In the final days of December, the Democratic Republic of the Congo held elections that have been delayed for more than two years. To date, official winners of these elections have not been announced. This backgrounder on the Congo crisis explains what is going on in the DRC and how we got here. While the government has until January 15, to announce an official winner many experts fear the nation is about to fall into yet another period of extensive violence and warfare.


This Congo backgrounder and Congo crisis overview will be updated regularly as the situation unfolds.
democratic republic of the congo
  • Population – 83.3 million
  • Geographic Size – apx ¼ the size of the United States, apx 2/3 the size of Western Europe
  • GDP – $37.24 billion
  • GDP per capita – $457.85

The Democratic Republic of the Congo should not be confused with the Republic of the Congo (often referred to as Congo-Brazzaville) to the west

History and Backgrounder to the Congo Crisis


1885: Congo Free State and the Brutal Rule of King Leopold of Belgium

king leopold and the congo free state
King Leopold II of Belgium is also known to history as the “Butcher of the Congo”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo was first brought to the western world’s attention through one of the most brutal and infamous episodes from the age of imperialism.


In the late 19th century European colonialism was advancing full force. A scramble for Africa was underway as the Europeans recognized an entire continent, bursting with natural resources that could fuel their markets, was also unguarded by industrialized armies and governments.


Ideologies were inspired and propagated to justify the conquest of so-called liberal democracies over native populations in both Africa and Asia. Most infamous among these was the idea of the “White Man’s Burden” captured in the poem by Rudyard Kipling which argued that European and American societies had a dutiful obligation to subject the savage populations of the earth and civilize them.

berlin conference and the congo free state
Africa was divided up among the Europeans at the Berlin Conference of 1885.

In 1885 a meeting of the leading powers of Europe was held and became known as the Berlin Conference. The Berlin Conference made the subjugation of the African continent official European policy and brought order to the process so that the Europeans would not hinder or offend one another in their process of consuming Africa. Within two decades 90% of the African continent was under European control.

congo free state map
Map of the Congo Free State in 1906

Significantly, the area that would one day be known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was awarded to King Leopold II of Belgium. A series of agreements made the Congo Free State the personal property of Leopold while maintaining free and open investment for all of the European powers within Congo.  Leopold was entrusted with the moral responsibility of improving the lives of the natives and inhabitants of the country. His potential economic gains were seen as a secondary endeavor.


For more than 20 years Leopold would hide under the cover of his moral mission in the Congo Free State and exercise some of the most brutal and oppressive rulership of the imperial era. A police force was set up to enforce his will as well as production quotas on rubber plantations in the country.

congo free state
The Congo Free State became notorious for its atrocities.

Among the most notorious crimes of Leopold’s enforcement in Congo Free State included the kidnapping of children and holding them ransom if production quotas were not met by the natives on the rubber plantations; the cutting off of hands and private parts for the same crime; and the hanging of individuals as well as the burning of entire villages.

congo free state

congo free state
Local workers would lose body parts if their production quotas were not met.

The butcher of the Congo, King Leopold, never personally set foot in the country but his cruelty and the effects of his brutal reign became notorious even as he became one of the richest men in the world during.

congo free state
Prisoners of the Congo Free state

In the first decade of the 20th century, exposes of what Leopold was doing in the Congo toppled his reputation and eventually his rule there as well. Upon his death, most of his fortune along with the Free Congo State was turned over to the government of Belgium.


It is nearly impossible to know the full extent and death toll of Leopold’s brutal rule in the Congo Free State, but estimates range from 1 million to 15 million people killed during this two-decade span of time.


It was the beginning but not the end of the Congo’s tragic integration into the modern world.


Belgian Congo

belgian congo
Belgian Congo


The Congo Free State was renamed the Belgian Congo in 1908 as the government of Belgium took over Leopold’s colony and made it their own. Congo would be a colony of Belgium until 1960.


