Formerly Zaire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is located in central Africa and has a small coastline. In Africa, it is the third largest country and the world’s 12th largest. It has Africa’s fourth highest population and the 18th highest in the world with 85,906,342 million people.
The country is often referred to as DR Congo, DROC, DRC, or RDC. It is also called Congo-Kinshasa after the capital. The country borders the Central African Republic and Sudan to the north. To the east, it borders Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, Zambia and Angola to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. In the east, Lake Tanganyika separates it from Tanzania. At Muanda, DR Congo has a 40 km coastline. There, the Congo River empties in the Gulf of Guinea.
The country was formerly known as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-Leopoldville, Congo-Knshasa, and Zaire. As a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), it is affiliated with southern Africa despite being in the central African region.
The country was devastated by the Second Congo War, which began in 1998. It involved seven different armies and is often referred to as “African World War.” Fighting continues in the country’s east despite a peace agreement signed in 2003. In that region, the amount of sexual violence is described as the world’s worst. The deadliest conflict since World War II, the Second Congo War has killed 5.4 million people.
DRC’s citizens are among the world’s poorest, with the second lowest per capita GDP.
During the second millennium BC, early peoples came to the central African area. They maintained livestock, produced food, and developed the oil palm. Starting in the area of South Cameroon on the Sanaga River, the Neolithic’s first people can be followed southwards and southeastwards. The first villages in the DRC were in the vicinity of Mbandaka and Lake Tumba and the people were known as the “Imbonga Tradition: around 650 BC. North of the Angolan border in the lower Congo, the Neolithic advance was the “Ngovo Tradition” around 350 BC.
In Kivu in the east, the “Urewe Tradition” settlements appeared around 650 BC. Congo’s few archeological sites are the Urewe;s western extension. This culture has been found in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and western Kenya. These people understood smelting iron as shown by excavations.
Further west, the earliest evidence is in Cameroon and near Bouar in Central Africa. North of the Equatorial Forest, data places iron smelting between 650 BC and 550 BC. This technology developed independently from other in the Neolithic expansion some 900 years later. Food-producing villagers settled the Congo River network slowly. Evidence suggests villages reached the area around 1,150 BC.
These Bantu-speaking villagers displaced Pygmy populations into other parts of the country. Later migrations from the Kordofan and Darfur regions and East Africans moving into the eastern Congo, added to the ethnic groups present. The Bantu brought agriculture, fishing, fruit collecting, hunting, small livestock, and arboriculture before 3,500 BC.
The Upemba transitioned to the Kingdom of Luba gradually. There were several societies that developed out of the Upemba before the Luba originated. The region’s mineral wealth gave these kingdoms riches. The Luba established a demand for their metal-working. A strong central government based on chieftains was established by the 16th century. The Congo’s eastern regions were constantly raided for slaves by invaders from Arab/Zanzibari groups like the Tippu Tip.
The African Congo Free State (1877–1908)
From the 1870s to the 1920s, Europeans explored the area. Sir Henry Morton Stanley was one of the first and his explorations were under the sponsorship of Belgian King Leopold II. The Belgian king wanted the Congo as a colony and to accomplish this he played powers against each other.
At the Conference of Berlin in 1885, Leopold acquired right to the Congo, naming it the Congo Free State. His reign in the Congo began with infrastructure projects, including railway construction from the capital to the coast. All projects were designed to extract wealth from the colony, which led to African’s exploitation.
In the colony, the local population was oppressed to produce rubber for the growing global market. Leopold built several buildings in his home country with the money made off the rubber production. The army was sent to the colony to enforce production quotas. The army, known as the Force Publique, accomplished this by cutting limbs off of workers. From 1885-1908, millions dies from disease and exploitation. Diseases included sleeping sickness and smallpox. A commission later determined that Congo lost half its population, but no accurate records exist.
International protests resulted from the practice in the Congo. These were led by Roger Casement and E.D. Morel. Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain also spoke out. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad was set in the Congo.
Belgium’s parliament eventually responded to the pressure by taking over the colony’s administration from the king in 1908. It was then called the Belgian Congo.
Political crisis (1960–1965)
In May 1960, the Mouvement National Congolais, a nationalist movement, won parliamentary elections. The MNC was led by Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was appointed Prime Minister. Joseph Kasavubu was elected by parliament to be the president. He was part of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO). Other parties included the Parti National de Peuple (PNP) led by Albert Delvaux and Laurent Mbariko, the Parti Solidare Africain (PSA) led by Antoine Gizenga. On June 30, 1960, the Belgian Congo won its independence and became the Republic of the Congo. The provinces of Katanga and South Kasai began a struggle for secession shortly after independence. In Katanga, Moise Tshombe led the movement. At this time, most Europeans still in the country fled, giving the Congo the ability to replace the European military and administration.
