Congo, Democratic Republic of

December 13, 2010 § 6 Comments

CongoWho lives there?: There are two countries named Congo. A common misconception is that there is some animosity between the two – an actual fact they are broadly indifferent to each other as there has never been much in the way of cross river linkages (trade normally happens up and down the banks rather than across). However they both claim the name of the river that separates them as the name of their country. As a result various naming conventions have been tried. Some call the big one the Democratic Republic of Congo and the small one the Republic of Congo; some call the big one Congo-Kinshasa and the small one Congo-Brassaville; some call the big one “Congo” and the small one “the Congo” which is maddening. The big one used to be called Zaire but that is now frowned upon for historical reasons. This article is about the big one.

Nobody is quite sure who lives there but possibly as many as 71 million people making it the world’s most populous officially Francophone country. There are upwards of 250 distinct ethnic groups. It is thought all are pretty new to the Congo – the only long term inhabitants of the ancient Congo are the 400,000 or so people from pigmy tribes still living in the deep jungle.

Somewhere between 200 and 700 languages are spoken. French is the lingua franca but it is thought only around 40% of the population actually speak it. There are four other major languages (all of which are more dialectic continuums than unique languages): Kigono is spoken in the west of the country; Lingala is a trading language which was used for groups meeting along the Congo river and is now in common use in the north of the country, Tshiluba is used in the south, and Swahili is used in the east.

How does the system work? (the theory): Congo has a new constitution which is still bedding down. After many years of a strong presidency and a highly centralised state, Congo has moved to a system whereby power is heavily decentralised and such central power as there is, is shared between the President and the Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether this dispersal of power is real, or weather the realpolitik will dictate that the President still dominates the political scene. The president is elected by two round first past the post. Terms are for five years; there is a two term limit.

The Prime Minister is elected by the lower house. A “coalition former” chosen by the President has the job of organising a coalition in support of the frontrunner for PM. The lower house contains 500 seats elected by largest remainder PR, the seats vary in size between electing 1 MP and 17: so in the 63 single member seats this is effectively a FPTP election. Terms are for five years.

The less powerful upper house – the Senate – is indirectly elected by the provincial assemblies. Each provincial assembly elects 4 senators except Kinshasa which elects 8, in every instance by largest remainder PR. In addition all former presidents are senators for life – however currently there is only one former president still alive (Gizenga), and as his rule was not universally accepted he doesn’t get to sit in the senate either – he is a senator anyway.

There are supposed to be 22 provinces but the change over from the old system (when there were 11 provinces) hasn’t been fully achieved. Each province has a provincial assembly which is partly directly elected and partly appointed by traditional tribal chiefs. They in turn elect a governor.  However, this has so far only happened in the 11 existing provinces. Provinces are further subdivided into territories but the lower levels of local government are fairly limited.

There’s a free study of the new governance arrangements here and a study of local governance and decentralisation behind a paywall here.

How does the system work? (the practice): Whilst the civil war is over, Congo is still in a state of near anarchy. Statebuilding is fairly uneven and the government has very little power outside of the capital – except through the army who are a law unto themselves. Rebel groups are still active throughout the east of the country.

As for the government itself: corruption is rampant, vote-rigging is endemic, and many opposition activists and unflattering journalists have fallen victim to torture and assassination by various groups who may or may not be linked to the government (they are). The almost total lack of infrastructure also means that it is largely irrelevant who runs the nation – all that matters is who runs the village you are in.

There’s also a problem with party discipline. As political parties are not well established entities, the hold they have on their members is weak. This was best demonstrated in the three provincial assemblies where the opposition MLC won clear majorities, only to lose the subsequent elections for governor to presidentially backed candidates. That should be impossible, but clearly just because someone is elected on an MLC ticket, it doesn’t yet necessarily follow that they support the MLC.

How did we get here?: There’s no point disguising it: this is bloody complicated. Bear with me, whilst the recent political history of the Congo is a complete mess, understanding it is as close as it is possible to get to understanding the present.

