The Belgian Congo was created in 1885, essentially as the personal property of the Belgian monarch, King Leopold II. He provided only the minimum infrastructure necessary to support the extraction of the country's vast mineral wealth and killed an estimated 10 million Congolese, setting a pattern which has dominated this troubled country ever since.
By the end of WWII, the Belgian Congo had become one of the many African colonies whose occupiers were concerned simply to dispose of with minimum fuss and maximum commercial advantage.
The Belgian Congo was duly granted independence, with little preparation, in 1960. With the support of the Americans and Belgians – and through the exploitation of the country's myriad factional, tribal and regional disputes – the new government, headed by the visionary Patrice Lumumba, was deposed after just six months in an army coup led by Colonel Joseph Mobutu. Lumumba was executed.
Four years later, Mobutu took over as head of state and established the regime, which ruled Zaire, as the country was renamed, for the next three decades.
In the 30 years up to his demise, Mobutu Sese Seko (his adopted title) reduced the country to the point where it barely functioned as a nation state. The military campaign that finally brought down the Mobutu regime was triggered by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
The genocide had been brought to an end by the intervention of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led force based in Uganda. The Hutu genocide perpetrators had mostly fled into north eastern Zaire. The RPF pursued them, but their incursion took on a different aspect and a momentum of its own as other groups, including many long-term exiled opponents of Mobutu, coalesced around the RPF.
Laurent Kabila was adopted as leader of this newly-formed anti-Mobutu coalition. By the autumn of 1996, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL) had completed their takeover.
Once in power, however, Kabila proved incapable of ruling the country, which was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. Years of bloody civil war followed and culminated in the assassination of Kabila by one of his bodyguards in 2001.
He was succeeded by his son Joseph, who won disputed UN-guided general elections in 2006 and 2011. During Joseph Kabila’s tenure, episodes of extreme rebel-led violence have continued to erupt sporadically in various regions, while Kabila’s own human rights record has grown increasingly dubious.
Did you know?
• Although it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, the DRC boasts a space program.
• Kinshasa and Brazzaville, just on the other side of the Congo River in the neighbouring Republic of Congo, are the closest capital cities in the world.
• The DRC covers a land area larger than the combined territories of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway.