A woman in front of a mural at the railway station of Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo.

Historical background Colonial rule, dictatorship, civil war

In 1885, the territory of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared the private property of the Belgian king, Leopold II, and in 1908 it then became a colony of the Belgian state. The colonial era was accompanied by reckless exploitation of people and nature. Millions of people lost their lives to slavery and forced labour, disease and famine.

The colonial power certainly engaged in developing infrastructure, for instance road networks and the health system. However, local people were denied access to education and administration and they were not able to benefit from the revenues brought by abundant natural resources. When protests against its authoritarian colonial policy grew, Belgium withdrew in the late 1950s and granted the Democratic Republic of the Congo independence in 1960. At this time, the country had neither any functioning political system nor the expert and leadership staff needed for a functioning administrative system.

In 1965, Joseph Mobutu seized power in a coup. He renamed the country Zaire. His regime lasted 32 years and was one of the longest and most corrupt dictatorships in Africa.

The state and the economy in ruins

In 1994, the ethnic conflict raging between Hutus and Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi spilled over into Zaire. Civil war broke out – a war in which Uganda, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Chad all had a hand (therefore also referred to as “Africa's World War”).

Mobuto was deposed in 1997, and rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila became the new president. The country reverted back to its former name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the assassination of his father, Joseph Kabila took over as president in 2001. He was officially confirmed in office in 2006.

The warring factions signed a peace agreement in 2003. By this point, the country’s economy and government institutions had completely collapsed, and its infrastructure was largely in ruins. According to estimates by the International Rescue Committee, the war claimed more than five million lives.

In 2011, the presidential and parliamentary elections were marred by massive irregularities and a lack of transparency. Elections announced for 2015 and 2016 were postponed several times by the government. President Kabila refused to relinquish power even though his term had ended. The protests against the election delays were violently crushed. Finally, in December 2018, elections were held that led to a change of power at the head of the state.

As at: 19/07/2023