There were, of course, civilizations in the Congo basin before the Belgian conquest but we’ll start with the Belgians. King Leopold declared the area his own private property in 1885 and, until 1908, the “Congo Free State” was run as a private estate – the largest the world has ever seen. It was horrible; it was basically a concentration camp – only more lucrative for King Leopold. Millions of Congolese died and the rest were effectively or literally enslaved. There were protests from the world’s literary establishment including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain – particularly after the publication of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a 1904 report by Roger Casement (of Easter Rising fame).

In 1908 this pressure paid off: international governments leant on Belgium and their parliament persuaded the king to transfer his estate to the nation. From 1908 to 1960 Congo was a Belgian colony. Whilst Belgian rule was considerably better than the rule of Leopold’s private staff, it was still pretty appalling and conditions were close to slavery for many Congolese.

The Congolese independence movement was led by the leftist Patrice Lumumba. Under his guidance Congo became independent in 1960 and Lumumba became Congo’s first Prime Minister. However the first elections were somewhat chaotic and, whilst Lumumba was able to secure the Prime Ministership, he couldn’t prevent rival anti-marxist electing Joseph Kasa-Vubu as President (in those days both the President and Prime Minister were indirectly elected by parliament). Then things went properly bonkers. Here’s a timeline:

June 30th: Congo declares independence

July 5th: the Army mutinies, demanding Lumumba’s dismissal. Lumumba’s attempt to pacify them (announcing over the radio that every member of the army was hereby promoted by one rank) did not work.

July 11th: Belgian businessmen, 6,000 renegade troops of the Belgian army, and the pro Belgian CONAKAT party declare the independent nation of Katanga in the south of the country.

July 14th: UN troops arrive to support Lumumba against the army and Katanga.

August 8th: the diamond rich state of South Karzai (on the south west of the county) declares itself independent. The leaders of the new state are regional interest groups with an eye for the main chance.

September 5th: the government of Congo breaks down entirely. Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu both go on air to announce that the other is dismissed and that they are solely in charge of the country. Both set up governments: Kasa-Vubu in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and the west of the country; Lumumba in Stanlyville (Kisangani) and the east.

September 12th: Lumumba is captured in Katanga by forces loyal to the Leopoldville govenment. Antoine Gizenga takes over the Stanleyville government. (If and when Congo ever gets calm enough to have pub quizzes, Gizenga will be the answer to some pub quiz questions: he was the only “president” of Congo to survive until the restoration of democracy and he even became the first ever Prime Minister under the new constitution – between 2006 and 2008 – he screwed it up and resigned in disgrace).

September 14th: with CIA backing Joseph Mobutu, the head of the Army ,seized power in Leopoldville. Kasa-Vubu remained as a powerless figurehead until 1965 when Mobutu took overall control.

And so Congo had four governments:


  1. The military government of Mobutu (yellow) backed by the army, the USA and, to a certain extent, the UN.
  2. The government of the imprisoned Lumumba and Gizenga (red) backed by Cuba, Russia (indirectly), and, to a certain extent, the UN.
  3. The government of Katanga (green) backed by Belgium.
  4. The government of South Karzai (blue) backed by mercinaries (as were all the others, but South Karzai could afford more)

All four governments fought each other viciously. In January of 1961 (the exact dates are disputed) Lumumba tried to escape his captors and make a break to Stanleyville. He was recaptured, publicly beaten, forced to eat some of his own speeches, and executed. It is still not clear whether the government of Mobuto or Kisgani was more responsible.

History records a mixed view of Lumumba. To some he was a hero, an intellectual, a deeply moral and selfless man and Congo’s best hope. Others think he was a bit of an idiot, and that many of the problems that resulted in the breakdown of the nation could have been avoided if he’d just shown a bit of common sense. I’m not sure these two views are necessarily contradictory.

The conflict raged on throughout  1961. The UN took an increasingly hard-line approach to the governments of Kisgani and South Karzai but didn’t really know what to do about the Leopoldville and Stanleyville governments – both of whom quickly became cold war proxies. Then in September, whilst attempting to negotiate a peace, the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld was killed – officially in a plane crash but some have their doubts. Afterwards the UN response became fragmented and ineffective.

