Timeline: Congo history and the DRC crisis, explained

February 8, 2020
Photo by Noel Gavin/Allpix

In Part Two of our series on the crisis unfolding in Democratic Republic of Congo, we take a look at the country’s past to see how a history of violence and instability has shaped the current situation.

The sheer human toll of violence, displacement, disease, and seemingly endless extreme poverty seen over the last two decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is as shocking as anything we have seen in recent times. But to truly understand how DRC has gotten to this point, you have to understand something of its history. Here is our at-a-glance guide to 500 years of Congo history and conflict in the DRC. 

1500-1800: 5 million lost 

5 million slaves are captured from what is now the DRC and sent to the Americas. 

1870: Colonization

Belgium’s King Leopold II launches a 90-year colonial period marked by forced labor, exploitation of natural resources, disease, and mass killings. Later academic research suggests that, during Leopold II’s rule and its immediate aftermath, Congo’s population may have been reduced by as many as 10 million people.

1960: Dashed hopes for independence

In May 1960 Patrice Lumumba is elected the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first Prime Minister. Four months later in September 1960, he is overthrown in a military coup led by Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.  With assistance from Belgium and the U.S., Mobutu begins a 36-year reign as dictator. Lumumba is executed in early 1961.

1971: From Congo to Zaire 

Mobutu renames himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country of Congo is renamed Zaire.

Rwandan refugees carrying all their possessions

Rwandan refugees enter DRC with all of their possessions after fleeing in June 1994. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22/Concern Worldwide

1994: An influx of refugees and a cholera outbreak 

Genocide in neighboring Rwanda claims more than 800,000 lives. The country’s genocidal Hutu regime is removed by military force and hundreds of thousands flee into eastern Zaire. Some 50,000 will die in a cholera outbreak that sweeps through the overcrowded refugee camps around the city of Goma.

1996: The First Congo War 

Rwanda invades Zaire, in an effort to root out rebel groups taking refuge there, sparking the First Congo War. This draws in neighboring Uganda, Angola, Zambia, and other armed groups. 

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1997: Zaire becomes the Democratic Republic of Congo

The First Congo War comes to a gradual end as Mobutu is deposed by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who declares himself president and reorganizes Zaire as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The human toll of the First Congo War isn’t fully known, but is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. 

Displaced family in Manono, DRC

Yumba Kalofando Banjamin and his family were displaced by fighting and fled to Manono, DRC, where they are taking part in Concern’s Graduation program. Photo: Kieran McConville

1998-2003: The Second Congo War

The Second Congo War begins with a rebellion led by ethnic Tutsi minority forces in the eastern DRC. Rwandan support fuels a march westward, while Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and others support Kabila’s forces. Peace is achieved in 2003, but the war’s deadly legacy continues to be felt in continuing ethnic violence, instability, authoritarian leadership, and extreme poverty — all of which define Congo history to this day. Estimates for the number of dead during the war and aftermath range between 1 and 5 million people.

2012-16: The Kasai conflict 

On top of continuing violence and instability  driven by armed groups in DRC’s east, a conflict has been exploding in the Kasai region, to the south of the country since August, 2016. The result is DRC’s latest large-scale humanitarian crisis.

In 2012, Jean-Pierre Pandi became chief of the Dibaya territory in Kasai — a stronghold of the main political opposition party. In DRC, chiefs hold a large amount of power and administrative control. While they aren’t political positions, they are recognized by the government. 

But President Joseph Kabila never officially recognized Pandi, escalating tension between the region and the central government. When Pandi was killed during clashes between his fighters and government forces, a full scale-conflict erupted. Since then, more than 1.4 million people in Kasai have been forced to flee their homes.

2016-19: Political instability and a new leader

Political tensions have escalated since President Joseph Kabila’s 11-year term ended in 2016. The son of the former president Laurent Kabila, he was the first to be democratically elected since 1960. Amid mounting pressure, growing opposition, and increasingly violent protests, Kabila stepped down in January 2019 and was succeeded by Félix Tshisekedi (the son of three-time Prime Minister of Zaire leader Étienne Tshisekedi). 

A sign on a hill

Concern has reached hundreds of families in the hills of Masisi with a variety of programs designed to lift families out of extreme poverty. Photo: Kieran McConville

Concern in the DRC 

Concern has been active in the DRC for over a quarter of a century, providing both emergency assistance and development support. Some of our key areas of focus include: 

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Working with partners, the DRC WASH Consortium has delivered sustainable access to water, sanitation and hygiene for more than 640,000 people living in rural areas of the DRC. 

Emergency Response

Responding quickly and efficiently to emergencies is a core focus in DRC. Most recently, we have deployed teams to respond to the emergency displacement situation in Beni and we are responding to a displacement crisis in Kasai. In addition, we have escalated our response to the DRC Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, which has become the second-largest Ebola outbreak on record. 

Gender Equality

The situation for gender equality in DRC continues to be one of the worst in the world. To address gender inequality, we have increased our gender-specific programming and incorporated gender role surveys into all of our programme assessments. As an employer in DRC, we have made significant improvements in the recruitment of women in positions through internship programmes, as well as targeted recruitment policies.

Health and Nutrition

We work in partnership with organizations such as Welthungerhilfe to tackle malnutrition in DRC. We seek to integrate malnutrition activities into our existing programs, particularly for our WASH and Livelihoods activities which are being implemented in the Tanganyika and Lomami areas.

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