The Democratic Republic of Congo, previously called Zaire, is one of Africa's 21st century disaster stories. It was the personal property of Belgian king Leopold II in the late nineteenth century, who exploited its people ruthlessly to extract its great mineral resources and to grow and export rubber for the growing international automobile market. Leopold's army, the Force Publique, adopted a coercive policy towards Congolese people to secure their co-operation. It is estimated that half of the native Congolese population died in the period 1885-1908 as a result of Leopold's administration’s brutal methods.
Congo acquired independence in 1960 after 52 years under Belgian state rule but quickly descended into political turmoil. 100,000 Europeans, including trained administrators and experienced State bureaucrats left the country soon after independence, leaving the Congo lacking the human resources necessary for effective government.
President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba quickly fell out and in 1961 Lumumba – a natural anti-colonial rebel and impassioned speaker - was kidnapped and killed by militants from the mineral rich Katanga Province.
In 1965 the Congolese Army's Chief of Staff, Joseph Mobutu, took power in a coup, and remained in power until he was ousted in 1997. Mobutu quickly set about nationalizing foreign owned companies and renamed the country, The Republic of Zaire in 1971. The economy nosedived as international investment became impossible and Mobutu focused his attention on increasing his own personal wealth (estimated to be worth $5billion by 1984).
Mobutu gave free reign to his cabinet, leaving them to accumulate personal fortunes. Whenever any individual became too rich or powerful Mobutu imprisoned, tortured, then re-instated them to both retain their loyalty and keep them in their place. Infrastructure crumbled and all but his 'Special Presidential Division' could guarantee a regular wage. For a brief period in 1975 the media was forbidden from mentioning any name but Mobutu's.
Mobutu exploited the international politics of the Cold War and groomed the West by publicly denouncing the USSR. President Reagan hosted Mobutu at the White House on three separate occasions, and when Katangan rebels invaded fromAngola in 1977, French and Belgian troops came to his aid, with logistical support from the US.
Mobutu was eventually overthrown in 1997 by long-time rebel Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who commanded an invading army, supported by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. Relations between Rwanda and Mobutu had been strained since 1994 when Mobutu appeared sympathetic towards the radical Hutus who had initiated the genocide of Tutsis - many of whom had fled into Eastern Zaire.
Kabila exiled Mobutu and renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabila was installed as a puppet-President but in 1998 Congo was attacked again by Rwanda and Uganda – largely due to concerns that Kabila was acting too independently of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. Troops from Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were sent in support of Kabila. An estimated five million people died in the ensuing civil war. Kabila was eventually assassinated in 2001 by his bodyguards. His son Joseph Kabila is the current president and in 2002 successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the last Rwandan troops from the East of the country.
DRC is now entering a period of relative political stability (although violence in the Eastern Kivu Provinces is an obvious rejoinder to this optimism) and has been making slight economic advances. In 2006-2008 GDP rose with new international investment in mining but the recession hit Congo hard and its GDP growth for 2009 was half that of 2008. Most of Congo’s population functions in the informal sector and so the economic activities of much of the population are not reflected in GDP figures. The country still suffers from lack of effective transport, legal and economic infrastructure but there are hopes that these shortcomings can now start to be addressed in the new climate of relative political stability.