Democratic Republic of the Congo - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo or Congo-Kinshasa, nation in central Africa, a vast country of dense forests traversed by the powerful Congo River. Rich in natural resources, the country is nonetheless economically stunted due to decades of misrule in the second half of the 20th century, under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The region was first united as the Congo Free State, a colony created by Belgian king Leopold II in the late 19th century. The colony was called the Belgian Congo from 1908 until 1960, when it gained independence as the Republic of the Congo. Its name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1964 and then to Zaire in 1971.

Mobutu seized control of the country in 1965. During his 32-year-long rule he grew wealthier as the economy stagnated. After he was overthrown in 1997 the country’s name was changed back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After Mobutu’s overthrow the DRC endured years of civil war. Although the war officially ended in 2003, regional armed conflict and a humanitarian crisis continued. By mid-2007 an estimated 5.4 million people had died from violence, malnutrition, and disease. The conflict ranked as the world’s deadliest since World War II (1939-1945).

The DRC is bounded on the north by the Central African Republic and Sudan; on the east by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Lake Tanganyika (which separates the DRC from Tanzania); on the south by Zambia and Angola; and on the west by the Republic of the Congo and the Angolan exclave of Cabinda. The equator crosses the northern DRC. Kinshasa is the capital and largest city.


The DRC has a total area of 2,344,885 sq km (905,365 sq mi) and is the third largest country in Africa, after Sudan and Algeria. The Congo is comparable in size to the area of the United States east of the Mississippi River. The country’s greatest width from west to east is about 1,900 km (about 1,200 mi); its greatest length from north to south is about 2,010 km (about 1,250 mi).

Natural Regions in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The country’s most significant physical feature is the Congo Basin, which encompasses the entire country. This region consists of a vast depression, constituting the DRC’s entire central area, and surrounding plateaus and mountains. Many rivers cross the Congo Basin and mountain regions. The valleys of these rivers are covered with dense vegetation. In the southern Congo Basin, forest gives way to savanna, drier grasslands interspersed with trees. In the southeast the basin is fringed by the rugged Katanga Plateau. This region, about 1,000 m (about 4,000 ft) above sea level, contains rich deposits of copper, diamonds, uranium, and other minerals. Virtually impenetrable equatorial forests occupy the northeast of the country. The largest, known variously as the Ituri, Great Congo, Pygmy, and Stanley Forest, covers about 65,000 sq km (about 25,000 sq mi). The Ruwenzori Range, on the Ugandan border, contains the DRC’s highest point, Margherita Peak (5,109 m/16,762 ft). Near Rwanda are the Virunga Mountains, which include eight active volcanoes. In the extreme west the country narrows to a wedge terminating at a strip 37 km (23 mi) wide along the Atlantic Ocean.

Rivers and Lakes in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The country is dominated by the Congo River. At 4,374 km (2,718 mi), the Congo is the second longest river in Africa and one of the longest in the world. Formed on the Katanga Plateau in the southern DRC, it flows north as far as the city of Kisangani, where Stanley Falls, a series of wide cataracts, impedes navigation. Downstream from this point the river is navigable and arcs west, then south to Kinshasa, forming much of the boundary between the Republic of the Congo and the DRC. The Ubangi River is the Congo’s chief northern tributary, while the Kasai is its main southern tributary. Other rivers feeding the Congo are the Luvua, Aruwimi, and Lomami. Southwest of Kinshasa, the Congo flows through the Crystal Mountains forming rapids and waterfalls that prevent direct access to the sea. Below these rapids and waterfalls, the Congo’s estuary is navigable to the South Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 134 km (83 mi). The total length of navigable routes on the Congo and its tributaries is about 14,500 km (about 9,000 mi), most of which is in the DRC. Rapids along the Congo system, particularly on the Congo itself and its tributaries in Kasai and Katanga, give the country enormous potential for producing hydroelectric power.

In its lower course, the Congo widens to form a lake, Pool Malebo. Just below the lake, Kinshasa sits on the south bank of the Congo, and Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, sits on the north bank. The only other significant lake in the western Congo Basin is Lac Mai-Ndombe, in the west central DRC. On the country’s eastern borders, several lakes are important for transportation and fishing. Lake Albert and Lake Edward are on the Ugandan border. Lake Kivu is shared with Rwanda. Lake Tanganyika, the sixth largest in the world, covers the entire border zone with Tanzania. Lake Mweru straddles the Zambian border. The Katanga region has a number of smaller lakes, including Lakes Upemba and Tshangalele.

Plants and Animals in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC’s vegetation is extremely rich and diverse. Most of the northern two-thirds of the country is covered in dense rain forest. Rubber trees of various species, coffee, cotton, and oil palms are indigenous. Among the native fruit trees are banana, coconut palm, and plantain. Timber trees occur abundantly. Species include teak, ebony, African cedar, mahogany, iroko, and redwood. In all, about 57 percent (2005) of the country’s total area is forested. Animal life is abundant and varied. Larger mammals found in the forests include elephants, gorillas, buffalo, chimpanzees, hippopotamuses, and okapis, rare relatives of giraffes that are found only in the Congo Basin. Important savanna mammals include lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, and wolves, as well as elephants, hippopotamuses, and chimpanzees. Very rare mountain gorillas live in the mountains in the far east. Mambas, pythons, and crocodiles are among the numerous reptiles. Among the many species of birds are parrots, pelicans, flamingos, cuckoos, sunbirds, herons, and plovers. Insects are plentiful, particularly ants, termites, and mosquitoes, including the Anopheles mosquito, host of the parasite that causes malaria. Another disease-bearing insect, prevalent in lowlands, is the tsetse fly, which spreads sleeping sickness.

Natural Resources of Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC is richly endowed with natural resources. It has vast mineral deposits, notably cobalt, copper, uranium, gold, and diamonds. The country’s forest reserves are considered the most extensive in Africa. Many areas are well suited for growing crops. The highlands of the eastern DRC, with their rich volcanic soils, are especially productive. The Congo River and its tributaries provide a vast network of navigable waterways and have great hydroelectric potential. Development of some of the DRC’s resources has caused environmental problems, however. Deforestation, caused by forestry and clearing for agriculture, is an increasing environmental problem, especially in the Bas-Congo region and around Kinshasa.

