reversal

Last year we reported on how the Gambia, a tiny country located along the banks of a river in West Africa, had changed its official name at the UN. The country's maverick dictator had decided in 2015 to switch from "Republic of The Gambia" to "Islamic Republic of The Gambia".

Learn More: The Gambia's 2015-2016 Name Change

Then, this January, the country's longtime president stepped down. He had unexpectedly conceded defeat in a late-2016 election, though in the end it still took the threat of an invasion by neighboring countries to force him out. Within 10 days, the new president had already declared a reversal of the name change.

Flag of the Gambia Country Short Name:  
• The Gambia
Official Name:  
• Republic of the Gambia
Capital: Banjul

Name Change Registered with UN and ISO

Since most of the world's countries, including the Gambia, are part of the United Nations (UN), it's expected that if a country's name changes, the change will be filed with the administrative offices of the UN. This lets world organizations and other countries know they should start using the new name.

Unlike the Gambia's first name change, which was declared in 2015 but not formally registered until months into 2016, this year's reversal all happened pretty fast. About a month and a half after the president's announcement about the rollback, the change was already being distributed to users of ISO 3166, the international standard list of countries and country codes used by organizations and companies all around the world.

That meant the name had already been changed in the UN's official name database too - ISO bases its country names on official UN usage - though PolGeoNow hasn't been able to determine exactly when the UN change was made.

Name Changed in Other Languages

Unlike some countries that have only changed their name for foreign language speakers, English is actually the official language of the Gambia. The UN, on the other hand, has six official languages, so the name change reversal also took effect in each of those:

Language Before After
English the Islamic Republic of the Gambia the Republic of the Gambia
French la République islamique de Gambie la République de Gambie
Spanish la República Islámica de Gambia la República de Gambia
Russian Исламская Республика Гамбия Республика Гамбия
Chinese 冈比亚伊斯兰共和国 冈比亚共和国
Arabic  جمهورية غامبيا الإسلامية جمهورية غامبيا

Islam in the Gambia

Even though the country's earlier name change made it sound like the Islamic religion would be playing a larger role in the government, that didn't ever really happen. Ninety percent of Gambians are Muslims, and there's not complete separation between church and state in the country, but the Gambian constitution does protect freedom of religion. In the year and a half since the country was first declared an "Islamic republic" and when the name was changed back, there wasn't much indication that anything had actually changed.

How Often Do Countries Change Their Names?

Out of the world's nearly 200 countries, there's an average of about one official country name change each year, most of them involving adjustments to the country's full name or preferred English name. The Gambia is the first UN-recognized country to change its name in 2017, while 2016 also saw a slightly different kind of name change for the Czech Republic. (Editor's Note: As we reported later, the unrecognized, self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic also changed its name, in February 2017.)

Before the Gambia's original "Islamic Republic" announcement in 2015, no countries had changed their names since Cape Verde in 2013. That African island country changed its preferred English name at the UN to Cabo Verde, the same as its native Portuguese-language name; the same year, war-torn Libya had clarified its new long-form name as "State of Libya". The year before, Somalia's 2012 constitution changed the country's full name to the Federal Republic of Somalia, and a new Hungarian constitution traded "Republic of Hungary" for just "Hungary".

More substantial changes to countries' names, not just involving translation decisions or adjustments to full names, are much less common. The best recent examples are Yugoslavia's name change to "Serbia and Montenegro" in 2003, Western Samoa's change to just "Samoa" in 1997, and Zaire's reversion to its previous name of "Democratic Republic of the Congo", also in 1997.

Click here to see all articles on country name changes!

Graphic of the flag of the Gambia is in the public domain (source).