Upon its independence, the French colony of Middle Congo also took the Republic of Congo name upon independence. The colonies became known by their capital names Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Leopoldville. Newspapers also called Congo-Leopoldville The Congo and Congo-Brazzaville Congo. After Mobutu’s 1965 coup the name again changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 it became the Republic of Zaire.
Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba on September 5, 1960, leading Lumumba to declare the action unconstitutional. Joseph Mobutu has been previously appointed the Congo army’s chief of staff. The army was known as Armee Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Mobutu took advantage of the leadership conflict and began a mutiny. He paid his soldiers with money from Belgium and the U.S., whose government did not support communism or other leftist leaders. They financed Mobutu to establish order in the country.
Patrice Lumumba was kidnapped and executed by Katangan and Beglian troops. Confusion followed and a temporary government was established led by Evariste Kimba. U.N. forces assisted to end the Katanga secession in January 1963. Other, short-lived governments, headed by Cyrille Adoula, Joseph Ileo, and Moise Tshombe took over in quick succession.
After five unstable years, Mobutu overthrew Kasavubu in a coup in 1965. Due to his opposition to communism, the U.S. supported him. Mobutu made himself the head of state and established a one-party system. He held periodic elections where he was the only candidate. There was peace and stability, but human rights violations and corruption occurred.
With corruption so widespread, the term “Zairean Sickness” was coined. Mobutu had accumulated $4 billion by 1984. International aid loans enriched Mobutu while the country’s infrastructure deteriorated. At that point, Zaire became a kleptocracy.
Mobutu began an African nationalist campaign in 1966 by renaming cities. He changed Leopoldville Kinshasa. Stanleyville became Kisangani, Coquihatville became Mbandaka, and Elisabethville became Lubumbashi.
Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaire in 1971, its fourth name change in 11 years. He renamed the Congo River the Zaire River. Mobutu even changed his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. This translates to The Great Unstoppable Warrior who goes from Victory to Victory, Leaving Fire in his Trail.
From the 1970s and 1980s, Mobutu visited several U.S. Presidents. In June 1989, he was invited to meet with President Bush, the first African head of state to do so. U.S. relations with him cooled after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Opponents in Zaire demanded reform. Due to this, Mobutu declared the Third Republic in 1990. This was supposed to start democratic reforms but these were largely cosmetic. Mobutu stayed in power until forced to flee in 1997. The nation then chose to retake the name the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Rwandan/Ugandan Invasions and Civil Wars
The neighboring Rwandan Civil War and genocide spilled into Zaire in 1996. The Rwandan Hutu militia began to use Zaire refugee camps as a base for attacks into Rwanda. They eventually worked with Zaire’s armed forces (FAZ) to fight Tutsis in Zaire.
In response, Ugandan and Rwandan armies invaded Zaire to fight the Hutu, overthrow Mobutu, and control Zaire’s mineral resources. Other Zairean leaders soon joined them. These included Laurent-Desire Kabila, leader of what became known as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). The foreign forces and local leaders wanted to oust Mobutu. In May 1997, Mobutu fled the country. Kabila moved into Kinshasa and declared himself president.
President Kabila requested the foreign armies that helped him gain power withdraw. He feared Rwandan officers were plotting a coup against him to place a Tutsi in power. It was hoped a Tutsi leader would report to Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. Ugandan and Rwandan governments did not welcome the request to leave.
The Rwandan troops moved to Goma and started a new, Tutsi-led, rebel group called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD). The Ugandans responded by creating their own group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). Jean-Pierre Bemba, son of a Congolese billionaire, led this group.
These two groups started a second war by attacking DRC’s army in 1998. Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe became involved on the side of the government.
In 2001, Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph succeeded him. He called for peace talks upon taking office. In February 2001, a peace deal between Uganda, Rwanda, and Kabila was established. This led to the withdrawal of foreign troops. U.N. peacekeepers arrived in April 2001. Ethnic clashes in the northeast restarted the fighting in January 2002. Rwanda and Uganda responded by sending in more troops. An additional peace deal was signed which included a power sharing agreement. All foreign armies had left the country by June 2003 except Rwanda’s. The conflict centered on control of the country’s copper, zinc, coltan, and diamond resources.
