Background Notes: Democratic Republic of Congo

Contributed By RealAdventures

The population of DROC was estimated at 46.7 million in 1997. As many as 250 ethnic groups have been distinguished and named. The most numerous people are the Kongo, Luba, and Mongo. Although 700 local languages and dialects are spoken, the linguistic variety is bridged both by the use of French and the intermediary languages Kikongo, Tshiluba, Swahili, and Lingala.

About 80% of the Congolese population are Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic. Most of the non-Christians adhere to either traditional religions or syncretic sects. Traditional religions embody such concepts as monotheism, animism, vitalism, spirit and ancestor worship, witchcraft, and sorcery and vary widely among ethnic groups; none is formalized. The syncretic sects often merge Christianity with traditional beliefs and rituals. The most popular of these sects, Kimbanguism, was seen as a threat to the colonial regime and was banned by the Belgians. Kimbanguism, officially "the church of Christ on Earth by the prophet Simon Kimbangu," now has about 3 million members, primarily among the Bakongo of Bas-Congo and Kinshasa. In 1969, it was the first independent African church admitted to the World Council of Churches.

Before independence, education was largely in the hands of religious groups. The primary school system was well-developed at independence; however, the secondary school system was limited, and higher education was almost nonexistent in most regions of the country. The principal objective of this system was to train low-level administrators and clerks. Since independence, efforts have been made to increase access to education, and secondary and higher education have been made available to many more Congolese. Despite the deterioration of the state-run educational system in recent years, about 80% of the males and 65% of females, ages 6-11, were enrolled in a mixture of state- and church-run primary schools in 1996. At higher levels of education, males greatly outnumber females. The elite continues to send their children abroad to be educated, primarily in Western Europe.

The area known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was populated as early as 10,000 years ago and settled in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. by Bantus from present-day Nigeria. Discovered in 1482 by Portuguese navigator Diego Cao and later explored by English journalist Henry Morton Stanley, the area was officially colonized in 1885 as a personal possession of Belgian King Leopold II as the Congo Free State. In 1907, administration shifted to the Belgian Government, which renamed the country the Belgian Congo. Following a series of riots and unrest, the Belgian Congo was granted its independence on June 30, 1960. Parliamentary elections in 1960 produced Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu as president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Within the first year of independence, several events destabilized the country: the army mutinied; the governor of Katanga province attempted secession; a UN peacekeeping force was called in to restore order; Prime Minister Lumumba died under mysterious circumstances; and Col. Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) took over the government and ceded it again to President Kasavubu.

Unrest and rebellion plagued the government until 1965, when Lieutenant General Mobutu, by then commander in chief of the national army, again seized control of the country and declared himself president for 5 years. Mobutu quickly centralized power into his own hands and was elected unopposed as president in 1970. Embarking on a campaign of cultural awareness, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaire and required citizens to adopt African names. Relative peace and stability prevailed until 1977 and 1978 when Katangan rebels, staged in Angola, launched a series of invasions into the Katanga region. The rebels were driven out with the aid of Belgian paratroopers.

During the 1980s, Mobutu continued to enforce his one-party system of rule. Although Mobutu successfully maintained control during this period, opposition parties, most notably the Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), were active. Mobutu's attempts to quell these groups drew significant international criticism.

As the Cold War came to a close, internal and external pressures on Mobutu increased. In late 1989 and early 1990, Mobutu was weakened by a series of domestic protests, by heightened international criticism of his regime's human rights practices, and by a faltering economy. In May 1990 Mobutu agreed to the principle of a multi-party system with elections and a constitution. As details of a reform package were delayed, soldiers in September 1991 began looting Kinshasa to protest their unpaid wages. Two thousand French and Belgian troops, some of whom were flown in on U.S. Air Force planes, arrived to evacuate the 20,000 endangered foreign nationals in Kinshasa.

