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Rough Cut: Congo: Hope on the Ballot
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Congo's history as a Belgian colony and its difficult path to independence and democracy.

History and Politics

Roughly the size of Western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo lies in central Africa and is the third largest country on the African continent. Much of the country is covered in tropical rain forest; and 45 percent of all African forest land can be found here. The capital city of Kinshasa sits on the western border along the southern bank of the Congo River, Africa's longest river after the Nile.

Congo is known for its abundant mineral wealth. Its main exports include diamonds, gold, copper, coffee, cobalt and crude oil.

The Bantu people make up the majority of the population of 62 million, but Congo is an ethnically diverse nation, with some 200 different tribes vying for prominence.

Christianity has been the dominant religion since Europeans arrived in central Africa in the late 15th century. Most Congolese today are Roman Catholics; approximately 20 percent are Protestant; 10 percent are Muslim.

Though the Congolese speak more than 200 tribal languages, French serves as the official language and unites many of the ethnic groups.

The documented history of Congo's violent past begins with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1490s. The region soon became a major hub for the African slave trade, and French, Dutch and English merchants joined the Portuguese in exploiting the country's human and mineral capital.

Initiating a notorious period in Congolese history, Belgian monarch King Leopold II declared Congo his own private colony in 1885. As other European powers vied for the spoils of Africa, Leopold embarked on a genocidal campaign against the Congolese people. Historians believe that 10 million were killed. Leopold's rule, which echoed the large-scale plunder of much of the continent during the 1800s, is rendered in excruciating detail in Adam Hochschild's acclaimed book, King Leopold's Ghost. Belgium officially annexed the country in 1908, but the Congolese would wait another half century before being granted independence in 1960, when the charismatic nationalist leader, Patrice Lumumba, became prime minister.

The Legacy of Joseph Mobutu

In the mid-1960s, a new era of autocratic rule began under Joseph Mobutu. Famous for his trademark leopard-skin cap, Mobutu led the country for 32 years. Despite the fact that he governed by brutal fiat, Mobutu is considered by many as the father of the nation and a stabilizing force in holding his fractious country together. Backed by the United States as an antidote to the supposedly communist Lumumba at a time when Cold War tensions were high, Mobutu took over the country in 1965 in a coup d'etat. Perhaps signaling the excess to come, the former army chief of staff changed his name to Sese Seko Kuku Mbengu Wa Zabanga, which roughly translates as "the all-powerful warrior who will conquer everything in his path." He also changed the name of the country to Zaire.

Under his self-serving rule, Mobutu accumulated personal wealth of $6 billion, prompting the international community to coin a new term -- kleptocracy, or "government by thieves." He was so paranoid about the possibility of invasion by Zaire's neighbors that he built few roads and little viable infrastructure, leaving the country with approximately 300 miles of paved road today.

Mobutu's political fortunes began to unravel in the mid-1990s, when tribal Hutu militias in neighboring Rwanda, fleeing a genocidal war with the Tutsis, flocked into eastern Zaire. Armed groups found their way to Kinshasa in early 1997, after marching thousands of miles across the country. Recruiting a native Congolese leader, Laurent Desire Kabila, the militia arrived in the capital, and Mobutu fled. Kabila was installed as president and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Africa's First World War

Under Kabila, Congo divided even more starkly along ethnic lines and spiraled into a brutal civil war. Kabila reneged on a promise to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda to break up the Hutu militias now roaming his country, prompting both neighbors to end their support and to invade Congo. While his country edged into chaos, Kabila clung to power, drawing more African nations into the conflict -- including Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. Foreign policy experts described the region's escalating violence as "Africa's First World War." Kabila's rule came to an abrupt end in 2001, when he was murdered by his own bodyguards. His eldest son, Joseph Kabila, was named the new head of state, becoming Africa's youngest leader.

The soft-spoken young man, thrown into his father's shoes at 29, has made steady progress toward peace and reconciliation in the country, brokering a peace deal between his main rivals and forcing the withdrawal of Uganda- and Rwanda-backed rebels from the largely lawless eastern part of the country. He also offered positions in his interim government to several of his opponents -- among them, the former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was named the country's vice president.

In July 2006, Congo held its first multiparty elections since independence, and the largest peacekeeping operation in the world was mobilized to ensure that the elections weren't tainted by corruption and bloodshed. After the first vote count, no clear winner emerged, and Kabila and Bemba faced a runoff on October 29. Kabila was declared clear victor in the second round of voting and will serve as President-elect for the next five years.

Sources: BBC; CIA World Factbook; CNN; The Guardian Unlimited; The Washington Post; U.N. Mission in DR Congo.

Related Links

Guardian Special Report: Congo
The Guardian Unlimited presents an interactive timeline tracing the history of Congo as well as current articles on elections, child soldiers, militias and more. The site also links to archived articles and letters from readers.
This pan-African portal aggregates media reports from more than 125 African news organizations, including the newspapers L'Avenir, Le Phare and Le Potentiel, which are based in Congo's capital, Kinshasa. The site publishes news from independent publications as well as government and opposition-controlled media.

Friends of the Congo
This nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., aims to bring peaceful change to Congo. The site links to reports from such sources as the United Nations and the International Crisis Group concerning human rights, corruption, international mining activity in the country and the 2006 election. It also includes historical facts about Congo and information about volunteer opportunities.

MONUC -- U.N. Mission in DR Congo
The peacekeeping operation established by the United Nations Security Council in Congo operates on a budget of more than $1 billion. The largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission, MONUC is headquarted in Congo's capital of Kinshasa. The site contains press releases, photos and video about the mission.

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
This group advocates for the rights of displaced people worldwide, under either forced or voluntary circumstances. The site includes statistics about refugees and asylum seekers.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Ripples of Genocide: Journey Through Eastern Congo

This online journal includes entries compiled by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who narrates her journey through Congo in 2003, accompanied by John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group and two photographers. The interactive presentation is part of the museum's Committee on Conscience project.

International Rescue Committee Special Report on Congo
This special report outlines how the International Rescue Committee helps the Congolese people by implementing health care programs, assisting child soldiers, increasing access to education and prompting response to gender-based violence.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- IRIN
IRIN, a United Nations humanitarian news and information service, is a project of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Find the latest news from Congo, plus a "year in review" feature with a chronology of key events, and other reports compiled by IRIN.

International Crisis Group

This nongovernmental organization works worldwide to prevent and resolve conflict. The site presents an overview of the Crisis Group's mission, briefings on Congo and monthly reports on conflict developments in the country since September 2003.

Human Rights Watch
HRW provides an extensive collection of papers documenting human rights violations in Congo. It also presents information on how the nonprofit has promoted changes in the region.

Search for Common Ground
Using radio and other media programming, Search for Common Ground was established to increase communication in Congo, especially in a time of political change. The site focuses on projects designed to bring peace and stability to the country.

International Criminal Court
Earlier in November, Thomas Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord with the Union of Congolese Patriots, was brought to a preliminary hearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The hearing will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to bring Lubanga to full trial where he would face charges of recruiting and training child soldiers to murder and mutilate members of opposing tribes.