Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A short novel published in 1903 based on the experiences of Conrad while working in the Congo Free State.
Through the Dark Continent by Henry Morton Stanley. An 1878 book documenting his trip down the Congo River.
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. A non-fiction popular history book which examines the activities of Leopold and the men who ran the Congo Free State. A best-seller with 400 000 copies printed since publication in 1998. It is the basis of a 2006 documentary of the same name.
Blood River:A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart by Tim Butcher. The author carefully retraces the route of Stanley's expedition in Through the Dark Continent and describes the challenges he faces.
Although the Democratic Republic of the Congo is no longer considered as risky as it used to be, it remains a destination for only the most seasoned, hardcore African traveller. It is not a country for the casual "tourist": the average backpacker, holidaymaker, and especially those seeking luxury safaris or organized cultural experiences. The DRC remains one of the least developed countries in Africa; its GDP per capita is the fifteenth lowest in the world. Largely covered by lush, tropical rainforest, the heart of the DRC is comparable to the Amazon the only larger rainforest on Earth. The mighty Congo River forms the backbone of the country, carrying barges overflowing with Congolese and the occasional adventurous Westerner and merchants bringing their large pirogues laden with goods, fruit, and local bushmeat out to sell to those on the barges.
The country has faced a tragic, tumultuous history since colonization. It was plundered by Belgium's King Leopold II for rubber and palm oil, collected forcibly from the Congolese by extremely brutal means. The country and its central government fell apart just weeks after independence in 1960. Future leaders spent far more time fighting rebels and trying to keep the country together. As such, they failed to build modern infrastructure, failed to improve education, failed to improve healthcare and failed to do anything else to improve the lives of the Congolese people. Between 1994 and 2003, the bloodiest conflict since the end of World War II played out in the country's eastern jungles, with sporadic violence ongoing ever since. Millions of people have been displaced in the past 20 years, fleeing murder and mass rape carried out by rebels and hundreds of thousands remain in refugee camps to this day, sheltered by the largest UN peacekeeping mission MONUC in the world.
Those who do brave the elements to travel here are in for quite the adventure. In the east, volcanic peaks rise thousands of meters above the surrounding rainforest, often shrouded in mist. Hikers can climb up Mount Nyiragongo, looming above Goma, and spend the night on the rim above an active lava lake one of just four worldwide!. In the jungles nearby, a small number of tourists each day are permitted to trek to families of gorillas. Along the mighty Congo River, a handful of travellers each year spend weeks floating hundreds of kilometres on barges loaded with cargo and Congolese. And don't forget to pick up masks and other handicrafts in lively markets across the country.
The country straddles the Equator, with one-third to the North and two-thirds to the South. As a result of this equatorial location, the Congo experiences large amounts of precipitation and has the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world. The annual rainfall can total upwards of 80 inches 2,032 mm in some places, and the area sustains the second largest rain forest in the world after that of the Amazon. This massive expanse of lush jungle covers most of the vast, low-lying central basin of the river, which slopes toward the Atlantic Ocean in the West. This area is surrounded by plateaus merging into savannahs in the south and southwest, by mountainous terraces in the west, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High, glaciated mountains are found in the extreme eastern region.
The DRC is truly vast. At 2,345,408 square kilometres 905,567 sq mi, it is larger than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway—or nearly three and a half times the size of Texas.
The defining feature of the country is the second largest rainforest in the world. Rivers large and small snake throughout the country and with a okay road network remains the main means of transport to this day. The Congo River is the third largest river in the world measured by discharge—it even continues into the Atlantic, forming a submarine canyon roughly 50 mi 80km to the edge of the continental shelf! It also has the distinction of being one of the deepest rivers in the world with depths up to 220m 720 ft. Because of the huge volume of water, depth, and rapids, the Congo River is home to a large number of endemic species. The Congo River "begins" at Boyoma Falls near Kisangani. Above these falls, the river is known as the Lualaba River, whose longest tributary extends into Zambia. The Obangui River forms the border between the DRC and CAR/Congo-Brazzaville before flowing into the Congo River.
