November 04, 2002
Most Obscure Country

Eugene Volokh is searching for the most obscure country in the world:

MOST OBSCURE COUNTRY: Is it Mauritania? Kyrgyzstan? Belize? What is the country that even many geographically literate Americans would be least likely to have in their consciousness, even if, when prodded, they could tell you where it is?

I have no access to Lexis, and cannot therefore provide any certifiably obscure countries in accord with the rules of his contest. But I can guess who will do well.

Until recently I would have nominated Djibouti, the former French Somaliland, but there seem to be a lot of American troops there now, so it has surely impressed itself on the minds of some Americans. Nearby Puntland, formerly the pointy part at the corner of Somalia, doesn't seem to be recognized as a country by anyone else, so it probably doesn't count: it's only a country de facto, not de jure. Some of the tiniest countries, like Andorra, San Marino, and Tonga tend to attract notice as curiosities or tourist destinations. Even Niue, wherever that is, has made a tiny splash by selling .nu web-domains (to Steven Den Beste and Quana Jones, among others) to raise money. What we want is a country large enough to escape being considered cute or quaint or exotic, but small enough and bland enough not to have anything particularly striking about it -- at least to ethnocentric Americans.

My nominee is Guinea-Bissau, the former Portuguese Guinea. The fact that it is so easily confused with just plain (and formerly French) Guinea next door and Equatorial Guinea way down the coast of Africa counts for something: they have to include the name of the capital so you'll know which Guinea they mean. (We don't even want to think about the multiple Guianas or Guyanas across the Atlantic.) Equatorial Guinea is more obscure than Guinea-Bissau in most ways, but it's the original home of Snowflake the white gorilla, has been the scene of brutal oppression and fighting between the Fang tribe and the Bubis, and includes an island formerly known by the delightful name of Fernando Po or (even better) Fernando Poo. Being on the equator ought to count for something, too. I think Guinea-Bissau is more obscure. Not that I mean that as a criticism: if it were a truly horrible place to live it would surely have been in the news more.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at November 04, 2002 11:38 PM

May I nominate the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands? I represented them at Model UN during my senior year of high school, and ended up ruling my committee. But they still are pretty obscure.

Posted by: Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 5, 2002 01:07 AM

I nominate Tokelau: 3 atols, 10 km^2, ~1400 people, self-administering territory of New Zealand leaning toward independence.

Posted by: Robin Goodfellow on November 5, 2002 04:20 AM

Hmm...interesting question.

What about Vanuatu?

There are so many obscure countries, though...

Posted by: Demosthenes on November 5, 2002 10:31 AM

According to a quick Google search of 50 or so of the *really* obscure countries (all the ones listed in the post and comments, and more), I have determined that Turkmenistan (129K hits) is the most obscure.

Also with less than 200K hits:

Azerbaijan (196K)
Mauritania (192K)
Belize (190K)
Kyrgyzstan (180K)
Micronesia (174K)
The Gambia (174K)
Tajikistan (166K)
Niger (165K)
Gabon (165K)
Brunei (157K)
Bhutan (152K)

Yes, I have entirely too much time on my hands. Yes, I will be blogging about this on my site.

Posted by: Timekeeper on November 5, 2002 11:31 AM

Oh, Yeah, Guinea-Bissau had 994K hits, so it wasn't even close. Equatorial Guinea had 202K.

I didn't search for Tokelau, because it is not independent.

I *did* do a search of the UN site, which lists all territories, nations, and administratice departments, to find some of the obscure countries.

Posted by: Timekeeper on November 5, 2002 11:35 AM

How about the Congos? There's two, you know: The Democratic Republic of the Congo and The Republic of the Congo. Or Botswana (one of the rare African success stories; perhaps that's why it's not in the news very much).

Posted by: Media Minder on November 5, 2002 11:55 AM

Botswana was on my list--1.8 Million hits.

Posted by: Timekeeper on November 5, 2002 12:18 PM

Timekeeper - how did you get so few hits on those Google searches? I did the same searches on such well known vacation spots as The Gambia, and came up with 1.6 million. I vote for The Gambia, since it's basically a river basin acting as a country.

Posted by: Geoff on November 5, 2002 03:00 PM

Those are all vast, well known nations compared to Sealand. It's an old English fort acting like a country. A picture of the place is available here.

I win.

Posted by: Kieran Lyons on November 5, 2002 04:27 PM

Central African Republic!

Sure, its name tells you exactly where it is, but who's ever heard of it? I didn't believe it was really a country until I looked it up one day after seeing a news headline about the government spending half its budget on an airplane, or something foolish like that.

