Congo (Kinshasa)


Currency unit

Congo franc





Cold War












At the mouth of the river Zaire (formerly and now again the Congo) was a kingdom of a Bantu speaking people known as the Bakongo (mainly in modern Angola). Basil Davidson observes that when the Portuguese first met these people in 1482 they treated the Bakongo as equals and the king of Portugal sent letters to their king as he would to a European ruler. The Portuguese connection with the coast eventually grew into their colonies of Angola and Cabinda on either side of the river mouth, but they did not penetrate into the interior.

By 1880s European powers were infiltrating the surrounding areas so that what is now the Congo was the "hole in the middle" - the only area not already claimed. King Leopold the second of Belgium was looking for a colony and this was the only piece of land left.

Leopold's company, the International Congo Association, sponsored Henry Morton Stanley's expeditions in the area. In 1884 "treaties" were made with the peoples of the interior, which were recognized by the Berlin West Africa Conference in 1885. Apparently the Great Powers thought the area would be opened to free trade but the king kept the trade for himself.

Leopold was its personal sovereign (that is it was not a Belgian colony then) and it was more or less the private estate of the king. His aim was to make money from the rubber trade. At that time Congo was the main source of rubber for the new industry of rubber tyre making, before the plantations of Malaya had begun producing. It was collected by forced labour - in effect slavery on a huge scale. Leopold became immensely rich, and some of the money went to the Belgian state. Atrocities of a type later used by the Nazis in Europe were common. Possibly many of the evils of present day Africa, such as the methods of the warring fighters in Congo and other states such as Sierra Leone were introduced by Leopold's agents. Among these were the cutting off of hands - now practiced in a number of wars in West Africa (see Sierra Leone and Liberia). Some of the same methods were imitated in the French colonies neighbouring the Congo.

Gradually the news of these cruelties leaked out via the missionaries and the work of left wing journalists such as Morel and his Congo Reform Association, and the British Consul Sir Roger Casement.

International outrage at the treatment of rubber tappers, reported by Sir Roger Casement the Irish British diplomat - there were massacres, possibly of 10 million, and mutilation of "offenders" who failed to deliver enough rubber - caused it to be taken over by the Belgian state in 1908 as the Belgian Congo.

The colony was run efficiently and with less cruelty but few Africans were educated and there was no preparation for independence. The Belgians explained that "Africans were like children" and the Europeans needed to behave like "parents" . The stages leading to independence which in British colonies took ten years or more were telescoped into months.

Independence came in 1960 after a short period of riots when the Belgians suddenly left with all their technical experts leaving a very small group of educated people. Elections for a parliament were held and a large number of small ethnic parties were formed. Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister but was overthrown and killed by the orders of Joseph Mobutu. One of the first UN peacekeeping forces was involved in the attempt to prevent a civil war when Moise Tshombe in the southern province of Katanga (now Shaba) attempted to form a breakaway state with the assistance of the Rhodesians and South Africans. The then UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold died in a plane crash during this episode (allegedly shot down by Rhodesians).

A long period of civil war and political collapse ended when the army commander Joseph Mobutu took power. He changed the name from Congo to Zaire on the grounds that it was a name given by the Europeans. (The Kabila government has changed the name back to Congo). Since then he ran the state as an absolute ruler with the facade of a ruling party. He is believed to have embezzled all the state revenues and had large houses in Europe. The economic state of the country is poor and most of the infrastructure functions only at a very low level. Perhaps he was just imitating Leopold.

Arms and aid from the United States to the UNITA guerrillas in Angola are believed to have passed through the Zaire base of Kamina in the south.

From October 1996 until May 1997 a guerrilla army based in Rwanda overthrew the regime of Mobutu. This army seems to have been led by Tutsis from Rwanda and Uganda. Reporters said there were Angolan soldiers present also. It is not clear yet who organised this army and who paid for it. Yoweri Museveni seems to have had an important role. It has been suggested that the United States had an interest in replacing Mobutu, its former protege.

During the (Rwandan led) army's march on Kinshasa many of the Rwandan Hutu refugees were massacred, hundreds of kilometres from Rwanda.

The Kabila government failed to restore government control to the northeast of the country and remains weak in the rest.


Numerous Bantu langs.


many non-bantu langs in north.









No real government during the Mobutu period.

Ruled since the 1960s by Mobutu Sese Seko as a personal dictatorship with a ruling party appointed by him.

At one time in 1993 he was reported to be allowing a multi-party system but no change occurred.

Mobutu was supposed to be one of the 10 richest people on the planet, head of one of the poorest countries.

He seems to have been tolerated by the western powers, especially the United States, in return for the cobalt and other minerals needed for the Cold War.

