BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

The BBC's UN correspondent Mark Devenport
"Forty years on, the UN is again considering deploying soldiers to try to help end a civil war"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 19:20 GMT
DR Congo's troubled history
Kabila, Lumumba, Mobutu
Kabila, Lumumba, Mobutu (left-right): No peace in 40 years
By BBC News Online's Justin Pearce

In the 40 years since the Democratic Republic of Congo - formerly Zaire - became independent, the vast central African state has seldom known stability.

Soldiers have often been behind the violence - either in the overthrow of incumbent regimes, or pillaging and robbing civilians with the consent of whoever was in office at the time.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the man who dominated country for three decades, came to power with military backing - and succeeded in staying there by successfully playing rival army factions off against one another.

"The country has ceased to function as a country. It has become a vast battlefield," the opposition daily Le Potentiel remarked on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of independence last year.

In fact, DR Congo has seldom functioned as country.

As European powers began pulling out of Africa, violent riots in the Congo prompted the Belgian Government to grant independence to its colony earlier than expected in 1960.

DR Congo: key dates
Independence from Belgium
Katanga rebellion
Murder of Lumumba
Mobutu coup
Mobutu becomes president
Rwandan genocide
Rwandan-backed rebels oust Mobutu
New rebellion begins
Rebels hold half of DR Congo
Uganda and Rwanda battle in rebel-held Kisangani
But Belgian colonial policy had been directed towards economic exploitation of its vast African territory, with little thought given to good governance.

The Belgians left a country that was ill-equipped to govern itself - and within days of independence the Congo was threatening to split apart.

The new state was intended to have a unitary structure and be governed centrally from Leopoldville by President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.


Five days after independence, the army mutinied against the Belgian officers who still controlled it.

Less than a week later, the mineral-rich province of Katanga announced it was seceding, a move backed by Belgium and the United States.

Prime Minister Lumumba called for the help of UN troops to crush the rebellion, but the Security Council blocked the action of UN forces.

In January 1961, troops loyal to Colonel Joseph Mobutu seized, tortured and murdered Mr Lumumba.

There have been reports of Belgian and US complicity in the killing of a leader who made it clear that he was not prepared to become a puppet of Western or Soviet interests.


After several years of repeated rebellion in the north and east of the country, Mobutu seized power in a coup d'etat in 1965.

Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, and began to use the name of Mobutu Sese Seko.

He eventually became president of Zaire in 1970. It was the Mobutu regime that gave rise to the term "kleptocracy" - rule by thieves.

As Mobutu stashed much of the country's economic output in European banks, Zaire became the most notorious example of a country where state institutions came to be little more than a way of delivering money to the ruling elite.

But the politics of the Cold War ensured Western backing, with the US using Zaire as a springboard for operations into neighbouring Angola, where the US supported Unita rebels against the Soviet-backed government.

When Mobutu's soldiers threatened to rebel over unpaid wages, he would either order the printing of more banknotes to pay off the troops in a downward-spiralling currency - or simply give the soldiers to pillage to their own satisfaction.

It took the end of the Cold War - followed by the 1994 Rwandan genocide - to prompt a successful rebellion against Mobutu.


The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front government, which took over after the genocide, was concerned that perpetrators and supporters of the mass killing were still living with impunity in the east of Zaire.

MLC rebel fighter
Rebels control about half of DR Congo
Tiny Rwanda invaded its vast neighbour to try to flush out the Hutu extremists who had committed the genocide. The corrupt and disorganised Zaire army fled before the Rwandan soldiers - who together with anti-Mobutu rebels then pushed all the way to Kinshasa.

Prominent among the rebels was Laurent Kabila, who had been active as a revolutionary in the east since the 1960s.

He was installed as president in 1997, and the country reverted to its former name of Congo.

The "Democratic Republic" tag was added to distinguish the country from its northern neighbour, though it has yet to hold an election.

Country divided

A rift between President Kabila and his former Tutsi allies sparked a new rebellion in the east - backed by Rwanda and Uganda, who remain fearful of the continuing presence of Hutu militants on Congolese soil.

The country enters its fifth decade divided more or less in half, between President Kabila's forces and the rebels.

The economy is barely functional. Mobutu's siphoning of the country's wealth gave way to large-scale looting as the ageing dictator lost his grip on power in the early 1990s - and the mining industry has scarcely functioned since then.

Subsequent fighting has decimated agricultural production.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

24 Feb 00 | Africa
UN approves Congo force
05 May 00 | Africa
UN failing in Africa
25 May 00 | Africa
UN to monitor Congo pull-out
07 Jun 00 | Africa
How Uganda and Rwanda fell out
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Timeline: DR Congo conflict
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories