Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Map of the DR Congo.
From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practised today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
—Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's GhostWikipedia

The Democratic[note 1] Republic of the Congo, also known as East Congo and Congo-Kinshasa (and formerly known[note 2] as Zaïre, as the Republic of the Congo (no, no, not that oneWikipedia) or Congo-Léopoldville[note 3] (to distinguish it from the other one),[note 4] as the Belgian Congo, and (no doubt sarcastically) as the Congo Free State), has been much abused and victimized since it came into being in its current borders as the private property of Belgian King Leopold II,Wikipedia following an elaborate ruse by said monarch preaching humanitarian intentions towards the local population and making various promises to political leaders.[note 5] Ironically, the US was the first nation to acknowledge Leopold's claim to the territory.

The abuses of the Leopoldian regimeWikipedia were so bad that even the colonialist 19th century was shocked by it. Many of the atrocities resulted from Leopold setting unrealistically high rubber quotas and demanding the death penalty for anyone who failed to meet them. In addition, chopped-off hands were required as 'proof' of such state-sanctioned killings. It was feared soldiers might forego executing these punishments to save their rather pricey bullets for other purposes.[note 6] Books such as Heart of DarknessWikipedia and numerous pamphlets deal with these crimes. The "solution" (namely giving control of the Congo over to the Belgian state) found in the late 19th century made conditions somewhat better for most Congolese, but not by that much.

The Belgian Congo was essentially an apartheid-type regime and initially focused on the region's economic exploitation, though forced labor and the murderous practices of Leopold's rule were abolished, of course. The Congolese arguably also experienced some benefits from the overly patronizing, paternalistic, religiously-tainted, and blatantly racist civilizing missionWikipedia the Belgian colonizers took upon themselves, such as education and improved healthcare. Furthermore, some of the infrastructure the Belgians built,[note 7] like railroads, still exists in various states of disrepair.[note 8] Following the events of the two World Wars, in which the Congolese army had taken a major part on the African continent (with Belgium taking all the credit, of course), and events unfolding in many other colonies, a political independence movement began to assert itself among the local population.

From bad…[edit]

Patrice Lumumba—possibly the last hope for decent leadership this country would get for half a century
The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed, and our country is now in the hands of its own children. Together, my brothers, my sisters, we are going to begin a new struggle, a sublime struggle, which will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.
—Patrice Lumumba in his very optimistic Independence Day speech,Wikipedia June 30, 1960[note 9]

Maybe you thought achieving independence in 1960 would've given the Congolese a bit of a breather. Well, think again. On the eve of independence, hardly any native Congolese held any higher or mid- administration position, let alone one of political leadership. Furthermore, there was a lack of well-educated people in almost all fields, and the few who did hold such degrees were Belgians or allied with the former colonial regime. This was a disaster waiting to happen, and of course, Belgian authorities were fully aware of this. But following violent protests and riots and relations between the local population and white colonials growing increasingly tense, the Belgian government hastily went ahead with it to avoid becoming involved in a costly, bloody, and likely futile colonial war. Additionally, some anticipated that Belgian forces would later sweep in as the "great saviors" once the country had descended into chaos, and colonial control might be reasserted.

But Congo still had a chance at building a somewhat workable government when in 1960, Patrice Émery LumumbaWikipedia took over as prime minister. However, a political standoff between Lumumba, whose party held the relative majority, and the third-largest party, whose leader gained the position of president, quickly ensued. In a climate of mutineering soldiers and various localized rebellions, the province of Katanga even seceded from the Republic.Wikipedia With the UN considering Katanga's secession an internal affair and refusing to intervene, Lumumba called upon the Soviets for help.[note 10] Take note that much of the world was engaged in the Cold War.