Climate in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Except in the high elevations, the country’s climate is very hot and humid. The average annual temperature in the low central area is about 27°C (about 80°F). Temperatures are considerably higher in February, the hottest month. At altitudes above about 1,500 m (about 5,000 ft) the average annual temperature is about 19°C (about 66°F). Average annual rainfall is about 1,500 mm (about 60 in) in the north and about 1,300 mm (about 50 in) in the south. Frequent heavy rains occur from April to November north of the equator and from October through May south of the equator. In the center of the country, rainfall is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year. These extreme conditions have limited settlement and development to areas along rivers and at higher altitudes.

Environmental Issues in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Biodiversity in the DRC is among the highest in Africa because of the vast extent of the country’s biologically rich forests. Important endangered or rare large mammals include the elephant, rhinoceros, gorilla, hippopotamus, pygmy chimpanzee, and okapi. Altogether, 450 (2000) mammal species are known, with 29 (2004) threatened. Of the 929 (2000) known species of birds, 30 (2004) are threatened.

The DRC has several major national parks—including Virunga National Park and Garamba National Park—that were created mainly to protect large game species. Several of these have been designated World Heritage sites. There are also faunal reserves, special hunting areas, and several biosphere reserves under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Program. Protected land totals about 8.2 percent (2007) of the country’s land area. Historically, local people did not participate in the management of protected areas and were frequently relocated to accommodate new parks. Wildlife poaching, soil erosion, and increasingly, deforestation, are the major environmental threats. Many people do not have access to safe water and sanitation, and waterborne diseases contribute to a low life expectancy in the DRC. The southern region is subject to periodic drought.


The DRC has a population (2008 estimate) of 68,008,922, with a density of 30 persons per sq km (78 per sq mi). Largely rural, the population is concentrated in the eastern highlands and along rivers. Only about 33 percent of the population lives in cities. In 2004 the DRC also had a refugee population of about 199,323, many of whom were exiles from instability in Rwanda. The remainder were Burundians, Angolans, and Sudanese, all fleeing upheavals in their countries. Meanwhile, about 462,203 DRC citizens had taken refuge in neighboring countries due to violence in the eastern DRC.

The capital and largest city of the DRC is Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville). Among other major cities are a southeastern copper-mining city, Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville); a south central diamond-mining center, Mbuji-Mayi (formerly Bakwanga); a southeastern industrial city, Kolwezi; and a northeastern Congo River port, Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville). Matadi, on the Congo estuary, is the DRC’s principal seaport.

Ethnic Groups in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC has as many as 250 ethnic groups, about 80 percent of whom are Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated into the area from the northwest beginning around 300 BC. Peoples speaking Nilo-Saharan languages—including the Mangbetu, Azande, and small Nilotic groups—live in the north. The largest single groups are the Lunda, Luba, Kuba, Bakongo (Kongo), Mongo, Mangbetu, and Azande. Pygmy groups are scattered throughout the rain forest zone. A small number of people of European descent live in the DRC. Since independence in 1960, political uncertainty has led to an emphasis on ethnic affiliation, often accompanied by conflict.

Languages spoken in Democratic Republic of the Congo

About 700 languages and local dialects are spoken in the DRC. French is the official language and principal business language. Four African languages are also widely spoken: Swahili in the east, Kikongo in the area between Kinshasa and the coast, Tshiluba in the south, and Lingala along the Congo River.

Religion in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Most of the DRC’s people are nominally Christians, primarily Roman Catholics, who account for about 52 percent of the total population. Most of the rest adhere to traditional African beliefs or belong to syncretic sects, which combine practices of different religions. One of the most popular sects is Kimbanguism, which fuses Christian and traditional elements. There is also a small Muslim community.

Education in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Founded by European and American missionaries, the Congolese education system still depends on missionary schools to provide a significant amount of public education. Although six years of primary education is officially compulsory, only 47 percent of primary school-age children attended school in 1998–1999. Under the constitution approved in 2005, education at the primary level is free. Attendance at secondary school has risen since independence, but is still only 18 percent of those of eligible age. The nation has four universities, two in Kinshasa and one each at Lubumbashi and Kisangani, and a number of teacher-training colleges and technical institutes. These institutions of higher education had a total enrollment of 60,341 in 1998. The adult literacy rate in 2005 was 89.8 percent (95 percent for men and 84.9 percent for women).

Way of Life in Democratic Republic of the Congo

There are vast differences between the modern, urban way of life and traditional rural cultures in the DRC. Belgium began to colonize the region in the late 19th century, which led to urbanization, adaptation to foreign ideas and values, and the loss of local traditions for many. Modern and traditional values and practices remain at odds in the DRC, despite attempts by former president Mobutu Sese Seko to promote “African authenticity” over Western customs.

Since independence, the gap between rich and poor has also widened. Wealthier city dwellers tend to live in modern houses or apartment buildings, and they drive Western automobiles. The urban poor live in crowded, unhealthy conditions in slums, shantytowns, or other informal residences. Most rural Congolese live in round or rectangular thatched huts, depending on their region and ethnic group. Some groups scatter homesteads while others cluster dwellings into villages.

Family life is central to both urban and rural society. Congolese women are clearly regarded as inferior to males, even though many ethnic groups trace family membership through the mother. Both sexes generally dress in light, brightly colored clothes. Women often wear headscarves. Many people have adopted Western clothes, despite government efforts to encourage “African authenticity.” For instance, in the 1970s Mobutu banned suits and ties in favor of the abas-cost, a light short-sleeved shirt.

The most popular dish in the DRC is moambé, a spicy stew of peanuts, palm oil, and chicken served with yams, native loso rice, or, most commonly, fufu, a paste of mashed manioc (cassava). The Congolese diet also consists of sweet potatoes, bananas, plantains, fruits, and fish, particularly perch. Beef is generally only eaten in the higher regions of the country that are free of the tsetse fly. Protein deficiency is a serious problem. Pastimes include music, dance, and mancala, a board game common throughout Africa. Soccer is also popular.

Social Issues in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Ethnic rivalry has plagued Congolese society since independence in 1960. This severe problem is compounded by political instability, poverty, a high crime rate, inadequate health care, and a high incidence of tropical diseases and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Mobutu’s government attempted, with some success, to counter tribalism (belief in the superiority of one’s own tribe) by banning ethnic organizations and publications. However, government efforts to address the root causes of poverty and the country’s problems in health, education, and the environment have been scant.

Social Services in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Western missionaries are a major source of health care, education, and welfare in the DRC. AIDS, malaria, and sleeping sickness are major health problems. Child malnutrition, exacerbated by food shortages and years of warfare in the DRC, is a chronic problem.


The arts are particularly important in Congolese life. The government has supported artists, writers, and architects mainly to bolster political agendas. Kinshasa’s Monument to the Martyrs of Independence is an example of this. However, most Congolese artistic activity exists outside of officially sponsored circles.

