U.S. Department of State Background Note
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) includes the greater part of the Congo River basin, which covers an area of almost 1 million square kilometers (400,000 sq. mi.). The country's only outlet to the Atlantic Ocean is a narrow strip of land on the north bank of the Congo River.
The vast, low-lying central area is a basin-shaped plateau sloping toward the west and covered by tropical rainforest. This area is surrounded by mountainous terraces in the west, plateaus merging into savannas in the south and southwest, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High mountains are found in the extreme eastern region.
D.R.C. lies on the Equator, with one-third of the country to the north and two-thirds to the south. The climate is hot and humid in the river basin and cool and dry in the southern highlands. South of the Equator, the rainy season lasts from October to May and north of the Equator, from April to November. Along the Equator, rainfall is fairly regular throughout the year. During the wet season, thunderstorms often are violent but seldom last more than a few hours. The average rainfall for the entire country is about 107 centimeters (42 in.).
The population of D.R.C. was estimated at 58 million in 2004. As many as 250 ethnic groups have been distinguished and named. Some of the larger groupings of tribes are the Kongo, Luba, and Anamongo. Although 700 local languages and dialects are spoken, the linguistic variety is bridged both by the use of French and the intermediary languages Kikongo, Tshiluba, Swahili, and Lingala.
About 50% of the Congolese population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic. Most of the non-Christians adhere to either traditional religions or syncretic sects. Traditional religions include concepts such as monotheism, animism, vitalism, spirit and ancestor worship, witchcraft, and sorcery and vary widely among ethnic groups; none is formalized. The syncretic sects often merge Christianity with traditional beliefs and rituals. The most popular of these sects, Kimbanguism, was seen as a threat to the colonial regime and was banned by the Belgians. Kimbanguism, officially "the church of Christ on Earth by the prophet Simon Kimbangu," now claims about 3 million members, primarily among the Bakongo tribe of Bas-Congo and Kinshasa. In 1969, it was the first independent African church admitted to the World Council of Churches.
Before independence, education was largely in the hands of religious groups. The primary school system was well developed at independence; however, the secondary school system was limited, and higher education was almost nonexistent in most regions of the country. The principal objective of this system was to train low-level administrators and clerks. Since independence, efforts have been made to increase access to education, and secondary and higher education have been made available to many more Congolese. According to estimates made in 2000, 41.7% of the population has no schooling, 42.2% has primary schooling, 15.4% has secondary schooling, and 0.7% has university schooling. At all levels of education, males greatly outnumber females. The largest state-run universities are the University of Kinshasa, the University of Lubumbashi, and the University of Kisangani. The elite continue to send their children abroad to be educated, primarily in Western Europe.
The area known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was populated as early as 10,000 years ago and settled in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. by Bantus from present-day Nigeria. Discovered in 1482 by Portuguese navigator Diego Cao and later explored by English journalist Henry Morton Stanley, the area was officially colonized in 1885 as a personal possession of Belgian King Leopold II as the Congo Free State. In 1907, administration shifted to the Belgian Government, which renamed the country the Belgian Congo. Following a series of riots and unrest, the Belgian Congo was granted its independence on June 30, 1960. Parliamentary elections in 1960 produced Patrice Lumumba as prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu as president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Within the first year of independence, several events destabilized the country: the army mutinied; the governor of Katanga province attempted secession; a UN peacekeeping force was called in to restore order; Prime Minister Lumumba died under mysterious circumstances; and Col. Joseph Désiré Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) took over the government and ceded it again to President Kasavubu.
Unrest and rebellion plagued the government until 1965, when Lieutenant General Mobutu, by then commander in chief of the national army, again seized control of the country and declared himself president for 5 years. Mobutu quickly centralized power into his own hands and was elected unopposed as president in 1970. Embarking on a campaign of cultural awareness, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaire and required citizens to adopt African names. Relative peace and stability prevailed until 1977 and 1978 when Katangan rebels, staged in Angola, launched a series of invasions into the Katanga region. The rebels were driven out with the aid of Belgian paratroopers.
