The first people to live in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and in the neighboring countries of Central Africa) were pygmy peoples. From the 10th century, the Bantu peoples immigrated from the north and settled the area. They displaced the pygmies, who today only make up a very small part of the population.
In the 13th century, the Kingdom of the Congo was established on what is now the Republic of the Congo, the DR Congo and Angola. It became particularly powerful and made surrounding empires dependent on itself. The kingdoms of Luba and Lunda were also part of the territory of today’s DR Congo.
The Kingdom of the Congo and the Portuguese
The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão came to the mouth of the Congo River in 1484. Soon there was brisk trade with the Bantu tribes living there. Slaves, copper and ivory were shipped to Europe and America. The Congo King Mwemba, who ruled from 1506, accepted Christianity like his father and now called himself Alfonso I.
But the Kingdom of the Congo was more and more plundered and depopulated. Eventually, Portugal finally took control of the country. The Kingdom of the Congo dissolved in the 18th century. But soon there was not much to get and the slave trade was also abolished. In addition, Portugal had lost its position as a world power. The last Portuguese left in 1866.
Congo Free State and Congo Abominations (1877-1908)
Above all, Belgium and France now vied for the area on the Congo River. In 1885 the Congo Conference awarded this region to the Belgian King Leopold II. This is how the “Congo Free State” came into being. It was not a colony of Belgium, but was directly and personally under King Leopold. Together with all residents, the land was now his private property.
Rubber had become the most popular commodity. From the milky sap of the rubber tree – which was found in large numbers in this region – rubber could be extracted. Rubber became an important raw material for many products, especially for rubber and later for pneumatic tires, but also for raincoats or in machines.
Leopold not only exploited “his” country, but did it particularly cruelly. The residents were forcibly forced to work. The hands of workers who did not collect enough rubber were cut off. Even children were not spared by him. Entire villages were also burned down.
When these “Congo horrors” became known in 1908, many countries condemned the practice. Leopold had to hand over the Free State as a colony to the Belgian state.
Belgian colony (1908-1960)
Forced labor was abolished and the atrocities ended. However, the country was still exploited. In addition to rubber, palm oil and coffee were also shipped to Europe. Plantations were created and copper, lead, zinc and diamonds were mined.
After the First World War, Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi) was placed under the Belgian League of Nations mandate. Since the population had declined so much by the atrocities of the Congo that there was now a lack of workers on the plantations, Belgium encouraged the immigration of people from Rwanda. This later led to the conflicts and Congo wars in the east of the DR Congo.
In 1926 the capital was moved from Boma to Léopoldville, today’s Kinshasa.
As in the other colonies of Africa, the call for independence increased in the Belgian Congo. In 1958 the first political parties were founded. A year later riots broke out. On June 30, 1960, the country received its independence as the Republic of the Congo. To distinguish it from the neighboring country, it was also called Congo-Léopoldville.
History of the DR Congo from independence to the present day
Independence and the Congo Crisis (1960-1965)
The first years of independence are also known as the Congo crisis or the Congo turmoil. Joseph Kasavubu became president of the country and Patrice Lumumba led the government. Politically, both stood on opposing positions, one conservative, the other radical and thus striving for change. Both declared each other deposed in September 1960.
Colonel Mobutu eventually sided with Kasavubu. Lumumba was murdered in 1961. His supporters formed a kind of counter-government under Antoine Gizenga in the east of the country. The country was thus divided into different spheres of power and the southeastern province of Katanga even declared itself independent.
United Nations blue helmet soldiers ended Katanga’s independence in 1963. Government troops took the east of the country. The unity of the country was externally restored.
Mobuto dictatorship – the country becomes Zaire (1965-1997)
In 1965 Joseph Mobuto staged a coup. He established a brutal dictatorship that would last for more than thirty years. Mobuto also worked to Africanize the country. Everything European should be eradicated. He renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country he ruled became Zaire. This name was once understood by the Portuguese when they asked for the name of the Congo River. In Lingála, N’Zadi simply means river, the Portuguese understood N’Zaire and this became the word Zaire.
Only his own party was allowed, making the country a one-party state. Mobuto also had an enormous personality cult. He based his power primarily on his soldiers, but was also supported by Western countries, especially the United States. Large corporations were nationalized. Mobuto enriched itself enormously, the economy collapsed.
The end of the Cold War also brought about changes in Zaire. Mobuto ended the one-party system and slowly set reforms in motion after unrest in the country. In 1994 hundreds of thousands of Hutu from Rwanda fled to Zaire. Rebel groups gained power especially here in the east of the country.
Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the First Congo Wars
A rebellion began in the east of the country in 1996 under Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Supported by the new Tutsi government in Rwanda, Mobuto (who had taken in the Hutu from Rwanda) was finally overthrown in the First Congo War. Kabila became the country’s new president in 1997. He named the country back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country located in Africa according to politicsezine.
But there was no peace. The Second Congo War began in 1998. Various rebel groups tried to overthrow the government of Kabila. The fall did not succeed, but the country was divided into several spheres of power. The economy collapsed and the war is estimated to have killed three million.
To create peace, the United Nations (UN) sent the “Mission for Stabilization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (MONUC, since 2010 MONUSCO) into the country. In 2003 peace was made and the government and rebels formed an all-party government.
Joseph Kabila and the Third Congo War
Laurent-Désiré Kabila died in an assassination attempt in 2001. His son Joseph Kabila succeeded him in the office of president. 2006 saw the first free elections since 1965, which Kabila won. In the same year, however, the Third Congo War began. Because it was fought in North Kivu Province, it is also known as the Kivu War.
Tutsi rebels led by Laurent Nkunda fought on the one hand until 2009, the Congo government, UN troops of MONUSCO and Mai-Mai militias on the other. The Tutsi rebels accused the government of supporting the Hutu. The conflict between the two ethnic groups actually originates from neighboring Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people died again, many also fled to the west of the country. In 2009 there was a ceasefire. However, the fighting continued until 2013.
In 2011, Kabila was re-elected. He has extensive powers. Arbitrariness in the judiciary and the police as well as frequent violations of human rights are widespread. After 18 years, Kabila was finally voted out. After two terms in office, he was no longer allowed to stand for election. Félix Tshisekedi succeeded him in 2019. However, the election result is questioned. Numerous election observers see Martin Fayulu as the winner.