From late 1961 onwards, Mobuto set about conquering the other three governments. He finally achieved this in 1966, having been considerably helped by the 1964 Simba revolution (an insurrection by shaman inspired leftists which split the Stanleyville government in half; it is now mostly famous for having been the cause for a daring commando raid and airlift by a joint Belgian/US force to rescue 2,000 western hostages). He also consolidated his power in a further bloodless coup in 1965.

Mobuto ruled until 1997, renaming the country Zaire in 1970 and renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (The Great Unstoppable Warrior who goes from Victory to Victory, Leaving Fire in his Trail) in 1972. He is thought to have stolen something like $4 billion during his time in office (hence current Congolese distaste for the name Zaire). He also introduced a dictatorship whereby membership of his political party was compulsory, and the only elections held gave voters a choice between green for hope and red for chaos. Green always beat red, in one election  by 10,131,699 to 157.

Meanwhile the Lumumbaist forces regrouped under Laurent Kabila in the dense mountain jungle of the far eastern Congo. They received some help form Che Guevara, although in the end he left saying Kabila wasn’t serious enough to deserve his help. Whilst in the mountains Kabila met fellow outlaws future President of Rwanda Paul Kagame and future President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni. These personal freindships were to have a strong bearing on what was to happen in the late 1990s.

Following the Rwandan genocide many Hutu and Tutsi rebels moved into refugee camps in eastern Congo. After the Tutsi RPF won power in 1994 many Tutsis went back to Rwanda but most Hutus remained. The Hutu rebel movement: the ALiR and the genocidal Interhamwe militias started to attack the remaining Tutsis living in the camps; Tutsi rebel groups backed by the Rwandan government killed Hutus too but these groups were much less powerful. The Rwandan government repeatedly requested that Mobutu’s government intervene to stop the killing but they refused to do so – Mobuto backing the Hutu rebels.

In response, in 1996, Rwanda invaded Congo in the hope of toppling Mobuto, installing Kabila, and so protecting Tutsi refugees. Supporting Rwanda and Kabila’s forces were the armies of Uganda, Burundi, and Angola (the latter from left- wing solidarity) and the Tutsi rebels; whilst Supporting Mobutu were the Hutu rebels, the Interhamwe, and the Angolan right-wing rebels UNITA (on the basis that the enemy of an enemy is a friend).

Kabila won this “first Congolese War” and was swept to power in 1997, ending nearly 37 years of Mobutu rule – something like 200,000 people were killed. However Kabila was seen by many as a Rwandan puppet, a suggestion he resented strongly – with catastrophic results. In 1998 Kabila ordered all Rwandan forces to leave the country and sacked all ethnic Tutsi members of the Government. This resulted in the Second Congolese War or, as some historians have not entirely hyperbolically named it: world war three. Five and a half million people were killed, more than in any war since WW2 – and accounting for about a third of the number killed in every war since WW2 put together.

It was an unbelievably complicated war. The best way of looking at it is to think of it as a three way battle for control of the country, the chaos of which allowed a number of smaller wars to happen in parallel. However alliances were also constantly shifting, and just because two groups were allied didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t kill each other if the opportunity arose. With communication often highly challenging trying to make too much sense of it is a fool’s errand: the situation was close to anarchy and many of the people fighting didn’t really know who they were fighting and why – at times it was just gangsterism and armed looting.

One force was Kabila’s government of Congo. Following his turning against the Tutsis, the Hutu rebels and the Interhamwe joined forces with him. So did the government of Namibia, Zimbabwae, Angola and Chad (and indirectly Libya and Sudan) all of whom invaded in support. Kabila also established a series of supportive millitias – the Mai-Mai – some of whom he lost control over.

The second force was the RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) of Ernest Wamba Wamba. A rebel group opposed to Kabila – who they felt was turning into a Mobuto style dictator – they were heavily supported by, and some say became puppets of, the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. They were also supported by Rwandan troops, Tutsi rebel groups and Burundi. They also split into at least four factions over the issue of Wamba Wamba’s leadership – these factions all started fighting each other (of course).

