Democratic Republic of Congo crisis: History at a glance

November 8, 2017
Photo by Noel Gavin/Allpix

In Part Two of our series on the crisis unfolding in Democratic Republic of Congo, we take a look back into 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 of the last two decades in the Democratic 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 its long history of oppression, neglect, and chronic violence:


1500 – 1800: 5 million slaves are captured and sent to the new world

1870: 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 finds that during Leopold’s rule and its immediate aftermath, Congo’s population may have been reduced by as many as 10 million people.

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

Dashed hopes for independence

1960: Independence. Patrice Lumumba is elected the new nation’s first Prime Minister. He will be overthrown in a military coup led by Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.  With assistance from Belgium and the U.S. Lumumba will be executed in early 1961, as Mobutu begins a 36-year reign as dictator.

1971: Mobutu renames himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country of Congo is renamed Zaire.

The Congo Wars

1994: Genocide in neighboring Rwanda claims more than 800,000 lives. The 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 teeming refugee camps.

1996: Rwanda invades Zaire, sparking the “First Congo War,” which draws in neighboring Uganda, Angola, Zambia, and other armed groups. The human toll is not fully known, but estimates number in the hundreds of thousands.

1997: The 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. Estimates are 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” begins with a rebellion led by ethnic Tutsi minority forces in the east. Rwandan support fuels strong resistance and a march westward, as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and others support Kabila’s forces.  Peace is achieved in 2003, but the war’s deadly legacy continues in the tragic realities of ethnic violence, instability, authoritarian leadership, and extreme poverty that define DRC’s present and future to this day.

2007: An International Rescue Committee report estimates that 5.4 million people have died from conflict-related causes since 1998.

DRC today: Political instability, new conflicts

Political tensions have escalated since President Joseph Kabila’s term ended last year, after 11 years in power. Son of the former President Laurent Kabila, he was the first to be democratically elected since 1960. He has yet to step down, despite mounting pressure, growing opposition, and increasingly violent protests. The Electoral Commission recently announced presidential elections would take place on December 23, 2018.

On top of continuous violence, instability, and massive displacement in DRC’s east, a conflict has been exploding in the Kasai region, to the south of the country. The result is DRC’s latest large-scale humanitarian crisis.

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

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, 1.4 million people in Kasai have been forced to flee their homes.

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