The Democratic Republic of Congo (or DR Congo), which was formerly known as Zaire, is one of the larger and more beautiful of the African countries. It is a vast land blessed with forests, lakes, majestic waterfalls, and safari wildlife. Unfortunately, the transportation infrastructure is still lacking. The DR Congo also has a long history of civil war, ethnic conflict, and human rights abuses. Millions have died in this former Belgian colony not just from the war but from disease and starvation. This country remains scarred even today, as sporadic fighting persists and the threat of another civil war is still ever present.
The Democratic Republic of Congo sits at the heart of Africa, straddling the equator and bordering nine different nations. It covers two-thirds of the drainage basin of the Congo River, an area that receives abundant rainfall. A large part of this country is impenetrable because of its rainforest. Its north-central area consists of vast lowlands covered by tropical rain forests, while the northwest is dominated by dense grasslands. And while the west is surrounded by mountainous terraces, the south and southwest transform from plateaus into plains. Along the border with Uganda in the east, spectacular mountains such as the Ruwenzori, Virunga, and Margherita frame the north-south line known as the Great Rift Valley. Virunga, in particular, is home to eight major volcanoes, half of them still active. Several of the country’s major lakes, including Tanganyika, Albert, Kivu, and Edward, also dot this region.
DR Congo’s national parks serve as the country’s biggest draw for tourists. The Upemba National Park northeast of Bukama stretches along the Lualaba River and includes numerous lakes that are inhabited by crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and diverse aquatic birds. The Garamba National Park in the north features 990,000 acres of playground for lions, leopards, giraffes, rhinos, and elephants. The Virunga National Park with its range of jagged mountains is famous for its mountain gorillas, but is also home to lions, hippos, elephants, buffalos, antelopes, and warthogs.
Outside of its national parks, the Democratic Republic of Congo is just as naturally beautiful. Lake Tanganyika, for example, has been compared to the French Riviera. There are also more freshwater lakes in the DR Congo than anywhere else in Africa, among them Lake Albert, Fwa, Munkamba, and Kasai. Lake Edward, in particular, is known for its variety of colorful birds.
There are also numerous spectacular waterfalls, including the Inkisi Falls at Zongo and the falls at Lufira, Kiobo, and Lofol; the latter is set at 1,260 feet high and located north of Lubumbashi.
Other natural wonders include the caves, waterfalls, and woodlands of Boma and Mayumbe. In the Mbanza-Ngungu region, visitors are treated to more caves, as well as great weather and nice resorts. Also popular in the Mbanza-Ngungu is the Frere Gillet Botanic Gardens in Kisantu, which is world-famous for its rare orchids. Many tourists also visit Bunia, where they make excursions to the nearby forests and mountains, as well as the Escaliers de Venus Falls and the Caves of Mount Hoyo.
DR Congo also has a number of spectacular mountains, including the Ruwenzori range, which is considered to have the best mountain scenery in Africa. This region also features the highest mountain peak in the country, the Pic Marguerite at 15,800 feet high; it is inhabited by the rare okapi and by mountain gorillas.
The temperatures in the DR Congo are usually high, averaging about 27° C (80° F), but it varies greatly depending on the altitude and rainfall. Part of the country is in the Northern Hemisphere and part of it is in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of the year when the sun migrates from one hemisphere to the other, the country experiences heavy rainfall. More precipitation is seen in the north, usually between May and October, than in the south, where the rainy season is between September and May.
Around 100 AD, the Bantu natives invaded the DR Congo and conquered the Pygmies. Many more Bantus arrived in waves from Nigeria. Between the 13th and 19th centuries, several states emerged in the south, including the famous Kingdom of the Kongo.
In 1482, Portuguese explorers arrived on the Atlantic coast and they were followed by several other European countries, which eventually led to the fall of the kingdom in the late 17th century.
There was little penetration by the Europeans into the interior of the DR Congo between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Europeans stayed on the coast trading for goods that came indirectly from the interior.
Exploration of the DR Congo began in the mid-1800s. One of the first explorers was Henry Stanley, who was hired by King Leopold II of Belgium the colonize the territory. Stanley set up trading posts and signed various treaties with African chiefs. Eventually the Berlin Conference of 1884 carved up Africa and King Leopold II of Belgium was given the area of present-day DR Congo. The natives were treated so harshly and brutally that it turned into an international scandal. Eventually the region was taken over by Belgium from the hands of the king in 1908. Belgium developed roads and railroads.
In 1960, the DR Congo was granted independence. Immediately, the country was embroiled in internal turmoil. The 1960 elections featured several national parties. Only two parties presented themselves in more than one province. And the winning party, the Lumumba-led MNC-L, won with only 25% of the seats. The parties followed strong ethnic divisions. The “Congo Crisis” as it was called turned for the worst when the DR Congo’s richest province, Katanga, threatened to secede, after its backed party did not win. Prime Minister Lumumba asked the United Nations to send soldiers to keep the country united. Kasavubu, meanwhile, part of the ABAKO party was elected President by Parliament. Conflict between Lumumba and Kasavubu presented an opportunity for chief of staff of the new Congo army, Joseph Mobutu. Receiving financial backing from the United States and Belgium, who were afraid of communism and leftist ideologies, Mobutu implemented a successful military coup in 1965. He established a one-party presidential government and changed the country’s name to Zaire in 1971.
Mobutu restored order, but corruption, humans rights abuses, and mismanagement led to repression and a decline in the living standard of the people. Mobutu was forced to announce a multiparty system in 1990, but it was largely cosmetic. In 1994, the country plunged into anarchy when more than one million Rwandan refugees, fleeing genocide, entered the country. In 1997, Mobutu’s regime was eventually toppled by a rebellion (known as the First Congo War) led by Laurent Desire Kabila who was backed by Rwandan and Ugandan troops.
In 1998, the Second Congo War broke out after Laurent Kabila thanked Rwanda and Uganda for their assistance but asked them to leave the country. The departure of the Rwandans and Ugandans caused alarm among the Banyamulenge in eastern Congo, a group of Tutsi speaking natives. The Tutsi-led Rwandan government was sympathetic to Banyamulenge. Along with their ally, Uganda, Rwanda backed a rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), which quickly began conquering the eastern provinces of the DR Congo. Kabila was caught off-guard and only saved from disaster by the help of the neighboring African states of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, and Chad who all provided troop support. The war ended in 2003 after various belligerent groups signed an agreement to create a government of national unity. All told, the Second Congo War was one of the deadliest conflicts since WWII, claiming close to 4 million lives. Millions more were displaced, and hundreds of thousands of women suffered sexual atrocities, including gang rape, forced incest and sexual slavery.
Today, the DR Congo remains a fragile state that is still suffering from continued violence at the hands of militant and rebel groups, some of them supported by Rwanda. Ethnic conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in the east still persist.