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History of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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 A.D. by Bantus from present-day Nigeria.

The most important events in the history of the area (from the point of view of its current situation) occurred in the fifty years or so from about 1870, when European exploration and exploitation took place. The rape of the Congo stands alone as the single most brutal and greedy episode of colonisation in modern history, and is described in the entry on the Congo Free State.

The Belgian Congo

(Account of the period 1908 to 1960 goes here)

Changes in Congolese Society (brief overview)

At the time the multinational concessionary companies under Leopold's auspices and the Congolese had two very different concepts of land and labor. Understanding the contrasting patters of production between the traditional Congolese tribal states and modern, industrial Belgium is essential.

Capitalism revolutionized the region's traditional economies, inducing social changes and political consequences that revolutionized Congolese society to this day. Balanced, subsistence-based economies shifted to specialization and accumulation of surpluses. These changes revolutionized production patterns because maximizing production and minimizing cost (the specialization of capitalist production) did not necessarily coincide with traditional, seasonal patterns of agricultural production. Rather than specializing in a particular product according to the concept of comparative advantage, and then mass-producing surplus values of this product (rubber) for profit, traditional Congolese tribal states in the past favored balanced, self-reliant, subsistence economies, and hence followed labor patterns that reflected seasonal cycles.

Tribal states or empires organized along precarious, unwritten cultural traditions also shifted to a division of labor based on legal protection of land and labor—once inalienable, but now commodities to be bought, sold, or traded.

The bourgeois ethic wage of wage/labor productivity was thus, in many respects, a new concept to supposedly ‘idle’ natives merely accustomed to older patterns of production. On that note, it must be noted that the integration of traditional economies in Congo within the framework of the modern, capitalist economy was also particularly exploitative. The fortunes of King Leopold II and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had historically never been mass-produced in surplus quantities. Between 1880 and 1920 the population of Congo thus halved; over 10 million ‘indolent natives’ unaccustomed to the bourgeois ethos of labor productivity, were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease.

Mass-production of rubber in a dense, tropical forest in one of the world’s most isolated regions was after all quite a massive endeavor. Other parts of Africa were not cultivating rubber (quite a harsh crop to cultivate); other parts of Africa had milder climates and topographies.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Agitation for independence in the Congo arose fairly late, only becoming a prominent facotr by the mid 1950s. Even this seperatist spirit was far more an anti-Belgian movement than one of Congolese nationalism. Following a series of riots and unrest, the Belgian's realized they could not maintain control of such a vast coutnry. The Beligians thus announced on January 27, 1960 that in six months they would be leaving the country. The Congo was granted its independence on June 30, 1960. The country was in a very unstable state, regional tribal leaders held far more power than the central government, and with the departure of the Beligian administrators almost no skilled beurocrats were left in the country. The first Congolese university graduate was only in 1956, and virtually no one in the new nation had any idea of how to manage a country of such size.

Parliamentary elections in 1960 produced Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu as president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Almost from independence the coutnry began to unravel. A military coup broke out in the capital and rampant looting began. On July 11th the richest province of the coutnry, Katanga, seceeded under Moise Tshombe. To protect Europeans in the country and try to restore order 20 000 UN peacekeepers were sent to the country. Western paramilitaries and mercenaries, often hired by mining companies to protect there interests, also began to pour into the country. In this same period Congo's second richest provice, Kasai, also announced its independence.

Prime Minister Lumumba turned to the USSR to try to get weapons to defend his government. Khrushchev agreed and offered weapons and technical advisors. The United States balked, however, at the Soviet Union gaining control of central Africa and the UN forces were ordered to block any shipments of arms into the country. The United States also looked for some way to replace Lumumba as leader. President Kasavubu had argued for an alliance with the west rather than the Soviets. In December 1960, with US support, Kasavubu and his loyal Colonel Joseph Mobutu overthrew the government. Lumumba was assassinated by Mobutu soon after. In Stanleyville, however, forces loyal to Lumumba set up a rival governemnt under Antoine Gizenga.

