Goodluck Jonathan and more: The stories behind 5 African leaders’ non-African names

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan attracts a lot of headlines, and many of them are due to his unique name. Goodluck Jonathan is just one in a long line of African-born African leaders who’ve had unusual names. But their names aren’t just coincidences—each one reflects the history of the leader’s country.

1. Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria

Goodluck Jonathan

Ever wonder why Goodluck Jonathan is called Goodluck? It’s not an adopted name—the Nigerian President was born to two canoe makers as Goodluck. As Slate notes in an article about Nigerian names, descriptive names like Goodluck are a product of Christian missionaries who influenced the Southern part of the country. Jonathan’s Christian Ijaw heritage explains why his last name is Jonathan, and his first name is thanks to a more universal Nigerian practice of descriptive names. The English Goodluck is probably a byproduct of that Christian influence on Nigeria.

2. Canaan Banana, former President of Zimbabwe

Canaan Banana

Canaan Banana may be the most tantalizing name on this list, but it’s difficult to find a source for the Banana part of his name. The Canaan part, however, is easier to track down.

Born in what was then Southern Rhodesia, Banana’s religious name stems from the presence of British and Christian influence in the region. Canaan refers to either the place or the son of Ham, and Banana’s childhood school was run by missionaries. He later became a Methodist minister, famous for an African-centered liberation theology like The Gospel According To The Ghetto. When he became Zimbabwe’s first President he maintained his clerical status until he was defrocked after a sodomy trial (which, may or may not have been an attempt to slander the former leader). He died in 2001.

3. Sylvanus Olympio, former Prime Minister and President Of Togo

Sylvanus Olympio

Sylvanus Olympio had a name that seems better suited to a Roman Emperor than a Togolese leader. President from 1960 to 1963, there’s a reason Olympio had such an ornate name.

As noted in Cahiers D’études Africaines, Olympio’s family was one of many that returned from Brazil to Africa. Olympio’s grandfather, Francisco Olympio Silva, was a mix of Portugese, African, and Amerindian, though his name probably came from the Catholic and Portugese influence prevalent in Brazil.

He eventually dropped the Silva in his name and named his sons Octaviano and Epiphanio. The entire family was educated in Catholic schools, and that Catholic influence continued in the German protectorate of Togo.

4. William Tubman, former President of Libera

William Tubman

From 1944 to 1971, William Tubman was President of Liberia. Though his name probably doesn’t have a connection to Harriet Tubman, he is tied to slavery and abolition in America.

The name Tubman comes from Emily Thomas Tubman, who liberated 68 of her slaves and paid for their passage to Liberia (repatriation was one of the few options for an abolitionist in antebellum Georgia). Among the former slaves were Sylvia and William Tubman, who were William’s grandparents. As was custom, they kept the Tubman name and eventually passed it on to William.

5. Hastings Banda, former President of Malawi

Hastings Banda

Hastings Banda led Malawi for thirty years, from 1964 to 1994. But he didn’t start with that name.

Kamuzu Banda was born in Malawi and took the name Hastings later in life. He borrowed it from John Hastings, a Scottish missionary working near his village. Then a British Protectorate, Malawi was filled with missionaries like Hastings, and a missionary school was responsible for Banda’s early education.

Banda continued his Scottish education by earning a medical degree in the country and building a medical practice. Though his reign over Malawi was unusual at best, he kept the name of the missionary until his death at around 100 (his exact birth date is unknown).

Start a Conversation

Which name best reflects the leader's time in office?