The Republic of Congo, also known as Middle Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, and Congo (but not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, which was also at one time known as the Republic of the Congo), is a former French colony of west-central Africa. It shares common borders with Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Gulf of Guinea. Upon independence in 1960, the former French region of Middle Congo became the Republic of the Congo. A quarter century of experimentation with Marxism was abandoned in 1990 and a democratically elected government installed in 1992. A brief civil war in 1997 restored former Marxist President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. The capital is Brazzaville. The Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s oil rich states, however its economic potential is hampered by the current ongoing civil war.

In 1876 a vast zone in central Africa was ‘allocated’ to the ‘International African Association’. With this act, the kingdom of the Kongo and other central African territory effectively became the private estate of the Belgian King, Leopold II. So began the oppressive colonial history of corruption, bribery and theft on a scale unprecedented in Africa. Reports by missionaries there on Belgian rubber planters’ treatment of labourers were initially not believed. The Belgian Foreign Office eventually sent Roger Casement to investigate the situation. He discovered that workers were treated like wild animals. Most of them were not paid, and if they did not meet their production quotas they would be either tortured or killed. Soldiers would collect baskets of hands to prove that they were carrying out their instructions, and not wasting ammunition. Ears, too were often cut off. There were also huge sums of money that went unaccounted. It was not until 1908 that the Belgian government took over the colony in an attempt to stop this kind of abuse. However, although the administration did improve, wages remained very low, even after the discovery of copper, gold, diamonds and cobalt. The Belgian plunder continued. Some road, rail and town development occurred, but the Congolese themselves were hardly better off than when colonized by Leopold II.

Independence and Lumumba

From the 50s when the a critical mass toward independence developed across Africa (as epitomized in Nkrumah’s speech) the Belgians initially decided it would be best to follow a slow road to independence - it was thought a period of about thirty years should be allowed. The Congo experienced a very stable period from 1945 to 1957, and for this reason leaders were unaware of the problems developing under the surface. The publication of the 30-year independence plan, which stated that the development of a ruling elite in the Congo was a generation behind that of the British and French colonies, made the situation worse. In 1959 there were riots in Leopoldville (later to become Kinshasa), and the Belgians panicked and withdrew from the Congo in less than eighteen months. By 1960 the area was already independent, with very few educated or trained people.

The freedom movement in the Congo was initially led by Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba attended Nkrumah’s All African Peoples’ Conference in Accra in December 1958, which encouraged his becoming radical. Nkrumah assured Lumumba that he had the support of the rest of Africa in his fight for independence, and Lumumba returned to the Congo with confidence and new methods (bit vague) learnt from Nkrumah. He gave moving speeches, got the support of the masses and during the unrest called for strikes. He was very successful as a result of the poverty and living and working conditions of those living in the Congo. During 1959 the situation in the Congo changed, and the Belgians realized that they would not be able to maintain indefinitely. The United Nations also put pressure on them to reconsider their position in Africa.

The situation in the Congo became increasing unstable as conflict developed in Rwanda- Burundi, as the Batutsi tried to keep the social position they had been given over the Bahutu under Belgian and German rule. The Belgians switched their support to the Bahutu, which resulted in the murder of many Batutsi as the Belgians lost further control. During the crisis Congolese leaders were called to discussions in Ostend, Belgium where it was promised that no more foreign soldiers would be sent to the Congo, and that it would become independent under a central government.

Lumumba and the struggle for leadership

In May 1960 elections were held, and Lumumba and his Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) became the majority in the central government. Meanwhile, Association des Bakongos (Abako), a party desiring the restoration of the ancient Kongo kingdom, with Joseph Kasavubu as leader, got the majority at the local level. The result was thus indecisive, but Lumumba managed to form a government before the 30 June day of independence. Lumumba became Prime Minister, with Kasavubu as President. Problems however began immediately. At independence celebrations the Belgian King spoke of the bond between Belgium and the Congo, but Lumumba criticized Belgium and the oppression and exploitation experienced under colonial rule. A few days later the Congolese Army turned on Belgian officers and their families. When Belgian troops stepped forward in support of the Belgian officers, tensions rose and the army, joined by other Congolese started attacking other whites. Many whites fled the country, and conflict rose between tribes. Lumumba was unable to deal with the chaos, and on 11 July Katanga broke away from the Congo under Tshombe of the Confederation des Associations Tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT). At the request of Lumumba, the United Nations (UN) stepped in to replace the withdrawing Belgian army, but had little success. Problems in Rwanda-Burundi also continued, and this area, while under UN control in 1962, became independent. Bloodshed continued in Rwanda as the Batutsi were attacked by the Bahutu.

