Hundreds of tiny hunter-gatherer tribes lived on the area that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for millennia. The thick, tropical forest environment and the wet climate kept the population of the area low, preventing the development of sophisticated civilizations, and as a consequence, just a few relics of ancient communities survive today. The Kongo Kingdom, established in the 13th and 14th centuries, was the first and only major political force. The Kongo Kingdom, which included what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, Congo-Brazzaville, and Bas-Congo, became rich and strong through selling ivory, copperware, textiles, ceramics, and slaves with other African peoples (long before Europeans arrived). In 1483, the Portuguese established contact with the Kongos and were able to convert the monarch to Christianity, as well as the majority of the people. The Kongo Kingdom was a significant supplier of slaves, who were mainly war prisoners who were sold in line with Kongo legislation. The Kongo Kingdom experienced fierce struggle for succession to the king, conflict with tribes to the east, and a series of wars with the Portuguese after reaching its peak in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Portuguese destroyed the Kongo Kingdom in 1665, essentially ending it, but the mainly ceremonial post of King of Kongo lasted until the 1880s, and “Kongo” retained the name of a loose group of tribes in the Congo River delta. Arab traders from Zanzibar used Kivu and the surrounding regions of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi as a supply of slaves. Beginning in 1884, the Kuba Federation in southern DRC was remote enough to escape slavery and even resist Belgian efforts to contact them. However, by 1900, the Kuba Federation had disintegrated after reaching its pinnacle of strength in the early nineteenth century. Only tiny tribes and short-lived kingdoms flourished elsewhere.
The area that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the last part of Africa to be discovered by Europeans. The Portuguese never made it more than a few hundred kilometers away from the Atlantic coast. Explorers attempted to go up the Congo River dozens of times, but rapids, the thick forest around them, tropical illnesses, and hostile tribes stopped even the best-equipped groups from getting beyond the first cataract 160 kilometers interior. In the mid-1860s, renowned British explorer Dr. Livingstone started investigating the Lualaba River, which he mistakenly believed was linked to the Nile but is really the upper Congo. Livingstone traveled down the Congo River to Stanley Pool, which is now shared by Kinshasa and Brazzaville, after his historic encounter with Henry Morton Stanley in 1867. From there, he crossed the Atlantic on land.
In Belgium, the ardent King Leopold II urgently desired a colony to keep up with other European powers, but the Belgian government continually blocked him (he was a Constitutional monarch). Finally, he decided to create a colony as a regular citizen, and formed a “humanitarian” organization with the goal of claiming the Congo, as well as numerous shell corporations to do so. Meanwhile, Stanley was looking for a backer for his dream project: a railway through the lower cataracts of the Congo River, which would enable steamers to travel the upper 1,000 miles of the Congo and unlock the riches of the “Heart of Africa.” Stanley was entrusted by Leopold with constructing a chain of forts along the upper Congo River and purchasing sovereignty from local chiefs (or killing those unwilling). Several forts were constructed on the Congo’s higher reaches, with laborers and supplies arriving from Zanzibar. Stanley made it overland from the Atlantic to Stanley Pool in 1883. When he went upriver, he found that a strong Zanzibari slaver had learned of his exploits and had seized the region surrounding the Lualaba River, enabling Stanley to construct his final fort right below Stanley Falls (site of modern Kisangani).
Congo Free State
When the European countries partitioned Africa between themselves at the Berlin Conference in 1885, Leopold, the only shareholder, officially acquired sovereignty of the Congo under the cover of the Association internationale du Congo. The Congo Free State was founded, including the whole current DRC. Leopold replaced the AIC with a group of friends and business associates when he no longer needed it, and went out to exploit the Congo’s resources. Any area that did not include a settlement became the property of the Congo, and the country was split into two zones: a private zone (exclusively owned by the Congo) and a Free Trade Zone, where any European could purchase a 10-15 year land lease and retain all of the revenue generated by their land. Fearing that Britain’s Cape Colony might acquire Katanga (on the grounds that Congo had not exercised its right to it), Leopold sent the Stairs Expedition to Katanga. When talks with the native Yeke Kingdom fell down, the Belgians waged a brief battle that culminated with their king’s execution. In 1894, the Zanzibari slavers controlling the Lualaba River fought another brief battle.