The Albertine Rifft—a branch of the East African Rift—runs along the eastern border of the DRC. It is responsible for Lakes Tanganyika, Kivu, Edward, & Albert. The rift is flanked by a number of extinct volcanoes and two volcanoes that are still active today. The Rwenzori Mountains and Virunga Mountains along the border with Rwanda are quite scenic, rising in the midst of lush tropical forests and sometimes eerily shrouded in mist. Several peaks are over 4000m 13,000 feet. Mount Nyiragongo contains one of only four continuous lava lakes in the world.
The only part of the country not covered by lush forests is the south, around the Kasai Province, which contains mostly savanna and grasslands.
For several millenia, the land that now forms the DRC was inhabited by hundreds of small hunter/gatherer tribes. The landscape of dense, tropical forests and the rainy climate kept the population of the region low and prevented the establishment of advanced societies like Europe, Asia, or the Americas and as a result few remnants of these societies remain today. The first and only significant political power was the Kongo Kingdom, founded around the 13th-14th centuries. The Kongo Kingdom, which spread across what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, Congo-Brazzaville, and Bas-Congo, became quite wealthy and powerful by trading with other African peoples in ivory, copperware, cloth, pottery, and slaves long before Europeans arrived. The Portuguese made contact with the Kongos in 1483 and were soon able to convert the king to Christianity, with most of the population following. The Kongo Kingdom was a major source of slaves, who were sold in accordance to Kongo law and were mostly war captives. After reaching its height in the late 15th-early 16th century, the Kongo Kingdom saw violent competition for succession to the throne, war with tribes to the east, and a series of wars with the Portuguese. The Kongo Kingdom was defeated by the Portuguese in 1665 and effectively ceased to exist, although the largely ceremonial position of King of Kongo remained until the 1880s and "Kongo" remained the name of a loose collection of tribes around the Congo River delta. Kivu and the areas near Uganda, Rwanda, & Burundi were a source of slaves to Arab merchants from Zanzibar. The Kuba Federation, in southern DRC, was isolated enough to avoid slaving and even repel Belgian attempts to make contact with them beginning in 1884. After its peak of power in the early 19th century, however, the Kuba Federation broke apart by 1900. Elsewhere, only small tribes and short-lived kingdoms existed.
The land that is now the DRC was the last region of Africa to be explored by Europeans. The Portuguese never managed to travel more than a one to two hundred kilometres from the Atlantic coast. Dozens of attempts were made by explorers to travel up the Congo River, but rapids, the impenetrable jungle around them, tropical diseases, and hostile tribes prevented even the most well-equipped parties from travelling beyond the first cataract 160km inland. Famed British explorer Dr Livingstone began exploring the Lualaba River, which he thought connected to the Nile but is actually the upper Congo, in the mid-1860s. After his famous meeting with Henry Morton Stanley in 1867, Livingstone travelled down the Congo River to Stanley Pool, which Kinshasa & Brazzaville now border. From there, he travelled overland to the Atlantic.
In Belgium, the zealous King Leopold II desperately wanted Belgium to obtain a colony to keep up with other European powers, but was repeatedly thwarted by the Belgian government he was a Constitutional monarch. Finally, he decided he would obtain a colony himself as an ordinary citizen and organized a "humanitarian" organization to establish a purpose to claim the Congo, and then set up several shell companies to do so. Meanwhile, Stanley sought a financier for his dream project—a railway past the Congo River's lower cataracts, which would allow steamers on the upper 1,000 mile section of the Congo and open up the wealth of the "Heart of Africa". Leopold found a match in Stanley, and tasked him with building a series of forts along the upper Congo River and buying sovereignty from tribal leaders or killing those unwilling. Several forts were built on the upper Congo, with workers & materials travelling from Zanzibar. In 1883, Stanley managed to travel overland from the Atlantic to Stanley Pool. When he got upriver, he discovered that a powerful Zanzibari slaver got wind of his work and captured the area around the Lualaba River, allowing Stanley to build his final fort just below Stanley Falls site of modern Kisangani.
