History & Politics

Early inhabitants

The first humans to inhabit the DR Congo were hunter-gatherers, living a nomadic existence through the forests. These early groups were probably the ancestors of ‘pygmy’ peoples such as the Mbuti and Efe.Map of Congo, Loango & other kingdoms in West Africa, 1754, by fr:Jacques Bellin (1703-1772) (http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/maps/MAPAFRICA-D.HTML.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From around 1,000BC, Bantu-speaking migrants moved into the Congo region. By AD1100, kingdoms were forming, such as the Loango in the north and the Kongo/Congo kingdom (as shown in the 1700s map opposite).

The arrival of the Europeans

The origins of 'Zaire'

The Portuguese explorer Diego Cão arrived at the Congo river mouth in 1482. On asking the river's name, the local people said ‘Nzadi’. This was misunderstood and the name ‘Zaire’ recorded.

In the 15th century, Portuguese explorers arrived. The Kongo king (called the Manikongo) was impressed and allowed Portuguese Catholic missionaries to settle. This led to the conversion of his successor (Alfonso) and the formation of the Kongo Church.

In the 1600s, tension arose. Portuguese governors in Luanda (Angola) began raiding the Kongo territory to capture locals for the slave trade. Various battles and the loss of people weakened the Kongo kingdom. The Belgians eventually took control of the territory in the late 19th century.

Belgium had influence over the region through a supposedly humanitarian project set up by Leopold II – the Association Internationale Africaine (AIC). The Belgian king secured land from local leaders for the AIC ‘mission’, with the help of British explorer Henry Morton Stanley. This allowed the king to claim the territory for himself as a ‘free trade area’. In 1885, Congo Free State was born.


Rubber trees were discovered and with cars increasing in popularity, the William H Sheppard visiting Kinshasha in 1909, courtesy of: Presbyterian Historical Society, Montreat, NC office, via http://commons.wikimedia.orgdemand for rubber tyres exploded. The Congolese population were forced to collect rubber for export. Any locals who resisted were abused, killed or their families taken as hostages.

The terror and cruelty wrought on the local population was exposed by African-American journalists such as George Washington Williams and William Henry Sheppard (see photo) and concerned British people, backed by the writer Joseph Conrad. Leopold II (who made a fortune from rubber) eventually sold the land to his government. It became Belgian Congo in 1908.

Heart of darkness

The famous writer Joseph Conrad travelled down the Congo River in 1898. The writer drew from this experience to write his famous novella ‘Heart of Darkness’.

The Belgian authorities did abolish much of the cruelty, but forced labour of locals still continued as mineral wealth was discovered. Anti-colonial movements sprung up, one centring around the new Kimbanguist Church – see People & Culture.

After World War II, calls for independence became stronger. The Belgians left in June 1960 and the new Republic of Congo was declared.

The modern-era

Expunging colonial traces

Under Mobutu, the Republic of Congo was renamed Zaire (in 1971). All traces of colonial rule (eg. town names) were removed and European businesses were taken over. Trade collapsed and over the next decades Mobutu faced increasing unrest. Protests and clashes led to many deaths.

A few weeks after independence, the new Republic began tearing itself apart. Parts of the nation declared themselves separate and officers in the Congolese army mutinied.

A United Nations operation tried to restore the situation and in May 1965, a free and fair election took place. But the army soon staged a coup under the leadership of Joseph Mobutu.

Mobutu ruled for 32 years, until ousted from power in 1996 by an army commander, Laurent Kabila. Kabila rose to prominence fighting Hutu militant groups who had fled Rwanda’s civil war– see Rwanda History & Politics. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To protect their interests and with an eye on the region’s vast resources, various African countries began sending troops into the DR Congo. By the late 1990s, there were tens of thousands of troops within the country, as various nations and groups fought each other.

Peace of a kind

Millions killed

The United Nations estimates that since 1998, five million people (mostly civilians) have died in the DR Congo from war or disease.

The conflict (sometimes called the ‘World War of Africa’) officially ended in 1999, with the signing of the Lusaka Peace Accord. United Nations troops were sent in to ensure all foreign groups left.

MONUC was formed (the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo) to stabilise the region. ‘Blue-helmeted’ UN soldiers began arriving in numbers from 2001. MONUC operates from bases across the country and has 19,000 personnel (as at January, 2012).

In December 2005, a new constitution was voted in. Joseph Kabila (Laurent Kabila’s son) is the current president of the DR Congo, winning re-election in November 2011 (though the process was criticised as ‘flawed’ both internally and by outside observers).