Despite several years of progress and a relatively high degree of stability following the collapse of the M23 rebellion in 2013, DRC currently finds itself in the grip of a constitutional crisis that threatens to upset the all-too-fragile status quo. Under the DRC constitution, which sets a two-term limit to the presidency, incumbent president Joseph Kabila was due to step down in December 2016 having completed his second term as president. Rather than amending the constitution to do away with term limits, as has been done in several neighbouring countries, Kabila managed to persuade the country's electoral commission to postpone the elections due in late 2016 until early 2018, claiming that it was not possible to hold them sooner due to an inaccurate voter register. The DRC's highest court meanwhile ruled that Kabila could remain in office until the elections can be held, provoking popular fury that erupted into violence and demonstrations in Kinshasa and other large cities following the announcement in September 2016.
DRC's neighbours are now nervously watching events unfold, as it's clear that Kabila has no intention of relinquishing power. Many fear another war is likely, if not inevitable. Indeed, DRC has never had a peaceful transfer of power in its history and so the end of the Kabila dynasty was seen by many as key to bolstering the country's titular democracy. Even though the divided opposition is ineffective, the tide of popular anti-government feeling is enormous, making it look rather unlikely that a peaceful solution will be found. In the meantime DRC needs effective government more than ever, with massive problems at almost all levels of society – from illiteracy and malnutrition to soaring HIV infection rates, endemic corruption, militia activity and crushing poverty.
Though DRC plays host to more than 250 ethnic groups (and over 700 different languages and dialects), four tribes dominate. The Kongo, Luba, Mongo and Mangbetu-Azande groupings collectively make up 45% of the population.
Half the population practises Roman Catholicism, while 20% are Protestant and 10% Muslim. The remaining 20% follow traditional beliefs or a religion that merges Christianity with indigenous ideas, such as Kimbanguism. Founded by faith-healer Simon Kimbangu in 1921 – that same year Belgian authorities, fearing his popularity, sentenced him to life in prison – it now has three million adherents.
Encompassing 18 different ecoregions and blanketing the greater part of the Congo River basin, DRC is Africa's most biologically rich country. Savannah covers much of the south and there's 37km of coast on the Atlantic, but tropical rainforests – home to all manner of creatures found nowhere else in the world, including bonobo and okapi – dominate the ecological scene.
The eastern border runs through a cornucopia of geological wonders, including Lake Tanganyika, the second-deepest lake in the world, and several other Great Rift Valley waters; the Rwenzori Mountains, which exceed 5000m; and several active volcanoes.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve
Created to protect prime habitat of its bizarre namesake mammal, the okapi, this is one of the biggest parks in DRC. In addition to the okapis (Okapia johnstoni, also known as the forest giraffe), there are 17 resident primate species here and a fairly healthy elephant population. Combine this with excellent guided forest hikes (ranging from a few hours to several days) led by the Mbuti (pygmies) and the result is one of the best places in Central Africa to get the real genuine jungle experience – at least that was the case until the middle of 2012.
In June of that year a major attack on the park headquarters at Epulu and nearby villages by mai-mai (community) militia left six people dead, including park rangers. Thirteen okapi were killed and hundreds of people were forced to flee the area. A further attack by the same militia in 2015 saw the Zunguluka guard post burned down, and sadly at the moment it's not possible to visit this incredible place. For the latest news and for information about a possible reopening, check out www.okapiconservation.org.
If the security situation improves significantly enough to allow visitors again, then the road between Kisangani and Beni, which passes by the reserve, has been upgraded but there are still some horrendous sections. Allow at least a full day to travel from either Beni or Kisangani to Epulu – longer in the wet season.