Lies across the equator, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is located in central Africa. The country is bordered by nine other countries namely Central Africa Republic and Sudan to the North, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania to the East, Zambia to the Southeast, Angola to the South, and Republic of Congo or Congo Brazzaville to the west. DRC has a short coastal line to the West fronting the South Atlantic Ocean. According to 2010 estimate, DRC has over 70 million population with Christian as the predominant religion. Like many African countries, DRC is multi ethnic nation with about 200 ethnic groups most of which are of Bantu-speaking origin. The four largest ethnic groups are Mongo, Luba, Kongo, and Mangbetu-Azande. These four ethnic groups make up forty-five percent of the population. The native Congolese had early contact (in the period prior to the 15th century) with the outside word such as Arab, Swahili, and European, which allowed short and long -distant trade to flourish. However the devastation of early contact and trade with the wider world outweighed its gains. Among the wreckage caused by the contact are collapsed of the pre-contact empires, political oppression, exploitation of natural resources and population decline due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. . DRC is one of the most politically turbulent regions on the world, no thanks to violence, which became the hallmark of the countries’ history since the late nineteenth century when it was brought under colonial rule.
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The area with earliest evidence of human occupation in DRC is the Congo-Basin. This region constitutes areas around Congo River System and its tributaries. Accounts of the peopling of Congo-Basin reveal that pygmies were the first encountered inhabitants in the region. As early as 2,250 BCE their occurrence was mentioned in the letter from the Egyptian Pharaoh Nefrikare to his commander in the Southern Egyptian kingdom who brought a dwarf back from his expedition to the southern forest (Duffy, 1984: 18-19). In 2000 BCE, Bantu-speaking people migrated into the Congo-Basin from Benue River area in today Nigeria, West Africa. Archaeological evidence has shown that the Bantu-speaking people were agriculturists and brought iron metallurgical tradition with them into the Basin. The introduction of iron technology enhanced cultivation of diverse crop such as palm tree, millet, and sorghum. Although history of the groups that peopled the region between 2,000 BCE and 1400 CE is obscured, by the 1500 CE Sudanic and Nilotic groups from the north and east of Congo had migrated into the basin. These series of migrations displaced the indigenous pygmies in some places and pushed them to the fringe in other areas. The migrations also left mosaic of ethnicity and complexity.
The migratory waves into Congo Basin allows for high population density. This population was heterogeneous, which brought about formation of kingdoms and empires. The most popular among the city-states in central Africa during the pre-colonial period are Kongo, Luba, and Luanda. The geography and environment in Congo are chief factors in the development of these states. The natural advantages not only provided the resources but also enhanced intra and inter movement of goods and ideas.
Because of the contact of the Europeans with these kingdoms, they have linked their development to the time of the contact. However, historical and oral traditional accounts have demonstrated that these kingdoms were development by the native Congo prior to European voyage in the region. In fact, studies have revealed that Congo had contact first with the Arab and the Swahili before the European.
Although these Empires had pre-contact origin, their political-economic system was greatly influenced. The first contact with the European was established in the 1483 when the first Portuguese sailed to the shore of Congo River. This contact and series of subsequent ones aided formation of trade zones in Congo-Basin, thus regional and long-distance trade in ivory, people and other exotic materials became the major source of wealth accumulation. On the eastern trade zone, the native Congolese traded with the Arab and the Swahili merchants. By 16th century, Congo-Basin and its native remained an integral part of the worldwide economy (Kisangani and Bobb, 2010 – iv).
Human cargo was the most important item of trade. . As early as the 1500s the Arab and Zanziba merchants have engaged in slave raiding in Congo region, although Congo was not a major supply centre to America and Europe until 1820s and 1830s. This continued until the abolition of slave trade in mid 19th century. Heralded this new political-economy system among the native were conflict and collapse of kingdoms as increase in slave demand led to spread of slave haunting across kingdoms up to the interior of Congo. The slave trade brought about “perverted social relation” and suspicion among the native people as the number of people traded into slave market skyrocketed. For example, between 1821 and 1843 over 156,000 native Congolese were sold into the Caribbean and the America.
Colonial DRC witnessed series of administrative changes, which resulted into renaming of the country from the autochthonous Empire to Central Free State to Belgian Congo to Republic of Congo. The several changing of the country’s name that heralded the colonial period and continued at independence, brought with it conflicted cultural, ethnic, and political identity. DRC first became a European “enterprise” in 1885 when the country was seceded to King Leopold II of Belgium in Berlin Conference, 1884/1885. The mission of Leopold’s II as codified in the Act of Berlin as to develop the territory and civilize its indigenous inhabitants (Kisangani and Bobb, 2010 – Ixi). Leopold II therefore name the country Central Free State (CFS). Although there were some infrastructure development (e.g. railway construction and building of industries), exploitation and brutalization was the hallmark of Leopold’s authority in the region.