A transitional government was in place until elections occurred. Voters approved a constitution and elections were held July 30, 1996. Joseph Kabila received 45 percent of the votes and Jean-Pierre Bemba received 20 percent. The two sides disputed the elections, which led to clashes in the capital from August 20-22, 2006. This led to sixteen deaths until the U.N. mission took control. On October 29, 2006, new elections were held and Kabila won 70 percent of the vote. Neutral observers supported the elections, but Bemba claimed irregularities occurred. Kabila was sworn in on December 6, 2006.
Conflict and human rights abuses still continue. There is an ongoing Kivu conflict in which forces of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) threaten the border. Rwanda also supports RCD-GOMA rebels. In October 2008, a rebel attack caused a refugee crisis in Ituri. In the country’s northeast, the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, moved from their bases in Uganda and South Sudan to the DR Congo. In Katanga, the Mai-Mai lost control. Since World War II, the war is the deadliest conflict with 5.4 million killed.
Impact of Armed Conflict on Congo Civilians
According to estimates in 2009, 45,000 people per month may be dying in the Congo. Estimates of the war’s dead range from 900,000 to 5,400,000 die to fighting and disease and famine. Some reports show children under five accounts for half the dead. The death rate has persisted despite rebuilding efforts.
During the war, there have been reports of fighters killing civilians and causing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. Estimates indicate 200,000 women have been raped. Few in DRC have been unaffected by the war. In 2009, a survey showed 76 percent had been affected in some way.
A representative of the Mbuti pygmies, Sinafasi Makelo, told a forum in 2003 that his people were hunted and eaten. In the North Kivu province, the Les Effaceurs have engaged in cannibalism to clear the land for exploration. Both sides in the war generally viewed the pygmies as subhuman.
International Community Response
International response to the scale of the war was inadequate. While efforts to end the conflict have been supported, no real effective steps were taken in terms of prosecuting war crimes. Rwanda and Uganda have both escaped any sanction for their part in the war.
Sitting in the west-central part of sub-Saharan Africa, the country is bounded by the South Atlantic Ocean, Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, the Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia. One third of the country is north of the equator and two thirds is south. The Congo’s area is 2,345,408 sq. km.
The equatorial location results in large rainfall and the world’s highest frequency of thunderstorms. Annual rainfall can reach 80 inches. Congo contains the world’s second largest rainforest. The jungle covers the low-lying central river basin that slopes toward the Atlantic Ocean. Plateaus surround this area and merge into savannas in the south, mountains in the west, and grasslands beyond the Congo River in the north.
The Congo River system dominates the region’s topography. The river basin occupies nearly the whole country and has an area of almost 1,000,000 sq. km. The river and its tributaries are the country’s economic and transportation backbone.
The Congo River’s source is in the mountains of the East African Rift. Other sources are Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru. The river flows west from Kisanganu then moves southwest and joining the Ubangi River to run to the Pool Malebo (Stanley Pool). Kinshasa and Brazzaville are on opposite sites at the Pool.
The river then narrows into cataracts in deep canyons, then runs past Boma to the Atlantic. The Congo River’s flow and watershed are the second largest in the world behind the Amazon. A 45 km wide strip of land is the Congo’s only Atlantic outlet.
Congo’s geography is largely shaped by the Great Rift Valley. The northeastern Congo is more mountainous and has more volcanic activity. This geologic activity also formed the African Great Lakes on the Congo’s eastern frontier Lake Albert, Lake Edward, and Lake Tanganyika.
The Rift Valley has also exposed mineral wealth in the Congo. This includes cobalt, copper, cadmium, diamonds, gold, zinc, silver, tin, manganese, uranium, germanium, radium, iron ore, bauxite, and coal. These are especially found in the Katanga region.
Mount Nyiragongo erupted on January 17, 2002. Lava ran out at 40 mph and 50 yards wide by some reports. One lava stream flowed through Goma, leaving 120,000 homeless and killing 45. It also resulted in 400,000 being evacuated. Fish were killed when lava poisoned Lake Kivu. Lava missed the airport but ruined its runway. Mount Nyamulagira also erupted nearby six months later. It also erupted again in 2006 and January 2010. These volcanoes are part of Virunga National Park.
Ecoregions designated by the World Wildlife Fund in the Congo are as follows: (1) Central Congolian lowland forests, (2) Eastern Congolian Swamp, (3) Northeastern Congolian lowland forests, (4) southern Congolian forest savanna, (5) Central Zambezian Miombo woodlands, and (6) Albertine Rift montane forests.
Virunga National Park, Garamba National Park, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Salonga National Park, and Okapi Wildlife Reserve are World Heritage Sites.