While the Belgian Congo was ruled with nowhere near the levels of depravity and brutality that existed under King Leopold it was still a European colony. The ethics of imperialism persisted; including segregation, white superiority, and economic exploitation. Many of the leaders and administrators that operated the Congo Free State under Leopold transitioned into their same roles as rulers over the Belgian Congo. Their focus was enriching the Belgian and European governments. If improvement in the lives of the natives was achieved as a byproduct of this, then all the better.


The rubber market that once thrived in the Congo Free State was gradually supplanted by new producers in the British colonies of Southeast Asia. The Belgian Congo turned to minerals and cash crops as its primary exports.


During the first World War a system of “mandatory cultivation” was implemented by the Belgian authorities in the Congo. Whereas failure to abide to meet production quotas under the systems of the Congo Free State was punishable by death or physical mutilation, poor farmers in the Belgian Congo were imposed with financial penalties if they failed the standards imposed on them for the production of specific cash crops.


The interwar period saw a boom in the Belgian Congo’s economy which resulted in a significant transformation of the society and landscape. Massive investment into infrastructure such as railways by the Belgium government along with additional private investment from Belgian mining companies resulted in widespread urbanization of the country. As more and more of the people of the Belgian Congo moved to the growing cities to work in the productive copper mines, the land they left behind was redistributed by the Belgium government to the private mining companies.

belgian congo copper mines

Although the Great Depression brought significant setbacks in these areas for the Belgian Congo’s economy and people, this was countered by a returning economic surge in World War II. As the Japanese took control of East Asia rubber returned as a profitable and high demand product out of the Congo. Also, uranium from the Belgian Congo became a vital commodity in the creation of the atomic weapons that were dropped on Japan to end the war.

Throughout this period urbanization and the transformation of the society of the Belgian Congo translated to a growing political activity among the people. This included growing demands for self-determination (the right to rule themselves free of colonial interference) and independence.


In 1953 the people of the Belgian Congo were allowed, for the first time, to buy and sell private property in their own name within their own country. By the end of the decade, although prosperity had grown at an unprecedented scale throughout the Belgian Congo, demands for political rights and independence among the people grew with it.


In 1960 the first elections for a free and independent Congo took place. After nearly a century under Belgian colonial rule of one form or another, the people of the Congo now ruled themselves and had their own country.


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Patrice Lumumba and the Republic of the Congo

The new name for this independent country was the Republic of the Congo. The citizens of the Republic of the Congo elected, as their first leader, the charismatic nationalist Patrice Lumumba.

patrice lumumba
Patrice Lumumba


The initial period after independence was incredibly unstable for the Republic of the Congo. It is known to history as the Congo Crisis.


Several powerful political figures and provinces within the nation desired their own independent states. Meanwhile, pent up resentment toward the Europeans began to turn violent. Riots and looting were unfolding in several of the largest cities within the Republic of the Congo. At the same time, two of the most powerful provinces declared they were seceding from the country as their own independent states.

congo crisis 1960-65
Congo Crisis 1960-65

The United Nation dispatched 20,000 peacekeeping forces to the country, but it was not enough to regain order.


Prime Minister Lumumba, a powerful figure in the Pan African movement, appealed to the United States and the United Nations for greater assistance but was ignored. Having been ignored by the superpower of the west he turned to the superpower of the east, the Soviet Union. This move immediately signaled (falsely) that Lumumba was a Soviet and communist sympathizer and put him in the sights of the west.

arrest of lumumba
The arrest and execution of Lumumba

The US began arming forces loyal to the President of the Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu. This included a leading officer in the Congolese Army, Colonel Joseph Mobutu (remember that name). Mobutu arrested Lumumba and he was eventually executed before a firing squad after being beaten and forced to eat paper copies of his own speeches. Following his execution, his body was mutilated.


These events triggered a counter movement of Lumumba supporters fighting against his rivals for control of the Republic of the Congo. For nearly five years varying levels of civil war pervaded the country. The end to this infighting did not end until 1965 at which time troops from the US and Belgium, as well as European mercenaries, were called in to quell the violence.