When the European powers divided Africa amongst themselves at the Conference of Berlin in 1885, Under the umbrella of the Association internationale du Congo, Leopold, the sole stakeholder, formally gained control of the Congo. The Congo Free State was established, containing all of the modern DRC. No longer needing the AIC, Leopold replaced it with a group of friends and commercial partners and quickly set about to tap the riches of the Congo. Any land not containing a settlement was deemed property of the Congo, and the state was divided into a private zone exclusive property of the State and a Free Trade Zone where any European could buy a 10-15 year land lease and keep all income from their land. Afraid of Britain's Cape Colony annexing Katanga claiming the right to it wasn't exercised by Congo, Leopold sent the Stairs Expedition to Katanga. When negotiations with the local Yeke Kingdom broke down, the Belgians fought a short war which ended with the beheading of their king. Another short war was fought in 1894 with the Zanzibari slavers occupying the Lualaba River.
When the wars ended, the Belgians now sought to maximize profits from the regions. The salaries of administrators were reduced to a bare minimum with a rewards system of large commissions based on their district profits, which was later replaced with a system of commissions at the end of administrators' service dependent on the approval of their superiors. People living in the "Private Domain" owned by the state were forbidden from trading with anyone but the state, and were required to supply set quotas of rubber and ivory at a low, fixed price. Rubber in the Congo came from wild vines and workers would slash these, rub the liquid rubber on their bodies, and have it scraped off in a painful process when it hardened. The wild vines were killed in the process, meaning they became fewer and more difficult to find as rubber quotas rose.
The government's Force Publique enforced these quotas through imprisonment, torture, flogging, and the raping and burning of disobedient/rebellious villages. The most heinous act of the FP, however, was the taking of hands. The punishment for failing to meet rubber quotas was death. Concerned that the soldiers were using their precious bullets on sport hunting, the command required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet used as proof they had used the bullet to kill someone. Entire villages would be surrounded and inhabitants murdered with baskets of severed hands being returned to commanders. Soldiers could get bonuses and return home early for returning more hands than others, while some villages faced with unrealistic rubber quotas would raid neighbouring villages to collect hands to present to the FP in order to avoid the same fate. Rubber prices boomed in the 1890s, bringing great wealth to Leopold and the whites of Congo, but eventually low-cost rubber from the Americas and Asia decreased prices and the operation in the CFS became unprofitable.
By the turn of the century, reports of these atrocities reached Europe. After a few years of successfully convincing the public that these reports were isolated incidents and slander, other European nations began investigating the activities of Leopold in the Congo Free State. Publications by noteworthy journalists and authors like Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Doyle's The Crime of the Congo brought the issue to the European public. Embarrassed, the government of Belgium finally annexed the Congo Free State, took over Leopold's holdings, and renamed the state Belgian Congo to differentiate from French Congo, now Republic of the Congo. No census was ever taken, but historians estimate around half of the Congo's population, up to 10 million people, was killed between 1885-1908.
Aside from eliminating forced labour and the associated punishments, the Belgian government didn't make significant changes at first. To exploit the Congo's vast mineral wealth, the Belgians began construction of roads and railroads across the country most of which remains, with little upkeep over the century, today. The Belgians also worked to give the Congolese access to education and health care. During WWII, the Congo remained loyal to the Belgian government in exile in London and sent troops to engage Italians in Ethiopia. The Congo also became the one of the world's main suppliers of rubber & ores. Uranium mined in Belgian Congo was sent to the U.S. and used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After WWII, the Belgian Congo prospered and the 1950s were some of the most peaceful years in the Congo's history. The Belgian government invested in health care facilities, infrastructure, and housing. Congolese gained the right to buy/sell property and segregation nearly vanished. A small middle class even developed in the larger cities. The one thing the Belgians did not do was prepare an educated class of black leaders and public servants. The first elections open to black voters and candidates were held in 1957 in the larger cities. By 1959, the successful independence movements of other African countries inspired the Congolese and calls for independence grew louder and louder. Belgium did not want a colonial war to retain control of the Congo and invited a handful of Congolese political leaders for talks in Brussels in January 1960. The Belgians had in mind a 5-6 year transition plan to hold parliamentary elections in 1960 and gradually give administrative responsibility over to the Congolese with independence in the mid-1960. The carefully crafted plan was rejected by the Congolese representative and the Belgians eventually conceded to hold elections in May and grant a hasty independence on 30 June. Regional and national political parties emerged with once-jailed leader Patrice Lumumba elected Prime Minister and head of the government.
