Congo's sparse population is concentrated in the southwestern portion of the country, leaving the vast areas of tropical jungle in the north virtually uninhabited. Thus, Congo is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa, with 85% of its total population living in a few urban areas, namely in Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, or one of the small cities or villages lining the 332-mile railway which connects the two cities. In rural areas, industrial and commercial activity has declined rapidly in recent years, leaving rural economies dependent on the government for support and subsistence. Before the 1997 war, about 9,000 Europeans and other non-Africans lived in Congo, most of whom were French. Only a fraction of this number remains.
First inhabited by pygmies, Congo was later settled by Bantu groups that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and Zaire, forming the basis for ethnic affinities and rivalries among those states. Several Bantu kingdoms--notably those of the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke--built trade links leading into the Congo River basin. The first European contacts came in the late 15th century, and commercial relationships were quickly established with the kingdoms--trading for slaves captured in the interior. The coastal area was a major source for the transatlantic slave trade, and when that commerce ended in the early 19th century, the power of the Bantu kingdoms eroded.
The area came under French sovereignty in the 1880s. Pierre Sauvignon de Brazza, a French empire builder, competed with agents of Belgian King Leopold's International Congo Association (later Zaire) for control of the Congo River basin. Between 1882 and 1891, treaties were secured with all the main local rulers on the river's right bank, placing their lands under French protection. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa (AEF), comprising its colonies of Middle Congo (modern Congo), Gabon, Chad, and Oubangui-Chari (modern Central African Republic). Brazzaville was selected as the federal capital.
Economic development during the first 50 years of colonial rule in Congo centered on natural resource extraction by private companies. In 1924-34, the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO) was built at a considerable human and financial cost, opening the way for growth of the ocean port of Pointe-Noire and towns along its route.
During World War II, the AEF administration sided with Charles DeGaulle, and Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France during 1940-43. The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 heralded a period of major reform in French colonial policy, including the abolition of forced labor, granting of French citizenship to colonial subjects, decentralization of certain powers, and election of local advisory assemblies. Congo benefited from the postwar expansion of colonial administrative and infrastructural spending as a result of its central geographic location within AEF and the federal capital at Brazzaville.
The Loi Cadre (framework law) of 1956 ended dual voting roles and provided for partial self-government for the individual overseas territories. Ethnic rivalries then produced sharp struggles among the emerging Congolese political parties and sparked severe riots in Brazzaville in 1959. After the September 1958 referendum approving the new French constitution, AEF was dissolved. Its four territories became autonomous members of the French Community, and Middle Congo was renamed the Congo Republic. Formal independence was granted in August 1960.
Congo's first president was Fulbert Youlou, a former Catholic priest from the Pool region in the southeast. He rose to political prominence after 1956, and was narrowly elected president by the National Assembly at independence. Youlou's 3 years in power were marked by ethnic tensions and political rivalry. In August 1963, Youlou was overthrown in a 3-day popular uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses) led by labor elements and joined by rival political parties. All members of the Youlou government were arrested or removed from office. The Congolese military took charge of the country briefly and installed a civilian provisional government headed by Alphonse Massamba-Debat. Under the 1963 constitution, Massamba-Debat was elected President for a 5-year term and named Pascal Lissouba to serve as Prime Minister. However, President Massamba-Debat's term ended abruptly in August 1968, when Capt. Marien Ngouabi and other army officers toppled the government in a coup. After a period of consolidation under the newly formed National Revolutionary Council, Major Ngouabi assumed the presidency on December 31, 1968. One year later, President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa's first "people's republic" and announced the decision of the National Revolutionary Movement to change its name to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT).
On March 16, 1977, President Ngouabi was assassinated. Although the persons accused of shooting Ngouabi were tried and some of them executed, the motivation behind the assassination is still not clear. An 11-member Military Committee of the Party (CMP) was named to head an interim government with Col. (later Gen.) Joachim Yhomby-Opango to serve as President of the Republic. Accused of corruption and deviation from party directives, Yhomby-Opango was removed from office on February 5, 1979, by the Central Committee of the PCT, which then simultaneously designated Vice President and Defense Minister Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso as interim President. The Central Committee directed Sassou-Nguesso to take charge of preparations for the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT, which proceeded to elect him President of the Central Committee and President of the Republic. Under a congressional resolution, Yhomby-Opango was stripped of all powers, rank, and possessions and placed under arrest to await trial for high treason. He was released from house arrest in late 1984 and ordered back to his native village of Owando.