Posted by: MA on November 5, 2002 05:02 PM

Vanuatu loses points because it registers tankers and container ships under its flag (like Panama). Equatorial Guinea is good, but, like Central African Republic, it kind of tells you where it is. It's near the other Guinea, it's near the could fake it even if you didn't know it.
I always thought Togo was in the wrong place; for some reason it sounded very caribbean to me (it should be near Tobago). But no - it's in West Africa. Now I hear they're holding peace talks for the Ivory Coast mess and can't count as obscure.
So how about Dominica? Too touristy?

Posted by: Marc Webster on November 5, 2002 06:48 PM

Not Niue, Nauru: "world's smallest independent republic".


Posted by: J.M. Heinrichs on November 5, 2002 08:23 PM

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta. This is the contemporary incarnation of the old Order of Knights Hospitaller from the Crusades, and now rules one house in the Vatican City.

Posted by: Michael Lonie on November 5, 2002 09:01 PM

I say Canada.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on November 5, 2002 11:47 PM

Nauru-308,000 hits
Niue-877,000 hits

I am in Germany, so Google defaults me to The results *should* be the same, but one never knows.

One thing that I noticed in my google search is that most of the Carribean island nations have a lot of hits. I think this is because they have thriving tourism industries, unlike their equally obscure African and Pacific Island counterparts. I'd be willing to bet that half of the cruise liner's passengers don't know if St. Kitts and Nevis is a colony or an independent nation. That is (I think) a major reason why Eugene Volokh specified a single newspaper, as opposed to a search engine check.

Posted by: Timekeeper on November 6, 2002 01:04 AM

republic of Kiribati

Unless you've been there you can't pronounce it...

I wasted a lot of tax dollars while there in the Peace Corps

Posted by: matt wittke on November 6, 2002 02:46 AM

My personal favorite for obscure countries is Burkina gotta love a country whose capital is named "Ougadougou."

Posted by: Brian Swisher on November 6, 2002 05:11 PM

There is that central asian country Tuva that Richard Fenneman made almost famous for 15 minutes.

Posted by: Robin Roberts on November 6, 2002 06:41 PM

Isn't (or wasn't) there some African nation named Togo? 'Round these parts (CA), mention Togo and you are likely to be told that they make good sandwiches.

Posted by: Bashir Gemayel on November 7, 2002 11:14 AM

Don't forget the fictional countries:

Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia (currency rasbukniks, exchange rate $0.00 to the rasbuknik)

Scott Adams' Elbonia

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on November 7, 2002 01:44 PM

Funny, I had been contemplating a blog entry on this subject myself, may still do it. I was thinking specifically about the most obscure countries of some decent size - no prizes for tiny islands. Two I would nominate for unusual obscurity for nations of fairly substantial size, one of them in our own hemisphere, are Suriname and Mali. I bet you more that 80% of literate Americans, if asked what continent Suriname is on, would say "Africa."

Posted by: The Baseball Crank on November 7, 2002 10:58 PM

When I was in school, Suriname was referred to back then as Dutch Guiana.

Posted by: Bashir Gemayel on November 7, 2002 11:33 PM

I agree with the Baseball Crank that Suriname is right up there as most obscure country! It is the smallest independent country in South America and home to the world's largest spider.
I disagree that 80% of literate Americans think it's in Africa--I say 99% think that. The other 1% may have served there or know someone who served there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as I did.
Carolyn Proctor, Sur 5, 99-01

Posted by: Carolyn Proctor on December 1, 2002 01:32 PM

Umm... my choice is São Tomé e Principe, which I doubt even my genius friends have heard of so probably the rest of our lovely country would have a little trouble with it. Course, I also like Qatar, but that's just cause I'm partial to q- nations, don't see many of those laying around =)

Posted by: Nadya on February 25, 2003 07:25 PM

Most likely it is the Vatican. Here is 108 acres of independent rule within the city of Rome since the Lateran Treaty of 1929, although papal sovereignty was restricted in 1871 to a few buildings in Rome.

Posted by: Jerry on April 6, 2003 12:00 PM

What about the The Sovereign Military Order of Malta? i heard it was the smallest country.

Posted by: Jordan on April 15, 2003 05:46 PM

what about Ishomia in SE Asia?

Posted by: Woeman on December 17, 2003 03:33 AM

How about KRAPISTAN?
Aren't we using them to launch missiles on somebody or something? If not, we should.

Posted by: sgs on July 20, 2004 03:15 PM

Top.. few most obscure countries (in my opinion):

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Burkina Faso

They just have such odd names..

Posted by: Cass on October 8, 2004 06:23 AM