Independence was granted June 30, 1960 to the "Republic of the Congo" the same name neighbouring French colony Middle Congo adopted. The day was marked by a sneer and verbal assault directed at the Belgian king after praising the genius of King Leopold II. Within weeks of independence, the army rebelled against white officers and increasing violence directed at remaining whites forced nearly all 80,000 Belgians to leave the country.
After independence on June 30, 1960, the country quickly fell apart. The region of South Kasai declared independence on June 14 and the region of Katanga declared independence on July 11 under strongman Moise Tshombe. While not a puppet of Belgium, Tshombe was greatly helped by Belgian financial and military aid. Katanga was essentially a neo-colonial state backed by Belgium and the interests of Belgian mining companies. On July 14, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a UN peacekeeping force, and for Belgium to withdraw remaining troops from the Congo. The Belgian troops left, but many officers stayed as paid mercenaries and were key in warding off the Congolese army's attacks which were poorly-organized and were guilty of mass killings and rape. President Lumumba turned to the USSR for help, receiving military aid and 1,000 Soviet advisers. A UN force arrived to keep the peace, but did little initially. South Kasai was recaptured after a bloody campaign in December 1961. European mercenaries arrived from all around Africa and even from Europe to help the Katangan army. The UN force attempted to round up and repatriate mercenaries, but didn't make an impact. The UN mission was eventually changed to reintegrate Katanga into Congo with force. For over a year UN & Katanga forces fought in various clashes. UN forces surrounded and captured the Katanga capital Elisabethville Lubumbashi in December 1962. By January 1963, Tshombe was defeated, the last of the foreign mercenaries fled to Angola, and Katanga was reintegrated into the Congo.
Meanwhile, in Leopoldville Kinshasa, relations between Prime Minister Lumumba and President Kasa-Vubu, of opposing parties, grew. In September 1960, Kasa-Vubu dismissed Lumumba from his Prime Minister position. Lumumba challenged the legality of this and dismissed Kasa-Vubu as President. Lumumba, who wanted a socialist state, turned to the USSR to ask for help. On September 14—just two and a half months after independence—Congolese Army Chief of Staff General Mobutu was pressured to intervene, launching a coup and placing Lumumba under house arrest. Mobutu had received money from the Belgian and U.S. embassies to pay his soldiers and win their loyalty. Lumumba escaped and fled to Stanleyville Kisangani before being captured and taken to Elizabethville Lubumbashi where he was publicly beaten, disappeared, and was announced dead 3 weeks later. It was later revealed that he was executed in January 1961 in the presence of Belgian & U.S. officials who had both tried to kill him covertly ever since he asked the USSR for aid and that the CIA and Belgium were complicit in his execution.
President Kasa-Vubu remained in power and Katanga's Tshombe eventually became Prime Minister. Lumumbist and Maoist Pierre Mulele led a rebellion in 1964, successfully occupying two thirds of the country, and turned to Maoist China for help. The U.S. and Belgium once again got involved, this time with a small military force. Mulele fled to Congo-Brazzaville, but would later be lured back to Kinshasa by a promise of amnesty by Mobutu. Mobutu reneged on his promise, and Mulele was publicly tortured, his eyes gouged out, genitals cut off, and limbs amputated one by one while still alive; his body was then dumped in the Congo River.