After decades of turbulent politics bolstered by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Congolese gradually moderated their economic and political views to the point that, in 1992, Congo completed a transition to multi-party democracy. Ending a long history of one-party Marxist rule, a specific agenda for this transition was laid out during Congo's national conference of 1991 and culminated in August 1992 with multi-party presidential elections. Sassou-Nguesso conceded defeat and Congo's new president, Prof. Pascal Lissouba, was inaugurated on August 31, 1992.
Congolese democracy experienced severe trials in 1993 and early 1994. The President dissolved the National Assembly in November 1992, calling for new elections in May 1993. The results of those elections were disputed, touching off violent civil unrest in June and again in November. In February 1994, the decisions of an international board of arbiters were accepted by all parties, and the risk of large-scale insurrection subsided.
However, Congo's democratic progress was derailed in 1997. As presidential elections scheduled for July 1997 approached, tensions between the Lissouba and Sassou camps mounted. When on June 5, President Lissouba's government forces surrounded Sassou's compound in Brazzaville, Sassou ordered his militia to resist. Thus began a 4-month conflict that destroyed or damaged much of Brazzaville. In early October, Angolan troops invaded Congo on the side of Sassou and, in mid-October, the Lissouba government fell. Soon thereafter, Sassou declared himself President and named a 33-member government. In January 1998, the Sassou regime held a National Forum for Reconciliation to determine the nature and duration of the transition period. The Forum, tightly controlled by the government, decided elections should be held in about 3 years, elected a transition advisory legislature, and announced that a constitutional convention will finalize a draft constitution. However, the eruption in late 1998 of fighting between Sassou's government forces and an armed opposition has disrupted the transitional return to democracy. This new violence also has closed the economically vital Brazzaville-Pointe-Noire railroad; caused great destruction and loss of life in southern Brazzaville and in the Pool, Bouenza, and Niari regions; and displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. However, in November and December 1999, the government signed agreements with representatives of many, though not all, of the rebel groups. The December accord, mediated by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, calls for follow-on, inclusive political negotiations between the government and the opposition.
Before the 1997 war, the Congolese system of government was similar to that of the French. However, after taking power, Sassou suspended the constitution approved in 1992 upon which this system was based. A convention has drafted a new constitution, which would provide for a 7-year presidential term. Until new elections are held in 2000 or later, Sassou will serve as President and Prime Minister and will rule with the advice of a 75-member parliament.
President--Denis Sassou Nguesso
Minister Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Rodolphe Adada
Charge to the United States--Serge Mombouli
Ambassador to the United Nations--Basile Ikouebe
The Congo maintains an embassy in the United States at 4891 Colorado Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20011 (tel: (202) 726-5500). The Congolese Mission to the United Nations is at 14 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021 (tel: (212) 744-7840).
The Congo's economy is based primarily on its growing petroleum sector, which is by far the country's major revenue earner. The Congolese oil sector is dominated by the French parastatal oil company Elf-Aquitaine, which accounts for 70% of the country's annual oil production. In second position is the Italian oil firm Agip. Chevron, CMS Nomeko, and Exxon are among the American companies active in petroleum exploration or production. Following recent discoveries and oil fields currently under development, Congo's oil production is expected to continue to rise significantly in the next few years.
The country's abundant rain forests are the source of timber. Forestry, which led Congolese exports before the discovery of oil, continues to generate 10% of export earnings, although high transportation costs, high wages, and low productivity have hurt the forestry industry in recent years.
Earlier in the decade, Congo's major employer was the state bureaucracy, which had a payroll of 80,000, enormous for a country of Congo's size. The World Bank and other international financial institutions pressured Congo to institute sweeping civil service reforms in order to reduce the size of the state bureaucracy and pare back a civil service payroll that amounted to more than 20% of GDP in 1993. The effort to cut back began in 1994 with a 50% devaluation that cut the payroll in half in dollar terms and by a mid-year reduction of nearly 8,000 in civil service employment.
Between 1994-96, the Congolese economy underwent a difficult transition. The prospects for building the foundation of a healthy economy, however, were better than at any time in the previous 15 years. Congo took a number of measures to liberalize its economy, including reforming the tax, investment, labor, and hydrocarbon codes. Planned privatizations of key parastatals, primarily telecommunications and transportation monopolies, were launched to help improve a dilapidated and unreliable infrastructure. To build on the momentum achieved during the 2-year period, the IMF approved a 3-year ESAF economic program in June 1996.