Mobutu, a job creator[note 11] with a US$5 billion net worth,[note 12] who often partook in the guilty pleasure of driving a Mercedes[note 13]—What, you thought he was evil?[note 14]

By the next year, Lumumba was deposed and dead—assassinated by Katangan forces, with support from Belgium and the US[1]—after which, several (more) years of political chaos and civil unrestWikipedia would ensue. Many temporary governments succeeded one another until, in 1965, following a political deadlock (a situation that had become rather common during this period of post-colonial turmoil), the guy in charge of the Congolese army took control of the country in a bloodless military coup.[note 15] The new leader—who would rule the country with an iron fist until shortly after the end of the Cold War—was one Joseph MobutuWikipedia, who later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake").[2][note 16]

…To worse[edit]

While Mobutu was a nepotist, a kleptocrat,[note 17] and one of the worst dictators in African history, at least his regime provided a semblance of "stability". He was able to stay in power mostly thanks to US aid. When the Cold War ended, US funding dried up, and by 1997 the writing was on the wall; it was really not a great sign when the Tutsi liberation forces in Rwanda were able to conduct military operations in Zaire with minimal resistance. Mobutu was forced to resign by rebels led by Laurent-Désiré KabilaWikipedia, who conquered Kinshasa and most of the country. Mobutu died in exile shortly after that. But the worst was yet to come. Kabila managed to alienate almost all his allies, including Rwanda and Burundi, and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide led to an almost constant war in the greater Eastern Congo area that has been referred to as the "Great War of Africa" and the "African World War". In January of 2001, Kabila got himself killed by one of his own bodyguards, and his son, Joseph Kabila,Wikipedia followed him into the office of president.

Though he already held the position of Chief of Staff before his rise to the presidency, many saw Kabila Jr. as inexperienced as he was the youngest head of state in the world at the time, at the age of 30. Regardless, though, Kabila Jr. managed to negotiate a peace agreementWikipedia that ended the Second Congo WarWikipedia, AKA the African World War (officially at least), and which maintained Kabila as president while granting government positions to leaders of some of the warring parties. Regrettably, however, this did not result in all the fighting ending.

A glimpse of hope for democracy? Maybe not[edit]

My father was president already. You got a problem with that?[note 18]

In 2006 there was finally a glimpse of hope to end the enduring conflicts when the "Democratic Republic" of Congo had its first democratic electionWikipedia in, well, ever. Kabila eventually won and his main opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba,Wikipedia later relocated to Portugal due to security concerns following an outbreak of violence involving his personal guard.[note 19] However, a year later, he was arrested in Belgium and soon found himself in front of the International Criminal Court as a defendant, charged with several counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.[note 20]

In 2011, another electionWikipedia was held where Kabila was predictably re-elected. This led to outbreaks of violence in areas where there had been large support for Kabila's opponent, Étienne Tshisekedi,Wikipedia notably including Kinshasa and Mbuji-Mayi, where official tallies showed that a strong majority had voted for the latter guy.[3] Official observers have reported that results from polling stations in Tshisekedi-support areas had mysteriously disappeared and understatedly noted that the government's official 2011 election results "lack credibility".[4]

Kabila's term ended on December 20th, 2016, but he refused to leave office, leading to mass protests and demonstrators being killed by police. A deal was brokered with the opposition party to facilitate a peaceful transition of power.[5]

In 2018, the presidential election was finally held, with opposition candidate Félix Tshisekedi (son of the aforementioned Étienne) winning the presidency over the government-backed candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Now, this seems like a standard transition away from the regime. However, it has been widely accepted that the election's real winner was another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu. Kabila likely secured a deal with Tshisekedi when Shadary had no chance of winning.[6]

The current situation—Ongoing conflicts and unrest[edit]

A city in ruins after days of combat between militias.

Okay, so at this point, you might be wondering, "What makes the DR o' Congo so unstable and conducive to violent conflict?" Before we detail the current ongoing conflicts, let's lay out the answer.[note 21] First off, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a big country. With its 2.3 million square kilometers, it's a close second to Africa's largest country, Algeria. It also boasts a sizable population of around 92 million people[7][note 22] and counts as many as 250 ethnic groups. It is also rich in many natural resources,Wikipedia including gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan, and oil, which often end up being used to sustain rebel groups financiallyWikipedia while the people actually doing the extraction are grossly underpaid and work in horrifically dangerous conditions.

