A Tragic Story

The Baka people, formerly known as Pygmies, were probably the first inhabitants of the steaming Congo River Basin, arriving as early as 8000 BC. The Bantu settled most of the Congo by 1000AD, bringing agriculture and iron-smelting, and Portuguese explorers took home the first stories from the region 500 years later. Trading goods such as ivory, cloth, pottery, ironware and slaves, the Portuguese 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. Kongo royalty became enthusiastic allies, adopting Portuguese names, clothes and customs and converting to Christianity.

In the mid-19th century, Arab traders crossed East Africa to eastern Congo, taking back slaves and ivory. During the same era, Dr David Livingstone opened up the African interior to European exploration.

In 1874 the New York Herald and the British Daily Telegraph newspapers sent Henry Morton Stanley (the man who had found Dr Livingstone in 1871) across Africa to trace the course of the Congo River. His epic 999-day journey cemented the Welsh-American explorer's place in history and piqued the interest of King Leopold II of Belgium. Devious, greedy and wholly ignorant of African affairs, Leopold had been eyeing the unclaimed African gateau for some time, but he was unable to convince the Belgian government to go along. To solve the problem he decided to acquire a colony using his own considerable funds.

In 1878, Leopold commissioned Stanley to return to the Congo under the smokescreen of the International African Society, a supposed philanthropic organisation. Over the ensuing five years Stanley signed treaties with chiefs on Leopold's behalf, tricking them into handing 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 Iron Chancellor to declare the Congo a free-trade area and cede it to him.

Philanthropy was the last thing on Leopold's mind as he set about fleecing his Congo Free State of its ivory, copper and 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.

Independence

As Leopold's crimes gradually became public knowledge, the Belgian government realised enough was enough and took over in 1908. Thereafter, things improved. The new Belgians ended forced labour, built schools and roads, and nearly eradicated sleeping sickness. By the 1940s mining had made this Africa's richest country, though even up to the end of their rule, the Belgians largely excluded Congolese from roles in the government or economy, and very few Congolese had college educations.

Gathering pace in the 1950s under charismatic revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, the independence movement finally wrested control from the colonisers on 30 June 1960. Lumumba became prime minister of the new Republic of Congo, but tribalism and personal quests for power quickly erupted, and just a week later the army mutinied. By the end of the year, army chief Joseph Mobutu had seized power, Lumumba had been arrested (and would later be assassinated) and Congo had split into four quasi-independent states. An aggressive intervention by UN and Belgian troops plus several mercenary armies put the country together again by 1965, though there were further small-scale rebellions in the following years.

Renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country Zaire, the new leader embarked on a campaign of 'Africanisation', with colonial city names changing and suits giving way to the abacost (a Congolese version of the Mao jacket). Mobutu himself was no communist, though, allying the country firmly in the US camp.

Mobutu brought stability to Congo, but he also ruled with an iron fist, quashed opposition, and turned corruption and the squandering of state resources into an art form later named kleptocracy. It's estimated he pocketed US$5 billion during his rule.

Civil War

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Mobutu survived several coup attempts and repelled armed insurrections in various parts of the country. By the early 1990s he'd driven an economic collapse so epic in scale that most of the country had degenerated to, in the words of Tim Butcher (in his book Blood River), 'a feral state of lawlessness and brutality'. Not only did schools and hospitals cease to function, but highways were reclaimed by the jungle.

Backing the Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who escaped into Zaire, Mobutu enraged local Tutsis, who, supported enthusiastically by Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started a march across the country in 1996 and easily took Kinshasa in 1997. Mobutu managed to escape the country, dying of cancer just four months later in Morocco.

Soon after renaming the country the Democratic Republic of Congo, the new leader, Laurent Kabila, a one-time protégé of Che Guevara, dashed any hopes of change by outlawing political opposition. Proving himself every bit as corrupt and repressive as Mobutu, he lost support at home and abroad, even from the governments that had propelled him to power.

The DRC's second war (aka 'Africa's World War') started in 1998 when Rwandan and Ugandan troops again entered the country. Kabila was saved by troops from Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and other countries, but much of DRC was now under the control of Rwanda and Uganda, and even they clashed at times, leading to the destruction of Kisangani. In 2010, in a UN report into the killing of Hutus in DRC between 1993 and 2003, the UN implicated Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Angola in what they described as 'crimes of genocide'.

A New Start

Laurent Kabila was shot by one of his bodyguards in January 2001, though the details of and motivations behind the assassination remain unknown. He was succeeded by his 29-year-old son Joseph, largely raised in Tanzania, who, to the surprise of nearly everyone, proved to be a competent leader. Kabila the younger welcomed UN troops and presided over a peace agreement that in 2002 paved the way for a transitional government. He also oversaw a new constitution and heeded the advice of the World Bank and IMF, setting the economy back on course. In 2006 Kabila won the DRC's first legitimate elections in over 40 years. Though the elections were marred by incidents of violence, outside observers pronounced them free and fair.

In November 2011 Kabila won another round of presidential and parliamentary elections, but the vote was criticised by foreign observers and the opposition disputes the result.

In May 2012 a new rebel group was added to the two-dozen groups already operating in eastern DRC. The M23 rebels were made up of mainly Tutsi fighters who deserted from the Congolese army after saying they were mistreated and not paid enough, and that the military lacked vital resources.The UN has accused the group of being backed by Rwanda and Uganda. At the height of their success the M23 rebels took control of Goma in 2012, but withdrew shortly afterwards following internal power struggles.