The exacerbation of human abuse by Leopold II forced the Belgian government to take over the administration of affairs in CFS in 1908 and renamed Belgian Congo (BC) – this was the former annexation of Congo by Belgium. Although the abuse of the natives continued for over a decade after the government’s takeover, the relationship between the colonial masters and the natives was like that of slave and master. The indigenous people were excluded from politics because of the idea that they were inferior to the colonialists. . The native Congolese find this ruling unpleasant and became rebellious against the Belgian government through associations and pressure groups. Numerous anti-colonial groups echoed the cry for independent in 1958. Patrice Lumumba was an important figure in the nationalist struggle. When the demand for independence was tensed, a hasty program of power transition was put in place by the Belgium government. In May 1960 Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) won the parliamentary election. On June 30th 1960 Republic of Congo gained independent from Belgium. MNC therefore appointed Lumumba as the Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as its first president.
The post independence DRC was time of incessant political and ethnic crises with high corruption. The political unrest in DRC started when Lumumba was siding the East Bloc during the cold war – the action the West bloc saw as against their political interest in DRC. With the support of US and Belgium, Lumumba was kidnapped and executed in January 1961. The extermination of Lumumba caused a lot of civil upheavals in the country. In 1965 army colonel Joseph-Desire Mobutu overthrew President Kasavubu in coup de ta sponsored by the Western powers in order to put a stop to the civil war in the country. Rather than settling the crisis, Mobutu’s tenure worsened inter-ethnic tension, which galvanized into unabated violence throughout the country. . The violence continued under Joseph Kabila -a military personnel – who took office after Mobutu in 1997.
The effects of the civil war on Congolese cannot be overemphasized. There were many cases of rape and sexual exploitation, people were put into forced labor, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and many lives and property lost. In addition, the Pygmies population of the DRC was also haunted and eaten as games by rebels who believed the Pygmies are mysterious being and source of spiritual power. In Kivu province there was also cases of cannibalism. The civil war claimed an estimated casualty of 5.4 million, the most devastating man-made calamity since the WW II.
Violence also devastated the economy of the country since the colonial period. The natural resources of DRC (e.g. gold and diamond) were exploited and carted away for the benefit of other nations and few native elites. The greed and corruption of Congolese leaders solidified the foundation of economic bankruptcy laid by the colonial administrators. The large-scale production of copper in DRC was stopped as a result of the international conspiracy on the price. The country’s economy now depends on the trade of coltan and diamonds. Scholars of political and economic history of Africa have suggested that the plunder by the leaders and resistance by the people or rebel groups in DRC was a handiwork of the West. The riches of DRC such as copper, diamond, gold, timber, tin, and rubber, were sources of commercial interest to the West in DRC. Although it is a truism that United States and other world powers played a cynical role in the DRC’s unhealthy political and economic situation, the situation is now blamed on shifting constellation of forces including African nations, multinationals, artisanal commerce and criminal networks.
Beside the corruption and incessant political and ethnic unrest the heralded Mobutu’s administration, the regime was also known for it authenticity scheme. The aim of the scheme was to re-africanize DRC. DRC was then renamed Republic of Zaire in 1971. The names of organization, place, and people were also changed. The adherent of this scheme replaced their Christian names with Zairian names, and native Congolese became native Zairian. Leading by example, the president Joseph-Desire Mobutu changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, and so were his cabinet members. Although Mobutu tried to reclaim the “lost” glory of the natives’ culture and identity, the program was not entirely embraced by Zairians. At the exit of Mobutu’s (through a fierce war that made Mobutu to flee Zaire) long-term dictatorship era full of corruption and atrocities, Laurent Kabila, the new military leader and ally of MNC became the president. Kabila was not in full support of the re-africanization agenda and renamed Zaire Democratic Republic of Congo. Equally some organizations, places, and ministries’ name were changed to their former colonial or early independence names. However, the corruption and political unrest exacerbate during Kabila’s DRC.
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The international communities have intervened in DRC situation. For many years United Nations have been sending peacekeeping teams to DRC. Although the United Nations have recognized the magnitude of human abuse and devastation imposed by the civil war on the native Congolese, effort to abate the occurrence is uneven in the Country. DRC government has made effort to make the country a peaceful place. In 2005 president Kabila Jr. had a successful negotiation with parties involve in the conflict to end the war. Despite all the peacekeeping efforts more rebel organizations still congregate in the eastern Congo. Thus the conflict continues in the region, and thousands of Native Congolese continue to fall victim.
Abidemi Babatunde Babalola
Reference and Further Reading
Anup Shah, “The Democratic Republic of Congo”
http://www.globalissues.org/article/87/the-democratic-republic-of-congo#AnInternationalBattleOverResources. Accessed June 20, 2010
Duffy Kevin. Children of the Forest, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.
Gondola, Ch. Didier. The History of Congo. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.
Kisangani, Emizet, F. and Bobb, Scott F. Historical Dictionary of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Third Edition), Lanham: The Scarecrow, 2010.
Renton, David., Seddon, David., and Zeilig, Leo. The Congo Plunder and Resistance. New York: Zed Books, 2007.
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