Literature in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Congo has produced a number of noted writers since independence, including playwrights Valérin Mutombo-Diba, Mwilambwe Kibawa, and Elebe ma Ekonzo; novelists Paul Lomami-Tshibamba and Mbwil a Mpaang Ngal; and prolific poets Lisembe (Philippe) Elébé and Vumbi Yoka Mudimbe. French is the main literary language. Writers have focused on themes such as Congolese identity, colonialism, tribalism, and conflicts between modernity and tradition.

Art in Democratic Republic of the Congo

A wide range of traditional arts and crafts enriches Congolese culture. They include metalworking, basketry, painting, jewelry making, and wood carving, particularly mask making. Groups such as the Kuba and Luba peoples carve masks with distinctive traditional styles that are occasionally used in traditional rituals. Throughout the country, well-established, informal artistic gatherings are common, and numerous street artists and artisans display and sell their works.

Music, Dance, and Theater in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Two important Congolese contributions to music and dance are Congo jazz and soukous, a type of guitar-based dance music. Both of these musical forms developed in Kinshasa and are known throughout Africa and in other parts of the world. Famous Congolese musicians and vocalists include Franco and his band O.K. Jazz, Tabu Ley, Pépé Kallé, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Mbilia Bel, and M’Pongo Love. Traditional folk music is also highly valued. Traditional instruments include the likembe (a hand-held board with mounted metal strips that are plucked with the thumbs) and drums of various types. The Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in the northeast are famous for their distinctive polyphonic singing style, in which multiple voices pursue independent melodies. Dance ranges from a wide variety of traditional forms to colorful, coordinated mass dances, often held as part of political rallies. In urban areas, dance clubs playing popular music are a vibrant part of the social scene.

Museums and Libraries in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The country’s major archaeological and ethnological museums are the National Museum of Kinshasa and the National Museum of Lubumbashi. The Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa exhibits and sells paintings and sculptures. The universities, government, and certain private organizations maintain libraries.


The DRC is potentially one of Africa’s richest states, with extensive agricultural, mineral, and energy resources. However, instability after independence in 1960 contributed to a sluggish economy that grew only about 1 percent a year until the mid-1980s. Nationalization, corruption, inexperience, heavy borrowing, a deteriorating infrastructure, and inappropriate development took a high toll throughout the 32-year regime of Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1997). The country dropped from having one of Africa’s highest standards of living to one of its lowest. In 1990 the DRC’s gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to be $8.1 billion ($220 per capita). However, by the early 1990s the nation’s formal economy began to disintegrate, and GDP plummeted. Hyperinflation of nearly 40 percent a month, government deficits in which expenditures exceeded revenues by more than four times, and plunging mineral production combined to make the country one of the world’s poorest. In 1994 the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) declared the DRC insolvent, and the country was suspended from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The 1996-1997 rebellion that culminated in Mobutu’s overthrow virtually halted economic activity throughout the country. The post-Mobutu administrations have tried to rebuild the nation’s economy, but continued unrest in the DRC has hampered economic progress. The United Nations (UN) classifies the DRC as a least developed country. Smuggling and black market activities are very common and may account for income equal to the nation’s official GDP. In 2006 GDP was $8.5 billion, or $140.90 U.S. dollars per person.

Labor in Democratic Republic of the Congo

In 2006 the DRC’s labor force numbered 24,213,136; 41 percent were women. A significant proportion of children from age 10 to 15 participated in the labor force, working in agriculture, street vending, and other pursuits. The principal labor organization is the National Union of Congolese Workers, an alliance of 16 unions founded in 1967. However, most Congolese workers are agricultural and nonunionized.

Mining in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mineral deposits constitute the DRC’s principal source of wealth. The Katanga and Kasai regions are among the world’s largest producers of cobalt and industrial diamonds. Other minerals produced in significant quantities include copper, uranium, tin, gold, silver, coal, zinc, manganese, tungsten, and cadmium. Offshore petroleum reserves have been drilled since 1975. Mineral production declined severely in the 1990s, but mining continued to account for almost 90 percent of the DRC’s export earnings in the early 21st century.

Agriculture of Democratic Republic of the Congo

Agriculture, including forestry and fishing, employs 68 percent of the working population and accounts for 46 percent of GDP. However, only 3 percent of the country’s area is under cultivation. Large areas of the Congo Basin are suitable for farming but are currently covered with forests. Cash crop production declined markedly after Mobutu nationalized foreign-owned plantations in the 1970s, and again during political disturbances in the 1990s. Much of the farmland has reverted to subsistence farming. The principal food crops are manioc, plantains, sugarcane, corn, peanuts, bananas, rice, and yams. Cash crops include palm kernels, coffee, cottonseed and cotton lint, and rubber. Chickens, goats, pigs, and sheep are raised. Cattle raising is confined to elevated regions that are free of the tsetse fly, which spreads sleeping sickness.

Forestry and Fishing in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC contains an estimated 6 percent of the world’s forests. However, timber cutting has largely been limited to the western DRC, close to the Congo River, because of the country’s poor infrastructure. Most of the trees cut are not processed in the DRC, but floated downriver and exported as logs. Almost all of the fish caught in the DRC are freshwater fish and are consumed locally. Fish caught include perch, tilapia, and eels.

Manufacturing in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The most important manufacturing activities in the DRC are mineral processing and the production of cement and textiles. Other manufactured products include tires, shoes, cigarettes, beer, and processed food. During the 1990s, when the country experienced significant unrest, industrial activity declined substantially. In 2006 manufacturing accounted for 7 percent of GDP. Industry, which includes manufacturing, mining, and construction, provided 13 percent of employment.

Services in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Services account for 27 percent of GDP and 19 percent of employment. The most important areas are transportation, government, communications, and banking. Tourism has never accounted for a significant sector of the economy. Before the instability of the 1990s, which virtually eliminated tourism, the DRC received only a small number of tourists, mainly from Europe. The most important tourist destinations were Kinshasa and national parks such as Virunga National Park and Garamba National Park, both in the northeast.

Energy in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC’s hydroelectric plants produce virtually all of the energy the country needs. The major hydroelectric plant is on the lower Congo River at Inga (opened in 1972). Other generating plants have been built in the southern DRC to serve mining operations. The plant at Inga alone could produce 15 times the amount of electricity needed by the DRC. In 2003 the DRC exported 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to other African nations. The small percentage of energy not produced by hydroelectric plants comes from thermal plants.