Following the conclusion of the conflicts, the Belgians set out to maximize revenues from the areas. Administrators’ wages were cut to the bare minimum, with a rewards system based on high commissions based on district revenues, which was subsequently replaced with a system of commissions at the conclusion of administrators’ employment depending on their superiors’ approval. People who lived in the state-owned “Private Domain” were prohibited from dealing with anybody other than the state and were forced to provide predetermined quantities of rubber and ivory at a low, fixed price. Rubber originated from wild vines in the Congo, which workers slashed, rubbed the liquid rubber on their bodies, then had it scraped off in a painful procedure when it solidified. As rubber quotas increased, the wild vines were destroyed in the process, making them fewer and more difficult to locate.
These quotas were enforced by the government’s Force Publique, which imprisoned, tortured, flogged, even raped and burned disobedient/rebellious communities. However, the FP’s most terrible crime was the taking of hands. Failure to fulfill rubber quotas resulted in death as a penalty. Concerned that troops were misusing their valuable bullets for pleasure hunting, the leadership demanded that soldiers give one hand for each bullet used as evidence that the bullet had been used to kill someone. Entire towns would be encircled, and residents would be killed, with baskets of severed hands being delivered to commanders. Soldiers might be rewarded with bonuses and be allowed to return home earlier if they returned more hands than others, while communities facing unreasonable rubber quotas could attack neighboring villages to gather hands to give to the FP in order to escape the same fate. Rubber prices soared in the 1890s, giving enormous riches to Leopold and the Congolese whites, but low-cost rubber from the Americas and Asia ultimately lowered prices, making the CFS business unprofitable.
Reports of these crimes reached Europe around the turn of the century. Other European countries started examining Leopold’s actions in the Congo Free State after a few years of effectively persuading the public that these allegations were isolated occurrences and slander. The problem was brought to the European public’s attention by notable journalists and writers (such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo). Embarrassed, Belgium’s government seized the Congo Free State, took over Leopold’s possessions, and renamed the country Belgian Congo (to differentiate from French Congo, now Republic of the Congo). Although no census was ever conducted, historians believe that between 1885 and 1908, half of the Congo’s population, up to 10 million people, were murdered.
The Belgian government first made little adjustments, apart from abolishing forced labor and its accompanying penalties. Belgians started building roads and railways throughout the Congo to utilize the country’s enormous mineral riches (most of which remain, with little upkeep over the century, today). Belgians also tried to provide education and health services to Congolese people. During WWII, the Congo remained faithful to the Belgian government in exile in London, sending soldiers to Ethiopia to fight Italians and East Africa to fight Germans. The Congo also became a major source of rubber and ores to the rest of the globe. Uranium mined in the Belgian Congo was sent to the United States and used in the atomic bombs that ended the Pacific War at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Belgian Congo flourished after WWII, and the 1950s were some of the Congo’s most tranquil years. Belgium’s government made investments in health care, infrastructure, and housing. Segregation almost disappeared when Congolese acquired the freedom to own and sell land. Even in the bigger cities, a tiny middle class emerged. The Belgians failed to create a well-educated cadre of black leaders and public employees. In the bigger cities, the first elections accessible to black voters and candidates were conducted in 1957. By 1959, the Congolese had been encouraged by the success of other African nations’ independence movements, and demands for independence had become more vociferous. Belgium did not want a colonial war to keep control of the Congo, so in January 1960, it invited a group of Congolese political leaders to Brussels for negotiations. With independence in mid-1960, the Belgians planned a 5-year transition plan that included holding parliamentary elections in 1960 and progressively handing over administrative authority to the Congolese. The Congolese delegation rejected the meticulously planned plan, and the Belgians finally agreed to conduct elections in May and give a quick independence on June 30. Patrice Lumumba, a once-incarcerated politician, was chosen Prime Minister and head of the government by regional and national political groups.