The whole country saw widespread conflict and rebellion between 1960-1965, leading to the naming of this period the "Congo Crisis"
General Mobutu, a sworn anti-communist, befriended the U.S. & Belgium in the height of the Cold War and continued to receive money to buy his soldiers' loyalty. In November 1965, Mobutu launched a coup, with U.S. & Belgian support behind the scenes, during yet another power struggle between the President and Prime Minister. Claiming that "politicians" had taken five years to ruin the country, he proclaimed "For five years, there will be no more political party activity in the country." The country was placed in a state of emergency, Parliament was weakened and soon eliminated, and independent trade unions abolished. In 1967, Mobutu established the only permitted political party until 1990, the Popular Movement of the Revolution MPR, which soon merged with the government so that the government effectively became a function of the party. By 1970, all threats to Mobutu's power were eliminated and in the presidential election he was the only candidate and voters were given the choice of green for hope or red for chaos Mobutu... green... won with 10,131,699 to 157. A new constitution drafted by Mobutu and his cronies was approved by 97%.
In the early 1970s, Mobutu began a campaign known as Authenticité, which continued the nationalist ideology begun in his Manifesto of N’Sele in 1967. Under Authenticité, Congolese were ordered to adopt African names, men gave up Western suits for the traditional abacost, and geographical names were changed from colonial to African ones. The country became Zaire in 1972, Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani. Most impressive of all, Joseph Mobuto became Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.", or simply Mobutu Sese Seko. Among other changes, all Congolese were declared equal and hierarchical forms of address were eliminated, with Congolese required to address others as "citizen" and foreign dignitaries were met with African singing and dancing rather than a Western-style 21-gun salute.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the government remained under the tight grip of Mobutu, who constantly shuffled political and military leaders to avoid competition, while the enforcement of Authenticité precepts waned. Mobutu gradually shifted in methods from torturing and killing rivals to buying them off. Little attention was paid to improving the life of Congolese. The single-party state essentially functioned to serve Mobutu and his friends, who grew disgustingly wealthy. Among Mobutu's excesses included a runway in his hometown long enough to handle Concorde planes which he occasionally rented for official trips abroad and shopping trips in Europe; he was estimated to have over US$5 billion in foreign accounts when he left office. He also attempted to build a cult of personality, with his image everywhere, a ban on media from saying any other government official by name only title, and introduced titles like "Father of the Nation," "Saviour of the People," and "Supreme Combatant." Despite his Soviet-style single party state and authoritarian governance, Mobutu was vocally anti-Soviet, and with the fear of Soviet puppet governments rising in Africa such as neighbouring Angola the U.S. and other Western powers continued providing economic aid and political support to the Mobutu regime.
When the Cold War waned, international support for Mobutu gave way criticism of his rule. Covertly, domestic opposition groups began to grow and the Congolese people began to protest the government and the failing economy. In 1990, the first multi-party elections were held, but did little to effect change. Unpaid soldiers began rioting and looting Kinshasa in 1991 and most foreigners were evacuated. Eventually, a rival government arose from talks with the opposition, leading to a stalemate and dysfunctional government.
By the mid-1990s, it was clear Mobutu's rule was nearing an end. No longer influenced by Cold War politics, the international community turned against him. Meanwhile, the economy of Zaire was in shambles and remains little improved to this day. The central government had a weak control of the country and numerous opposition groups formed and found refuge in Eastern Zaire—far from Kinshasa.
The Kivu region was long home to ethnic strife between the various 'native' tribes and the Tutsis who were brought by the Belgians from Rwanda in the late 19th century. Several small conflicts had occurred since independence, resulting in thousands of deaths. But when the 1994 Rwandan genocide took place in neighbouring Rwanda, over 1.5 million ethnic Tutsi and Hutu refugees flowed into Eastern Zaire. Militant Hutus—the main aggressors in the genocide—began attacking both Tutsi refugees and the Congolese Tutsi population the Banyamulenge and also formed militias to launch attacks into Rwanda in hopes of returning to power there. Not only did Mobutu fail to stop the violence, but supported the Hutus for an invasion of Rwanda. In 1995, the Zairian Parliament ordered the return of all people of Rwandan or Burundian descent to return to be repatriated. The Tutsi-led Rwandan government, meanwhile, began to train and support Tutsi militias in Zaire.