Whilst Uganda supported the RCD, they soon decided they wanted to create a separate third force which would be more explicitly their puppets. They set up the MLC under the leadership of Jean Pierre Bemba. They were supported by Ugandan troops.

Meanwhile in the midst of this chaos you also had:

  1. The Ituri conflict. This was an ethnic conflict between the agriculturalist Lendu tribe and pastoralist Hema tribe. The Lendu formed a group called the FNI whilst the Hema formed one called the Union of Congolese Patriots. In addition the Hema were supported by the Ugandan army and the RCD and – later in the war – the government of Congo and the UN.
  2. The Ugandan-Sudanese proxy war. This is a war between two forces: firstly the government of Uganda and the Central African Republic and the rebels it sponsors in Sudan (the SPLA) and Chad; and secondly the Government of Sudan and Chad and the rebels it sponsors in Uganda (the Lords Resistance Army, the UNRF, the UNRF 2, the WNBF and the ADF – all these groups also hate each other, largely for religious reasons). The fighting associated with this conflict happens all over central Africa but much of it has happened in the Congo – as it seemed like a good place for it.
  3. The Kivu conflict. This was basically a localised Hutu-Tutsi conflict in eastern Congo with the usual suspects backing each side. However it can be thought of as a different war because neither of the local lead groups (the Tutsi CNDP and the Hutu FLDR) paid the slightest bit of attention to their supposed sponsors. This may explain why this war outlasted the main war and rages to this day.
  4. The Northern Katanga conflict. In northern Katanga the Mai-Mai totally slipped out of Kabila’s control and set up their own short lived nation – at war with everyone.
  5. The Pygmy conflict. Relations between pygmy tribes and armed forces of any stripe have never been very good – and most pygmy tribes violently resisted any and all groups that passed through their territory, with unpleasant results. There are even some reports that some rebel groups hunted pygmies for food.

So, come 2001, Congo looked something like this:


The second congolese war. The numbers relate to the "wars within a war" listed above, although 2 and 5 were more widespread.

At this point Laurent Kabila’s bodyguards killed him. His son Joseph Kabila took over and his more conciliatory style – combined with the UN finally taking more effective charge of the situation- led to a negotiated peace. Most rebel groups laid down their arms by 2003 and a caretaker government led by Kabila  – but including representatives of all rebel groups – took over. By the end of 2003 Rwanda and the UN were the only foreign powers on Congolese soil. It is a matter of some contention when Rwanda finally left Congo, or if they ever did, but by 2006 there was only fighting in Kivu.

2006 and 2007 brought in the new constitution and ostensibly democratic elections and heralded the situation we had now.

Who’s in charge?: Joseph Kabila is about as in charge as anyone is. He won the Presidential election, his 45% beating Bemba’s 20%, Gizenga’s 13%, and Mobutu’s son’s 5%. In the second round Kabila beat Bemba 58% to 42%.

Whilst conventional wisdom says that the main forces in the country are the groups from the war, the voting patterns in this election (Kabila won the east and Bemba the west) might suggest that whilst the parties are based upon the various rebel groups, voting intentions amongst the public are more deeply rooted and go back further, possibly even to the 1960s loyalties.

Bemba contested the result, the supreme court was convened to resolve the issue but somebody burnt it down whilst it was in session. Then 2,000+ soldiers supporting both sides clashed on the outskirts of Kinshasa and, fearing a return to civil-war, Bemba announced (with reluctance) that he accepted the result.

Kabila and Bemba dominate the political landscape. Kabila’s left wing People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy is the largest party in government with 111 seats and Bemba’s nationalist MLC is the largest opposition party with 63 seats. Apart from that the political situation is deeply fragmented: there are 68 different political parties represented as well as 65 independents.