The West ensured that the UN forces focused on the establishment of a ‘rational’ government in Leopoldville, before focusing on Katanga. Mining interests in the country were also of utmost importance to their decision-making. In September Lumumba was arrested by his press secretary, Joseph Mobutu, and during detention he began considering ties with the Soviet Union. This was something that the West was not prepared to tolerate considering the mineral wealth of the Congo. An army mutiny called for the release of Lumumba, and other politicians in Leopoldville began to realize that he was gaining popular support. Lumumba attempted an escape, but was recaptured. On the order of Tshombe in early 1961, Lumumba was murdered in circumstances clouded with intrigue. Conflict between Tshombe and Lumumba’s successor, Gizenga, continued until he was also imprisoned. The Soviet Union also gave support to Gizenga, although many African states were behind Tshombe. Only in 1963 was Katanga eventually reintegrated into the Congo, and by this time American influence in the country had increased considerably. These years of problems also left the masses in the Congo confused and uncertain, and there were already calls for a ‘second independence’.

Peasant uprisings and Mobutu’s ascension to power

From 1964 to 1968 there were significant peasant uprisings across the Congo. In the Kwilu region (map ref) demands of a ‘second independence’ were expressed clearly under Pierre Mulele, a man influenced a lot by both Marxism and Maoist ideas. He developed his own ideology- Mulelism- that incorporated Marxist ideas but adapted them for the African peasantry. In other areas there were yet more cases of resistance against the new elite who took power after the elimination of Lumumba. Corrupt practices and political instability in the country reminded people of the situation under the Belgians. Eventually in 1965 Mobuto was able to gain power in certain areas, and, with the help of Western mercenaries and American support, he was able to spread his control across the Congo. Mobuto was very pro-American, and even closed the USSR embassy after coming to power.

The rise of Mobuto, who came to call himself Mobuto Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu was za Banga (‘the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake’) only ushered in another period of corruption and poverty in the Congo. Mobuto began to run a country which received millions of dollars in aid from Western countries. Sadly the majority of this never reached or had an effect on those for whom it was destined, as the kleptocrat Mobutu diverted the money to his own accounts. The Congo, or what he renamed Zaire, remained poor and unemployment and suffering continued. Even Congolese officials came to rely fully on bribes in order of ensure some sort of income.

Corruption and the Western response

The West watched passively, continuing to trade with the ruler of one of the most mineral rich states in Africa. Even after rumours concerning the level of corruption and self-enrichment in the country reached Western policy makers, they chose to continue pumping money into the Congo. In the light of the Cold War, this situation was more understandable. Mobuto gave lip-service to siding with the West, giving it a launching pad in the middle of Africa from where they could extend their influence. From the Congo the USA was able to give support to their Angolan puppet, Jonas Savimbi. During the Angolan war the USA Embassy in Kinshasa was one of the biggest CIA stations in the world. It was only near the end of Mobuto’s regime, and with the end of the Cold War, that American and Western policy began to change. By the time Mobuto fell in 1997 the USA was glad that a sign of their embarrassing foreign policy was gone and hoped for new economic links.

The ousting of Mobuto and continued conflict

Mobuto was able to build up his web of supporters both inside and outside the Congo. Many were awarded economic benefits in return for their support for the regime. These people also often felt that the fall of Mobuto would never happen, partly as a result of his army. However, in the last days even his army began to fall apart as Mobuto spent the money intended for the army on himself. Under Mobuto’s rule the Congo became dilapidated, and the infrastructure that the Belgians had left behind went to ruin. On one occasion Mobuto was quoted as saying to a fellow dictator, who phoned to say that a rebel army was at his gates, ‘I told you not to build any roads’. The Congo became a country that was impossible to control as a result of bad transport and size. For this reason there was no control over administration in the far away areas. Mobuto always said that he would die in office. However this was not the case – he died on foreign soil in exile and while receiving terminal cancer treatment.