Zaire and Mobutu

mobutu and zaire
Colonel Mobutu


In 1965 Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko, the man who had arrested Lumumba, seized control of the government through a military coup and declared himself president. Under Mobutu, a surge of nationalism was put forward to unite the country even while his authoritarian grip worked to hold rivals and insurgents under control.


He changed the name of the country to the Republic of Zaire. The capital city of Leopoldville, a name held over from the days of the Congo Free State, was changed to Kinshasa. Citizens were required to adopt African names. His own name was changed from Joseph Mobutu to Mobutu Sese Seko.


Mobutu created a new constitution for the country which centralized the bulk of powers into the presidency – himself. He also changed the government and political structure of Zaire so that once again, all control was vested in himself. Soon additional organizations were, by law, brought into this centralized national structure, so that labor unions, youth organizations, women’s organizations, universities and even the churches of Zaire were under his control.

mobutu and reagan
Mobutu and US President Ronald Reagan

Mobutu was supported by the United States behind the scenes. He was seen as a definitive ally in the region that could help counter Soviet and communist advances.


He sought to erase ethnic identities and invest all political identities into positions that were beneficial to his rule. Critics have argued that many of his efforts to build, a distinct identity for the people of Zaire to rally around were little more than the same tactics used by Belgian administrators. As a result, many people within Zaire repulsed at Mobutu’s tactics and retreated deeper into ethnic and tribal identities that predated the period of independence.


Mobutu was a dictator. He stopped the disorder and violence of the Congo Crisis that followed the nation’s independence, but the cost was nearly absolute control invested into this single individual. His legacy as a dictator is not generally characterized by ruthless violence but by a ruthless drive for power and control that led to high levels of corruption. Estimates of the amount Mobutu stole from the Zaire treasury for his personal benefit range from $4 billion to $15 billion.


Unrest and political opposition began to creep into Zaire as Mobutu’s hold on power was increased in the latter part of the 1970s and through the 1980s. When the Cold War came to a close this trend would prove fateful for the dictator. Now that the Soviet Union was out of the way, there was little cause for the United States to continue to support their man in Zaire.


This along with rising unrest throughout the region soon took hold in Zaire and led to the end of Mobutu but also the beginning of the Congo Wars.


Mobutu sought some level of political reforms in the early 1990s that worked to lessen his control and allow for other political voices in the country, but this was too little too late. If anything, these measures only worsened his problems and soon the ruler of Zaire was on the offensive.

first congo wars

The ethnic tensions in neighboring Rwanda were coming to a head at this time and soon spread into Zaire. Eastern Zaire was destabilized by the conflict in Rwanda and eventually, a full-scale invasion of Zaire by forces under the leadership of Laurent Desire Kabila resulted in what is known as the First Congo War.

Kabila and the First and Second Congo Wars


Laurent Desire Kabila
Laurent Desire Kabila

Yesterday’s liberator is frequently today’s tyrant. It is interesting in looking at the modern history of the world that many of the men we view as tyrants and oppressors were once viewed as freedom fighters. This 1997 article from Time Magazine paints a picture of hope in the arrival of Laurent Desire Kabila to Zaire. Today, his son is the chief protagonist of the unfolding crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Laurent Desire Kabila was a revolutionary figure in Zaire since the early years of Mobutu’s reign. He was seen as a hard line supporter of Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s vision of a pan African movement. He even worked with the famous revolutionary Che Guevara for a time.


In 1996 he led anti-Hutu ethnic Tutsi forces to oust Mobutu and launch the Congo Wars. As Mobutu fled into exile, Kabila’s forces marched into the capital city of Kinshasa. He was declared president and changed the name of the country from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


In short order, Kabila’s allies in the surrounding nations of Africa soon abandoned their support of him. His methods were little better than what Mobutu had instituted in the Congo.  This triggered the Second Congo War.

second congo war

The violence, atrocities and tragedies of this period in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have become notorious. Millions were killed in what became known as Africa’s First World War. Foreign armies and political leaders exploited the humanitarian crises for their own gains. Child soldiers were utilized on all sides of the conflict. Kabila’s army itself was reported to consist of up to 30% new recruits under the age of 18, and a substantial number under the age of 12.

second congo war

In 2001, even as the Second Congo War raged on, Laurent Desire Kabila was shot and killed by one of his bodyguards. His son Joseph was appointed as president in his place. The younger Kabila pursued an end to the conflict through a variety of means including a shared power arrangement with some of the rebel groups.