In August 1996, fighting broke out and the Tutsis residing in the Kivu provinces began a rebellion with the goal of gaining control of North & South Kivu and fighting Hutu militias still attacking them. The rebellion soon gained support of the locals and collected many Zairian opposition groups, which eventually united as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo AFDL with the goal of ousting Mobutu. By the end of the year, with help from Rwanda & Uganda, the rebels had managed to control a large section of Eastern Zaire that protected Rwanda & Uganda from Hutu attacks. The Zairian army was weak and when Angola sent troops in early 1997, the rebels gained the confidence to capture the rest of the country and oust Mobutu. By May, the rebels were close to Kinshasa and captured Lubumbashi. When peace talks between sides broke down, Mobutu fled and AFDL leader Laurent-Desire Kabila marched into Kinshasa. Kabila changed the country's name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, attempted to restore order, and expelled foreign troops in 1998.
A mutiny broke out in Goma in August 1998 among Tutsi soldiers and a new rebel group formed, taking control of much of the Eastern DRC. Kabila turned to Hutu militias to help suppress the new rebels. Rwanda saw this as an attack on the Tutsi population and sent troops across the border for their protection. By the end of the month, the rebels held much of the Eastern DRC along with a small area near the capital, including the Inga Dam which allowed them to shut off electricity to Kinshasa. When it looked certain Kabila's government and the capital Kinshasa would fall to the rebels, Angola, Namibia, & Zimbabwe agreed to defend Kabila and troops from Zimbabwe arrived just in time to protect the capital from a rebel attack; Chad, Libya, & Sudan also sent troops to help Kabila. As a stalemate approached, the foreign governments involved in fighting in the DRC agreed to a ceasefire in January 1999, but since the rebels weren't a signatory, fighting continued.
In 1999, the rebels broke up into numerous factions aligned along ethnic or pro-Uganda/pro-Rwanda lines. A peace treaty among the six warring states DRC, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Uganda and one rebel group was signed in July and all agreed to end fighting and track down and disarm all rebel groups, especially ones associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Fighting continued as pro-Rwanda & pro-Uganda factions turned on each other and the UN authorized a peacekeeping mission MONUC in early 2000.
In January 2001, President Laurent Kabila was shot by a bodyguard and later died. He was replaced by his son Joseph Kabila. The rebels continued to break up into smaller factions and fought each other in addition to the DRC & foreign armies. Many rebels managed to gain funds through the smuggling of diamonds and other "conflict minerals" like copper, zinc, & coltan from the regions they occupied, many times through forced and child labour in dangerous conditions. The DRC signed peace treaties with Rwanda & Uganda in 2002. In December 2002, the main factions signed the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement to end the fighting. The agreement established a Transitional DRC government that would reunify the country, integrate & disarm rebel factions, and hold elections in 2005 for a new constitution & politicians with Joseph Kabila remaining president. The UN peacekeeping force grew much larger and was tasked with disarming rebels, many of which retained their own militias long after 2003. Conflict remains in North & South Kivu, Ituri, & northern Katanga provinces.
During the course of fighting, the First Congo War resulted in 250,000-800,000 dead. The Second Congo War resulted in over 350,000 violent deaths 1998-2001 and 2.7-5.4 million "excess deaths" as a result of starvation and disease among refugees due to the war 1998-2008, making it the deadliest conflict in the world since the end of World War Two.
Joseph Kabila remained president of a transitional government until nationwide elections were held in 2006 for a new Constitution, Parliament, & President with major financial and technical support from the international community. Kabila won and was re-elected in 2011. While corruption has been greatly reduced and politics have become more inclusive of minority political views, the country has improved greatly from its condition at the end of Mobutu's rule. China has sought a number of mining claims, many of which are paid for by building infrastructure railroads, roads and facilities like schools & hospitals. The UN and many NGOs have a very large presence in the Kivu provinces, but despite a large amount of aid money, many still live in refugee camps and survive on foreign/UN aid. Fighting in Kivu & Ituri waned by the end of the decade, although many former militia members remain militant. Many have been tried and convicted for war crimes.
Soldiers formerly members of a militia that fought in Kivu from 2006 until a peace agreement in 2009 mutinied in April 2012 and a new wave of violence followed as they took control of a large area along the Uganda/Rwanda borders. Rwanda has been accused of backing this M23 movement and the UN is charging them for their involvement.