No early human fossils have been found, but stone artefacts from the early Palaeolithic period are known from eastern Congo. Towards the end of the Early Paleolithic, acheulene culture seems to have spread from eastern and southern Africa to the Congo. Findings from the last 10,000 years have also been made, including from specialized fisher sites with access to microliter, quartz scratches and bone harpoons but without ceramics. Ceramics and cut stone axes are plated from the coastal area in the west from about 300 BC and from central Congo about a hundred years later; at this time, horticulture and systematic collection of palm nuts were probably also carried out.
From the middle of the millennium BC iron was used in eastern Congo, while it first appeared in the western part of the country during the centuries AD. Various ceramic traditions developed during the first millennium AD, but other material remains are few and little is known about the industries. Scientists have tried to link the known features of the development with the spread of the Slant-speaking peoples from their assumed origins in present-day eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Findings from tombs on the upper Lualaba River from the 900–1700s show clear social differences. Rich finds of ceramics and metal objects and the absence of import items from the East Coast indicate that the development of central government and social differentiation was a domestic process. The metal finds include king symbols in the form of iron gongs.
In the savannahs south of the basin of the Congo River arose after about 700 AD. larger kingdoms, which had its heyday during the centuries after 1400: luba on the Lualaba River, a little further to the southwest and Congo at the mouth of the river. The Kingdom came into lively contact with the Portuguese from the end of the 14th century and was drawn into the Atlantic slave trade – one of the reasons why the kingdom returned and dissolved after about 1700. By contrast, Lund rulers with control over the slave trade continued to dominate the southern parts until 1800 the middle of the century. Also in the Congo river valley, where merchants from Zanzibar established themselves after about 1800, the trade boom arose.
David Livingstone’s travels in the Zambezi and Congo region attracted European attention in the mid-19th century in Central Africa. In the 1870s, Henry Morton Stanley Stanley followed the Congo River all the way to its mouth and thus gave the signal for the exploitation of the area. He entered the service of the Belgian King Leopold II, who formed the International Congo Society for this purpose. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, he succeeded in getting the colonial powers to recognize the Congo Free State as his domain.
The occupation of the area during fierce battles against, among other things, the powerful Zanzibar merchants (Tippu Tib and others) became very costly for Leopold. The colony was therefore divided: in addition to a large royal domain, private companies were granted concession for the exploitation of natural resources. Operations focused mainly on rubber production for the world market. Exports fiftyfold during the 1890s. The result was mainly achieved through reckless extraction of the population, which required forced labor and forced deliveries to the companies. The atrocities caused international scandal at the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1908 Leopold had to hand over the colony to the Belgian state, which was then called the Belgian Congo. Operations focused on export products such as copper and palm oil and, above all, on copper mining in Katanga. The new regime abstained from the worst abuses, but the central routing and hard work discipline persisted.
The African resistance to the regime first took on religious expressions, which when Simon Kimbangu founded in the 1920s a still viable Christian church, free from the foreign missions (see kimbanguism). In 1950 came the first political party, the Alliance des Ba-Congo (ABAKO), which, however, initially only engaged for the Congo people. But under Joseph Kasavubu’s leadership, the framework widened, and ABAKO demanded autonomy and federal constitution for the entire Congo. In 1958, Patrice Lumumba formed the National Congolese Movement (MNC) with a more radical focus than ABAKO.
After the Second World War, Belgium had finally launched a welfare policy with the expansion of school services and health care and in 1957, for the first time, the population had the opportunity to make their voice heard in (municipal) elections. But the long transition time to self-government that the Belgians counted on was in reality very short. In 1959, riots took place in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and Belgium immediately began negotiations on decolonization. On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo was proclaimed (often clarified to Congo-Leopoldville, later Congo-Kinshasa). The Republic got a federalist constitution with Kasavubu as president and Lumumba as prime minister.
The period 1960–65 is referred to as ‘la pagaille’, ie ‘chaos’ (see Katanga and the Congo crisis). Armed forces revolted, and many Europeans fled the country. Katanga broke out during Moise Tshombe. In other provinces, separatism also flourished. President Kasavubu deposed Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961 in Katanga. Congo requested and received assistance from the UN, whose troops fought Tshombe’s outbreak government for four years. When the United Nations troops left the country in 1964, Tshombe became prime minister. Controversy continued, as did the tug of war in the governing layer. In October 1965, Kasavubu deposed Tshombe (who then died in prison in Algeria in 1969), only to be deposed in November himself by Army Chief Joseph Désiré Mobutu.
