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Beginning in the late 1870s the territory was colonized by Leopold II, king of the Belgians (reigned 1865–1909). Leopold believed that Belgium needed colonies to ensure its prosperity, and sensing that the Belgians would not support colonial ventures, he privately set about establishing a colonial empire. Between 1874 and 1877, Henry M. Stanley made a journey across central Africa during which he found the course of the Congo River. Intrigued by Stanley's findings (especially that the region had considerable economic potential), Leopold engaged him in 1878 to establish the king's authority in the Congo basin. Between 1879 and 1884, Stanley founded a number of stations along the middle Congo River and signed treaties with several African rulers purportedly giving the king sovereignty in their areas.
At the Conference of Berlin (1884–85) the European powers recognized Leopold's claim to the Congo basin, and in a ceremony (1885) at Banana, the king announced the establishment of the Congo Free State, headed by himself. The announced boundaries were roughly the same as those of present-day Congo, but it was not until the mid-1890s that Leopold's control was established in most parts of the state. In 1891–92, Katanga was conquered, and between 1892 and 1894, E Congo was wrested from the control of E African Arab and Swahili traders (including Tippu Tib, who for a time had served as an administrator of the Congo).
Because he did not have sufficient funds to develop the Congo, Leopold sought and received loans from the Belgian parliament in 1889 and 1895, in return for which Belgium was given the right to annex the Congo in 1901. At the same time Leopold declared all unoccupied land (including cropland lying fallow) to be owned by the state, thereby gaining control of the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory. Much of the land was given to concessionaire companies, which in return were to build railroads or to occupy a specified part of the country or merely to give the state a percentage of their profits. In addition, Leopold maintained a large estate in the region of Lake Leopold II (NE of Kinshasa).
Private companies were also established to exploit the mineral wealth of Katanga and Kasai; a notable example was Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, chartered in 1905. The Belgian parliament did not exercise its right to annex the Congo in 1901, but reports starting in 1904 (particularly by Roger Casement and E. D. Morel) about the brutal treatment of Africans there (especially those forced to collect rubber for concessionaire companies) led to a popular campaign for Belgium to take over the state from Leopold. After exhaustive parliamentary debates, in 1908 Belgium annexed the Congo.
The Belgian Congo
Under Belgian rule the worst excesses (such as forced labor) of the Free State were gradually diminished, but the Congo was still regarded almost exclusively as a field for European investment, and little was done to give Africans a significant role in its government or economy. Economic development was furthered by the construction of railroads and other transportation facilities. European concerns established more large plantations, and vast mining operations were set up. Africans formed the labor pool for these operations, and Europeans were the managers. By the end of the 1920s, mining (especially of copper and diamonds) was the mainstay of the economy, having far outdistanced agriculture. Some of the mining companies built towns for their workers, and there was considerable movement of Africans from the countryside to urban areas, especially beginning in the 1930s.
Christian missionaries (the great majority of whom were Roman Catholic) were very active in the Congo, and they were the chief agents for raising the educational level of the Africans and for improving medical services. However, virtually no Africans were educated beyond the primary level until the mid-1950s, when two universities were opened. A noteworthy indigenous religious movement was that of Simon Kimbangu, who, educated by Protestant missionaries, around 1920 established himself as a prophet and healer. He soon gathered a large following and, although not explicitly anti-Belgian, was jailed in 1921 by the colonial government, which feared that his movement would undermine its authority. The Belgians outlawed Kimbangu's movement, but it continued clandestinely and became increasingly anti-European.
The Independence Movement
In 1955, when demands for independence were mounting throughout Africa, Antoine van Bilsen, a Belgian professor, published a “30-Year Plan” for granting the Congo increased self-government. The plan was accepted enthusiastically by most Belgians, who assumed that Belgian rule in the Congo would continue for a long period. Events proved otherwise.