During the 1980s, Mobutu continued to enforce his one-party system of rule. Although Mobutu successfully maintained control during this period, opposition parties, most notably the Union pour la Democratie et le Progres Social (UDPS), were active. Mobutu's attempts to quell these groups drew significant international criticism.
As the Cold War came to a close, internal and external pressures on Mobutu increased. In late 1989 and early 1990, Mobutu was weakened by a series of domestic protests, by heightened international criticism of his regime's human rights practices, and by a faltering economy. In April 1990 Mobutu agreed to the principle of a multi-party system with elections and a constitution. As details of a reform package were delayed, soldiers in September 1991 began looting Kinshasa to protest their unpaid wages. Two thousand French and Belgian troops, some of whom were flown in on U.S. Air Force planes, arrived to evacuate the 20,000 endangered foreign nationals in Kinshasa.
In 1992, after previous similar attempts, the long-promised Sovereign National Conference was staged, encompassing more than 2,000 representatives from various political parties. The conference gave itself a legislative mandate and elected Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo as its chairman, along with Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the UDPS, as prime minister. By the end of the year Mobutu had created a rival government with its own prime minister. The ensuing stalemate produced a compromise merger of the two governments into the High Council of Republic-Parliament of Transition (HCR-PT) in 1994, with Mobutu as head of state and Kengo Wa Dondo as prime minister. Although presidential and legislative elections were scheduled repeatedly over the next 2 years, they never took place.
By 1996, the war and genocide in neighboring Rwanda had spilled over to Zaire. Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe), who fled Rwanda following the ascension of a Tutsi-led government, were using Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire as bases for incursions against Rwanda.
In October 1996, Rwandan troops (RPA) entered Zaire, simultaneously with the formation of an armed coalition led by Laurent-Desire Kabila known as the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation du Congo-Zaire (AFDL). With the goal of forcibly ousting Mobutu, the AFDL, supported by Rwanda and Uganda, began a military campaign toward Kinshasa. Following failed peace talks between Mobutu and Kabila in May 1997, Mobutu left the country, and Kabila marched into Kinshasa on May 17, 1997. Kabila declared himself president, consolidated power around himself and the AFDL, and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.). Kabila’s Army Chief and the Secretary General of the AFDL were Rwandan, and RPA units continued to operate tangentially with the D.R.C.’s military, which was renamed the Forces Armees Congolaises (FAC).
Over the next year, relations between Kabila and his foreign backers deteriorated. In July 1998, Kabila ordered all foreign troops to leave the D.R.C. Most refused to leave. On August 2, fighting erupted throughout the D.R.C. as Rwandan troops in the D.R.C. "mutinied," and fresh Rwandan and Ugandan troops entered the D.R.C. Two days later, Rwandan troops flew to Bas-Congo, with the intention of marching on Kinshasa, ousting Laurent Kabila, and replacing him with the newly formed Rwandan-backed rebel group called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD). The Rwandan campaign was thwarted at the last minute when Angolan, Zimbabwean, and Namibian troops intervened on behalf of the D.R.C. Government. The Rwandans and the RCD withdrew to eastern D.R.C., where they established de facto control over portions of eastern D.R.C. and continued to fight the Congolese Army and its foreign allies.
In February 1999, Uganda backed the formation of a rebel group called the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC), which drew support from among ex-Mobutuists and ex-FAZ soldiers in Equateur province (Mobutu’s home province). Together, Uganda and the MLC established control over the northern third of the D.R.C.
At this stage, the D.R.C. was divided de facto into three segments, and the parties controlling each segment had reached military deadlock. In July 1999, a cease-fire was proposed in Lusaka, Zambia, which all parties signed by the end of August. The Lusaka Accord called for a cease-fire, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping operation, MONUC, the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the launching of an "Inter-Congolese Dialogue" to form a transitional government leading to elections. The parties to the Lusaka Accord failed to fully implement its provisions in 1999 and 2000. Laurent Kabila drew increasing international criticism for blocking full deployment of UN troops, hindering progress toward an Inter-Congolese Dialogue, and suppressing internal political activity.
