Pre-Colonial Congo

Before colonization, the broader central African region that today designates The Congo, harbored multiple flourishing political entities, most notably the Luba and the Kongo Empires. As early as 1000 BC the peoples of this area engaged in the local and long-distance trading of raw materials such as iron, ivory and copper. It was through this commercial activity that the empires managed to expand politically and economically. When the Kongo Kingdom was first incorporated into the burgeoning global capitalist economy, it was through contact with the Portuguese and the selling of slaves, the human cost of which would eventually contribute to the demise of the kingdom in the early 19th century.

King Leopold’s Personal Rule

The Congo as it exists today, a vast country the size of Western Europe, spanning from the Atlantic coast to the African Great Lakes, was born from the imperialist fantasies of King Leopold II. In 1885, when European colonial powers divided most of the continent between them, Leopold II gained recognition as the sole owner of this territory in the heart of Africa, which he named the ‘Congo Free State’. This unique colonial situation of self-serving annexation by a unilateral owner would enable his decades-long personal enrichment, featuring one of the most brutal colonial administrations and forced labour regimes in history.

Leopold took advantage of the booming global demand for natural rubber, which occurred plentifully in the Congo. The sourcing of rubber led to the notoriously brutal abuse of Congolese people, who faced wide-ranging punishments for failing to meet their harvesting quotas, from beatings, lashings and death, to the practice of dismemberment. The severed hands of the Congolese remain a symbolic representation of the cruelty suffered under Leopold’s rule. Beyond this, his 23-year reign plagued the country with famine and widespread diseases, which overall led to an estimated death toll of 10 million – 15 million people.

Belgian Colonial Rule

International outrage over the atrocities pressured Leopold to transfer his rule to Belgium in 1908. Belgium followed a paternalistic approach to colonial rule, portraying the Congolese as child-like and unable to govern themselves. The exploitation of resources for foreign gain continued to be the primary objective of the Congolese economy, with the addition of a wide selection of goods from the mining sector, such as ‘gold, diamonds, copper, tin, cobalt, […] zinc’ and ‘uranium’. In many ways, Belgian rule prepped the Congo for resource extraction by foreign actors, beyond formal colonialism. On the one hand by furthering the interests of European and American private corporations in the country, and on the other hand by introducing a class divide in Congolese society. By establishing the évolués, an economically and socially privileged class that was thought of as more ‘Westernized’, the colonial regime invented an African subgroup that was incentivized to betray the interests of the broader Congolese masses

Congolese Resistance

In the 1950s the people of Congo started to mobilize in a national movement that sought autonomy and independence from Belgium. Although the struggle was consolidated and partially appropriated by the évolués’ political campaigns, the movement was heavily driven by the acts of civil disobedience of the peasantry and the exploited working classes. One of the pivotal moments of this protest wave was the 1959 Léopoldville riots. It was due to these riots that Belgium was forced to the negotiation table, leading to independence on June 30th 1960.

Congo’s Independence

Many people fighting against colonialism, in and outside of Congo, saw Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese National Movement (MNC), as a representative for their progressive, nationalist interests. When Congo finally gained independence Lumumba became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. In his short time in office, he kept advocating for the self-determination and freedom of the Congolese, until he was captured and murdered in 1961, in an assassination orchestrated by US and Belgian secret services.


In subsequent years, the country was once again afflicted by grave violence. From 1960 to 1965, the Congo Crisis unfolded, which was a series of power struggles and civil wars, fuelled by the power vacuum in the newly independent nation. The conflict culminated in the Western-backed coup d’état that brought Mobutu Sese Sekou into power. Mobutu established a highly oppressive autocracy, that allowed him to amass immense personal wealth. During his rule, which lasted from 1965 to 1997, the state continued to decay institutionally and infrastructurally. His kleptocratic regime could only sustain itself for as long as it did, because it enjoyed the support from powerful allies, like the United States, Belgium, France and Israel1. In exchange for their support, Mobutu ensured foreign actors continued access to Congolese resources.

A Quarter Centrury of Wars of Aggression and Plunder

In 1994, when Mobutu’s hold on power was already faltering, the neighbouring Rwanda was shaken by an ethnic genocide. An estimated one million Tutsis were killed at the hands of the ethnic majority Hutus. In the aftermath, around 1.4 million Hutus fearing prosecution fled into Congo’s Eastern provinces, prompting Rwandan troops to invade the region in 1996, to root out remaining extremists responsible for the genocide. This led to the First Congo War.
In 1997 the Rwandan army was joined by Ugandan forces, forming a coalition that defeated Mobutu to install their own president, Laurent Désiré Kabila. In 1998, Kabila called on the Southern African Development Community to assist him in extricating Congo from the clutches of Rwanda and Uganda. Eventually, nine different African countries were engaged in combat on Congolese ground, lending this conflict the names Great African War and Second Congo War. An estimated 5.4 million Congolese perished – half of whom were children under the age of five – as a result of the conflict and conflict related causes. The Congo conflict is the deadliest in the world since World War Two.

The rampage of these armed groups set off a new era of violent conflict in the DRC, one in which African states of the Great lakes region would join the age-old scramble over the most profitable soil on earth. North and South Kivu are amongst the most mineral rich provinces of the Congo, and they have since been ravaged by territorial struggles. Western initiatives for peace, like the Lusaka Peace Agreement and Monusco, never seemed to have a lasting impact, besides the fact that they declare the presence and absence of violence in Eastern Congo, seemingly at random. The Second Congo War ‘ended’ in 2003. Fighting, killing and mass displacement have never ceased.

From the start of this conflict in the 90s to today, over 6 million Congolese people have died and another 7 million internally displaced, 25 million face starvation, meanwhile 70 million of Congo’s 100 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty on less than $2.15 a day. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the region have been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of armed men. People who’s villages got demolished in order to create new mines, are often left with no other option than to make their living in the cobalt mines, working in subhuman conditions. Men, women and children dig out the toxic ore with shovels and their bare hands, exposing themselves to the additional risk of pit wall collapses.

In the past two years the conflict has exacerbated, due to the resurgence of the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 that launched a string of offenses, killing and displacing thousands.

In spite of the enormous challenges faced by the Congolese people, frontline defenders at the epicenter of the conflict in the east, Indigenous communities in the rainforest in the north, youth organizers in the capital Kinshasa in the west and artisanal mining communities in the south are waging a courageous and dignified battle for peace, justice, and dignity in the heart of the African continent.

Fact Sheets

Basic Facts (PDF)
Women (PDF)
Cobalt (PDF)
Coltan (PDF)
Congo’s Minerals (PDF)
Historical Overview (PDF)
Climate Crisis & Congo Basin (PDF)
Ten Reasons Why Congo Matters (PDF)