Congolese nationalists, notably Joseph Kasavubu (who headed ABAKO, a party based among the Kongo people) and Patrice Lumumba (who led the leftist Mouvement National Congolais), became increasingly strident. They were impressed greatly by the visit in late 1958 of French president Charles de Gaulle to neighboring Middle Congo (now the Republic of the Congo), where he offered Africans the opportunity to vote in a referendum for continued association with France or for full independence. In Jan., 1959, there were serious nationalist riots in Kinshasa, and thereafter the Belgians steadily lost control of events in the Congo. At a roundtable conference (which included Congolese nationalists) at Brussels in Jan.–Feb., 1960, it was decided that the Belgian Congo would become fully independent on June 30, 1960.
Independence and Conflict
Following elections in June, Lumumba became prime minister and Kasavubu head of state. However, the Republic of the Congo (as the nation was then called) soon began to be pulled apart by ethnic and personal rivalries, often encouraged by Belgian interests. On July 4 the Congolese army mutinied, and on July 11 Moïse Tshombe declared Katanga, of which he was provisional president, to be independent. There were attacks on Belgian nationals living in the Congo, and Belgium sent troops to the country to protect its citizens and also its mining interests. Most Belgian civil servants left the country, thus crippling the government.
On July 14, the UN Security Council voted to send a force to the Congo to help establish order; the force was not allowed to intervene in internal affairs, however, and could not act against the Katangan secession. Therefore, Lumumba turned to the USSR for help against Katanga, but on Sept. 5 he was dismissed as prime minister by Kasavubu. On Sept. 14, Col. Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko), the head of the army, seized power and dismissed Kasavubu. On Dec. 1, Lumumba, who probably had the largest national following of any Congo politician, was arrested by the army; he was murdered while allegedly trying to escape imprisonment in Katanga in mid-Feb., 1961.
By the end of 1960 the Congo was divided into four quasi-independent parts: Mobutu held the west, including Kinshasa (then called Léopoldville); Antoine Gizenga, the self-styled successor to Lumumba, controlled the east from Kisangani (then called Stanleyville); Albert Kalonji controlled S Kasai; and Tshombe headed Katanga, aided by Belgian and other foreign soldiers. The secession of Katanga, with its great mineral resources, particularly weakened the national government. In Apr., 1961, Tshombe was arrested by the central government (Kasavubu was back as head of state), but he was freed in June after agreeing to end the Katanga secession. By July, however, Tshombe was again proclaiming the independence of Katanga.
In August the UN forces began disarming Katangese soldiers, and in December UN and Katangese forces became engaged in battle. Throughout 1962, Tshombe maintained his independent position and in Dec., 1962, renewed UN-Katanga fighting broke out. Tshombe quickly was forced to give in, and in Jan., 1963, agreed to end Katanga's secession. However, the national scene remained confused, and there was considerable agitation by the followers of Lumumba.
At the end of June, 1964, the last UN troops were withdrawn from the country. In desperation, Kasavubu appointed Tshombe prime minister in July, 1964, but this move resulted in large-scale rebellions. With the help of U.S. arms, Belgian troops, and white mercenaries, the central government gradually regained control of the country. Nonetheless, national politics remained turbulent and were highlighted by a clash between Kasavubu and Tshombe. In mid-1965, Kasavubu appointed Evariste Kimba prime minister. In Nov., 1965, Mobutu again intervened, dismissing Kasavubu and proclaiming himself president; Tshombe fled to Spain. (In 1967, Tshombe was kidnapped and taken to Algeria; he died in 1969.) In 1966 and 1967 there were several short-lived rebellions (notably in Kisangani and Bukavu), and in 1966 an attempted coup by Kimba was defeated.
The Mobutu Regime
In late 1966, Mobutu abolished the office of prime minister, establishing a presidential form of government. Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville were given African names (Kinshasa, Kisangani, and Lubumbashi, respectively), thus in effect beginning the campaign for “African authenticity” that became a major policy of Mobutu in the early 1970s. (In 1971 the country was renamed Zaïre, as was the Congo River; in 1972, Katanga was renamed Shaba—largely in an attempt to destroy the region's past association with secession—and Mobutu dropped his Christian names and called himself Mobutu Sese Seko, while advising other Zaïreans to follow suit.) By the end of the 1960s, the country enjoyed political stability, although there was intermittent student unrest.
