Packed with possibilities, but blighted by over 100 years of war, despotism and horror, the country now known as the DRC has suffered more than any other country on earth. The first stories to emerge from the steaming river basin that straddles the equator in this mysterious part of central Africa were brought home by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Trading goods such as ivory, cloth, pottery and ironware, they made contact with a highly developed kingdom known as the Kongo that was ruled over by a patriarchal monarch and stretched as far south as the Kwanza River in Angola.
Little more was heard of the Kongo until the 1860s, when Dr David Livingstone began opening up the African interior to European exploration. After the learned Scot went missing for more than five years in 1866, a New York newspaper sent out a precocious Welshman, Henry Morton Stanley, to track him down. The two expat Britons met on 10 November 10 1871 near modern-day Kigoma in Tanzania, but it was Stanley’s subsequent African sojourns, under the sponsorship of the British Daily Telegraph newspaper to trace the course of the Congo River, that marked his own place in history.
Reported enthusiastically in The Times, Stanley’s Congolese exploits were quickly seized upon by the most unlikely of colonial adventurers, King Leopold II of Belgium. Devious, greedy and wholly ignorant of African affairs, Leopold had been eyeing the unclaimed African gâteau for some time, but he was having some trouble persuading the Belgian government to go along with him. To solve the problem the arrogant monarch decided to acquire a colony in his own right. The resulting European furore became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.
In 1878 Leopold summoned Stanley and commissioned him to go back to the Congo under the smoke screen of the International African Society – a supposed philanthropic organisation. Over the ensuing five years Stanley signed more than 400 treaties with Congo chiefs on Leopold’s behalf, tricking them to hand over their land rights in return for paltry gifts. At the Berlin conference called by Bismarck in 1884 to carve up Africa, Leopold –aware of a German desire to offset French and British colonial interests – managed to convince the famous Iron Chancellor to declare the Congo a free trade area and cede it to him as his own personal fiefdom.
Leopold inherited a country 75 times the size of Belgium, and philanthropy was the last thing on his mind as he set about fleecing the Congo of its ivory, copper and – in the wake of the invention of the pneumatic tyre – rubber. Hideous crimes were committed against the Congolese by Leopold’s rubber traders. These included raiding villages and taking women and children captive as an incentive for the men to bring back ever-greater supplies of rubber from the forest. Those who did not return their quota had their hands chopped off. And all the while, in one of the earliest examples of cynical political spin doctoring, Leopold passed off his Congo venture as a shining example of fine governorship and benevolence, aimed at ‘civilising the Negroes’ and keeping the ‘cruel Arab slave-traders’ at bay.
As Leopold’s crimes gradually became public knowledge, the Belgian government realised enough was enough, and paid the unscrupulous king US$4 million in compensation to annex the land mass now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo themselves. Thereafter, things took a turn for the better. The new Belgian administration built clinics, schools and roads, and eradicated sleeping sickness. By the 1940s the Congo was Africa’s richest country, though the local people still had few political rights and the Belgian government proved consistently negligent in preparing the Congolese for a smooth handover at independence.
Gathering pace in the 1950s under charismatic revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, the independence movement finally wrested control from the colonisers in 1960. As the Congolese struggled to form a coherent government, the Belgians – who had left the country with only 16 qualified university graduates – quickly realised their mistake and, with covert US support, re-intervened in the Congo in order to stem the mounting chaos, backing a plot by army chief Joseph Désiré Mobutu to oust (and assassinate) Lumumba, who was moving suspiciously towards the Soviet Union.
Renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country Zaïre, the new leader embarked on a campaign of ‘Africanisation’, with people dropping their Christian names, and suits giving way to the abacost (a Congolese version of the Mao jacket); though Mobutu himself was far from being a communist, allying the country firmly in the US camp.
Proving himself to be even more incompetent than Leopold, Mobutu duly turned corruption and the squandering of state resources into an art form. Toting up more than US$2 billion in US loans over a 30-year period and printing money as if it was going out of fashion, he became legendary for his Marquis de Sade–style extravagance, stuffing more than US$5 billion into Swiss bank accounts and hiring Concorde to take him on shopping trips to the Champs Elysées. Indeed, so rife was his administration with conniving and nepotism that writer Michela Wrong invented a new word to describe his spectacular style of state mismanagement: kleptocracy
With a sea of political change rippling across the world in the early 1990s, Mobutu finally got his comeuppance. Backing the Hutu perpetuators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he enraged Zaïran Tutsis, who, supported enthusiastically by Rwandan and Ugandan troops, marched on Kinshasa in May 1996. Mobutu narrowly escaped capture by hitching a lift on a cargo plane to Togo and died four months later of cancer in Morocco.
The new leader, Laurent Kabila – a one-time confidante of Che Guevara – dashed any hopes early on by outlawing political opposition and renaming the country (with no apparent irony) the Democratic Republic of Congo. Proving himself every bit as corrupt as Mobutu, Kabila took the madness a stage further by plunging the country into civil war, setting his government against the very Tutsis he had once claimed to represent. The conflict broadened when Rwanda and Uganda entered on the side of the Tutsi rebels and Kabila was only saved when Angola and Zimbabwe waded in with military support for the Congolese government.
The DRC’s second war started in 1998 and culminated with the assassination of Laurent Kabila in January 2001 by one of his own bodyguards. Succeeded by his son Joseph, Kabila the younger couldn’t have been more different than his incompetent father. English-speaking, Western-educated and only 29 years old when he took power, Kabila II quickly set about presiding over a peace treaty between the warring African factions that in 2002 paved the way for an all-party transitional government. Notwithstanding, the challenges facing the country are still huge. By 2003 the war had claimed more than 3.8 million lives and displaced another 3.4 million people, but with the establishment of the DRC’s second ever multiparty elections in July 2006 many hoped that a corner had been turned.
Or had it? The 2006 elections caused a stalemate between incumbent Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, with sporadic violence breaking out, particularly in Kinshasa. Kabila won the second round of the election in October 2006 with a landslide in the Swahili-speaking east. Meanwhile, cocooned in-country, 17, 000 UN soldiers (the world’s largest peacekeeping force) continue to oversee a shaky and volatile security situation. For experienced Africa-watchers, the DRC’s future looks as uncertain as ever.