On June 30, 1960, the “Republic of the Congo” (the same name as the neighboring French colony Middle Congo) was given independence. After complimenting Monarch Leopold II’s brilliance, the day was characterized by a sneer and verbal attack aimed against the Belgian king. Within weeks of Belgium’s independence, the army revolted against white commanders, and rising violence aimed against the country’s remaining whites drove almost all 80,000 Belgians to leave.
The nation rapidly broke apart after gaining independence on June 30, 1960. South Kasai proclaimed independence on 14 June, while Katanga declared independence on 11 July, both under the leadership of Moise Tshombe. Despite not being a puppet of Belgium, Tshombe benefited significantly from Belgian financial and military assistance. Katanga was basically a neocolonial state supported by Belgium and mining corporations based in Belgium. The UN Security Council approved a resolution on July 14 allowing the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force and ordering Belgium to remove its remaining soldiers from the Congo. The Belgian soldiers withdrew, but several commanders remained as hired mercenaries and were instrumental in repelling assaults by the Congolese army (which were poorly-organized and were guilty of mass killings and rape). President Lumumba appealed to the Soviet Union for assistance, getting military assistance as well as 1,000 Soviet advisors. A UN force was sent to maintain the peace, although it accomplished nothing at first. After a hard battle in December 1961, South Kasai was regained. To assist the Katangan army, mercenaries from all across Africa and even Europe came. The UN army tried, but failed, to apprehend and return mercenaries. The UN mission was ultimately altered to forcefully reintegrate Katanga into Congo. UN and Katanga troops battled in numerous battles for almost a year. In December 1962, UN troops encircled and conquered the Katanga city, Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). Tshombe had been vanquished by January 1963, the last of the foreign mercenaries had fled to Angola, and Katanga had been reintegrated into the Congo.
Meanwhile, tensions between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasa-Vubu, of rival parties, developed in Leopoldville (Kinshasa). Kasa-Vubu fired Lumumba from his post as Prime Minister in September 1960. Lumumba questioned the constitutionality of this, and Kasa-Vubu was fired as President. Lumumba, who desired a communist society, appealed to the Soviet Union for assistance. On September 14, just two and a half months after the country’s independence, Congolese Army Chief of Staff General Mobutu was forced to interfere, leading to a coup and the detention of Lumumba. Mobutu had obtained funds from the Belgian and US embassies to pay his troops and entice them to remain loyal. Lumumba eluded arrest and fled to Stanleyville (Kisangani), only to be apprehended and brought to Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), where he was publicly assaulted, vanished, and declared dead three weeks later. He was killed in January 1961 in front of Belgian and US authorities (who had both attempted to assassinate him secretly ever since he requested the USSR for help), and the CIA and Belgium were involved in his death.
President Kasa-Vubu stayed in power, while Tshombe of Katanga rose to become Prime Minister. Pierre Mulele, a Lumumbist and Maoist, launched a revolt in 1964, effectively seizing two-thirds of the nation, and sought assistance from Maoist China. The United States and Belgium were engaged once again, this time with a small military force. Mulele escaped to Congo-Brazzaville, but was subsequently persuaded to return to Kinshasa by Mobutu’s offer of amnesty. Mulele was publicly tortured, his eyes gouged out, genitals chopped off, and limbs severed one by one while still alive, and his corpse was thrown in the Congo River when Mobutu broke his word.
Between 1960 and 1965, the whole nation was engulfed in war and revolt, prompting the term “Congo Crisis” to be coined.
General Mobutu, a devout anti-communist, made friends with the United States and Belgium throughout the Cold War, and continued to accept money to purchase the allegiance of his troops. During yet another power struggle between the President and Prime Minister in November 1965, Mobutu staged a coup with the help of the United States and Belgium. He said, “For five years, there would be no more political party activity in the nation,” claiming that “politicians” had taken five years to destroy the country. The nation was put under martial law, Parliament was weakened and eventually dissolved, and independent trade unions were outlawed. Mobutu founded the sole legal political party (until 1990), the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), in 1967, which quickly amalgamated with the government, thus turning the government into a function of the party. By 1970, all challenges to Mobutu’s authority had been removed, and he was the sole candidate in the presidential election, with voters choosing between green for optimism and red for anarchy (Mobutu… green… won with 10,131,699 to 157). Mobutu and his associates created a new constitution, which received 97 percent approval.