Zaire under Mobutu
For a decade, Mobutu’s reign was successful in many respects. As a guarantor of stability and against joining the Communist bloc, he had US support. Within the country, his control over the combat forces gave opportunities to keep separatist movements reasonably in check. In his propaganda, he aimed for a nationalism with the cape both against the former colonizers and against provincialism, with slogans such as “authenticity” and “zairisation”. The Congo was renamed Zaire in 1971, and in 1972 the president removed his “colonial” first name and called himself Mobutu Sese Seko.
The political parties were dissolved, and Parliament led a shadowy life. Instead, the national unity party was founded Mouvement populaire de la revolution (MPR), which gradually infiltrated the entire social life and to which all the nation’s citizens belonged through birth. A new constitution in 1974 stated that there was only one institution, which in turn was incarnated by the president. Mobutu gained the economic foundation for its policy by 1969 nationalizing the mining industry. Failed attempts were made to nationalize other foreign-owned companies as well as the school-dominated school system.
During the 1970s, the signs of decline and decay became increasingly numerous. The triggering factor was the fall in copper prices on the world market. The country was forced into a vicious cycle of international debt and sometimes galloping inflation. Corruption even at the highest level undermined the social order. But despite waves of strikes, soldierly disputes and student demonstrations, and despite attempts by Congo’s creditors to enter the country on a new course, “mobutism” survived.
In the late 1980s, Mobutu had to allow political parties alongside MPR (renamed Mouvement populaire du renouveau). Mobutu also appointed a transitional government, which mainly consisted of well-known Mobutu supporters and did not meet the expectations of the population. The result was demonstrations that were turned down with great violence. The crisis was deepened with strikes, student protests and the withdrawal of foreign aid.
In 1991, a national conference met to decide on the “Third Republic” constitution, but contradictions, ambiguities and manipulation prevented the ability to make effective political decisions, and the country experienced a total political and economic collapse. When the National Conference in 1992 appointed Mobutu’s rival Etienne Tshisekedi (1932–2017) as head of government, converted to transitional parliament and presented a new constitution that deprived Mobutu of almost all power, the president responded by summoning the old parliament and appointing his own government. For two chaotic years, the country had two parallel political leaders before Mobutu managed to take the initiative back.
At the same time, it was fast performing financially. Copper production fell from 1985 to 471,000 tonnes to 34,000 tonnes in 1994. Trade in gold and diamonds was mainly through unofficial channels. Politically, this meant shifts in the regional economy: from copper-producing Katanga to diamond-producing Kasai. The situation was brutalized and separatism strengthened.
In 1996, the conflict took on a new dimension. Banyamulenge – Tutsis living in the country since the 18th century – joined forces with the Zairian resistance movements and formed the Alliance des forces democratiques pour la libero du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). The alliance was led by Laurent Kabila, a veteran of the 1960s Congo crisis and old opponent of Mobutu. With the support of regular troops from Rwanda and Uganda, the rebel movement spread throughout the country and faced only weak opposition. In early April 1997, the AFDL had taken on Shaba (Katanga) and Western and Eastern Kasai, thus controlling the country’s economy. Both France and the United States urged Mobutu to leave, and he left the country in May. Kabila took over, and the name Democratic Republic of Congo, which was used in 1964-71, was reintroduced.
Kabila turned out to be a very authoritarian president, and the hopes of a government that would unite the old Mobutum opponents were not fulfilled. Party political activity was banned, Tshisekedi was deported to Kasai, and the UN was prevented from investigating information that Kabila’s troops would have carried out massacres in eastern Congo. When Kabila ordered the Rwandan soldiers who helped him to leave the country, and his troops turned their weapons against banyamulenge, a new uprising broke out in the eastern provinces in July 1998. Again with the support of Rwanda and Uganda, which motivated their intervention Protecting its borders from rebels hiding in Congo, the uprising spread in a short space of time across the country. Only since Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia intervened on Kabila’s side were the rebels driven east, and the country was divided in practice in the middle.
The opposition to Kabila initially stood for Rassemblement congolais pour la demokratie (RCD), an organization supported by Rwanda. With Ugandan support, the Mouvement pour la libération du Congo (MLC) was soon formed. A conference in Zambia’s capital of Lusaka in July 1999 culminated in a peace agreement between the six governments concerned and, eventually, the increasingly divided rebel movement. However, the fighting continued, and Kabila was perceived as the greatest obstacle to peace. He set up a hand-picked parliament, curbed African mediation attempts and made it difficult for the UN to send a peace force to the Congo.
