Established as a Belgian colony in 1908, the Republic of the Congo gained its independence in 1960, but its early years were marred by political and social instability. Col. Joseph Mobutu seized power and declared himself president in a November 1965 coup. He subsequently changed his name – to Mobutu Sese Seko – as well as that of the country – to Zaire. Mobutu retained his position for 32 years through several sham elections, as well as through the use of brutal force.
Ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees in 1994 from fighting in Rwanda and Burundi, led in May 1997 to the toppling of the Mobutu regime by a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda and fronted by Laurent Kabila. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but in August 1998 his regime was itself challenged by a second insurrection again backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Troops from Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe intervened to support Kabila’s regime. A cease-fire was signed in July 1999 by the DRC, Congolese armed rebel groups, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe but sporadic fighting continued.
Laurent Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, was named head of state. In October 2002, the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan forces occupying eastern Congo; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up in July 2003. Joseph Kabila as president and four vice presidents represented the former government, former rebel groups, the political opposition, and civil society. The transitional government held a successful constitutional referendum in December 2005 and elections for the presidency, National Assembly, and provincial legislatures in 2006. Kabila was inaugurated president in December 2006. The National Assembly was installed in September 2006. Its president, Vital Kamerhe, was chosen in December. Provincial assemblies were constituted in early 2007, and elected governors and national senators in January 2007.
The economy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a nation endowed with vast potential wealth – is slowly recovering from two decades of decline. Conflict that began in August 1998 has dramatically reduced national output and government revenue, increased external debt, and resulted in the deaths of more than 5 million people from violence, famine, and disease. Foreign businesses curtailed operations due to uncertainty about the outcome of the conflict, lack of infrastructure, and the difficult operating environment. Conditions began to improve in late 2002 with the withdrawal of a large portion of the invading foreign troops.
The transitional government reopened relations with international financial institutions and international donors, and President Kabila began implementing reforms, although progress has been slow and the International Monetary Fund curtailed their program for the DRC at the end of March 2006 because of fiscal overruns. Much economic activity still occurs in the informal sector, and is not reflected in GDP data. Renewed activity in the mining sector, the source of most export income, boosted Kinshasa’s fiscal position and GDP growth from 2006-2008, however, renewed strife in the second half of 2008, combined with a fall in world market prices for the DRC’s key mineral exports inflicted major damage on the economy and halted growth.
Government reforms may lead to increased government revenues, outside budget assistance, and foreign direct investment, although an uncertain legal framework, corruption, a lack of transparency in government policy are long-term problems. The DRC government has applied to the IMF for an Exogenous Shock Facility in the amount of $200 million to help it deal with its deteriorating financial situation, and the World Bank will consider a separate $100 million in emergency funding. The global recession probably will cut economic growth in 2009 to half its 2008 level.
The culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo reflects the diversity of its hundreds of ethnic groups and their differing ways of life throughout the country — from the mouth of the River Congo on the coast, upriver through the rainforest and savanna in its centre, to the more densely populated mountains in the far east. Since the late 19th century, traditional ways of life have undergone changes brought about by colonialism, the struggle for independence, the stagnation of the Mobutu era, and most recently, the First and Second Congo Wars. Despite these pressures, the customs and cultures of the Congo have retained much of their individuality. The country’s 60 million inhabitants are mainly rural. The 30 percent who live in urban areas have been the most open to Western influences.