Transportation in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Roads in the DRC are in generally poor repair, hindering the transport of crops to markets and contributing to the decline of export agriculture. The total length of the national road system is about 153,497 km (about 95,379 mi). The country’s 3,641 km (2,262 mi) of aging railways provide important connections domestically as well as with the Angolan port of Benguela and with southern Africa. Inland waterways are used extensively. The Congo River is navigable from its mouth to Matadi, a distance of 134 km (83 mi). The river is unnavigable from Matadi to Kinshasa, which are linked by a railway 401 km (249 mi) long. Beyond Kinshasa navigation is possible for more than 1,600 km (1,000 mi) until Stanley Falls impedes navigation at Kisangani. The unnavigable portions of the Congo require exports from the southeast region of Katanga to be sent through other countries. Navigable inland waterways total about 14,500 km (about 9,000 mi). For most Congolese, the chief modes of river transportation remain aging river steamers and long canoes, known as pirogues. The principal seaports are Matadi and Boma, on the lower Congo River, and Banana, at the river’s mouth. The country has international airports at Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, Goma, and Bukavu. State-owned Congo Airlines provides domestic and international service.

Communications in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC’s wired telephone system is almost nonexistent, so most people use mobile telephones. The country depends heavily on air and telegraph services for internal communication. A government-controlled national broadcasting system, based in Kinshasa, operates several national radio stations and one national television station. Broadcasts are in French and numerous African languages. Several private radio and television stations are also located in Kinshasa. Daily newspapers are published in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and Kisangani.

Foreign Trade in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC’s principal exports include diamonds, crude petroleum, cobalt, copper, and coffee. Exports in 2000 totaled $580 million, and imports totaled $396 million. The principal trading partners for exports were Belgium and Luxembourg (which constitute a single trading entity), the United States, Zimbabwe, Finland, and Italy. For imports, principal partners were South Africa, Belgium and Luxembourg, Nigeria, France, and Kenya. The DRC is a signatory of the Lomé Convention, a trade and aid agreement between the European Union and African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations.

Currency and Banking of Democratic Republic of the Congo

The unit of currency in the DRC is the Congolese franc, consisting of 100 centimes (468.30 Congolese francs equal US$1; 2006 average). The Congolese franc was issued in mid-1998, replacing the new zaire. The government controls the currency’s rate of exchange. The Bank of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1964) is the national bank. A number of domestic banks and branches of foreign banks also function.


After the Congo received its independence from Belgium in 1960, it experienced five years of political turmoil. In 1965 army chief of staff Joseph Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) seized power in a coup. For 32 years Mobutu ran a corrupt, undemocratic regime, concentrating power in the executive branch and favoring those loyal to him. His party, the Popular Movement for the Revolution (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR), became the sole legal political party, and dissidents were suppressed. After significant opposition to Mobutu’s one-party system, he initiated nominal political reforms in 1990. A national conference was convened to draft a new constitution, but Mobutu successfully blocked its progress.

In May 1997 rebels led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila seized control of the country and overthrew Mobutu. Kabila suspended the constitution, dissolved the country’s powerless legislature, and declared himself president. A constitutional commission drafted a new constitution in mid-1998, but it was never submitted to a national referendum due to the start of another civil war in eastern DRC. Despite promises of democratization and the establishment of a 300-member transitional legislative body in 2000, Kabila ruled by decree.

Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 by one of his bodyguards. Kabila’s administration named his son Joseph Kabila as the new president. After months of negotiations, in July 2003 Joseph Kabila established a power-sharing government, swearing in four new vice presidents and a new cabinet. Two of the new vice presidents were leaders of the two major rebel groups involved in the civil war, one was a member of the civilian political opposition, and one was allied with Kabila. The new cabinet posts were similarly shared out to different political groups.

In May 2005 the country’s transitional parliament adopted a new constitution, which was approved by referendum in December 2005. The new constitution went into effect in February 2006. It recognized as citizens all ethnic groups living in the DRC at the time of independence in 1960. Anyone 18 years or older is eligible to vote, and voting is compulsory.

Executive of Democratic Republic of the Congo

Under the 2006 constitution the president is the head of state. The head of government is the prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The president is limited to two five-year terms and must be at least 30 years old.

Legislature of Democratic Republic of the Congo

The legislature is a bicameral body consisting of a 500-member National Assembly (lower house) and a 120-member Senate (upper house). All members serve five-year terms. In the National Assembly, 60 members are elected by majority vote and 440 by proportional representation. Senators are elected by indirect vote.

Judiciary in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC’s legal system is based on Belgian law and on local traditions. The highest court is the Supreme Court in Kinshasa. There are also county courts and courts of appeal. The president appoints all judges.

Local Government of Democratic Republic of the Congo

Until the new constitution was approved in 2005, the DRC was divided into one city, Kinshasa, and ten administrative regions. The administrative regions were Bandundu, Bas-Congo, Équateur, Orientale, Kasai-Occidental, Kasai-Oriental, Maniema, Nord-Kivu, Katanga, and Sud-Kivu. Each was administered by a commissioner appointed by the president. To promote a looser form of federalism, the new constitution created 26 provinces in the DRC.

Political Parties and Groups in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Many parties formed in the 1990s, largely divided along ethnic or regional lines. A ban on the formation of political associations was lifted in 1999, and all restrictions on the registration and operation of political parties were removed in 2001. The party of current president Joseph Kabila is the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et le Developpement (PPRD), also known as the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie. Main opposition parties include Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), Forces du Futur (FDF), Forces Novatrices pour l’Union et la Solidarite (FONUS), Parti Democrate Social Chretien (PDSC), Mouvement Social Democratie et Developpement (MSDD), Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution-Fait Prive (MPR-FP), Union des Nationalistes et des Federalistes Congolais (UNAFEC), and Mouvement National Congolais/Lumumba (MNC/L). Former rebel movements that became political parties include the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD), Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC), and independent splinter groups of the RCD (RCD-ML, RCD-N).

Defense of Democratic Republic of the Congo

In 2004 military forces consisted of a total of 64,800 personnel, dominated by an army of 60,000. There is also an air force of 3,000 members, and a navy of 1,800 members. Paramilitary forces and a civil guard totaled more than 31,000 members. Military service is voluntary. Defense expenditures in 1997 accounted for 14 percent of the national budget. Because the military was the main source of support for Mobutu, the Kabila regime reorganized the armed forces, placing its own supporters in command.

International Organizations in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC is a member of the United Nations, the African Union, and the African Development Bank.