On January 16, 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated. He was succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila. Joseph Kabila reversed many of his father’s negative policies; over the next year, MONUC deployed throughout the country, and the Inter-Congolese Dialogue proceeded. By the end of 2002, all Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops had withdrawn from the D.R.C. Following D.R.C.-Rwanda talks in South Africa that culminated in the Pretoria Accord in July 2002, Rwandan troops officially withdrew from the D.R.C. in October 2002, although there were continued, unconfirmed reports that Rwandan soldiers and military advisers remained integrated with RCD/G forces in eastern D.R.C. Ugandan troops officially withdrew from the D.R.C. in May 2003.
In October 2001, the Inter-Congolese Dialogue began in Addis Ababa under the auspices of Facilitator Ketumile Masire (former president of Botswana). The initial meetings made little progress and were adjourned. On February 25, 2002, the dialogue was reconvened in South Africa. It included representatives from the government, rebel groups, political opposition, civil society, and Mai-Mai (Congolese local defense militias). The talks ended inconclusively on April 19, 2002, when the government and the MLC brokered an agreement that was signed by the majority of delegates at the dialogue but left out the RCD/G and opposition UDPS party, among others.
This partial agreement was never implemented, and negotiations resumed in South Africa in October 2002. This time, the talks led to an all-inclusive powersharing agreement, which was signed by delegates in Pretoria on December 17, 2002, and formally ratified by all parties on April 2, 2003.
Following nominations by each of the various signatory groups, President Kabila on June 30, 2003 issued a decree that formally announced the transitional government lineup. The four vice presidents took the oath of office on July 17, 2003, and most incoming ministers assumed their new functions within days thereafter.
A transitional constitution was adopted on April 2, 2003; a new constitution was promulgated February 2006. Extensive executive, legislative, and military powers are vested in the president. The legislature does not have the power to overturn the government through a vote of no confidence. The judiciary is nominally independent; the president has the power to dismiss and appoint judges. The president is head of a 35-member cabinet of ministers.
President Joseph Kabila has made significant progress in liberalizing domestic political activity, establishing a transitional government, and undertaking economic reforms in cooperation with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, serious human rights problems remain in the security services and justice system. The eastern part of the country is characterized by ongoing violence and armed conflict, which has created a humanitarian disaster and contributed to civilian deaths (more than 3.8 million, according to a prominent international non-governmental organization). MONUC continues to play an important peacekeeping role in the D.R.C., and in October 2004, its authorized force strength increased to 16,700.
On July 30, 2006 the D.R.C. held its first free, democratic, multi-party elections in more than 40 years. The D.R.C.’s 25 million registered voters were charged with electing a president (from a field of 33 candidates) and 500 deputies to the National Assembly (out of a total of 9,709 candidates). Despite some unexpected technical and logistical difficulties, coupled with isolated incidents of violence and intimidation, the elections were held in a largely calm and orderly fashion. Voter turnout nationwide was high, particularly in the eastern provinces, compared to the December 2005 constitutional referendum.
The Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) on August 20, 2006 announced official provisional results from the July 30 presidential elections. According to CEI figures, incumbent Joseph Kabila won 44.81% of the votes cast versus Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba’s 20.3%. As no candidate won a majority of votes in the first round and in accordance with the country’s electoral law, the top two recipients, Kabila and Bemba faced off in a second round of balloting. Threats to the D.R.C.’s transitional process were marked by military clashes in Kinshasa just hours after provisional election results were announced. This crisis was exclusively confined to central Kinshasa in the Gombe area and was essentially a clash between Vice President Bemba and President Kabila’s militias. The runoff presidential elections were held on October 29, 2006. On November 27, 2006 the Congolese Supreme Court declared President Kabila the winner over Vice President Bemba by a margin of 58% to 42%. Kabila was inaugurated on December 6, 2006.