Kabila cobbled together a coalition called the Alliance of the Presidential Majority. It controls 332 of the 500 seats in the national assembly. As well as the PPRC’s 111 seats, there are 34 seats from Gizenga’s Lumumbist party, 27 for the Social Movement for Renewal (who are believed to be pretty much inseparable from the PPRC), 10 from the moderate Coalition of Congolese Democrats, 9 from the Mobutoist party of Mobuto’s son (I guess time must heal all rifts), 8 each from two rival Christian Democrat parties (the CDC and the DCF-COFEDEC), 7 from the Federalist Party and 118 from other minor political parties and independents.

Meanwhile the MLC formed an alliance called the Union for the Nation. It holds 116 seats. I don’t know who makes up the other 53 members of the alliance but I believe they are mostly very small parties. Other major opposition parties include the Forces for Renewal (a breakaway faction of the RCD) with 26 seats, the RCD itself with 15,  and the Coalition of Christian Democrats (an anti-Kabila Christian Democrat Party) with 10.

It is very hard to find anything out about the remaining political parties. It would be a good subject for a PhD as, whilst they hold very little power, they would surely be indicative of wider political movements. My guess would be they mostly represent small regional movements. For completism here is a list of all the others, and the seats they won. A * indicates I know the party to be a member of the Presidents Coalition, a ** indicates I know them to be a member of the Union for the Nation.

Camp of the Fatherland 8, Congolese Alliance of Christian Democrats 4, Alliance of Congolese Democrats 4, *United Congolese Convention 4, Resistance Patriots Maï-Maï 4, **Rally of Congolese Democrats and Nationalists 4, Union of the People for Republic and Integral Development 4, Union of Builders of Kongo 3, Democratic Convention for Development 3, **Convention for the Republic and Democracy 3, *National Alliance Party for Unity 3, Party of Nationalists for Integral Development 3, Union of Congolese Patriots 3, National Union of Federalist Democrats 3, Alliance of Congolese Believing Nationalists 2, *Alliance for the Renewal of Congo 2 Renewing Forces for Union and Solidarity 2, Movement for Democracy and Development 2, Congolese Party for Good Governance 2, People’s Revolution Party 2, Democratic Social Christian Party 2, Rally of Social and Federalist Forces 2, Electoral Platform Renaissance 2, Solidarity for National Development 2, Union for the Republican Majority 2, National Union of Christian Democrats 2, Action of the Rally for Reconstruction and Edification 1, Alliance of Congolese Nationalists 1, Conscience and People’s Will 1, Christian Convention for Democracy 1, National Convention of Political Action 1, National Convention for Republic and Progress 1, Christian Democracy 1, Front of Congolese Democrats 1, Front for Social Integration 1, Social Front of Independent Republicans 1, Front of Social Democrats for Development 1, Republican Generations 1, Action Movement for Ressurection of the Congo-Fraternity and Labour Party 1, Self-Defence Movement for Integrity and Maintenance of Independent Authority 1, Congolese People’s Movement for the Republic 1, Popular Movement of the Revolution 1, Solidarity Movement for Democracy and Development 1, Maï Maï Movement 1, Political Organisation of Kasavubists and Allies 1, Congolese Party for the People’s Well-Being 1, National Unity Party 1, National People’s Party 1, Rally of Christians for the Congo 1, Rally of Congolese Ecologist-The Greens 1, Rally for Economic and Social Development 1, Congolese Union for Change 1, Liberal Christian Democrats Union 1, Union of Congolese Nationalist Patriots 1, Union for the Defence of the Republic 1.

Some of these parties have nice flags.

A year later in the senatorial election, the Alliance for the Presidential Majority got 58 seats (of which the PPRC won 22; of the other parties I mentioned above: the Forces for Renewal (who had now joined the coalition) got 7, the CDC 6, the Social Movement for Renewal 3, the Lumumbists 2, the DCF-COFEDEC 1, the Mobutoists 1,  and the Coalition of Congolese Democrats 1) . The Union for the Nation got 21 of which the MLC won 14. Of the other 29: the RCD got 7, and the Convention of Christian Democrats 3.  There were 26 independents, some of whom joined both parties. Again for completism here’s the rest with */**.