In the early 1970s, Mobutu launched the Authenticité campaign, which carried on the nationalist philosophy he had started in his N’Sele Manifesto of 1967. Congolese were forced to acquire African names, males were forced to abandon Western suits in favor of the traditional abacost, and geographical names were altered from colonial to African names under Authenticité. In 1972, Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa, Elisabethville was renamed Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville was renamed Kisangani. The most remarkable of them was Joseph Mobuto’s transformation into Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, due of his stamina and unyielding desire to conquer, travels from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”). All Congolese were proclaimed equal, and hierarchical modes of speech were abolished, with Congolese being obliged to address others as “citizens,” and visiting visitors being greeted with African singing and dance instead of a Western-style 21-gun salute.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mobutu maintained tight control over the government, changed political and military leaders often to prevent competition, and the implementation of Authenticité principles weakened. Mobutu progressively changed his tactics from torturing and murdering opponents to bribing them. Little thought was given to improve the lives of Congolese people. The single-party state basically served Mobutu and his associates, who became obscenely rich. Mobutu’s indulgences included a runway in his hometown big enough to accommodate Concorde aircraft, which he leased for official visits overseas and shopping excursions in Europe on occasion; when he left power, he was believed to have over US$5 billion in foreign accounts. He also tried to create a cult of personality by plastering his picture all over the place, prohibiting the media from mentioning any other government official by name (only by title), and introducing titles such as “Father of the Nation,” “Saviour of the People,” and “Supreme Combatant.” Despite his Soviet-style single-party state and authoritarian governance, Mobutu was vocally anti-Soviet, and the US and other Western powers continued to provide economic and political support to the Mobutu regime, fearing the rise of Soviet puppet governments in Africa (such as in neighboring Angola).
With the end of the Cold War, international support for Mobutu was replaced by criticism of his authority. Domestic opposition organizations grew quietly, and Congolese citizens started to demonstrate against the government and the collapsing economy. The first multi-party elections were conducted in 1990, however they had little impact. In 1991, unpaid troops started rioting and plundering Kinshasa, forcing most foreigners to flee. Talks with the opposition eventually resulted in the formation of a rival administration, resulting in a deadlock and a dysfunctional government.
First and Second Congo Wars
Mobutu’s reign was clearly coming to an end by the mid-1990s. The international world, no longer dominated by Cold War politics, turned against him. Meanwhile, Zaire’s economy was in disarray (and remains little improved to this day). The central government had a limited grip on the nation, and many resistance organizations sprung up in Eastern Zaire, distant from Kinshasa.
The Kivu area has long been riven by ethnic tensions between different ‘native’ tribes and Tutsis who were imported from Rwanda by Belgians in the late 1800s. Since independence, there have been a number of minor wars that have resulted in thousands of fatalities. However, when the Rwandan genocide occurred in 1994, approximately 1.5 million ethnic Tutsi and Hutu refugees fled to Eastern Zaire. Militant Hutus, the genocide’s primary perpetrators, started targeting Tutsi refugees and the Congolese Tutsi community (the Banyamulenge), as well as forming militias to conduct assaults into Rwanda in the hopes of regaining control. Mobutu not only failed to halt the bloodshed, but he also backed the Hutus in their invasion of Rwanda. The Zairian Parliament ordered all individuals of Rwandan or Burundian origin to return to their homeland in 1995. Meanwhile, in Zaire, the Tutsi-led Rwandan government started training and supporting Tutsi militias.
Battling erupted in August 1996, when Tutsis in the Kivu provinces launched a revolt with the aim of regaining control of North and South Kivu and fighting Hutu militias who were still assaulting them. The revolt quickly gathered local support and a large number of Zairian opposition organizations, which ultimately merged to form the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) with the aim of deposing Mobutu. By the end of the year, the rebels had taken control of a significant part of Eastern Zaire, which shielded Rwanda and Uganda from Hutu assaults, thanks to Rwanda and Uganda’s assistance. The Zairian army was weak, and when Angola deployed soldiers in early 1997, the rebels gained confidence and were able to take control of the remainder of the nation and depose Mobutu. By May, the rebels had seized Lubumbashi and were close to Kinshasa. Mobutu fled and AFDL leader Laurent-Desire Kabila marched into Kinshasa after peace negotiations between the two factions broke down. In 1998, Kabila renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of the Congo and tried to restore order by expelling foreign soldiers.
