Republic, west-central Africa.
Area: 132,047 sq mi (342,000 sq km). Population (2008 est.):
3,847,000. Capital: Brazzaville. Roughly half of the population belongs
to one of the Kongo tribes. The Teke are less numerous, as are the
Mboshi and several other peoples. Languages: French (official), various
Bantu languages. Religions: Christianity (mostly Roman Catholic, also
independent Christians and Protestants); also traditional beliefs.
Currency: CFA franc. A narrow coastal plain edges Congo’s 100-mi
(160-km) stretch of Atlantic coastline, rising into low mountains and
plateaus that slope eastward in a vast plain to the Congo River. The
country straddles the Equator; rainforests cover nearly two-thirds of
the land, and wildlife is abundant. Congo has a mixed, developing
economy. Mining products, crude petroleum, and natural gas account for
more than 90% of the country’s exports. Congo is a republic with a
bicameral legislature; the chief of state is the president, and the head
of government is the prime minister. In precolonial days the area was
home to several thriving kingdoms, including the Kongo, which had its
beginnings in the 14th century ce. The slave trade began in the 15th
century with the arrival of the Portuguese; it supported the local
kingdoms and dominated the area until its suppression in the 19th
century. The French arrived in the mid-19th century and established
treaties with two of the kingdoms, placing them under French protection
prior to their becoming part of the colony of French Congo. In 1910 the
colony was renamed French Equatorial Africa, and the area of the Congo
became known as Middle (Moyen) Congo. In 1946 Middle Congo became a
French overseas territory, and in 1958 it voted to become an autonomous
republic within the French Community. Full independence came two years
later. The area has suffered from political instability since
independence. Congo’s first president was ousted in 1963. A Marxist
party, the Congolese Labor Party, gained strength; in 1968 another coup,
led by Maj. Marien Ngouabi, created the People’s Republic of the Congo.
Ngouabi was assassinated in 1977. A series of military rulers followed,
at first militantly socialist but later oriented toward social
democracy. Fighting between local militias in 1997 badly disrupted the
economy, and although a 2003 peace agreement largely ended the conflict,
sporadic violence continued.
Official name République du Congo (Republic of the Congo)
Form of government republic with two legislative houses (Senate ;
National Assembly )
Chief of state and government President assisted by the Prime Minister2.
Official language French3
Official religion none
Monetary unit CFA franc (CFAF)
Population estimate (2008) 3,847,000
Total area (sq mi) 132,047
Total area (sq km) 342,000
2Post of prime minister is extraconstitutional creation from January
3“Functional” national languages are Lingala and Monokutuba.
country situated astride the Equator in west-central Africa.
Officially known as the Republic of the Congo, the country is often
called Congo (Brazzaville), with its capital added parenthetically, to
distinguish it from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, which
is often referred to by its acronym, the DRC, or called Congo
Congo as a whole is sparsely inhabited, with more than half of its
population living in the cities. The most populous city is the capital,
Brazzaville, which is located in the southeastern corner of the country
and is a major inland port on the Congo River.
Congo is bounded to the northwest by Cameroon, to the north by the
Central African Republic, to the east and south by the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, to the southwest by the Angolan exclave of
Cabinda, and to the west by Gabon. South of its border with Gabon, the
country also has a 100-mile- (160-km-) long coastline along the Atlantic
Along the Atlantic Ocean, a coastal plain 40 miles (64 km) wide
stretches for about 100 miles (160 km) between Gabon and Cabinda. The
plain rises gradually from the sea eastward to the Mayombé Massif, a low
mountain range that parallels the coast. The Mayombé peaks are rugged
and separated by deep river gorges. Among these, Mount Berongou rises to
2,963 feet (903 metres).
East of the Mayombé Massif lies the Niari valley, a 125-mile-
(200-km-) wide depression, which historically has served as an important
passage between the inland plateaus and the coast. Toward the north the
valley rises gradually to the Chaillu Massif, which reaches elevations
of between 1,600 and 2,300 feet (490 and 700 metres) on the Gabon
border; in the south the depression rises to the Cataractes Plateau.
Beyond the Niari valley is a series of plateaus about 1,600 feet (490
metres) above sea level, separated by the deeply eroded valleys of
tributaries of the Congo River. The Bembe Plateau lies between the Niari
valley and the Chaillu Massif, while the Batéké Plateau stretches
northward along the Congo River from Brazzaville to Mpouya.
