Historical Background of Congo
Straddling the Equator, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the third largest country in Africa (after Sudan and Algeria). The mighty Congo River flows north and then south through a land rich in minerals, fertile farmlands, and rain forests. The country has a tiny coast on the Atlantic Ocean, just enough to accommodate the mouth of the Congo River. The forested Congo River basin occupies 60 percent of the nation's area, creating a central region that is a communication barrier between the capital, Kinshasa, in the west, the mountainous east, and the southern mineral-rich highlands. As many as 250 ethnic groups speaking some 700 local languages and dialects endure one of the world's lowest living standards. War, government corruption, neglected public services, and depressed copper and coffee markets are contributing factors.
In 1960 the Belgian Congo became independent as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Gen. Joseph Mobutu came to power in a coup in 1965; he changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko and the country's name to the Republic of Zaire. Mobutu's corruption-ridden government continued in power until 1997 when rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila—supported by Rwanda and Uganda—took Kinshasa and changed the country's name back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A rift between Kabila and his former allies caused a new rebellion in 1998, backed by Rwanda and Uganda. What became known as "Africa's world war" started as Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, and Chad sent troops to support Kabila. The war claimed some three million lives, with all sides plundering the country's natural resources—especially diamonds from south-central Congo. A UN-supported peace agreement in 2002 and the formation of a transitional government in 2003 brought an end to the five-year conflict.
In 2005, voters approved a new constitution by referendum, and general elections in 2006 gave the presidency to Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. There has been relative stability in the country since the elections, but violent flare-ups between government and rebel militias have continued, particularly in border regions.