By the end of 1996, Congo had made substantial progress in various areas targeted for reform. It made significant strides toward macroeconomic stabilization through improving public finances and restructuring external debt. This change was accompanied by improvements in the structure of expenditures, with a reduction in personnel expenditures. Further, Congo benefited from debt restructuring from a Paris Club agreement in July 1996.
This reform program came to a halt, however, in early June 1997 when war broke out. Congo's economic prospects remain largely dependent on the country's ability to establish political stability and democratic rule. The World Bank is considering Congo for post-conflict assistance. Priorities will be in reconstruction, basic services, infrastructure, and utilities. President Sassou has publicly expressed interest in moving forward on economic reforms and privatization, as well as in renewing cooperation with international financial institutions. However, the return of armed conflict in 1998 hindered economic reform and recovery.
Congo and the United States ratified a bilateral investment treaty designed to facilitate and protect foreign investment. The country also adopted a new investment code intended to attract foreign capital. Despite this, Congo's investment climate is not considered favorable, offering few meaningful incentives. High costs for labor, energy, raw materials, and transportation; a restrictive labor code; low productivity and high production costs; militant labor unions; and an inadequate transportation infrastructure are among the factors discouraging investment. The recent political instability, war damage, and looting also will undermined investor confidence. As a result, Congo has little American investment outside of the oil sector.
For the two decades preceding Congo's 1991 National Conference, the country was firmly in the socialist camp, allied principally with the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations. Educational, economic, and foreign aid links between Congo and its Eastern bloc allies were extensive, with the Congolese military and security forces receiving significant Soviet, East German, and Cuban assistance.
France, the former colonial power, maintained a continuing but somewhat subdued relationship with Congo, offering a variety of cultural, educational, and economic assistance. The principal element in the French-Congolese relationship was the highly successful oil sector investment of the French petroleum parastatal Elf-Aquitaine, which entered the Congo in 1968 and has continued to grow since then.
After the worldwide collapse of communism and Congo's adoption of multi-party democracy in 1991, Congo's bilateral relations with its former socialist allies have become relatively less important. France is now by far Congo's principal external partner, contributing significant amounts of economic assistance, while playing a highly influential role.
Membership in international organizations includes the United Nations, Organization of African Unity, African Development Bank, GATT, Economic Commission for Central African States, Central African Customs and Economic Union, International Coffee Organization, Union of Central African States, INTELSAT, INTERPOL, Nonaligned Movement, and Group of 77.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Congo were broken off during the most radical Congolese-Marxist period, 1965-77. The U.S. embassy was reopened in 1977 with the restoration of relations, which remained distant until the end of the socialist era. The late 1980s were marked by a progressive warming of Congolese relations with Western countries, including the United States. Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso made a state visit to Washington in 1988, where he was received by President Bush.
With the advent of democracy in 1991, Congo's relations with the U.S. have become cordial and cooperative. Congolese view the U.S. as the leader of the world's democracies and, as such, a model for democratic development. The U.S. has enthusiastically supported Congolese democratization efforts, contributing significant aid to the country's electoral process. The Congolese Government demonstrated an active interest in deepening and broadening its relations with the United States. Transition Prime Minister Andre Milongo made an official visit to Washington in 1992, where President Bush received him at the White House.
Then-presidential candidate Pascal Lissouba traveled to Washington in 1992, meeting with a variety of officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen. After his election in August 1992, President Lissouba expressed interest in expanding U.S.-Congo links, seeking increased U.S. development aid, university exchanges, and greater U.S. investment in Congo. The course of U.S.-Congolese relations following the 1997 war and deposing of Lissouba's government will be greatly affected by the current government's willingness to reestablish democratic procedures and institutions.
Ambassador--David Kaeuper Deputy Chief of Mission--James Swan Administrative Officer--John Moos
The U.S. embassy's operations in Brazzaville were suspended on June 18, 1997, because of the war. An office representing U.S. interests in Brazzaville is located at U.S. Embassy Kinshasa, 310 Avenue des Aviateurs, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its mailing address is Brazzaville Embassy Office, c/o American Embassy Kinshasa, Box 31550, APO AE 09828.