Congo: Background & Issues


“Congo is the most troubled region of the world’s most troubled continent, and I find it utterly compelling.”

-Tim Butcher, author of Blood River


The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, the Belgian Congo, Congo Free State, and the Kongo Empire, has seen much outsider intervention in its turbulent history. In the precolonial period, Arab slavers from Zanzibar raided Congolese villages and captured slaves to sell in the African Slave Trade until Europe’s abolition of slavery in the 1830s. H.M. Stanley, a British-born newspaperman, explored the Congo from 1874-1877, becoming the first Westerner to chart the path of the Congo River. He was subsequently recruited by King Leopold of Belgium to win Leopold a piece of African territory. This set off the European “Scramble for Africa.” The  Congo remained Belgian territory from 1885-1960, when the country received its independence. The Belgian rule was cruel and racist towards its black subjects, and unfortunately, the dictators of the large country following the colonial rule have also put their own interests and personal comforts ahead of that of their citizens.The DRC has been consistently exploited for its vast natural resources such as rubber, diamonds, and cobalt. Currently, the mineral coltan, recently dubbed “the conflict mineral,” has been used by rebel groups to get cheap labor from local Congolese. The rebels then sell the coltan for a large profit margin from large companies. Coltan is an essential mineral found in cell phones.



Conflict in the Congo: The Worst Since World War II

The violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the deadliest in history since World War II. Over 5 million Congolese have died from war-related causes since 1996. Rebel militias and Congolese military continue to battle over control of the country’s precious minerals. Profits from the sale of conflict minerals have been used to finance armed groups that use rape and murder as tactics to intimidate and impose control over the civilian population.



One of The World’s Least Developed Countries

In addition to enduring this ongoing spate of brutal violence, the overwhelming majority of Congolese live in dire poverty, lacking access to health care, clean water, and a sufficient food supply. In 2011, the DRC was ranked last in the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which measures general standard of living, access to knowledge, and life expectancy.


Consider the following:

  • 80% of the population in the DRC survives on less than $2 per day
  • Almost half of children have no access to health care
  • More than half of children under 5 years of age are severely malnourished
  • Less than 50% of the population has access to clean drinking water
  • The DRC is home to over 10,000 child soldiers
  • The mortality rate in the DRC is 57% higher than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa
  • On average, there is one rape each minute in the DRC
  • 80% of sexual violence is perpetrated by illegal armed forces, FARDC, or police
  • Only 10% of women receive secondary education
  • UNDP ranked DRC among the five worst countries for gender equality


People and Culture

Despite the institutional violence that hampers the country everyday, the DRC is embedded with a rich culture. It boasts a large diversity of culture and language in its people. There are over 200 different ethnic groups and languages spoken in the country. The DRC hosts one of the largest populations of pygmies (and multiple tribes of pygmies) in central Africa. While French is the official language of the DRC, languages like Lingala and Swahili are much more widely-spoken in different regions of the country.


Congolese art, particularly its masks, statues, and wooden carvings, is well-recognized and appreciated worldwide for the pieces’ bold uses of color and vivid expressions. The country’s culture is also well-captured in its musical tradition with songs that can span hours and contain countless harmonies.


The story and current design of the Congolese flag serves as a good symbol of the history and challenges faced by the DRC. The first flag of the Congo was hoisted by King Leopold’s International African Association, his alleged humanitarian group pledged to serve in the region. The dark blue flag with a bright star in the middle ostensibly served to describe the “dark” Africa, pierced at last with light from the West. The flag subsequently went through six different design changes after independence from Belgium, most drastically during Mobuto Sese Soko’s “re-Africanization” program, until it was modified for the last time in 2006. The flag is a light blue, symbolizing hope, with a red slash running through it diagonally, representing the blood of martyrs shed. The yellow outlining the red slash symbolizes prosperity, and the star up top represents unity. The DRC has seen much violence, bloodshed, and even technological regression in recent years. An ongoing quasi-war state and fear of rebels has villagers leaving their villages for the bush whenever they hear the rebels approach. The mortality rates, infections, and daily hardships of life in the region make the DRC a difficult place to live, to be sure. However, despite countless negative statistics and representations in the news, people in the DRC still hold hopes for the future. They have survived a history of brutality and have clung closely to their cultures, traditions, and ways of life.

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