The early history of what is now the DRC is still largely unknown. The earliest inhabitants of the Congo Basin are believed to have been pygmies. Bantu groups moved into the area from the north and spread east and south beginning about 2,000 years ago. The northern Bantu groups settled in stateless communities in the rain forest. The Nilo-Saharan-speaking groups of the far north formed hierarchical systems with complex judicial structures. In the southern savanna zone, the Luba, Lunda, and other Bantu groups set up centralized kingdoms by 1500.

Kongo Kingdom

The most important early Congolese state was the kingdom of the Kongo people around the mouth of the Congo River. The Portuguese had some contact with the Kongo around 1482, when navigator Diogo Cam visited the mouth of the Congo River and claimed the surrounding region as Portuguese territory. The Portuguese named the river Rio de Padrão (Pillar River). At its height, the Kongo kingdom extended from present-day northwestern Angola to Gabon. In 1489 a Congolese embassy was sent to the Portuguese king, and in 1491 Franciscan missionaries and Portuguese craftsmen visited the area. Soon thereafter, the manikongo, or king, of Kongo converted to Christianity, but his attempts to impose the religion on his people provoked violent opposition. His son Afonso succeeded him in 1507. Literate in Portuguese, Afonso modeled his government on the Portuguese system and built many churches. Under Afonso, Kongo participated in slave raids in neighboring regions and in slave trade with the Portuguese, making Kongo a significant supplier to the Atlantic slave trade. The slave raiding brought unrest to the region, however, and the Kongo kingdom declined by the end of the 16th century, in part because of invasions by the Jaga, an eastern warrior people. Centuries elapsed before another serious European expedition to the region was undertaken. However, Arabs from the sultanate of Zanzibar in East Africa reached the region west of Lake Tanganyika in the mid-18th century, establishing plantations and conducting extensive slave raids. By the late 18th century 50,000 to 70,000 slaves were taken every year to Zanzibar and the Middle East.

European Control

Foreign encroachment on the area increased during the 19th century. In 1816 British explorers attempted to follow the Congo River inland, reaching a point between present-day Matadi and Kinshasa, before illness forced them to retreat. Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who brought the injustices of the Zanzibari slave trade to the attention of Europe, reached Lualaba River from the east in 1871. Growing European interest in Africa as a source of wealth was stimulated by the accounts of explorers, notably Anglo-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who explored the Congo between 1874 and 1877. The first explorer to fully investigate the river, Stanley descended the Congo River system from the upper Lualaba to its mouth, traveling more than 2,600 km (more than 1,600 mi).

King Leopold’s State

Upon his return to Europe, Stanley petitioned the British government to colonize the region, but he was refused. However, King Leopold II of Belgium engaged Stanley to return to the Congo to set up trading stations and establish relations with the native chiefs. This territorial acquisition was pursued under the guise of an ostensibly philanthropic organization, created and controlled by Leopold, with the stated purpose of promoting the exploration and “civilization” of Central Africa in order to end the slave trade. Stanley founded a number of posts, including Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and secured for Leopold the rights to extensive regions bordering the Congo River.

Conflicting territorial claims advanced by various nations, notably Portugal and France, around the mouth of the Congo led in 1884 to the Berlin West Africa Conference. The conference, which was attended by representatives of all European powers with colonial interests in Africa, outlawed the slave trade and established rules for the division of the continent of Africa among them. Leopold’s personal sovereignty over the region, now called the Congo Free State, was recognized in 1885.

Leopold quickly occupied his territory with Belgian soldiers and traders and commissioned the construction of railways around unnavigable sections of the Congo River. According to agreements reached at the Berlin conference, the Congo Free State was to be open to the trade of all nations. After Leopold laid claim to all the ivory and rubber trees in the Congo in the early 1890s, however, there was little else for any nation to trade. Rubber proved to be the most lucrative product in the Congo. Starting in the early 1890s, Congolese people were systematically forced to collect rubber as the only means of paying new taxes levied on them. Ironically, in the same period that this system of virtual slavery was imposed by the colonists, the Belgian colonial army, the Force Publique, destroyed the Zanzibari slave trade in the eastern Congo. The violent suppression of the slave trade and the new system of forced labor caused severe hardships in the region. As colonial rule was asserted, minor local uprisings were quelled, including three mutinies by Congolese members of the Force Publique.

Belgian Congo

In the first decade of the 20th century, the administration of the Congo Free State became increasingly oppressive in its exploitation of Congolese workers, and word of the exploitation led to international protest. Reports by British diplomat Roger David Casement and journalist E. D. Morel publicized the lack of development in the Congo and the regular use of torture by Leopold’s rubber collection agents. Public opinion forced Leopold to establish a commission of inquiry in 1904. The commission revealed that the Congolese were victims of a slave labor system and other human rights abuses. The king instituted certain reforms, but these proved ineffective. As a result, in 1908 the Belgian parliament voted to annex the Congo Free State, making it a colony that became known as the Belgian Congo. While the most unfair labor practices were eliminated, most Congolese people fared little better under the new administration.

During World War I (1914-1918) Congolese troops aided the Allied cause in Africa, conquering the German territory of Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi). After the war Belgian colonialism changed greatly. Labor practices were liberalized, and schools and hospitals were established. The standard of living rose significantly. However, the Belgian colonial attitude toward the Congolese remained extremely paternalistic. The Africans were treated like children, disciplined when judged to behave disobediently or immorally, and taught to abandon traditional lifestyles in favor of laboring on colonists’ farms. In addition, the Congolese were not taught modern technical or administrative skills.

Substantial industrialization and urbanization took place in the colony during World War II (1939-1945). This process was particularly marked in the uranium, copper, palm oil, and rubber industries. Uranium from the Congo was used to develop the first atomic weapons. During the postwar years, industrial productivity increased, and a limited series of reforms, designed to prepare the Congolese for eventual self-government, was initiated. Africans were allowed to own land, and a very small number of Africans, under extremely subjective criteria, were officially recognized as having the same legal status as white colonists. Municipal council elections, the first ever for the Congolese, were scheduled for December 1957. The Belgian government believed these reforms would be the first step in a prolonged, gradual movement toward Congolese autonomy. However, the social and cultural effects of colonialism and rapid modernization had left the colony unbalanced economically and inexperienced politically.