In 1992, after previous similar attempts, the long-promised Sovereign National Conference was staged, encompassing over 2,000 representatives from various political parties. The conference gave itself a legislative mandate and elected Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo as its chairman, along with Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the UDPS, as prime minister. By the end of the year Mobutu had created a rival government with its own prime minister. The ensuing stalemate produced a compromise merger of the two governments into the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT) in 1994, with Mobutu as head of state and Kengo Wa Dondo as prime minister. Although presidential and legislative elections were scheduled repeatedly over the next 2 years, they never took place.

By 1996, tensions from the neighboring Rwanda war had spilled over to Zaire. Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe), who had fled Rwanda following the ascension of a Tutsi-led government, had been using Hutu refugees camps in eastern Zaire as a basis for incursion against Rwanda. These Hutu militia forces soon allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire. In turn, these Tutsis formed a militia to defend themselves against attacks.

The Tutsi militia was soon joined by various opposition groups and supported by several countries, including Rwanda and Uganda. This coalition, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, became known as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). The AFDL, now seeking the broader goal of ousting Mobutu, made significant military gains in early 1997. Following failed peace talks between Mobutu and Kabila in May 1997, Mobutu left the country, and Kabila marched unopposed to Kinshasa on May 20. Kabila named himself president, consolidated power around himself and the AFDL, and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite President Kabila's claims that his was a transitional government leading to a new constitution and full elections by April 1999, these elections have not yet been held, and a 1998 draft constitution has not been finalized. All executive, legislative, and military powers are vested in the president. The judiciary is independent, with the president having the power to dismiss or appoint. The president is head of a 26-member cabinet dominated by the AFDL.

Despite some successes at improving internal security and lowering the inflation rate over his first year, Kabila was unable to control insurgent activities by various armed groups. Activities by Hutu ex-FAR/Interahamwe, Mai-Mai soldiers, and a February 1998 mutiny by Tutsi Banyamulenge destabilized the regime. In addition, Kabila's pledges to democratize the government over time contrasted with the reality of banned political parties and increasingly centralized power. Criticism of Kabila's government grew both domestically and within the international community.

In an attempt to stabilize the country and consolidate his control, President Kabila in August 1998 expelled the Rwandan troops remaining in DROC after his 1997 victory. This prompted army mutinies in Kinshasa and the Kivu provinces in the east. Although the Kinshasa mutiny was put down, the mutiny in the Kivus continued and mushroomed into a drive to topple the government. Opposing the Kabila government were factions of the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), Rwanda, and Uganda. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), another rebel group, emerged later. Defending the Kabila government were the former Rwandan army (ex-FAR)/Interahamwe militia, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Zimbabwe, and the Congolese army (FAC).

In July 1999 a cease-fire was proposed in Lusaka, Zambia. The Lusaka Peace Accord calls for a cease-fire, an international peacekeeping operation, and the beginning of a "national dialogue" on the future of the country. Signed by all major groups, the prospects for lasting peace remain uncertain.

President--Laurent Desire Kabila

Defense--Laurent Desire Kabila Abdoulaye
Foreign Affairs--Abdoulaye Yerodia Ndombasi
Economy and Industry--Bemba Saolona
Trade--Badimany Mulumba
Justice--Mwenze Kongolo
Information and the Press--Didier Mumengi

Sparsely populated in relation to its area, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to a vast potential of natural resources and mineral wealth. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, accounting for 57.9% of GDP in 1997. Main cash crops include coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa. Food crops include cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts, and rice. In 1996, agriculture employed 66% of the work force.

Industry, especially mining, remains a great potential source of wealth for DROC. In 1997, industry accounted for 16.9% of GDP. The Congo was the world's fourth-largest producer of industrial diamonds during the 1980s, and diamonds continue to dominate exports, accounting for $717 million or 52% of exports in 1997. The Congo's main copper and cobalt interests are dominated by Gecamines, the state-owned mining giant. Gecamines production has faltered in recent years, due in part to a competitive world copper market.

Despite the country's vast potential, under the Mobutu regime widespread corruption, economic controls, and the diversion of public resources for personal gain thwarted economic growth. The unrecorded and illicit transactions of Zaire's unofficial economy were estimated in the early 1990s to be three times the size of official GDP.

