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

Political situation A difficult political legacy

For decades now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been experiencing a deep-seated political and economic crisis. Between 1996 and 2003 the country was ravaged by two wars; the eastern provinces are still in a state of unrest to this day. In May 2021, martial law or a “state of siege” was declared in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.

Disputed election victory and battle for power

In 2011, the presidential and parliamentary elections were marred by massive irregularities and a lack of transparency. A few years later there were mass demonstrations when the municipal, regional and national elections scheduled for 2015 and 2016 were postponed by the government several times. President Joseph Kabila refused to relinquish power even though his second – and according to the constitution last possible – term in office should have ended in December 2016. The protests against the election delays were violently crushed.

In December 2018 the postponed elections finally took place. They were marked by numerous irregularities and the legitimacy of the results was questioned both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the voting was an important step in the country’s development: for the first time since independence there was a peaceful handover of power in the DR Congo. In January 2019, Felix Tshisekedi was sworn in as the new president.

In the parliamentary elections held at the same time, however, Joseph Kabila’s party won a clear majority of the seats. Tshisekedi was forced to form a coalition government with his political opponent. However, he managed to win many Kabila supporters in the parliament over to his side. In the spring of 2021, Tshisekedi reshuffled the government and put together a new cabinet made up of close supporters and representatives of various political groups.

Achievements and challenges

Since Tshisekedi took office, some important first steps towards reform have been taken. Political parties are once again able to operate without restrictions, political prisoners have been released. The powers of the secret service have been curtailed and an anti-corruption authority has been set up. Furthermore, the government has decided to make primary education free. However, the state is not yet in a position to make available the funds necessary for a functioning education system. Funding comes via international financial institutions.

The most important development goals announced by the Congolese government are good governance and stronger government institutions, peace consolidation, economic transformation, reconstruction and modernisation of infrastructure, and environmental sustainability. Better use is also to be made of the potential of the country’s young people – almost half of the Congolese population is under the age of 15.

United Nations peace mission

In the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country Congolese government forces are still fighting various armed rebel groups. The United Nations is facilitating the peace and reform process in the DR Congo through its peacekeeping mission MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo). The roughly 15,000 blue berets are there to protect the civilian population and support the efforts of the government to stabilise the situation and consolidate peace. However, the UN Security Council has decided to gradually reduce the troops with an eye to the mission ultimately being withdrawn altogether.

Historical background

In 1885, the territory of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – not to be confused with the neighbouring Republic of the Congo, with its capital city Brazzaville – was declared the private property of the Belgian King Leopold II. From 1908 onwards, it became a colony with the name Belgian Congo. King Leopold II’s regime had followed a policy of ruthless exploitation of the human population and the natural environment. In the late 1950s, resistance to the colonial system grew ever stronger. In 1960, Belgium finally granted the totally unprepared country its independence.

The first prime minister was Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese independence movement. Only a few months after taking office, Lumumba was forced out of office and in January 1961 he was assassinated. In 1965, Joseph Mobutu seized power in a coup. He renamed the country Zaire. Mobutu’s regime lasted 32 years and was one of the 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 intervened (therefore also referred to as the “African 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. In 2006, he was officially confirmed as president in free elections organised by the international community.

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.