Voters in July 2006 also chose from among 9,709 legislative candidates to fill 500 seats in the National Assembly, representing 169 electoral districts. Approximately one-third of these districts elected one deputy by a simple majority. The rest were multiple-seat districts, ranging from two representatives to a maximum of 17 (in one of Kinshasa’s voting districts). In these areas, deputies were chosen by proportional representation using open party lists. To select the winners in multiple-seat districts, all valid votes cast were first divided according to political party. Next, an “electoral quotient” was determined by dividing the number of votes cast by the number of representatives to be elected. Finally, the number of votes a party received was divided by this “electoral quotient” to determine how many seats the party will win. The candidates ultimately elected are those who received the highest number of votes within their particular party lists. National Assembly deputies will also serve five-year terms and there is no restriction on the number of times they can be re-elected.
Organizing the D.R.C.’s July 2006 elections presented significant logistical challenges. Supported in large part by the MONUC peacekeeping mission, the Independent Electoral Commission opened more than 50,000 polling stations nationwide and employed some 300,000-poll workers on election day and to oversee the ballot counting process. The presidential and legislative ballots were printed in South Africa and altogether weighed nearly 1,800 tons, requiring 75 round-trip flights between the D.R.C. and South Africa.
The population of the D.R.C. is estimated to be about 60 million, and the country’s electoral law grants the right to vote to those ages 18 or older. For the July 2006 elections, the CEI reported that of the 25,420,99 registered voters, 17,931,238 went to the polls, a voter participation rate of 70.54%. Of the 17.9 million ballots cast, 993,704 (approximately 5%) were disqualified due to empty ballots or marking errors. In 2005, approximately 25.7 million Congolese registered as voters (out of an original estimate of 28 million eligible to do so). In the D.R.C.’s December 2005 constitutional referendum, roughly two-thirds of all registered voters participated.
The D.R.C. legislature held its first session on September 22, 2006. On February 26, 2007, Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga and the new Congolese cabinet formally took office. In May 2007, Kengo wa Dongo was elected Senate President.
Principal Government Official
Sparsely populated in relation to its area, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to a vast potential of natural resources and mineral wealth. Nevertheless, the D.R.C. is one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita annual income of about $98 in 2003. This is the result of years of mismanagement, corruption, and war.
In 2001, the Government of the D.R.C. under Joseph Kabila undertook a series of economic reforms to reverse this steep decline. Reforms were monitored by the IMF and included liberalization of petroleum prices and exchange rates and adoption of disciplined fiscal and monetary policies. The reform program reduced inflation from over 500% per year in 2000 to only about 7% at an annual rate in 2003. In June 2002, the World Bank and IMF approved new credits for the D.R.C. for the first time in over a decade. Bilateral donors, whose assistance has been almost entirely dedicated to humanitarian interventions in recent years, also are beginning to fund development projects in the D.R.C. In October 2003, the World Bank launched a multi-sector plan for development and reconstruction. The Paris Club also granted the D.R.C. Highly Indebted Poor Country status in July 2003. This will help alleviate the D.R.C.’s external sovereign debt burden and potentially free funds for economic development.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Congolese economy, accounting for 56.3% of GDP in 2002. The main cash crops include coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa. Food crops include cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts, and rice. Industry, especially the mining sector, is underdeveloped relative to its potential in the D.R.C. In 2002, industry accounted for only 18.8% of GDP, with only 3.9% attributed to manufacturing. Services reached 24.9% of GDP. The Congo was the world's fourth-largest producer of industrial diamonds during the 1980s, and diamonds continue to dominate exports, accounting for over half of exports ($642 million) in 2003. The Congo's main copper and cobalt interests are dominated by Gecamines, the state-owned mining giant. Gecamines production has been severely affected by corruption, civil unrest, world market trends, and failure to reinvest.