The government was firmly guided by Mobutu, who headed the sole (from 1970) political party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution (MPR). In 1970, Mobutu, the sole candidate, was elected to a seven-year term as president. In the early 1970s he centralized the administration of the nation, encouraged the participation of foreign firms in the economic development of the country, improved relations with neighboring independent countries, and maintained good relations with the West while establishing (1972) full diplomatic relations with China. In 1973, Mobutu nationalized many foreign-owned firms in the attempt to reduce unemployment; however, the nation remained dependent on volatile world copper prices. Mobutu forced European investors out of the country in 1974 but invited them back (unsuccessfully) in 1977.
In addition to economic decline in the 1970s, the government had to contend with increasingly active political opposition. Mobutu's policy of giving members of his own ethnic group (the Ngbanda) jurisdiction over security matters led to ethnic conflicts and a succession of coup attempts between 1975 and 1978. Opposition parties grew in number and in size; one of these, the Front Libération Nationale du Congo (FNLC), organized Katangese refugees forced out of the country by Mobutu. The FNLC, working from its base in Angola, launched a rebellion in the Katanga region but was repulsed after the intervention of French, Belgian, and Moroccan troops.
Promising political reforms, the government made superficial changes to satisfy foreign aid donors, but the detention of dissidents and violent clashes between soldiers and students continued. In the early 1980s opposition groups were organized in exile and formed alliances in the hopes of overthrowing Mobutu. In 1989 the country defaulted on a loan from Belgium, resulting in the cancellation of development programs and increased deterioration of the economy. In 1990, Mobutu announced an end to single-party rule and appointed a transitional government. However, he reserved for himself the position of head of state “above all political parties” and kept substantial power in his own hands.
Rebellion and Civil War
A loss of confidence in Zaïre's government and riots by unpaid soldiers in Kinshasa led Mobutu to agree to a coalition government with opposition leaders in 1991. He retained control of a far-reaching security apparatus and important government ministries, however, and engaged in a power struggle with opposition leaders. Economic collapse continued unabated, with the national infrastructure seriously deteriorating and civil servants, often unpaid for long periods, making money through bribery and theft of government property.
The nation's problems were compounded by an influx of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from Rwanda and a spillover of ethnic fighting between Hutus and Tutsis into Zaïre. In mid-1994, Kengo Wa Dondo, an advocate of austerity and free-market reform, was chosen prime minister by parliament, but he was dismissed in Mar., 1997. In 1996 and 1997, while Mobutu was in Europe being treated for cancer, rebels dependent on support from Rwandan and Ugandan forces captured much of E Zaïre. The insurgents, who also received aid from Zambia and Angola, met little resistance from the ragged Zaïrean army and entered Kinshasa on May 17, 1997. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila was sworn in as president on May 29 and changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobutu died in Morocco on Sept. 7, 1997.
Although Kabila promised that elections would be held in 1999, he banned all political opposition, and his regime soon became repressive. His failure to revive the economy and to prevent the attacks upon thousands of Congolese Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors in the mid-1990s, as well as the revelation that his forces had probably massacred thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees during their march across the country in 1996–97, led to a fading of both internal and foreign support for his government. The eastern part of the country remained unstable, and in Aug., 1998, a group of ethnic Tutsi Congolese forces supported by Rwanda mutinied against Kabila's rule and began advancing toward Kinshasa. Although they were repulsed, the movement grew, attracting opposition politicians, former Mobutu supporters, and disaffected military leaders formerly allied with Kabila. It also threatened to widen into a regional conflict, as Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia sent troops to aid Kabila's government, while Rwanda and Uganda backed the rebels.
In July, 1999, following a peace conference in Lusaka, Zambia, the heads of the six governments involved signed a cease-fire agreement; the leaders of the two main Congolese rebel groups also subsequently signed the pact. Kabila and his allies controlled most of the east and south of the Congo, and the rebels and their supporters controlled much of the north and west. By the end of the year, however, implementation of the accord was stalled, due in part to intransigence on the part of Kabila's government, and the much-violated cease-fire was in the process of collapsing.