Alliance of Congolese Democrats 1, *United Congolese Convention 1, Democratic Convention for Development 1, **Convention for the Republic and Democracy 1, Social Front of Independent Republicans 1, Liberal Christian Democrats Union 1, *National Alliance Party for Unity 1, Democratic Socialist Party 1, Democratic Social Christian Party 1, Rally for Economic and Social Development 1, **Rally of Congolese Democrats and Nationalists 1, Rally of Social and Federalist Forces 1, Congolese Union for Liberty 1, National Union of Christian Democrats 1, National Union of Federalist Democrats 1.

The Alliance for the Presidential Majority got an outright majority in 7 of the provincial legislatures and the Union for the Nation 4. However, in the subsequent elections for governor the PPRC won 10 and the MLC 1.

Gizenga became the first Prime Minister under the new system but it did not go well for him and he was my now a very old man. He resigned in 2008 and another Lumumbaist, Adolphe Muzito, took over.

Outside of parliament there is the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. They are a liberal opposition party who have boycotted elections they do not perceive to be fair. They are certainly very large and could even make a legitimate claim to be Congo’s second party. However it is hard to tell as they have been quite effectively suppressed and, in response, have resorted to exaggeration: they claim 45 million members – which would mean that 75% of all adults in the Congo are members. Third party claims that their level of support might be around 75% are a bit more credible – but these polls are not independently verified.

What does it look like?: This:

Sorry, that’s not really true so much as a silly visual pun. I thought the mood needed lightening. The Congo basin contains some of the world’s thickest rainforest. Bizzarely enough it is not very old, what is now dense rainforest was open savannah in the 15th century – warm climates and the river caused the forest to expand rapidly over the last 500 years. The Congo river dominates the country and is the key to cross country communication. Following the Belgian model most roads and railways serve only to bypass the non navigable sections of the river – barges take most of the traffic. The Congo is a “backwards river” in that it is massive, slow, and silty in its upper stretches and incredibly fast flowing and quite narrow in its lower estuary. This is because most of Congo is actually quite high – albeit flat – as a result of the Great Rift Valley. Here are some trees, spot the gorilla:


What are the issues?: Congo is the second poorest country in the world in absolute terms. Only Zimbabwae is poorer. They do not drink Um Bongo, indeed for the most part they have virtually no access to external markets. The country is also still in near chaos. The country is also thought to contain in excess of $24trillion in mineral wealth – virtually none of which has so far been seen by Congolese people: some has been extracted, often illegally, by international companies; some has been looted by invading armies or sold for guns by rebel groups; some made it into the pockets of senior officials.

A good source of impartial information is: Congo Siasa is a great independent blog on the politics of the Congo. Apart from that there is as little as you’d expect. The UN fund an independent radio network – Radio Okapi.

A good book is: Tintin in the Congo is quite extraordinarily racist but very revealing about Belgian attitudes to Congo. Che Guevara’s The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo gives a surprisingly honest and nuanced account of a younger Laurent Kabila.

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart is about as good a book on the modern Congo as I’ve found. It is the story of a journalist who set of into the heart of the Congo on a whim. However in so doing it explains a lot about the culture and the politics of the modern Congo- and if you reach the end thinking that you still don’t really understand what’s going on except in one or two of the villages he visits, that is because that is about as much as anyone gets to understand.

The BBC produced a fantastic documentary about the formation of the Congolese rainforest – if you ignore the stupid “ITS A BLOODY RHINO” subplot that is. It is called “spirits of the forest” and is part of a very good three part documentary series on Congolese wildlife called “the Congo”. At the moment it is only available as part of this BBC boxset.

And of course there is Heart of Darkness. It is still staggeringly good. It has also inspired some of the world’s greatest authors to turn their hands to “the Congo Novel”. None have done it as well as Conrad but most make a decent fist of it, and almost all went there. Evelyn Waugh wrote Remote People, Graham Greene wrote A Burnt Out Case, and VS Naipaul wrote A Bend in the River.

When are the next elections?: 2011 for President and parliament.


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