By 2003 all foreign powers, except Rwanda, had left the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Peace accords between the Kabila government and the rebels were signed a year earlier.

Joseph Kabila and the Current Crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila, President of the DRC

Joseph Kabila was twenty-nine years old when he was given the presidency of the DRC (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) following his father’s assassination. He held that post and appointed an interim government during the transition from the war years to a new political order in 2005. A new constitution was established at that time and Kabila ran for and won the popular vote for the presidency in 2006. He was reelected in 2011 in a contested election that possessed many shadows of illegitimacy.


According to the constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Kabila’s term was to have expired in 2016 but he has not allowed elections to take place since that time. Constant causes for delays have been proffered but the people of the DRC have increasingly cried these excuses are illegitimate as is the ongoing Kabila presidency.


A survey from 2016 when Kabila’s term in office officially ended found that 75% of the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo wanted Kabila out of office. Four out of five people were opposed to any constitutional changes that would allow Kabila to stay on for a third consecutive term.

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Kabila’s refusal to step down from office at the end of his term in 2016 came in the midst of already volatile situations in Congo. The violence of the Second Congo War appears is resurging once again in ethnic and political conflicts throughout the country.

crisis in the Congo

In 2016 DRC saw the highest amount of internal displacement of its citizens brought about by conflict than any other place in the world – 922,000 people. (Keep in mind that this was the same time that the Syrian Civil War was at its peak.) In the first part of 2018 more than 200,000 people fled their homes in an escalation of ethnic tensions and violence in the country. Several hundred people were killed and armed men set fire to over 200 villages. By the end of 2018 small wars and waves of violence in the country resulted in 4.5 million people displaced and nearly 1 million refugees.

refugees in the congo

Adding to the pollical conflict, in August the Democratic Republic of the Congo began combatting its second most deadly Ebola outbreak in history. Nearly 600 confirmed cases of Ebola so far have resulted in 354 deaths. Kabila sought to delay the elections further on account of the Ebola outbreak suggesting the polling stations would allow the virus to spread more rapidly. Instead, observers from the World Health Organization fear that the growing unrest since the elections might result in a slowing of their efforts to fight the outbreak as well as lead to refugees carrying the disease across the nation’s border as they flee potential violence.

ebola outbreak in the congo

The Elections


On December 30, 2018 more than 40 million citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were registered to finally vote in the country’s long-delayed elections. The hopes were that this would be the first peaceful democratic transition of power since the election of Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister in 1960. The concern was that President Kabila has extended enormous influence and interference into the political process in order to bring about a victory for his own hand picked candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Shadary could hold office until the next election cycle and Kabila could run for reelection at that point, all the while avoiding corruption charges.

As the election results began to be tallied they did not apparently meet the approval of Mr. Kabila. To date the government has not declared a winner. They have until January 15, to make that announcement.


Meanwhile, outside observers who were on hand to watch for fairness at the polling stations state that Shadary lost and Kabila’s opponent has won. Internet and text messaging throughout the country were suddenly shut off the day after the elections in an effort, according to the government, to prevent election violence from being triggered. Most suspect this action was actually to prevent popular movements against Kabila from being mobilized.

joseph kabila
President Kabila

The international community appears to be preparing itself for a new round of violence in the region. China and Russia, supporters of Kabila expressed disappointment that outside observers suggest a winner besides Kabila’s preferred candidate Shadary.


The UN Security Council has been unable to come to an agreement on how to proceed. The US has dispatched 80 military personnel to Central Africa to protect US assets from violence as the election outcomes are announced.


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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at