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The Crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By USCRI December 9, 2020

Origins of the Crisis Democratic

Republic of the Congo: Ephemeral Periods of Peace

While the most recent humanitarian crisis was sparked by escalated conflict starting in 1994, the roots of the modern conflict and accompanying humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereinafter “DRC”) are rooted in the country’s tumultuous history and its wealth of mineral deposits.

A Colony Owned by One Man

The first record of the DRC, or as it was known, the Kingdom of Kongo, was in 1482, when Portuguese explorers discovered the mouth of the Congo River. The territory was later established as a center for the Atlantic slave trade by British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French merchants, thus marking the country’s entry into a history of turmoil due to its resources – whether they be human or natural. 4 Yet, while experiencing destructive upheaval due to the slave trade and resulting uprisings, the next few hundred years were relatively peaceful in terms of armed conflict and violence.

In the late 19th Century, during a period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” the powers of Europe vied for control of resource rich Africa, carving up the continent into separate colonies. The United Kingdom took large parts of mostly the east and south, along with small territories in the west, while France dominated most of north and west Africa. Meanwhile, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium took scattered parts of the continent, including the Kingdom of Kongo.5

Unlike the other countries of Europe, Belgium itself was not the owner of the colony. Instead, its king, Leopold II, claimed the Kingdom of Kongo, now the Congo Free State, as his own private property.6 In 1885, Leopold II lay claim to the territory, claiming to the other European powers that he was involved in humanitarian aid work, and not seeking to use the area for resources.7 However, the opposite was true, and the king’s reign over the territory until 1908 was one of the most exploitative and violent in the continent’s history. During this period, the country was forced to endure the systematic exploitation of its natural resources, especially ivory and rubber.

At the same time, a regime of terror, which included mass killings, mutilations, and destruction of homes, was instituted to force the people to extract the resources to add wealth to the king’s personal coffers.8 It is estimated that the regime led to the direct and indirect deaths of 50 percent of the population at the time.9 In 1905, after several months of investigation, a commission established by other European powers published a report detailing the abuses of Leopold II’s rule. Strong public opposition in Belgium to the continuation of his rule forced Leopold II to renounce his rule over the Free State of the Congo, thus making the territory a colony of Belgium and renamed the Belgian Congo.10

Read the full report USCRI Backgrounder_DRC


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