The Congo's record with multilateral and bilateral donors has been uneven. Despite a succession of economic plans financed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since independence, budgetary imbalance, inflation, and debt consistently plagued the Mobutu government. In early 1990, both the World Bank and the IMF suspended most disbursements, and most bilateral aid was cut off. Unable to make debt payments, Zaire's borrowing rights with the IMF were cut off in February 1992; its World Bank credits were frozen in July 1993. Despite the introduction of a new currency, the New Zaire (NZ), currency issuance remained disorderly, and largescale inflation rose to over 9,000% by early 1994.

In May 1997 the AFDL, led by Laurent Kabila, overthrew the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Under President Kabila the government and state enterprises began a program of reconstruction. The government began to reform the corrupt tax system, civilian police force, and repair the damaged road system.

In August 1998, a war broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At that time, some progress had been made in the economic reconstruction of the country, but major problems continued to exist in transportation infrastructure, customs administration, and the tax system. Government finances had not been put in order and relations with the IMF and World Bank were in disarray. Much of the government's revenue was kept "off book," and not included in published statistics on revenue and expenditure. Relations with the World Bank were on hold as a result of the government's failure to finalize an agreement for administration of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) Trust Fund for the Congo.

The outbreak of war in the early days of August 1998 caused a major decline in economic activity that continues to the present. The country has been divided into rebel- and government-held territories, and commerce between them has stopped. The economic and commercial links among the various sections of the country are not strong, but they are important.

After a surge in inflation during August 1998, the government began enforcing price control laws. It also began regulating foreign exchange markets. Taken together, these measures have severely damaged the ability of businesses depending on imports to continue operations. The wide spread between the official rate for buying the new currency, Congo francs (FCs), and the black market rate for buying dollars has squeezed merchants forced to price their imported goods according to the official rate for buying local currency.

Faced with continued currency depreciation, the government resorted to more drastic measures and on January 1999 banned the widespread use of U.S. dollars for all domestic commercial transactions, a position it later adjusted. The government has been unable to provide foreign exchange for economic transactions, while it has resorted to printing money to finance its expenditure.

Its location in the center of Africa has made DROC a key player in the region since independence. Because of its size, mineral wealth, and strategic location, Zaire was able to capitalize on Cold War tensions to garner support from the West. In the early 1990s, however, in the face of growing evidence of human rights abuses, Western support waned as pressure for internal reform increased.

Relations with surrounding countries have often been driven by security concerns. Intricate and interlocking alliances have often characterized regional relations. Conflicts in Sudan, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi have at various times created bilateral and regional tensions. The current crisis in DROC has its roots both in the use of The Congo as a base by various insurgency groups attacking neighboring countries and in the absence of a broad-based political system in the Congo.

Its dominating position in Central Africa makes stability in DROC an important part of overall stability in the region. The U.S. supports a resolution to the current conflict and encourages peace, prosperity, democracy, and respect for human rights in DROC. The U.S. remains a partner with DROC and other central African nations in their quest for stability and growth on the continent. From the start of the Congo crisis, the U.S. has pursued an active diplomatic strategy in support of these objectives. In the long term, the U.S. seeks to strengthen the process of internal reconciliation and democratization within all the states of the region to promote stable, economically self-reliant, and democratic nations with which it can work to address mutual economic and security interests on the continent.

The U.S. appointed an ambassador in November 1995. A charge had headed the Zaire/DROC since March 1993. There is no current U.S. bilateral aid to the Congo except for grants to NGOs in direct support for human rights and democratization projects. The Congo has been on the State Department's travel advisory list since 1977.

Ambassador--William Lacy Swing
Deputy Chief of Mission--Barrie Walkley

The United States maintains an embassy at 310 Avenue des Aviateurs, Kinshasa (tel. 243-12-21028; fax 243-88-43805). Mailing address is American Embassy Kinshasa, Box 31550, APO AE 09828.

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