Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaïre)

Democratic Republic of the Congo flag
Democratic Republic of the Congo flag
This country, located in central Africa, is bounded by the Republic of the Congo to the west; Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda on the east; Zambia and Angola on the south; and Sudan and the Central African Republic on the north. The capital city is Kinshasa, which changed its name from Leopoldville in 1964.

The topography varies from tropical rain forests to mountainous terraces, plateau, savannas, dense grasslands, and mountains. Its region is dominated by the Congo River system, so it has a main role in economic development, transportation, and freshwater supply.

This country has equatorial location; as a consequence the climate is hot and humid with large amounts of precipitation in the central river basin and eastern highlands, but it presents periodic droughts in the south.

The majority of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic but Protestants also. There are other indigenous beliefs. Although French is the official language of the country, 700 local languages and dialects are spoken because DRC has over 200 ethnic groups, mainly of Bantu origin. The population was estimated at 58 million in 2004 and has grown quickly.

The DRC has a vast potential of natural resources and mineral wealth such as cobalt, diamonds, gold, copper, coal, uranium, crude oil, and tin. Most of these are export commodities. The agricultural production basis of the DRC is diversified; the wooden resources are quite large, and it holds an enormous hydroelectric potential.

Democratic Republic of the Congo map
Democratic Republic of the Congo map
The programs and policies of structural adjustment set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have a ruling presence in the country. In the 1980s, the IMF played a leading role in the economic policies adopted by the DRC. In exchange, the country‘s external debt was reconsidered and the IMF awarded a considerable loan.

In 1989 the DRC was forced to establish a new economic reform due to economic instability. On the whole, the adjustments have improved the macroeconomic conditions in some countries, but the population’s living standards have worsened.

Relative peace in the country in 2002 let President Joseph Kabila, son of the first DRC president, begin implementing an economic plan, helped by the IMF and World Bank; exports increased, improving the situation. But a country with immense economic resources continues to be dependent on external donors.

In 1959, as an answer to the increasing demands for complete independence by the main nationalistic parties, the DRC’s government announced the forthcoming elections with the aim of establishing an autonomous government. In 1960 the Belgian Congo proclaimed its independence and was renamed Republic of Congo. In 1966 the country became Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The post-independence period was distinguished by instability. Ethnic disputes and military revolts had provoked violent disorders, all of which intensified when the prime minister of the mineral-rich province of Katanga proclaimed his independence from the country and asked Belgium for military help.

A United Nations peacekeeping force was called to restore order. However, Col. Joseph Désiré Mobutu, chief of staff of the army, took over the government and declared himself president. In 1971 he renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre.

During the cold war, Mobutu continued to enforce his one-party system of government, but at the end of this period the regime suffered from external and internal pressures, and he acceded to implement a multiparty system with elections and a constitution. In fact, Mobutu continued ruling until 1997.

Between 1994 and 1996 Zaïre was involved in the Rwanda conflict, hosting large numbers of refugees in its border territory. This situation caused trouble when the presence of Hutu refugees, among them several responsible for the Rwanda genocide, provoked the Tutsis to revolt.

This rebellion, supported by the United States, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola, spread over the Zaïre territory, weakening Mobutu’s regime, which was supported by France. This first war in Congo ended when rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, declared himself president and changed the name of the nation back to Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But relations between Kabila and his foreign backers deteriorated, and in 1998 Kabila’s government was subsequently challenged. Troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened to support him. The series of wars in this nation was determined not only by ethnic factors but also by natural resources.

The control of diamonds and other important minerals has contributed to encourage both wars as well as the maintenance of the authoritarian governments. In 1999 a cease-fire was finally signed, but Kabila was assassinated in 2001. He was succeeded by his son Joseph, who signed a peace agreement with Rwanda the next year and established a transitional government.

With the United Nations presence, a new constitution was formally adopted in 2006, and on July 30 the first free multiparty elections were held. In November 2006 Joseph Kabila won the presidency in the country’s first democratic elections since 1960.