In January 2001, Kabila was murdered by a bodyguard and succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. This accelerated the peace process, and by October 2002, foreign troops had left the country. Following the South African mediation, an agreement was reached in December 2002 on a new unifying government that took office in July 2003. Shortly thereafter, a provisional parliament was opened with the participation of all political and armed movements. Since a new constitution was adopted, general elections could be conducted in 2006 with extensive financial and organizational support from the international community. Joseph Kabila, who remained as president, won the presidential election and through a broad party alliance also gained dominance over parliament.
However, unrest continued in several parts of the country. In the Ituri region of northeastern Congo, several militia movements, which were not covered by the national peace treaty, waged war until 2007. Like the rest of the country, the war was about control of natural resources but also had strong ethnic undertones. The militias were forced into submission after army offensive in collaboration with the UN force MONUC and international arms embargo. Only after several militia leaders were arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague did the fighting ebb out. At least 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed, and the militia’s assault in Ituri became the first case for the ICC founded with the support of the UN.
Even in the Kivu region of eastern Congo, fighting continued periodically, mainly between local Tutsis, banyamulenge, led by the warlord Laurent Nkunda and the army or local militias accused by Nkunda of supporting Rwandan hutumilis. At the end of 2008, a few hundred thousand people were displaced during a new outbreak of war.
The war in Congo 1998–2003 (read more Congo war), which was the most extensive in Africa’s history, is estimated to have cost well over 3 million people’s lives, mainly through malnutrition and diseases directly caused by the conflict. The main motives for the participants would probably have been to take control of natural resource-rich areas. A UN report branded Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe for extensive theft of Congolese natural resources. For Angola, closing the Angolan UNITA rebels’ camp on Congolese soil was a major reason for the war’s involvement.
Congo’s vast mineral wealth can be said to have been the curse of the country ever since the earliest colonial era. Income from the natural resources has never trickled down to the population. During the last war, and the subsequent local battles thereafter, both militia groups and the national army and foreign regular troops financed their operations through the extraction of gold, tartar, copper and colt; the latter an important component of computers and mobile phones. Illegal diamond mining has also occurred, but this activity has been hampered by international control measures under the so-called Kimberley Process.
The UN force MONUC was formed through a resolution in the Security Council in November 1999. The peacekeeping mandate was initially limited and numerically expanded gradually, but only after the unification government joined in July 2003 could the UN troop seriously begin its efforts to try to prevent new outbreaks and disarms. militias. MONUC also had overall responsibility for ensuring the security in connection with the general elections in 2006. Previous plans to liquidate MONUC have until now been shelved due to the continued unstable situation. In connection with fighting in North Kivu in the autumn of 2008, the force’s numbers were increased once again to about 20,000 men and the UN Security Council gave orders for more active efforts to protect the civilian population. The widespread use of rape against women as a feature of warfare has received considerable attention.
Following an agreement between Congo and Rwanda, Rwandan government troops entered the eastern Congo in January 2009 to fight the FDLR huturebel, but guerrillas recovered lost ground after Rwanda’s troops withdrew the following month. Even the Ugandan guerrilla Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has caused great havoc in the northeastern part of the country. In 2010, MONUC changed its name to MONUSCO following a reorganization; the mandate of the force has subsequently been extended.
Continued military and political conflicts
The election campaign in 2011 became partly violent and the election itself was contentious. A change in the law meant that the presidential election would henceforth be decided in a round. In addition to problems with getting ballot papers on time due to the country’s poor infrastructure, serious irregularities were reported during the election day itself. When the election result – victory for Kabila with 49 percent of the vote – was announced, the second Etienne Tshisekedi refused to accept it. He therefore arranged his own ceremony in which he swore the presidential oath. Even the time after the election became violent; Human Rights Watch reported that security forces arbitrarily arrested opposition supporters and killed over 20 people.
In 2016, an armed conflict broke out between government forces and rebels in Kasai and three neighboring provinces in the middle part of the country. In May 2017, it was reported that up to 1 million people had been forced to leave their homes as a result of the violence.
The regime tried to bring about a constitutional change that would allow Kabila to run for additional terms. Demonstrations against these plans became violent several times. The elections that would have been held at the end of 2016 were delayed and only took place at the end of December 2018. According to an agreement reached in early 2017, Kabila was allowed to remain president and leader of a transitional council until elections were held while the opposition was allowed to appoint the prime minister.
In February 2017, Tshisekedi died during a trip abroad and his son Félix Tshisekedi subsequently took over the leadership of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). He was declared victorious in the presidential election, but the result was questioned by the second Martin Faylulu (born 1956), who received support for his accusations of election fraud by, among other things, the Catholic Church election observers. However, the Constitutional Court dismissed Fayulus’ appeal and Tshisekedi sworn in as president in January 2018.