In August 1998, Tutsi troops revolted in Goma, and a new rebel organization sprang up to take control of most of the Eastern DRC. Kabila enlisted the assistance of Hutu militias to put down the new insurgents. Rwanda saw this as an assault on the Tutsi people and sent soldiers over the border to defend them. By the end of the month, the rebels had taken control of most of Eastern DRC, as well as a small region near Kinshasa, including the Inga Dam, which enabled them to cut off power to the capital. When it seemed like Kabila’s government and capital, Kinshasa, might fall to the rebels, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe pledged to support him, and soldiers from Zimbabwe arrived just in time to defend the city from a rebel onslaught; Chad, Libya, and Sudan all deployed forces to assist Kabila. As a stalemate loomed, the foreign countries fighting in the DRC agreed to a truce in January 1999, but combat continued since the rebels were not signatories.
In 1999, the rebels split into many groups based on ethnicity or pro-Uganda/pro-Rwanda sentiment. In July, the six warring nations (DRC, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda) and one rebel group signed a peace pact in which they promised to stop fighting and hunt down and disarm all rebel organizations, particularly those linked to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As pro-Rwanda and pro-Uganda groups turned on one other, fighting persisted, and the United Nations approved a peacekeeping operation (MONUC) in early 2000.
President Laurent Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard in January 2001. Joseph Kabila, his son, took his position. In addition to fighting the DRC and foreign forces, the rebels proceeded to split up into smaller groups and fight their other. Many rebels made money by smuggling diamonds and other “conflict minerals” (such as copper, zinc, and coltan) from the areas they controlled, sometimes using forced and child labor in hazardous circumstances. In 2002, the DRC signed peace accords with Rwanda and Uganda. The major groups signed the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement to cease the war in December 2002. The deal created a Transitional Democratic Republic of Congo administration that would reunify the nation, integrate and disarm rebel groups, and conduct elections for a new constitution and lawmakers in 2005, with Joseph Kabila staying president. The UN peacekeeping force expanded significantly in size, with the mission of disarming rebels, many of whom maintained their own militias even beyond 2003. The provinces of North and South Kivu, Ituri, and northern Katanga are still in conflict.
The First Congo War claimed the lives of between 250,000 and 800,000 people. The Second Congo War resulted in approximately 350,000 violent fatalities (1998-2001) and 2.7-5.4 million “excess deaths” among refugees as a consequence of hunger and illness (1998-2008), making it the world’s worst conflict since World War II ended.
With significant financial and technical assistance from the international world, Joseph Kabila remained president of a transitional administration until countrywide elections for a new Constitution, Parliament, and President were conducted in 2006. Kabila was victorious (and was re-elected in 2011). While corruption has decreased significantly and politics has been more tolerant of minority political ideas, the country’s situation has not improved much after Mobutu’s departure. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s lowest or second-lowest GDP per capita (only Somalia is worse), and the economy remains impoverished. China has applied for a number of mining claims, many of which are funded by the construction of infrastructure (railroads, roads, schools, and hospitals). Despite the fact that the UN and numerous NGOs have a significant presence in the Kivu provinces, many people still remain in refugee camps and rely on foreign/UN assistance. By the end of the decade, fighting in Kivu and Ituri had subsided, but many former militia members remained active. Although several former rebel commanders are accused of crimes against humanity and the use of young soldiers, few have been prosecuted and convicted for war crimes.
Soldiers who had previously been part of a militia that battled in Kivu from 2006 until a 2009 peace accord mutinied in April 2012, triggering a fresh wave of bloodshed when they seized control of a wide region along the Uganda-Rwanda border. Rwanda has been accused of supporting the M23 movement, and the United Nations is looking into it.