Short History of Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire

The recent history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has been one of turmoil and civil strife and civil war.

This huge country lies in the heart of the African continent in the equator zone and its capital city, Kinshasa is a teeming metropolis.

Much of the land is made up of high plateaus with inpenetratable rain forests and magnificent waterfalls.

Eight gigantic volcanoes, some of them active, stretch across the lands.

Mt. Nyamlagira is highly active, spewing smoke and lava approximately every 3 to 4 years.

The Zaire River runs through the country, second in length only to the Nile River. It is 2,900 miles long.

Although there are huge lakes such as Albert, Edward and Tanganyika, agricultural land is scant.

The Central Zaire Basin lies across the country, displaying grasslands and savannas.

All kinds of wild animals roam the region, hippopotami, leopards, chimpanzees, lions, cheetahs to name a few.

The average mean temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the climate is hot and humid, (perfect for poisonous and disease-carrying insects).

52,000,000 people make their home in the Congo.

Seventy-two percent of the Congolese are illiterate. Nearly all of them live in poverty, the Congo being one of the poorest nations in the world.

Roman Catholicism is the major religion.

Pygmies first inhabited the land until the Bantu tribes, migrating from Nigeria, forced the Pygmies into the jungles.

The Bantu called the country the Kingdom of Kongo in the 1300s.

The Portuguese explored the land and renamed it the Congo in the late 1400s.

Today the Bantu occupy 2/3 of the land, and second largest group is the Pygmy, although the tribe is dwindling.

From 1971 to 1997 the country was known as Zaire.

The country contains vast national parks and animal reserves. Tourism is new.

Belgium, not originally interested in acquiring overseas land, became interested in the land of the Kongo in 1884 when King Leopold II heard that there was wealth to be had in precious minerals tucked away in the African country. He commissioned Henry Morton Stanley (of the Stanley/Livingston fame) to head exploration expeditions and to report back to him.

The reports returned were full of get-rich-quick ideas for Leopold and he soon saw to it that 99 percent of the Kongo country belonged to him personally.

By 1885 the country was approved as the Congo Free State and became Leopold's possession.

Within two years, Stanley had made over 400 treaties with the Bantus.

Belgium was getting rich with the minerals discovered in the Kongo, minerals such as gold, silver, copper, and cobalt.

Soon diamonds were added to the mounting treasures.


Belgium began to export rubber for tires for the new automobile industry and ivory from elephant tusks along with the diamonds and minerals.

The Belgians built houses, schools, roads, even built entire villages in the African land but respect for native traditions and cultures was nil.

Africans were forced to work for the Europeans and were often beaten and even killed.

In 1904 Belgium renamed the country the Belgian Congo.

During Belgian rule, 100,000 Europeans lived in the Congo.

After Leopold's rule, the roads disintegrated and few now are paved. From 1956 to 1959 political uprisings occurred.

The Congolese National Movement led by Patrice Lumumba began to rebel and another group, the Alliance of Kongo People led by Joseph Kasavubu also began starting riots.

Getting rid of the Belgians was the Congolese' primary concern.

Independence was secondary.

No one really had political knowledge and electing a leader was not easy.

The country gained its independence in 1960, renamed itself the Republic of Congo, giving Lumumba power as prime minister and Kasavubu the office of president.

Almost before they could savor their new positions, they were ousted by mutiny and Army Chief of Staff Col. Joseph Desire Mobutu took over the government.

Violence and lootings occurred and the country was on a downhill stampede. Twenty thousand United Nations peacemakers went to the Congo in an attempt to calm the unrest.

Lumumba had turned to the Soviet Union requesting weapons but the arms delivery was halted by the United Nations.

Within a year, Lumumba was murdered and Mobutu, as president, reinstated Kasavubu.

For the next four years the country was overrun by military coups and anarchy.

Country was renamed Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964.

In 1965 Mobutu proclaimed himself president for the next five years.

In 1970 he was reelected. Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire in 1971.

He then proceeded to change his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko and demanded that all Congolese adopt African names for themselves.

Mobutu was supported (diplomatically and financially) by the Western powers as they considered him a deterrent to Communism.

For twenty years Mobutu enjoyed the supportive funds as his countrymen became poorer and hungrier.

In 1990, with Communism less a threat, Mobutu's easy money sources abated. He then, being under angry pressure, allowed a multi-party system with a constitution and elections.

Anti-Mobutu rebellions escalated and in 1991 Two thousand French and Belgian troops (some transported by American planes) arrived to control the fightings and to evacuate foreign nationals.

For the next two years elections were scheduled various times but never took place. In 1996 Laurent-Desire Kabila led an impressive army under the name of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo.

Kabila's offense led to Mobutu's flight to Morocco where he died of cancer soon after. Kabila then declared himself as head of state and changed the name of the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997.

Kabila's government was accused of cruel and abusive treatment. The people sense corruption and revolted.

Fights also broke out between neighboring countries of Uganda, Rwanda and and Zimbabwe. Ceasefires were ignored.

In 2001 Kabila was shot by a bodyguard.

His son, Joseph succeeded him, and tried to bring peace to his country.

The country is still under hostility and possession struggles today.

contributed by Jan Michele

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