The United Nations approved a force to monitor the accord in Feb., 2000, but the situation in the Congo proved too unstable to permit the force to move in. Fighting erupted between Ugandan and Rwandan forces in Kisangani (as it had the year before), and Kabila's government launched an offensive in Équateur (NW Congo) and continued to resist cooperating with the United Nations and with African peace negotiators. A new agreement calling for the pullback of all forces was signed (without the participation of one of the rebel groups) in Dec., 2000.
In Jan., 2001, Kabila was assassinated, reportedly by a bodyguard, and his son, Maj. Gen. Joseph Kabila, was named his successor. Joseph Kabila's government resumed cooperating on peace negotiations, and ended the ban on political parties. Beginning in March the forces of foreign nations began pulling back from the front lines and, in some cases, pulling out from the Congo. Fighting largely ceased, although banditry by militias and fighting between tribal groups persisted in E Congo. Peace talks began tentatively in Oct., 2001, and in 2002 agreements were signed successively with one of the rebel groups, Rwanda, and Uganda, although no agreement was reached with the largest rebel force, the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy–Goma. By the end of Oct., 2002, most foreign troops had been withdrawn from the Congo.
The government and both main rebel groups reached an accord in Apr., 2003, when they signed a peace agreement that called for a power-sharing government led by President Kabila, and an interim parliament. Despite the peace deal, fighting continued in parts of the Congo, especially between tribal groups in the east, and in June, 2003, the United Nations dispatched French-led peacekeepers to E Congo in an effort to restore order. In the same month the government and rebels agreed on the composition of the new government, which was formally established. Democratic elections were scheduled for 2005. By the time of the government's establishment it was estimated that 3.3 million people had died, directly or indirectly, as a result of the fighting that began in 1998.
The French-led peacekeepers were replaced by 10,000 UN soldiers beginning in Sept., 2003; the force was subsequently increased to 16,000. In the first half of 2004 there were two attempted coups in the country, and progress toward real peace continued to be slow during the year. By the end of 2004 rebel forces and the former Congolese army had been integrated into a unified force in name only. An uprising involving former rebels occurred in June at Bukavu in E Congo, although the rebels soon dispersed, and in December there was fighting in Nord-Kivu between former army and former rebel forces. The army forces had been sent into the area in response to threats by Rwanda to invade the region in order to attack Rwandan Hutu rebels based there. Congo accused Rwandan forces of invading and aiding the former Congolese rebels, a charge Rwanda denied, but a UN panel had accused (July, 2004) Rwanda and Uganda of maintaining armed units in E Congo and UN peacekeepers said that forces had entered Congo following Rwanda's threat to invade. The latter charge was called false, however, by a former UN employee in early 2005.
Fighting between militias and UN peacekeepers occurred in NE Congo during 2005, as the area remained unpacified and some of the militias resisted disarming. Militia forces in Katanga prov. also refused to disarm, leading to fighting there in late 2005 between them and the Congolese army. Because of the fighting and tensions within the government and logistical issues (a new constitution was not approved by the interim parliament until May, 2005) the elections scheduled to be held by June, 2005, were postponed into 2006. In Dec., 2005, however, voters approved the constitution, paving the way for electing a new government. The same month the International Court of Justice ruled that Congo was entitled to compensation from Uganda for looting by Ugandan forces during the recent civil war. The fighting in NE and E Congo continued off and on throughout 2006. The Ugandan army launched (Apr., 2006) a campaign against Ugandan rebels based in Congo and clashed with Congo's forces, prompting a protest from Congo.
At the end of July, 2006, Congo held elections for president and the national and provincial legislatures. Voting was largely peaceful, but the vote count was slow and marred by irregularities. Joseph Kabila won 44% of the presidential vote with a strong showing in E Congo, but failed to win the required majority; his party won 111 (out of 500) National Assembly seats and was able to form a governing coalition. The inconclusive presidential results sparked violence between Kabila's partisans and those of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, the former rebel and interim vice president who was the runner-up (with 20% of the vote) and did well in W Congo, and violence subsequently marred campaign leading up to the October runoff. The vote count was not completed until mid-November, but Kabila was elected, with 58% of the ballots, and again he ran strongly in E Congo. Bemba rejected the result and contested it in court, despite the assessment of the election by most observers as free and fair; Bemba's challenge was rejected, and Kabila's election confirmed.
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