Now with the basics out of the way, let's focus on the DRC's military:

If the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo teaches us anything, it's that replacing an authoritarian regime with an ineffective government marred by factional infighting, rebuilding a nation's military from the ground up and arming/supporting a plethora of rebel groups and tribal militia are things that will not facilitate stability, but rather the opposite. If those things sound familiar for some reason, that's because someone was too busy looking out the window during history class.

Now, without further ado, the DRC's ongoing conflicts:

Foreign insurgent groups active in the DRC[edit]

"Allied Democratic Forces"[edit]

The deceptively named Allied Democratic ForcesWikipedia are, in fact, a militant Islamist rebel group hailing from Uganda. The group, based in western Uganda, has opposed Uganda's government through violent means since 1996 but was largely repelled from the region from 2000 to 2004. However, this has led the ADF to greatly increase its activity on the other side of the border in DRC territory.

In 2013 there was a major resurgence of ADF activity in both the DRC and Uganda, attracting attention from the UN's newly formed Force Intervention BrigadeWikipedia. Despite joint UN-DRC offensives, ADF militants remain a persistent presence in the DRC's North Kivu province and regularly attack the Congolese population.

Intelligence sources indicate the group has collaborated with Al-ShabaabWikipedia and the Lord's Resistance Army.[8] An Islamic State financier also apparently donated to the ADF at least once.[9]

Lord's Resistance Army[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Lord's Resistance Army

2015 protests[edit]

On January 19th, 2015, protests broke out at the University of KinshasaWikipedia in the eponymous city of KinshasaWikipedia over the announcement that Kabila would stay in power until after the national census was conducted, which, for a developing country, could take several years.[10] By the third day of the protests, clashes between police and protesters had led to over 42 deaths.[10] Government sources initially claimed a death count of 27.[11]

Due to pressure from protesters and the West, the Congolese government formally abandoned the controversial census clause that had been the cassus belli of the protests in the first place. After that, the protests slowly trickled out as a result.[12]

Human rights issues[edit]

While wars generally don't have a reputation for improving people's quality of life, recent conflicts in the DRC are notably marred by rampant sexual violenceWikipedia and the use of child soldiers.Wikipedia Sexual violence is most typically targeted at women and children,[note 23] with reportedly over 65% of victims being children,[13] but the rape of men is also common (and likely underreported).[14] While notoriously routinely perpetrated by militia members, this kind of injustice is not limited to conflict areas.

According to the organization Freedom from Torture,Wikipedia rape and sexual violence are regularly used by state officials to punish politically active women.[15] Marital rape is also not illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and domestic abuse is considered socially acceptable by much of the DRC's society. In addition, there are also reports of child labor and forced labor.[16]

According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 873,100 people are enslaved in the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, or 1.13% of the population.[17][18]


In a nutshell[edit]


