The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a nation in central Africa and the third largest country on the continent. It borders the Central African Republic and Sudan on the north, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania on the east, Zambia and Angola on the south, and the Republic of the Congo on the west. The country enjoys access to the sea through a narrow 40 km stretch, following the Congo river into the Gulf of Guinea. The name Congo (meaning 'hunter') is coined after the Bakongo tribe, living in the Congo river basin. Formerly, the Belgian colony of the Belgian Congo, the country's post-independence name was changed in 1971, from Congo-Kinshasa (after its capital, to distinguish it from the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville) to Zaire, until 1997. Since 1998, the country has suffered greatly from the devastating and genocidal Second Congo War (known also as the African World War), the deadliest conflict since World War II.
The area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was populated as early as 10,000 years ago, and settled in the 7th and 8th centuries by Bantus from present-day Nigeria.
European exploration and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s. The area was first mapped by the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley. He prepared the region for European colonization. Congo was given to King Leopold II of Belgium in the Conference of Berlin in 1885. He made the land his private property and named it 'Congo Free State'. In this Free State, the local population was brutalized in exchange for rubber, a growing market with the development of rubber tires. The selling of the rubber made a fortune for Leopold, who built several buildings in Brussels and Ostend to honour himself. During the period between 1885 and 1908, between 5 and 15 (the commonly accepted figure is ~10) million Congolese were killed by the mercenaries working for the Belgian king. However, there were international protests by not only famous writers such as Mark Twain, but also British diplomat Roger Casement, whose 1904 report on the Congo condemned the practice. Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness also takes place in Congo Free State. In 1908, the Belgian parliament bowed to international pressure in order to save their last bit of prestige in Europe, forcibly adopting the Free State as a Belgian colony from the king. From then on, it became the Belgian Congo, but in practical terms, things changed only slightly.
Congo became independent on June 30, 1960, after almost a decade of political struggle; Belgium finally withdrew, fearing a war for independence similar to that in Algeria. The first Prime Minister, Patrice-Emery Lumumba (1925–61), was a member of the politically minor Batatele tribe; he was educated in mission schools and later worked as a postal clerk. He became a member of the permanent committee of the All-African Peoples Conference (founded in Accra, 1958) and president of the Congolese National Movement, an influential political party. After a January 1959 uprising, he fled the country to escape arrest but soon returned. Late in 1959, accused of instigating public violence, he was jailed by the Belgians but was released (1960) to participate in the Brussels Congo conference, where he emerged as a leading negotiator. When the Republic of the Congo came into existence (June, 1960) Lumumba was its first premier and minister of defense.
Shortly after independence, the army, still led by Belgian officers, mutinied after hearing the declaration by a Belgian general that "things won't change just because of independence". The military revolt continued until President Kasavubu and Lumumba replaced the Belgian officers by Africans, which resulted in most Belgians fleeing and thus the crash of the young nation's administration. The Belgian government flew in troops to protect Belgian citizens, and Lumumba appealed for aid to the United Nations. The UN sent troops to reestablish order, which were strongly supported by the United States, which believed Lumumba to be a communist and wanted to avoid the Congo turning to the USSR by any means.
Since 1994, the Congo has been rent by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees from fighting in Rwanda and Burundi. The government of Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled by a rebellion led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in May, 1997; his regime was subsequently challenged by a Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion in August 1998. Troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened to support the new regime in Kinshasa. See Foreign relations of Congo and First Congo War.
A cease-fire was signed on July 10, 1999; nevertheless, fighting continues apace especially in the eastern part of the country, financed by revenues from the illegal extraction of minerals such as coltan. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila was named head of state. The new president quickly began overtures to end the war. Fighting continued, even after an accord signed in South Africa in 2002. But by late 2003, a fragile peace prevailed. Kabila appointed four vice-presidents, two who had been fighting to oust him until July, 2003. See also: Second Congo War
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