The northeast is part of the western Congo basin and is made up of a
vast 60,000-square-mile (155,000-square-km) plain that slopes eastward
from the western mountains and plateaus to the Congo River. Cut by
numerous tributaries, the plain is swampy and floods annually.
The country’s drainage system is dominated by the Congo River. The
Congo’s main northern tributary, the Ubangi River, flows southward from
the Central African Republic and forms the country’s eastern border as
far as the town of Liranga, where it joins the Congo proper. The main
river continues southward to Malebo Pool, a shallow 300-square-mile
(775-square-km) lake, and then on to Livingstone (Zongo) Falls before
turning southwest through Congo (Kinshasa) to the Atlantic Ocean. The
major right-bank tributaries of the Congo, all within the Congo
Republic, include the Sangha, Likouala, Alima, Nkéni, Léfini, Djoué, and
The coastal watershed is drained by the Kouilou River, which flows
southwestward for about 450 miles (725 km) from its source in the
plateau region to Kayes, where it empties into the Atlantic. From the
Niari valley to Makabana, where it joins the Louessé River to form the
Kouilou proper, it is called the Niari River. The stream is broken by
numerous waterfalls; the banks are irregular; and the mouth is blocked
to navigation by sandbars formed by the strong Benguela Current.
About two-thirds of the country is covered with coarse-grained soils
that contain sand and gravel. Lateritic soils, with a high proportion of
iron and aluminum sesquioxides, characterize low-lying areas. Because of
the hot and humid climate, organic matter is decomposed by rapid
bacterial action before it can accumulate into humus; moreover, topsoil
is washed away by the heavy rains. In the savanna regions, the fertile
alluvial soils are threatened with erosion by wind as well as rain. A
diverse pattern of coarse- and fine-grained soils covers the plateaus
The country’s tropical climate is characterized by heavy
precipitation and high temperatures and humidity. The Equator crosses
the country just north of Liranga. In the north a dry season extends
from November through March and a rainy season from April through
October, whereas in the south the reverse is true. On both sides of the
Equator, however, local climates exist with two dry and two wet seasons.
Annual precipitation is abundant throughout the country, but seasonal
and regional variations are important. Precipitation averages more than
48 inches (1,200 mm) annually but often surpasses 80 inches (2,000 mm).
Temperatures are relatively stable, with little variation between
seasons. More variation occurs between day and night, when the
difference between the highs and lows averages about 27 °F (15 °C). Over
most of the country, annual average temperatures range between the high
60s and low 80s F (low and high 20s C), although in the south the
cooling effect of the Benguela Current may produce temperatures as low
as the mid-50s F (low 10s C). The average daily humidity is about 80
Plant and animal life
Much of the country is covered with tropical rainforest, although
logging has cleared areas in the south. The dense growth of African oak,
red cedar, walnut, softwood okoumé, or gaboon mahogany, and hardwood
limba (Terminalia superba) remaining in some regions provides an
evergreen canopy over the sparse undergrowth of leafy plants and vines.
Coconut palms, mangrove forests, and tall grasses and reeds grow in the
coastal regions and eastern swamps. The plateaus and the Niari valley
are covered with grasses and scattered broad-leaved trees.
Several varieties of monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants,
okapis, wild boars, and buffaloes live in the forests. Wildlife in the
savanna regions includes antelopes, jackals, wild dogs, hyenas, and
cheetahs. On the plateaus, rhinoceroses and giraffes are numerous, but
lions are scarce. Birdlife includes predatory eagles, hawks, and owls,
scavenging vultures, and wading herons. Some one-sixth of Congolese
territory is protected; national parks include Nouabalé-Ndoki, in which
dwell more than 300 species of bird and more than 1,000 plant and tree
species, and Odzala-Kokoua, which is an important elephant and gorilla
Freshwater fish include perch, catfish, sunfish, and mudskippers.
Crocodiles inhabit the Congo River. The numerous snakes include such
poisonous varieties as cobra, green mamba, and puff adder, as well as
species of python. The most dangerous insects are tsetse flies, which
cause sleeping sickness in human beings and a similar disease, called
nagana, in cattle; and mosquitoes, which carry malaria and yellow fever.
About half of Congo’s inhabitants identify with the Kongo peoples,
whose major subgroups include the Sundi, Kongo, Lali, Kougni, Bembe,
Kamba, Dondo, Vili, and Yombe. The Ubangi peoples include the Makoua,
Kouyou, Mboshi, Likouala, Ngala, and Bonga. The Teke and the Sanga, or
“Gabonese Bantu,” are also divided into subgroups. The Binga Pygmies
live in small bands, usually as clients of surrounding farming peoples.