In the December elections, Congolese Africans won 130 of 170 local municipal council seats. Political parties, which were not permitted in these elections, were allowed to operate only after violent nationalist riots in Léopoldville in January 1959. As political parties quickly sprouted across the colony, the Belgian government announced a schedule for national elections, which were to inaugurate limited autonomy. But a congress of leading nationalist parties insisted upon immediate full independence. The two principal parties were the Abako (Bakongo Alliance), led by Joseph Kasavubu, and the Congolese National Movement, led by militant nationalist Patrice Lumumba. Belgium, faced with rapidly escalating tensions and nationalist unrest, agreed to relinquish the unprepared colony. In preindependence elections in May 1960 some 40 parties presented candidates. Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement showed the greatest strength, followed by Abako. By agreement between the two leading parties, Lumumba became prime minister, and Kasavubu became president. The independent Republic of the Congo was proclaimed in Léopoldville on June 30, 1960.

Postindependence Turmoil

Violent disorders—stemming from ethnic disputes, the disappointment of the parties excluded from power, and a revolt of Congolese armed forces—began within a week of independence. With the intention of restoring order and protecting Europeans, Belgium mobilized its forces still in the Congo and flew additional troops into the country, despite Lumumba’s objections. The military action, interpreted as an attempt to reimpose Belgian authority, provoked even greater violence against Europeans. Virtually all remaining Europeans fled, leaving the new country without administrators, professionals, and technicians.

Secession of Katanga

The political scene in the Congo was further complicated in July when Moise Tshombe, the Belgian-supported premier of mineral-rich Katanga Province, proclaimed Katanga to be an independent country. In response to an appeal from Prime Minister Lumumba, the United Nations (UN) Security Council demanded that Belgian forces withdraw, and it authorized Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to send a peacekeeping force to the Congo to restore order. The UN force, comprising units from African countries, Sweden, and Ireland, gradually began to replace Belgian troops. When the Security Council ruled that no UN forces should be used to affect the outcome of any internal conflict in the province, Tshombe permitted UN troops to enter Katanga. Disappointed by the UN’s refusal to use force to put down the secession, Lumumba then requested military assistance from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This caused Western nations to view Lumumba as a Communist sympathizer, and opposition to his rule increased both inside and outside the Congo.

In early September, President Kasavubu, with Western support, turned against Lumumba and dismissed him, replacing him with Joseph Ileo (later called Sombo Amba Ileo). Lumumba rejected the legality of the dismissal and in turn dismissed Kasavubu. The Congolese government was deadlocked. On September 13 the UN forces gave up control of the airports and radio station to Lumumba. However, the next day the Congolese army—led by army chief of staff Colonel Joseph Désireé Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko)—seized control of the government. While maintaining Kasavubu as president, Mobutu transferred executive and administrative authority to a caretaker government, the College of High Commissioners. Lumumba was placed under house arrest.

In December 1960 Antoine Gizenga, former deputy prime minister in Lumumba’s government, proclaimed himself prime minister and designated Stanleyville (now Kisangani) as the capital of the Congo. Over the next months his government was recognized by most Communist and Arab nations and by Ghana, and the USSR began sending arms and advisers. In January 1961 pro-Lumumba soldiers invaded northern Katanga, and the UN sent troops there to prevent civil war. Meanwhile, Lumumba was captured while escaping his UN-guarded villa in Léopoldville to join his supporters in Stanleyville. On Mobutu’s orders, he was flown to Katanga, where troops loyal to Tshombe murdered him on arrival on January 17, 1961. Lumumba subsequently became a national hero and an inspiration for African nationalists and leftists. In February 1961, with Mobutu’s assent, Kasavubu replaced Mobutu’s caretaker government with a new provisional government headed by Ileo as prime minister.

UN Peace Efforts

In February 1961 the Security Council authorized the UN to use force to prevent civil war in the Congo, and it demanded withdrawal of all foreign military personnel not under UN command. Opposing the council decision and hoping to forestall further UN intervention, 18 leaders of Congolese factions (not including Gizenga) agreed in March to abolish the central government in favor of a confederation of sovereign states. At a later meeting convened in April, Tshombe withdrew his cooperation. Arrested and charged with treason, he secured his release by agreeing to dismiss all foreign advisers and military forces in Katanga. However, on his return to Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), in Katanga, Tshombe reneged on his agreement. The UN force in the Congo launched limited military action against Tshombe’s forces in September and again in December. While trying to arrange a cease-fire between UN and Katangan forces in September, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld was killed under mysterious circumstances in an airplane crash near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Meanwhile, Gizenga agreed to join the central government after the new prime minister, Cyrille Adoula, promised to follow the policies of Lumumba. Gizenga was made vice prime minister, but he was removed from his post in January 1962 for defying a parliamentary resolution that he go to Léopoldville to face secession charges.

During the first half of 1962 Tshombe held intermittent talks with Adoula, but the two leaders failed to resolve the Katanga conflict. To compel Tshombe to come to terms, acting UN secretary general U Thant proposed a three-stage plan for ending Katanga’s secession. Tshombe announced his acceptance of the plan but made little effort to implement it. Adoula demanded that the plan be put into effect, by force if necessary. In December UN forces moved decisively against Katanga and gained control of Elisabethville. Tshombe, fleeing before UN troops, established his last stronghold at Kolwezi. On January 15, 1963, he surrendered to integration demands and was promised amnesty for himself and his followers. A few months later, Adoula formed a new cabinet, which included Katangan representatives and gave strongest representation to the Lumumbist party. However, Adoula dissolved the parliament in September 1963. Several key Lumumbist figures turned against Adoula, fled to the east, and plotted revolutions. Strikes and rebellions flared across the country. In June 1964 Adoula resigned as prime minister and was replaced in July by Tshombe. A new constitution was adopted in August 1964. This constitution created new, smaller administrative units and defined the country as a confederation, giving the units a higher degree of autonomy. At the same time, the country was also renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Then, in August, Stanleyville fell to Lumumbist rebels. After government troops, aided by European mercenaries, began a drive to recapture the city, the rebels threatened to kill Europeans and Americans being held hostage. On November 24, Belgian paratroops, carried in U.S. aircraft, landed in Stanleyville and, together with Congolese troops, recaptured the city. Also in 1964 Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the future Congolese president, led another Lumumbist rebellion, in the eastern province of Kivu. (Kabila later founded the People’s Revolutionary Party [PRP]), which in 1967 established a short-lived rebel state in the mountains west of Lake Tanganyika.)

The Mobutu Years

A fragile coalition organized by Prime Minister Tshombe won parliamentary elections in early 1965, but shortly thereafter Kasavubu ousted Tshombe, who was believed to be plotting to oust him. In November 1965 Mobutu again intervened, overthrowing Kasavubu, installing himself as president for five years, and canceling elections scheduled for the next year. On October 26, 1966, Mobutu dismissed the prime minister and established a presidential form of government. This change was formalized by a new constitution adopted in 1967. In his first years as president, Mobutu brought political stability to the country, although there were a number of revolts, and students occasionally protested his dictatorial rule. Some foreign-owned mining firms were nationalized, and in 1966 the European names of cities were replaced with African ones (Léopoldville became Kinshasa; Stanleyville, Kisangani; and Elizabethville, Lubumbashi).