For decades, corruption and misguided policy have created a dual economy in the D.R.C. Individuals and businesses in the formal sector operated with high costs under arbitrarily enforced laws. As a consequence, the informal sector now dominates the economy. In 2002, with the population of the D.R.C. estimated at 56 million, only 230,000 Congolese working in private enterprise in the formal sector were enrolled in the social security system. Approximately 600,000 Congolese were employed by the government.
In the past year, the Congolese Government has approved a new investment code and a new mining code and has designed a new commercial court. The goal of these initiatives is to attract investment by promising fair and transparent treatment to private business. The World Bank also is supporting efforts to restructure the D.R.C.'s large parastatal sector, including Gecamines, and to rehabilitate the D.R.C.’s neglected infrastructure, including the Inga Dam hydroelectric system.
The outbreak of war in the early days of August 1998 caused a major decline in economic activity. Economic growth, however, resumed in 2002 with a 3% growth rate continuing in 2003 at 5%. The country had been divided de facto into different territories by the war, and commerce between the territories had halted. With the installation of the transitional government in July 2003, the country has been "de jure" reunified, and economic and commercial links have begun to reconnect.
In June 2000, the United Nations established a Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Congolese Resources to examine links between the war and economic exploitation. Reports issued by the panel indicate that countries involved in the war in Congo have developed significant economic interests. These interests may complicate efforts by the government to better control its natural resources and to reform the mining sector. A final panel report was issued in October 2003. The Panel of Experts mandate was not renewed.
Its location in the center of Africa has made D.R.C. a key player in the region since independence. Because of its size, mineral wealth, and strategic location, Zaire was able to capitalize on Cold War tensions to garner support from the West. In the early 1990s, however, in the face of growing evidence of human rights abuses, Western support for the incumbent government waned as pressure for internal reform increased.
D.R.C.’s relations with neighboring countries have often been driven by security concerns, leading to intricate and interlocking alliances. Domestic conflicts in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi have at various times created bilateral and regional tensions. The current crisis in eastern D.R.C. has its roots both in the use of the Congo as a base by various insurgency groups attacking neighboring countries and in the absence of a strong Congolese Government with a military capable of securing Congo’s borders. The war has been exacerbated and prolonged by the exploitation of Congo’s resources by neighboring countries. Although 2003 and early 2004 saw a number of improvements in regional relations, mid-to-late 2004 was marked by increased tension between the D.R.C. and Rwanda.
Its dominant position in Central Africa makes stability in the D.R.C. an important element of overall stability in the region. In December 2006, the D.R.C. inaugurated its first democratically elected president in over 40 years, the culmination of the Congolese people's efforts to choose their leaders through a peaceful, democratic process. The United States is proud to have played a role in the peace process in the D.R.C., and encourages peace, prosperity, democracy, and respect for human rights in the D.R.C.
The United States remains a partner with the D.R.C. and other central African nations in their quest for stability and growth on the continent, and facilitated the signing of a tripartite agreement on regional security in the Great Lakes region between the D.R.C., Rwanda, and Uganda in October 2004. Burundi formally joined the Tripartite Commission in September 2005, and the Tripartite Commission is now Tripartite Plus. The United States also strongly supported U.N. efforts to create a Joint Verification Mechanism to monitor the border between the D.R.C. and Rwanda. From the start of the Congo crisis, the United States has pursued an active diplomatic strategy in support of these objectives. In the long term, the United States seeks to strengthen the process of internal reconciliation and democratization within all the states of the region to promote stable, developing, and democratic nations with which it can work to address security interests on the continent and with which it can develop mutually beneficial economic relations.
The United States appointed its current ambassador to the D.R.C. in 2004. The D.R.C. appointed its current ambassador to the United States in 2000. The Congo has been on the State Department's travel advisory list since 1977.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador-- Roger Meece
Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas Dougherty
The U.S. Embassy is located at 310 Avenue des Aviateurs, Kinshasa (tel. 243-81-2255872; fax 243-81-3010561). Mailing address is American Embassy Kinshasa, Box 31550, APO AE 09828.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
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Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov
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Revised: Jun. 2007