Even by September 1991 it seemed likely that the regime would fall, but the conditions look poor for democracy. There were meetings of the National Conference for Democracy (appointed 1990), interfered with by the police. It tried to appoint a prime minister, not approved by Mobutu, who tried to prevent him taking any decisions. The situation suggested great instability.

In early 1993 there was a conflict between Mobutu and Tshisekedi, the Prime Minister as to who had the right to issue money. Mobutu tried to issue a 1,000,000 Zaire note (then $2.00). The PM ordered people not to accept it. The soldiers were paid with the note, found it worthless and went looting. By May 1993 Zaire seemed headed towards the condition of Liberia or Somalia with no effective government, but large numbers of armed soldiers responsible to no public authority. In May 1994 no improvement had occurred.

Some commentators have suggested that every layer of government, such as it is, steals from the people and from business. Thus the army is unpaid and therefore acts as the bodyguards of whatever rich man will pay the soldiers. The National Conference was not elected but consisted of the rich men of each province, a medieval kind of parliament in a recreation of post-Roman feudalism.

The rebels led by Laurent Kabila took the capital on 17 May 1997. It is still not clear what kind of government he presided over though it has been suggested as a Tutsi empire controlled from Uganda or Rwanda. His former sponsors rebelled against him so he did not control much of the country. He was assassinated and his son Joseph Kabila took over. At first the government remained essentially military - imposed by the victors.

At present there seem to be three separate areas. The western area is ruled by Laurent Kabila's son Joseph, courtesy of the mainly Zimbabwe forces; the northern part by forces sponsored or run from Uganda, the west by forces controlled by Rwanda. But in the north and northeast there is essentially no government at all, merely the roving militias owned by the five or more warlords.

There is also a rather ineffective UN force supplied mainly by African states, with some troops from India and Pakistan.

The first ever General Election for President was held on 30 July 2006 under UN supervision. The presidential result was not conclusive so there was a re-run of the French kind, and Kabila was elected.

Interesting reading

Basil Davidson Africa in History (Longman 1964)

US$ version
Africa in History

Joseph Conrad - The Heart of Darkness

Herz der Finsternis


Au coeur des ténébres

Conrad's book was influenced by what Casement told him
Roger Casement - the Eyes of Another Race
Casement's Congo Report

The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement's Congo Report and 1903 Diary







The economy of the Belgian Congo was run in the interests of the Belgians. They organized the successful mining of copper and other minerals, the extraction of timber and tropical plantations. When they left, most of these industries declined to a low level. The profits which remained went into the hands of the president and were not reinvested. The whole infrastructure of transport links, efficient in Belgian days, decayed away.

Even after the fall of the regime recovery will be difficult.

During the Cold War Zaire was an important source of the strategic metal Cobalt. The end of the Cold War removed its importance. Perhaps that is why Mobutu was dumped . Huge inflation from excess currency during the Mobutu period. The mines round Lubumbashi (former Elizabethville) continued, run by expatriate Europeans, and financed the various regimes. Coltan (a combination of Tantalum and Niobium - formerly called Columbium), used for mobile phones, is now being looted by the various military forces and mined by semi-slaves. Congo produces about 1% of the world's total output.

The economy of the Belgian Congo was run in the interests of the Belgians. They organized the successful mining of copper and other minerals, the extraction of timber and tropical plantations. When they left, most of these industries declined to a low level. The profits which remained went into the hands of the president and were not reinvested. The whole infrastructure of transport links, efficient in Belgian days, decayed away.

Even after the fall of the regime recovery will be difficult.

During the Cold War Zaire was an important source of the strategic metal Cobalt.

In April 2008 it was announced that the government has signed a huge deal with China to rebuild the infrastructure in return for access to Copper and Cobalt deposits. It is argued whether the Congolese people will benefit, especially as in the early stages at least the Chinese companies will pay no taxes.

Schatten über dem Kongo

Les Fantômes du roi Léopold : Le terreur coloniale dans l'Etat du Congo, 1884-1908







AIDS is a serious problem in Zaire and may have passed from apes to humans with bushmeat in this country. As early as 1987 8% of the sexually active adults were believed to be infected with HIV. By now (2001) the figure must be much larger.


Bubonic plague reported (February 1994) in the eastern provinces, where there are no official medical services or government activity. Thge cause is lack of urban sanitation allowing rats to breed in the rubbish, plus no vaccination or antibiotics.

An eruption of a volcano near the eastern city of Goma (ruled by the Rwandan supported forces) destroyed the city. (January 2002)






Human Rights

Amnesty International reported (1990) that torture and imprisonment without trial are still going on. 500,000 internal refugees in what may amount to ethnic cleansing.

There was effectively no law or administration.

The Kabila rebels may have caused massacres especially of Hutu refugees in the east of the country.

It is estimated that more than 2,000,000 million people have died in the wars. Rape is common.

Climate effects

Last revised 9/06/12

Central Africa


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