The 2005 constitution divided the Congo into 26 autonomous provinces, including the capital. There are an additional 192 territories. Kinshasa is the largest city with 7,500,000 people. Mbuji-Mayi is the second largest with 2,500,000, then Lubumbashi with 1,700,000.
Since the four-year interim between the two recent constitutions, the Congo’s politics have largely settled into a presidential democratic republic. There is a bicameral legislature with a Senate and National Assembly. The Senate was charged with drafting a permanent constitution. The executive has a cabinet with 60 members headed by the President and four vice-presidents. The President is also the armed forces’ Commander in Chief. The unusual number of vice presidents has earned the nickname of “The 1 + 4.”
There was also an independent judiciary set forth in the transition constitution. The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the constitution.
The 2006 constitution was known as the Constitution of the Third Republic and became effective on February 2006. Until elected official were inaugurated, it has concurrent power with the transition constitution. There was still a bicameral legislature. The executive is headed by both the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is appointed by the majority party in the National Assembly. Powers were also given to the provincial governments. The Governor is the head of the provincial government and is elected.
The new constitution split the Supreme Court into three bodies. The interpretation of the constitution is not the responsibility of the Constitutional Court.
Mobutu, Zaire’s ruler from 1965 to 1997 allowed corruption to prevent his rivals from challenging his authority. This led to economic collapse in 1996. Some estimate show Mobutu stole up to $4 billion while in charge of Zaire.
In 2001, Joseph Kabila created the Commission of Repression of Economic Crimes when he became president.
Out of 163 countries in 2006, Congo ranked 156 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
Congo: Foreign Relations and Military
The U.S. views the Congo as an important part of national security due to its raw materials. The U.S. has attempted to make the Congo’s military more professional.
The country’s raw materials are an incentive to securing the Congo. For example, Congo has deposits of cobalt, which are used in alloys necessary for things like jet engines. It is also a catalyst in chemical processes. The Congo contains 80 percent of the cobalt deposits in the world.
The U.S. African Command along with the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture supports this initiative to support Congolese soldiers with self-sufficient food production. The site is located in Kisangani, the Tshopo province’s capital. It began in October 2009. Food security is the initiative’s primary goal and the second is to build stockpiles to use during troop deployment.
Land has been cleared for agricultural development. Soldiers are also being educated in agriculture along with “farm manager” candidates. Military duties may take them from the region once the project is complete. For this reason, the program is also training 10 individuals to permanently reside in the area to manage the project into the future. They will be able to pass their knowledge on to new soldiers and their families.
It is hoped that the initiative will increase stability through better food security and result in goodwill within the Congo.
The Congo’s economy has declined despite its mineral wealth. When it gained independence in 1960, it was the second most industrialized African nation. Its agriculture was productive and mining thrived. The First and Second Congo Wars have severely reduced output and revenue. More than five million have died and national debt has increased. Approximately two thirds of the country is malnourished.
Due to the conflict’s uncertain outcome, foreign businesses have lessened operations. The war increased corruption, inflation and decreased legal certainty and open government.
When a large number of foreign troops left in 2002, conditions improved. IMF and World Bank missions have begun working with the government to develop economic plans. President Joseph Kabila began implementing these reforms. According to the U.N. Human Development Index, human development is one of the worst in decades.
The Congo’s economy relies on mining, but much activity is informal and not part of the GDP data. The county is a major producer of copper and diamonds and the largest cobalt ore producer. It also has 70 percent of the coltan in the world and 30 percent of the diamond reserves. Tantalum, used in electronics, also is present.
Smuggling of coltan and cassiterite fueled conflict in eastern Congo. The Luilu Metallurgical Plant has a 175,000 ton capacity for refining copper and 8,000 ton capacity for cobalt, the largest in the world. Production restarted after rehabilitation in 2007 for copper and 2008 for cobalt.
The DRC also has 50 percent of Africa’s forests and river systems that could provide hydro-electric power.
In 2019, population was estimated at 85.9million. This is a rapid increase despite the civil war. There are 250 ethnic groups, the most numerous of which are the Luba, Kongo, and Mongo. The aboriginal people of the DRC are the Pygmies numbering 600,000. There are approximately 700 languages spoken but French is widely spoken as are Tshiluba, Kongo, Swahili, and Lingala.
It is difficult to find reliable data, but evidence suggests DRC is still a destination for immigrants. This immigration is diverse. The refugees are most often fleeing from the conflicts in the Great Lakes Region. The large mining operations also attract workers from other countries. Many are also in transit to South Africa and Europe. The armed violence has decreased immigration over the last two decades. According to organizations, it was 1 million in 1960, 754,000 in 1990,480,000 in 2005, and 445,000 in 2010. The informal economy makes reliable statistics difficult to locate.