Unrest and rebellion plagued the government until 1965, when Lieutenant General Mobutu, by then commander in chief of the national army, seized control of the country and declared himself president for 5 years. Mobutu quickly centralized power into his own hands and was elected unopposed as president in 1970. Embarking on a campaign of cultural awareness, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaire and required citizens to adopt African names. Relative peace and stability prevailed until 1977 and 1978 when Katangan rebels, based in Angola, launched a series of invasions into the Katanga region. The rebels were driven out with the aid of Belgian paratroopers.

During the 1980s, Mobutu continued to enforce his one-party system of rule. Although Mobutu successfully maintained control during this period, opposition parties, most notably the Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), were active. Mobutu's attempts to quell these groups drew significant international criticism.

As the Cold War came to a close, internal and external pressures on Mobutu increased. In late 1989 and early 1990, Mobutu was weakened by a series of domestic protests, by heightened international criticism of his regime's human rights practices, and by a faltering economy. In May 1990 Mobutu agreed to the principle of a multi-party system with elections and a constitution. As details of a reform package were delayed, soldiers in September 1991 began looting Kinshasa to protest their unpaid wages. Two thousand French and Belgian troops, some of whom were flown in on U.S. Air Force planes, arrived to evacuate the 20,000 endangered foreign nationals in Kinshasa.

In 1992, after previous similar attempts, the long-promised Sovereign National Conference was staged, encompassing over 2,000 representatives from various political parties. The conference gave itself a legislative mandate and elected Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo as its chairman, along with Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the UDPS, as prime minister. By the end of the year Mobutu had created a rival government with its own prime minister. The ensuing stalemate produced a compromise merger of the two governments into the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT) in 1994, with Mobutu as head of state and Kengo Wa Dondo as prime minister. Although presidential and legislative elections were scheduled repeatedly over the next 2 years, they never took place.

By 1996, tensions from the neighboring Rwanda war had spilled over to Zaire. Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe), who had fled Rwanda following the ascension of a Tutsi-led government, had been using Hutu refugees camps in eastern Zaire as a basis for incursion against Rwanda. These Hutu militia forces soon allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire. In turn, these Tutsis formed a militia to defend themselves against attacks.

The Tutsi militia was soon joined by various opposition groups and supported by several countries, including Rwanda and Uganda. This coalition, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, became known as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). The AFDL, now seeking the broader goal of ousting Mobutu, made significant military gains in early 1997. Following failed peace talks between Mobutu and Kabila in May 1997, Mobutu left the country, and Kabila marched unopposed to Kinshasa on May 20. Kabila named himself president, consolidated power around himself and the AFDL, and reverted the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kabila demonstrated little ability to manage the problems of his country. He lost his allies and the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC, led by the warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba)., backed by Rwandan and Ugandan troops attakced in August 1998, soon after Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia sent some form of force into the DRC, with Zimbabwe and Angola supporting the government. While the six African governments involved in the war signed a ceasefire accord in Lusaka in July 1999, the Congolese rebels did not and the ceasefire broke down within months. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 by one of his bodyguards, and was succeeded by his son Joseph. Upon taking office Joseph Kabila called for multilateral peace talks to end the war. He partly succeeded in February 2001 when a further peace deal was brokered between Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda leading to the apparent withdrawal of foreign troops. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, arrived in April 2001.

Currently the Ugandans and the MLC still hold a 200 mile wide section of the north of the country; Rwandan forces and its front, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) control a large section of the east; and government forces or their allies hold the west and south of the country. There were reports that the conflict is being prolonged as a cover for extensive looting of the substantial natural resources in the country (including diamonds, copper, zinc, and coltan). The conflict was reignited in January 2002 by ethnic clashes in the northeast and both Uganda and Rwanda have halted their withdrawal and sent in more troops. Talks between Kabila and the rebel leaders (held in Sun City) are currently in their sixth week (April 2002).

See also: Democratic Republic of the Congo