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Congo History

The country that began as a king’s private domain (the Congo Free State), evolved into a colony (the Belgian Congo), became independent in 1960 (as the Republic of the Congo)

History of the Democratic Republic of Congo

The country that began as a king’s private domain (the Congo Free State), evolved into a colony (the Belgian Congo), became independent in 1960 (as the Republic of the Congo), and later underwent several name changes (to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then to Zaire, and back again to the Democratic Republic of the Congo) is the product of a complex pattern of historical forces. Some are traceable to the precolonial past, others to the era of colonial rule, and others still to the political convulsions that followed in the wake of independence.

Precolonial perspectives

Before experiencing radical transformations in the colonial era, Congolese societies had already experienced major disruptions. From the 15th to the 17th century several important state systems evolved in the southern savanna region. The most important were the Kongo kingdom in the west and the Luba-Lunda states in the east. They developed elaborate political institutions, buttressed by symbolic kingship and military force. Power emanated from the capital to outlying areas through appointed chiefs or local clan heads. Competition for the kingship often led to civil strife, however, and, with the rise of the slave trade, new sources of instability influenced regional politics. The history of the Kongo peoples in the 16th century, for example, is largely the story of how the Atlantic slave trade created powerful vested interests among provincial chiefs, which over time undermined the kingdom’s capacity to resist encroachments by its neighbours. By the late 16th century the kingdom had all but succumbed to the attacks of the Imbangala (referred to as Jaga in contemporary sources), bands of fighters fleeing famine and drought in the east. Two centuries later fragmentation also undermined political institutions among the Lunda and the Luba, followed by attacks from interlopers eager to control trade in slaves and ivory.

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In the tropical rainforest the radically different ecological conditions raised formidable obstacles to state formation. Small-scale societies, organized into village communities, were the rule. Corporate groups combining social and economic functions among small numbers of related and unrelated people formed the dominant mode of organization. Exchange took place through trade and gift-giving. Over time these social interactions fostered cultural homogeneity among otherwise distinctive communities, such as Bantu and Pygmy groups. Bantu communities absorbed and intermarried with their Pygmy clients, who brought their skills and crafts into the culture. This predominance of house and village organization stands in sharp contrast to the more centralized state structures characteristic of the savanna kingdoms, which were far more adept at acting in a concerted manner than the segmented societies in the tropical rainforest. The segmented nature of the tropical rainforest societies hindered their ability to resist a full-scale invasion by colonial forces.

In the savanna region, resistance to colonial forces was undermined by internecine raids and wars that followed the slave trade, by the increased devastation wrought on African kingdoms when those forces adopted the use of increasingly sophisticated firearms, and by the divisions between those who collaborated with outsiders and those who resisted. The relative ease with which these Congolese societies yielded to European conquest bears testimony to the magnitude of earlier upheavals.


Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960. From 1971 to 1997 the country was officially the Republic of Zaire, a change made by then ruler Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko to give the country what he thought was a more authentic African name. “Zaire” is a variation of a term meaning “great river” in local African languages; like the country’s current name, it refers to the Congo River, which drains a large basin that lies mostly in the republic. Unlike Zaire, however, the name Congo has origins in the colonial period, when Europeans identified the river with the kingdom of the Kongo people, who live near its mouth. Following the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997, the country’s name prior to 1971, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was reinstated. Congo subsequently was plunged into a devastating civil war; the conflict officially ended in 2003, although fighting continued in the eastern part of the country.

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