Authenticity and Kleptocracy

In 1970 Mobutu’s political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR), was declared the only legal party, and all citizens were obliged to join. Unopposed, Mobutu was elected to a seven-year term as president. He undertook a major program of “African authenticity,” in which ostensibly traditional African values and practices were promoted over Western ones. In 1971 the country’s name was changed to the Republic of Zaire, after an old, supposedly more authentic local name for the Congo River. In 1972 the president renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko and compelled other Zairians to drop their non-African names and adopt more traditional African dress. In a policy dubbed “Zairianization,” Mobutu’s government took over some 2,000 foreign-owned businesses in 1973. Most of the newly nationalized companies were distributed among Mobutu and MPR loyalists. Many later failed because of inexperience, mismanagement, and corruption. Some economic development projects were completed, but Zaire remained dependent on income from copper and other mineral exports. World copper prices fell sharply in the mid-1970s; Zaire’s export earnings dropped, and the country’s foreign debt rose to nearly $4 billion by 1980. At the same time, Zaire experienced high rates of unemployment and inflation. Nevertheless, Western nations backed Mobutu’s regime as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Central Africa. The West provided military aid to Zaire, particularly in the late 1970s, to repulse invasions by Katangan secessionists backed by Communist forces in Angola, who were backed in turn by the USSR and Cuba. Mobutu crushed political dissent, using propaganda, executions, censorship, imprisonment, intimidation, and other forms of harassment to solidify his control. In 1982 opponents of Mobutu’s one-party rule formed the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). The leaders of UDPS were frequently imprisoned throughout the 1980s.

While the nation’s economy struggled, Mobutu’s wealth grew to an estimated $4 billion. After coming to power Mobutu profited from personal sales of huge amounts of state-owned mineral reserves and occasional transfers of millions of dollars directly from the Bank of Zaire. He purchased hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate in Morocco, South Africa, and throughout Europe. Mobutu’s supporters in the country’s administration and industry were regularly rewarded with large sums of money. This system, often described as a kleptocracy, played a key part in Mobutu’s firm grip on power. In this atmosphere, corruption prevailed at all levels of Zairian administration and business, choking the nation’s economy. The country’s foreign debt was rescheduled in 1981, and the IMF provided a $1 billion loan. In exchange for further aid, Zaire agreed to devalue its currency and adopt other austerity measures in 1983 and 1984. However, seeing little economic improvement, Zaire abandoned the IMF program in 1986, and its economy took a downturn. The government was forced to embrace economic reform again in 1989. In 1990 the United States, which had supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Mobutu since 1965, cut direct military and economic assistance to Zaire because of the regime’s corruption and human rights abuses.

Political Maneuvers

Discontent with Mobutu intensified in the early 1990s, and he spent more and more time away from Kinshasa at a palace he had built near his ancestral village of Gbadolite. Under pressure from the opposition, Mobutu announced the creation of a multiparty democratic system in April 1990. In August 1991 a national multiparty conference convened to draft a new constitution and prepare for elections. However, the chaotic conference, attended by almost 3,000 delegates, disintegrated after only a week. Meanwhile, outbreaks of violence and looting led many European and American civilians to flee the country. In September 1991 Mobutu agreed to form a coalition government with UDPS leader Étienne Tshisekedi as prime minister. Mobutu fired Tshisekedi a month later. The conference reopened in January 1992, only to be closed again by Mobutu’s hand-picked prime minister for seemingly unreasonable objections. In retaliation, some soldiers attempted to overthrow the government, but were crushed by loyalist troops. In April 1992, amid continuing unrest, the conference reassembled to draw up a new constitution. The conference soon declared itself the rightful governing body of Zaire. In August the conference appointed Tshisekedi prime minister, this time to head a newly assembled transitional government. Mobutu consented to recognize this arrangement in return for retaining control of the army and his position as head of state.

In November 1992 the conference adopted a draft constitution that shifted most executive and military powers to the prime minister, set up a bicameral parliament, and called for a popularly elected but largely ceremonial president. The conference dissolved itself and an interim government, the High Council of the Republic (HCR), was established to organize elections. Although some foreign nations recognized this body, led by Tshisekedi, Mobutu refused to acknowledge its authority and appointed a different transitional government and prime minister. Throughout 1993 Mobutu and the HCR operated as rival governments, each claiming authority. In 1994 Mobutu declared the HCR and his own government dissolved, replacing both with a transitional legislature known as the High Council of the Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT). In April the HCR-PT approved the Transitional Constitutional Act, calling for a constitutional referendum and presidential and legislative elections within 15 months. Léon Kengo wa Dondo, a more moderate opposition figure than Tshisekedi, was elected prime minister by the HCR-PT, but Tshisekedi maintained his claim to the office. The rivalry between HCR members and the HCR-PT further confused an already chaotic political scene, effectively fracturing the anti-Mobutu movement. With the opposition powerless and disorganized, Mobutu continued to dodge the democratization process. In June 1995 the HCR-PT voted to extend the transition period for another two years.

Refugee Problem

In July 1994 refugees from Rwanda began streaming into Zaire because of the ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi in that country. More than 1.3 million Rwandans gathered in camps along Zaire’s eastern border. The Zairian government and the UN struggled to find a way of safely returning the refugees to Rwanda. In February 1995 the UN sent Zairian troops to maintain order in the camps. In August the Zairian government ordered that refugees be forcibly expelled from the camps. After about 15,000 refugees had been forced back into Rwanda, the government halted the operation in response to international pressure. In November 1995 Mobutu attended a summit in Cairo, Egypt, with the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, and a representative from Tanzania to discuss the situation. The leaders agreed on a plan to encourage the exiles to return to Rwanda, but most refugees resisted being repatriated. The Hutu, who feared reprisals from Rwanda’s Tutsi regime, were particularly resistant. Many camps were controlled by armed Hutu militias made up of former members of the Rwandan army, some of whom had been responsible for genocidal killings in Rwanda. The militias had begun to use these camps as staging areas for raids into their homeland.