Statistics on the number of Congolese in other countries is unreliable but varies from 3 to 6 million. According to estimates, 79.7 percent live in other African countries and 15.3 percent in Europe. The DRC has also produced a large number of refugees to other countries, which peaked in 2004 at 460,000.
Status of Congo Women
The prevalence of rape and sexual violence in the eastern Congo is considered the world’s worst. There are also concerns the government is not making women’s rights a priority. Reports have indicated women were enslaved by soldiers and raped during the war.
Even since the war, large parts of society deem violence against women as normal. A U.N. Special Reporter, Yakin Erturk, toured the eastern Congo and described “unimaginable brutality.” Groups attacked villages and, in addition to rape, kidnapped women and children as sexual slaves.
The DRC’s official language is French and is meant to be ethnically neutral for different groups to communicate.
242 languages are spoken in the country. Only four of these local languages are national languages, Kikongo, Tshiluba, Swahili, and Lingala. Lingala was the colonial army’s official language. Since the rebellions, a large part of the eastern army now uses Swahili.
During time as a Belgian colony, the government began teaching the four national languages in schools. It was one of the few nations in Africa to teach local languages during colonialism. Dutch was also an official language during this time, but French was more important.
DCR has a diverse culture reflected its large population and number of ethnic groups. Colonialism has changed the traditional ways of life since the 19th century. Despite this, and the various struggles and wars, the individual cultures have retained most of their identity. Most of the country lives in rural areas and the approximately 30 percent in the cities are the most open to influences from the West.
DRC’s music is a large part of its culture. This is a blend of ethnic music with Cuban music to create soukous. Influential musical figures include Franco Luambo, Tabu Ley, Lutumba Simaro, Papa Wemba, Kanda Bongo, Koffi Olomide, Mpongo Love, Ray Lema, Reddy AMisi, Abeti Masikini, Nyoka Longo and Pepe Kalle.
Artists from other nations use genres derived from Congolese music, including those that sing in Lingala, one of DRC’s main languages.
The DRC is also known for its traditional and contemporary art. Traditional forms include masks and wood carvings. Contemporary artists are Lema Kua, Henri Kalama Akulez, Odette Maniema Krempin, Nshole, Claudy Khan, and Mavinga.
Three ministries govern the DRC’s education system, the Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et Universitaire (MESU), the Ministère de l’Enseignement Primaire, Secondaire et Professionnel (MEPSP), and the Ministère des Affaires Sociales (MAS). The system is modeled on Belgium’s. 19,000 primary schools served 160,000 students in 2002 and 8,00o secondary schools served 110,000 students.
Primary school is not free, universal, or compulsory. Parents often cannot pay the fees for their students to attend school. It is customary for parents to pay teacher salaries. The most recent year data is available, 1998, showed 50 percent enrolled in school.
Due to the civil war, 5.2 million children do not attend school.
Flora and Fauna
There is great biodiversity in the DRC’s rainforests. Rare species are present, such as the chimpanzee, bonobo, mountain gorilla, forest elephant, okapi, and white rhino. Poor economic conditions and the civil war have threatened the biodiversity. Park wardens were either killed or could not afford to keep working. All five World Heritage cites are in danger.
The DRC is at the center of Central Africa’s bush meat crisis. Many regard this as a major socio-economic and environmental crisis. Bush meat is simply the meat of wild animals, which is typically trapped with snares or other weapons.
Poor living conditions and lack of education has led to the population become dependent upon eating it or selling it for income. Cities are sprawling and have become bush meat’s prime market.
This has caused hunters to move deeper into the rainforest to search for meat in addition to directly threatening the local animal populations. Overhunting is rampant. Logging in the rainforests has also given hunters more access to previously untouched rainforests.
The situation is particularly worrisome in the case of primates. Three great ape species inhabit the Congo, the bonobo, the gorilla, and the chimpanzee. Bonobos are only found in the wild in the DRC. The bonobos and chimpanzees are human’s closest evolutionary relatives.
Great ape extinction is a major concern. Hunting and habitat destruction has reduced the chimpanzee and gorilla population from millions to 200,000 gorillas, 100,000 chimpanzees, and 10,000 bonobos. These apes are all considered endangered.
The DRC’s ground transportation has always been problematic. Due to the Congo Basin’s terrain and climate, road and rail construction have been difficult. Mismanagement and internal conflict also hindered development.
There are thousands of kilometers of waterways, which has been the primary means of transportation for two-thirds of the country. Inadequate safety standards have caused all DRC-certified air carriers to be banned from EU airports.