Long before the French or Portuguese arrived on the banks of the Congo River, the region was part of a complex trading kingdom comprising the Kongo, Lari, Mbochi, Teke and Vili peoples of Bantu origin. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make contact, establishing a slave system that traded commercial goods for a human cargo extracted from the continent’s dark interior. In 1880 the area finally came under French sovereignty when Franco-Italian empire builder Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza used his dashing European charm to con the local Onkoo rulers into signing away their historic land rights. Predictably, the French government made quick work of gaining free use of Congo’s considerable natural resources such as ivory, tropical hardwood and rubber, as well as raising hell with the local population who were used as forced labour. By 1908 Congo had been formally streamlined into French Equatorial Africa along with Chad, Gabon and the Central African Republic. But ethnic integration wasn’t exactly a colonial priority. Despite extracting copious natural resources and opening up the coast at Point Noire by building the Congo-Ocean railway from 1924–34, the French consistently chose to ignore festering tribal differences and with independence in 1960 the bubbling pot finally boiled over.
Although the initial transition was relatively peaceful, tensions quickly came to a head. Congo’s first president, Fulbert Youlou, seen by many as a puppet of the French, lasted just three years before being deposed in a popular uprising in 1963 that installed Chairman of the National Council of the Revolution Alphonse Massamba-Débat in power. Introducing a one-party state with his National Council of the Revolution as the only legal political party, Massamba-Débat quickly proved to be equally unpopular and was ousted in turn by Captain Marien-Ngouabi in a military coup in 1968. Ngouabi was one of a new generation of northern Congolese political activists and in 1969 he announced the formation of the People’s Republic of Congo, ushering in Africa’s first Marxist-Leninist state (Angola and Ethiopia would follow). But by transferring control away from the once-powerful south, Ngouabi made many enemies and in 1977 he was assassinated, allegedly by a suicide commando. The army chief of staff, Yhombi-Opango, stepped into the breach and ruled by means of a military commission but, charged with corruption, he was ousted by the Congolese Worker’s Party (PCT) in 1979, with Denis Sassou Nguesso, a rising star in the army and one-time Marxist, taking the helm. Sassou’s political survivalism proved to be superior to many of his rivals (he is still in power today) and his pragmatism got results. Despite initially pursuing a pro-Soviet line in common with his predecessor, Saaaou adopted a more liberal bent post 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall in Europe, and opened the way for multiparty elections.
Eliminated in the first round of the 1992 elections, Sassou sat out a first run-off that was won resoundingly by former university professor Pascal Lissouba. A southerner, Lissouba promised to redress southern Congo’s years spent exiled from development and from access to the country’s top jobs. But once in office he continued to fleece the country of millions – or possibly even billions – while using his personal militia (known as the Cocoyes) to antagonise inhabitants of the capital who rallied around the ousted Sassou. In 1993 the situation erupted into full-blown civil war with Sassou’s Cobra militia on one side, and the Cocoyes, together with the militia of Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas (the so-called Ninjas) on the other. Lissouba clung on to power until another – and this time decisive – civil war all but obliterated Brazzaville in 1997. In amongst the chaos Sassou took charge for the second time and Lissouba fled. But the real losers of the war were Congo’s civilians, who spent months hiding in the forests. Many children died – if not from bullets then from malnutrition. In 1999 the war started again on a smaller scale, this time fought predominantly between the Cocoyes and the Ninjas.
Bowing to international pressure in 2002, Sassou decided to legitimise his presidency with multiparty elections. Winning 90% of the vote, he was aided by the fact that his two main rivals – Lissouba and Bernard Kolelas –were barred from standing and a third belatedly withdrew from the race. Not surprisingly a resurgence of fighting between the Ninjas and government forces in the Malebo Pool region dogged Sassou’s first year as president, but a peace agreement between the president and the leader of the Pool insurgency, Pasteur Ntoumi, signed in March 2003 has maintained a shaky standoff.
A recent new constitution granted the president an array of new powers and extended his term from five to seven years. In an attempt to legitimize itself as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s main oil producers the Congo has tried to increase financial transparency in the petroleum sector as well as initiate a freer press. However, for the vast majority of Congolese it remains to be seen if President Sassou – who in January 2006 was elected as Chairman of the 53-nation African Union – can deliver the goods.