Rebellion and Civil War

In September 1996, near the refugee camps along the border with Rwanda and Burundi, a small minority of Zairian Tutsi known as the Banyamulenge became targets of harassment by local non-Tutsi and Zairian troops. Recent legislation had established new criteria for Zairian citizenship, and locals decided to expel the Banyamulenge, who had lived in the area for about 200 years. The Banyamulenge, armed and trained by the Tutsi Rwandan government in preparation for such an attack, retaliated and, reinforced by Rwandan Tutsi, successfully fought off the Zairian army in October. Tension between Zaire and Rwanda led to brief cross-border mortar fire around Lake Kivu. By late October the resistance had been organized into the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), led by longtime Lumumbist and veteran anti-Mobutu guerrilla fighter, Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Backed by five neighboring countries, the uprising swiftly grew into an anti-Mobutu rebellion. The governments of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Zambia had long been hostile to Mobutu because of the Zairian leader’s support for various rebel groups in neighboring countries. Rwandan and Ugandan leaders also had close personal ties with Kabila. Meanwhile, Western governments failed to come to Mobutu’s aid because of his reputation as a corrupt, ineffective dictator. The AFDL began capturing border towns, easily defeating disorganized Zairian forces. Undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, Mobutu avoided the rebellion by staying at his villa in France.

While continuing to fight the Zairian army, the AFDL, probably at the bidding of Rwanda, also began in November to attack Hutu refugee camps. As each camp was attacked, its population fled to another, creating a number of gigantic, unmanageable refugee camps. The refugee population at Mugunga camp, northwest of Lake Kivu, grew to more than 500,000. A U.S. military task force was drawn up to intervene and coordinate the repatriation of refugees. Just before it was to be deployed in mid-November 1996, the AFDL routed Hutu militias in several camps, forcing them west. The imperiled refugee population in eastern Zaire split, with about 800,000 streaming home to Rwanda and several hundred thousand moving west, deeper into the jungles.

The AFDL captured more of eastern Zaire in the next months. The Zairian army was consistently routed, as its underpaid and inexperienced soldiers frequently surrendered or fled instead of fighting. Meanwhile, the AFDL, with its stated intention of overthrowing Mobutu, drew volunteers from every region it captured. Despite employing foreign mercenaries, the Zairian army lost strategically located Kisangani to the rebels in March 1997. Lubumbashi, Zaire’s second largest city, fell in April. Under pressure from UDPS protests in Kinshasa and Kabila’s rapid advance, Mobutu approved Tshisekedi’s reappointment as prime minister in April. A week later he replaced Tshisekedi with his hardline army chief of staff, General Likulia Bolongo.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s Rule

On May 16, 1997, with the rebels nearing Kinshasa, Mobutu relinquished power and left the capital. He fled the country for Morocco, where he died in exile in September. Days after Mobutu’s flight the AFDL captured Kinshasa with minimal resistance, and the rebels found themselves in control of the country, which they renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kabila declared himself president with sweeping powers and promised to establish a democratic system of government. Almost immediately, Tshisekedi’s UDPS clashed with the new regime, demanding a leading role in a transitional government, which Kabila rejected. Tshisekedi, who had long struggled against Mobutu, accused Kabila of lacking commitment to democracy. Breaking up opposition demonstrations with troops, Kabila’s popularity and the euphoria generated by Mobutu’s ouster waned rapidly.

In 1997 and 1998 the Kabila administration faced international condemnation for obstructing UN investigations of alleged massacres of Hutu refugees by the AFDL during its takeover of the country. At the same time, Kabila alienated his former allies Rwanda and Uganda. In response to public sentiment that he was a puppet of the Rwandan Tutsi elite, Kabila expelled Rwandan military advisers from the DRC and systematically removed Tutsi from positions within the DRC administration. In mid-1998 a string of events occurred that were strikingly similar to those of late 1996. The DRC government sought to strip the eastern Banyamulenge Tutsi of Congolese citizenship, and the Banyamulenge rose up in armed revolt with the help of Rwandan soldiers expelled by Kabila. This rebel army became known as the Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, or RCD). The RCD, backed by the Rwandan government, began capturing towns in eastern DRC with the stated aim of overthrowing Kabila. Soon thereafter the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), a rebel group supported by Uganda, began operating in northern DRC. Kabila was successful in rallying military support from a number of regional allies, including Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan, and kept both rebel armies from threatening the capital.

In 1999 the United Nations established the UN Observer Mission in DR Congo (MONUC), which became the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world with 17,000 troops stationed in the country. However, the civil war persisted into the early 21st century despite numerous peace treaties and cease-fires. Many international observers accused the intervening foreign nations of exploiting the war for economic gain by looting the DRC of its resources in the process of fighting. The civil war was staggeringly costly to the DRC, both economically and in terms of human lives. In mid-2007 the International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimated that 5.4 million people had died due to violence, starvation, and disease since the beginning of the conflict in 1998. The IRC also reported that since 2003, when the civil war officially ended, the mortality rate had remained essentially unchanged, with as many as 45,000 additional deaths every month. The IRC survey found that the vast majority died from preventable causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malnutrition, indicating the severity of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.

New Administration

In January 2001 Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards and his son Joseph Kabila was named president. At the age of 31, Joseph Kabila thus became Africa’s youngest head of state. His succession was met with skepticism from many observers both inside and outside the DRC, but the new leader pursued peace talks more earnestly than did his father. In late 2002 he succeeded in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan, Ugandan, and Zimbabwean troops from the DRC. After a series of peace agreements, in July 2003 Kabila and representatives of the RCD, the MLC, and the civilian political opposition entered into a transitional, power-sharing government. Although this arrangement officially ended the civil war, heavy fighting continued in the eastern provinces and UN peacekeeping forces remained in the country.

In May 2005 the DRC’s new transitional legislature approved a draft constitution, which was submitted to voters and approved in a referendum in December. The new constitution, which went into effect in February 2006, permitted a greater degree of federalism as well as greater autonomy for some of the mineral-rich regions of the country. The constitution also lowered the minimum age for the president to 30, permitting Kabila to run for office in elections scheduled for 2006.

The country’s first direct, multiparty elections in 40 years commenced in July 2006. Congolese voters cast ballots to choose a new government from more than 9,700 parliamentary candidates, and a new head of state from 32 presidential candidates. In the parliamentary elections, no party gained a majority in the 500-seat National Assembly. Kabila’s party, the Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Developpement (PPRD), won more seats than any other party. The Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC) party, led by opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, won the second most seats.

In the concurrent presidential election, Kabila and Bemba emerged as the top two contenders in the first round of voting. A runoff election was held in October in which Kabila gained 58 percent of the vote, becoming the first democratically elected president of the country since independence in 1960.

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