|Joseph Kabila is expected to face stern opposition in the November general elections [EPA]|
Straddling southern, eastern, and central Africa, and containing some of Africa’s richest natural resources within its borders, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s troubled history is the epitome of Africa’s continuing battle to shed the legacy of colonial rule.
Procured by the king of Belgium as his personal property in 1885, the vast territory became the site of the first documented human rights abuses in history leading to it being taken over by the Belgian government as a colony in 1908.
|DRC Quick Facts|
|President: Joseph Kabila|
|Population: 71 million|
|Population below poverty line: 71%|
|GDP: $23.12 bn|
GDP (by sector): Agriculture (38.7%), Industry (26.7%), services (34.6%)
Industries: mining (diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, zinc, gold)
Export partners: China (46.9%) Zambia (23.3%) US (10.4%) Belguim (4.2%)
Source: CIA Factbook
As independence movements gained momentum across Africa, the Belgian Congo gained statehood as the Republic of Congo in 1960 with Patrice Lumumba becoming prime minister and Joseph Kasavabu assuming the presidency.
But the country was soon taken over in a coup led by Joseph Mobuto, the chief of staff of the Congo army.
By 1965, Mobuto had replaced Kasavabu as president, generally finding approval from western powers who saw Mobuto as a Cold War ally. Close on the heels of Mobuto becoming president, a constitutional referendum saw the country’s name changed to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But in a purge of the region’s colonial legacy that saw the Africanisation of the names of towns and rivers, Mobuto changed the name of the country to Zaire and changed his own name to Mobuto Sese Soko.
Mobuto continued to rule autocratically until the late 1980s when internal pressure for democratic reforms led to the introduction of multiparty politics although critics suggested the move changed little with Mobuto still wielding total power.
However, the end of the Cold War shifted the political climate as Mobuto lost the strategic support ofthe United States.
The Rwandan civil wars of the mid-nineties directly impacted then-Zaire when Rwandan forces invaded the east of the country in 1997 to exterminate Hutu armed groups which had fled into the country following the formation of a Tutsi government in Rwanda.
Hutus feared a backlash after the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis at the hand of Hutus.
The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion gave Mobuto’s rivals an opportunity to launch their own attempt to oust Mobuto. Laurent Kabila became the front man for the invading army and after seven months of fighting, Kabila was installed as the new president. Zaire reverted to the Democratic Republic of Congo once more.
However, Kabila fell out of favour and his former allies, Rwanda and Uganda, made a bid to take Kinshasha once more. Kabila found support from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.
The subsequent conflict, Congo’s second war, also commonly known as “Africa’s World War”, lasted from 1998-2002, as the DRC became the battle ground between nine countries and around 20 armed groups used as fronts by state armies.
In 2001, Kabila was assassinated and the country was promptly taken over by his son, Joseph Kabila.
The new president pushed for peace talks and managed to sign a ceasefire in Lusaka in 2002. UN peacekeepers also arrive in 2002 and soon become the biggest and most expensive peace mission in the world.
The International Red Cross estimates that between 1998-2004, more than 3.8 million lives were lost as a result of the wars that promulgated famine and disease.
Most analysts agree that the total number of lives lost over the two wars is closer to five million, making it the most devastating conflict since World War II.
The DRC held its first national elections since independence in 2006 which Joseph Kabila won with 58.5 per cent of the vote in a second round of voting. Though successfully ending the war, skirmishes in the east have continued to take place with alarming regularity.
There remains an estimated 1.9 million internally displaced people in the DRC, mainly in the eastern Kivu province, while refugees from neighbouring Angola, Rwanda and up to five other countries, total an estimated 160,000 people.
The DRC has a dismal history of human rights abuses with rape, civilian killings and forced labour reported with alarming frequency.
Incidents of mass rape and sexual violence meted out on civilian populations of entire towns and villages as a weapon of war have seen the country dubbed by some as the most dangerous country on earth for women.
In 2010, the UN was accused of ignoring warnings after a spree of hundreds of rapes took place in just a matter of days in the eastern DRC.
Together with its poor human rights record, the DRC’s unenviable governance and mismanagement has left the country at the bottom rung of the human development index, ranking last out 187 countries in the UN report of 2011.
While the economy has endeavoured to recover following the end of the war, the world economic recession damaged the DRC as commodity prices dropped drastically over the past two years. Poor infrastructure, instability in the mineral-rich east and a difficult operating environment continue to hinder business developments.
The DRC is a crucial player in sub-saharan Africa due to its central geographical position and mineral wealth. Relations between the DRC and its neighbours have revolved around security concerns.
In October 2004, the DRC and Rwanda together with Uganda and later Burundi, signed a Great Lakes security agreement aimed at addressing political issues through peaceful methods.
Later, in 2007, Uganda and the DRC signed the ‘Ngurdoto Agreement’ committing the two countries to eliminating armed groups operating in and between the two countries.
The DRC has also improved relations with Rwanda, signing a similar agreement and re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda in 2009.
The South African government continues to hold strong ties with the Kabila government, though it is generally accepted that Kabila enjoyed stronger relations with Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, than with Jacob Zuma’s government.
The DRC is ultimately part of the SADC region, and South Africa having played a key role in the 2006 elections, has been linked to a series of reconstruction and development projects in the country, even printing the ballot sheets for this month’s vote.
The DRC’s second ever national elections since independence take place on November 28, with incumbent Joseph Kabila expected to face tough opposition from Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe in the polls.
UN agencies have warned of election violence and have made a plea to candidates not to stir violence through provocative pre-election rhetoric.