  1. It tends to be a bad sign that a state feels the need to proclaim itself as democratic in its official name because it usually means it isn't. In similar cases where a state calls itself a "People's Republic", a state styling itself a "Democratic Republic" usually means it's governed by a dictatorship. Examples include the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the German Democratic Republic. The Democratic Republic of São Tomé and PríncipeWikipedia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste are two exceptions.
  2. The former names are listed from most recent to least recent, just to be clear.
  3. Yes, the capital—and by extension, the whole country—used to be named for the Belgian King Leopold. During Mobutu's extensive authenticitéWikipedia campaign, the city was renamed to Kinshasa.
  4. Interestingly, Kinshasa and Brazzaville are on opposite sides of the Congo river. If politics and infrastructure allowed it, they could potentially function as one city.
  5. And what a massive ruse it was. You'd almost admire the guy if it hadn't resulted in an abysmal humanitarian disaster.
  6. They weren't wrong, but don't let that get your hopes up for a happy ending.
  7. Of course, they mostly built it to better extract the country's natural wealth, and thus they were never intended to serve the people and thus don't serve some major population centers.
  8. Mostly due to wars and lack of investment in maintenance
  9. Regrettably, it turns out he was wrong about that last bit.
  10. If George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had been one person, but they had to call upon Soviet Russia to help fight the confederates, how would you feel? Now imagine the CIA of the 1960s and the British Empire from the Revolutionary War period teaming up to arrange the assassination of the Washington-Lincoln hybrid. It's not a perfect analogy, as said hybrid would also need to be a Native and have experienced black discrimination.
  11. Read: rich person
  12. All embezzled, of course.
  13. Notice how no bad guy ever drives a Honda?
  14. You'd be correct.
  15. This was actually his second coup. In 1961, he'd already deposed Lumumba after the latter established relations with the Soviets. But in the first coup, he immediately set up a provisional government and later restored authority to president Joseph Kasa-Vubu.Wikipedia Given the period of massive and violent political upheaval between these coups, it makes you wonder if he shouldn't have taken full control the first time around.
  16. Holy shit!
  17. His regime was even the reason they came up with that term, to begin with.
  18. "President" is a hereditary title, right?
  19. Though the official reason he provided was: "I'm getting my broken leg treated there." (paraphrased)
  20. The charges were for alleged atrocities committed in the Central African RepublicWikipedia by Bemba's Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo,Wikipedia a prominent Congolese rebel group (now turned political party), when in 2002, the CAR's then-president Ange-Félix PatasséWikipedia requested Bemba's assistance in putting down a coup attempt. Arguably, the MLC's conduct in the CAR likely wasn't notably worse than—that is to say, probably just as bad as—its conduct (and that of many other rebel groups) within the borders of DR Congo; and many Congolese politicians, having been involved in rebel groups, are likely culpable for similar crimes as the ones Bemba is charged with.
  21. Perhaps surprisingly to some, religion and racial tensions have rather little to do with it.
  22. A remarkable increase compared to the 1950 figure of 12 million, especially considering the many conflicts the population has had to endure.
  23. No surprise there. :/


  1. The bestiality of imperialism, a bestiality that knows no limits, that has no national boundaries. The bestiality of Hitler's armies is like the North American bestiality, like that of the Belgian paratroopers and that of the French imperialists in Algeria. For, it is the very essence of imperialism to turn men into wild, bloodthirsty animals determined to slaughter, kill, murder and destroy the very last vestige of the image of the revolutionary or the partisan in any regime that they crush under their boots because it fights for freedom. The statue of Lumumba, destroyed today but rebuilt tomorrow reminds us of the tragic story of this martyr of the world revolution and make sure that we never trust imperialism in no way at all. Not an iota!
    Che Guevara, speaking at the United Nations, 1964
  3. "DR Congo election: Questions hang over Kabila's victory". BBC News. 10 December 2011. 
  4. "Carter Center: DRC Presidential Election Results Lack Credibility (press release)". Carter Center. 10 December 2011. 
  7. Central Intelligence Agency (2014). "Democratic Republic of the Congo". The World Factbook. Langley, Virginia: Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 29 April 2014. 
  8. Yang, Fang (5 July 2013). "DR Congo gov't denounces Al-Shabaab presence in North Kivu". Xinhua. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 
  9. "Financier of Islamic State paid money to rebel group in eastern Congo: report". Reuters. Retrieved 2018-11-15. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ross, Aaron (21 January 2015). "Update 2-Congo protests enter third day, rights group says 42 dead". Reuters. Retrieved 21 January 2015. 
  11. "Anti-government demonstrations in the Congo lead to 27 deaths" - Yahoo News
  12. "Western pressure leads to Congo abandoning controversial census clause"
  13. "Soldiers who rape, commanders who condone". Human Rights Watch. 2009-07-16. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  14. Melhado, L (2010). "Rates of Sexual Violence Are High in Democratic Republic of the Congo". International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 36 (4). 
  15. [1] Freedom from Torture 'Rape as Torture in the DRC.
  16. "Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Democratic Republic of the Congo". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  17. Kevin Bales, et al. "Democratic Republic of the Congo". The Minderoo Foundation Pty Ltd. Retrieved 19 March 2018. 
  18. Haider, Huma. Helpdesk Report: Modern slavery in the DRC. 2 Mar 2017.