Rebel forces had always continued to exist, and these became stronger as dissatisfaction grew. One group that played a big role in the rebellion was the Tutsi of Zaire, because of being denied rights under Mobuto. One individual jockeying for power was Laurent Kabila. Kabila had been a youth leader for a group allied to Lumumba and his movement. When Lumumba was murdered, Kabila fled to the bush, from where he later became the leader of a guerrilla band. 1964 saw Kabila instrumental in fomenting a revolt in the Ruzizi region. The famous Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara briefly joined Kabila in the Congolese jungle battle before declaring "Nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour".

The change in power in this Central African region affected other African countries in the area. As Angolan UNITA forces had lost both the safe-ground of the cross-border region and a financial supporter, the Bahutu were now taking refuge in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After the Rwandan genocide, millions of Tutsi’s were driven away and Uganda was able to attack the bases of rebel groups. Many hoped that the end of Mobuto would have as much effect on African peace and security as the end of apartheid. Unfortunately this was unfounded. Soon after setting himself up in Mobuto’s place, Kabila began to follow the same path. Political alliances broke down, and rather than working together with Mobuto’s old political rival Etienne Tshisekedi, he continued harassing him. Other political parties were all banned and the promised elections were never held. Kabila was filled with paranoia and fears of conspiracy. This led to the murder of many suspected Mobuto supporters. Kabila failed to form new links with the West as had been hoped, and even refused to work together with the UN while they were busy with investigations into the murder of thousands of Rwandan Hutus. This was for fear of being implicated in the killings on his side of the border and his part in them being exposed.

In 1998 a rebellion broke out against Kabila, and his former allies Rwanda and Uganda turned against him. He was however still given the protection of other African countries, and Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola all sent troops to aid him. They managed to push back the rebels, largely in order to protect their own economic and political interests. The fighting continued in the Congo until 1999, and although the rebel forces were kept outside the capital, they did still hold almost half the country.

Peace initiatives

In 2000 a peace agreement was reached, but the fighting did not stop. In January 2001 rebels managed to enter the capital and a gun battle took place near the Presidential Palace. After this battle there were various stories surrounding the event and what happened to Kabila. Some reports said he had been assassinated and others claimed that he was still alive. When it became known that Kabila had been assassinated, his son, Joseph Kabila took over his position as leader of the DRC. Joseph Kabila was only 29 years old, and a leader in the army when the cabinet decided that he should take over his father’s position. He inherited a country that was at war, and realized that the most important thing to do was stop the war and unite the DRC. However, after more than two years in power, Joseph Kabila has not been able to bring complete peace to the DRC. Press and other democratic freedoms are still broken and the DRC has not yet achieved what was hoped for after the fall of Mobuto.

Various peace settlements have been negotiated and signed, but each time deal-breaking problems have arisen. In December 2002 an agreement was reached, but it led only to further conflict in other parts of the country. An explanation for the endemic violence is that some power-blocs actually benefit from the continuation of war, and they cause problems each time an agreement is about to be reached. In July 2003 another peace settlement was reached on a transitional government. Only time will be able to tell how effective this agreement proves to be.


The Congo has faced a difficult and violent past. The country has been plagued by corruption, exploitation and ethnic conflict. Various powers and leaders have added to the problem, either through not reaching a solution or by what exactly? Peace in the Congo would be stabilizing for central Africa, and would affect all the countries surrounding the Congo, and for this reason is something that must be worked towards and supported

-0° 40' 51.6", 10° 23' 9.6"

For a broad overview of African independence.|African Studies Center - Congo Page. University of Pennsylvania website [online, accessed 17 June, 2009]|Denis Sassou-Nguesso - Definition,  Word IQ website [online, accessed 17 June, 2009]