Of the Europeans who remained in Congo prior to the civil strife of the
late 1990s—many of whom were French and resided in the major cities—only
a fraction remain.
Except for the Pygmies and the Adamawa-Ubangi speaking populations
in the northeast, the indigenous peoples all speak Bantu languages.
Intergroup communication and trade fostered the development of two trade
languages, Lingala and Kituba (Mono kutuba). Lingala is spoken north of
Brazzaville, and Kituba is common in the area between the capital and
the coast. French is the official language and the medium of educational
instruction, as well as the language of the upper classes.
About one-fourth of the population practices traditional African
religions. Some three-fourths of the population is Christian, two-thirds
of which is Roman Catholic. The Protestant community includes members of
the Evangelical Church of the Congo. There are also independent African
churches; the Kimbanguist Church, the largest independent church in
Africa, is a member of the World Council of Churches. Other independent
churches include the Matsouana Church and the Bougist Church. Most of
the small Muslim community is made up of foreigners who reside in
Brazzaville or Pointe-Noire.
The country’s four main cultural regions developed from contact and
exchange between neighbouring clusters of peoples. The southern region
between Brazzaville and the coast is inhabited by the Kongo peoples.
Also in the south, the Teke inhabit the Batéké Plateau region. In the
north, the Ubangi peoples live in the Congo River basin to the west of
Mossaka, while the Binga Pygmies and the Sanga are scattered through the
northern basin. Precolonial trade between north and south stimulated
both cooperation and competition, while French favouritism toward the
peoples of the southwest and postindependence politics intensified
ethnic and regional rivalries. Massive internal migration and
urbanization since independence have reproduced these cleavages in the
cities and towns.
Population distribution within the country is very uneven. The
southwestern quarter of the country is home to the majority of the
population, while in the north and northeast, population is sparse. In
spite of the civil conflict of the late 1990s, which dampened the rate
of urbanization, Congo nevertheless remains highly urbanized relative to
the sub-Saharan African average, with more than one-half of the
population living in cities. Because the urban growth rate far exceeds
that of the country as a whole, urbanization continues to intensify.
Since this growth has been chiefly the result of internal migration,
most rural communities have ties to the larger national community and
The major cities are Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic coast,
Nkayi (formerly Jacob) in the Niari valley, and Loubomo (formerly
Dolisie) in the Mayombé region. Colonial creations by and large, the
cities reflect French influence: a central administrative and commercial
core is surrounded by residential areas. Before independence there was a
marked separation between the spacious planned European neighbourhoods
and the less-regimented, more populous African parts of town. Since
1960, however, greater social and economic mobility in the African
population, attempts at urban renewal, and massive rural-to-urban
migration have blurred these distinctions.
Like many African countries, Congo has a fast-growing, relatively
young population: the birth rate is among the world’s highest, and more
than two-fifths of the population is under 15 years of age. In the early
portions of the 20th century, however, the country was part of the
low-fertility belt, a region stretching from Gabon to Uganda where many
societies experienced little or no population growth. Life expectancy,
among the lowest on the continent prior to 1950, improved steadily in
the last half of the 20th century, and by the early 2000s it had
surpassed the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Urban in-migration has
long been an important demographic trend. During the colonial era, the
new colonial cities, and Brazzaville in particular, attracted African
migrants. Congo has since become one of the most urban countries of
Demographic trends have also been linked to local and neighbouring
patterns of conflict. More than one-third of the population was
estimated to have been displaced as a result of the civil conflict of
the late 1990s; many returned to their homes in 2000. In addition,
refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries—particularly the
Democratic Republic of the Congo but also Rwanda, Angola, and
elsewhere—have sought shelter in Congo.
Petroleum and mining are the major export industries, followed by
forestry and commercial agriculture. Light manufacturing (mostly shoes),
sugar processing, and assembly industries assumed greater importance in
the 1980s. These activities, however, employed only a small fraction of
the labour force, most of which worked in agriculture and the
nonsalaried informal urban economy.
In the late 1980s, following a fall in world oil prices, Congo
experienced a major financial crisis. Negotiations for aid from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank produced agreements
to privatize portions of the national economy and to reduce the national
bureaucracy. Such agreements may have improved the ability of Congo to
compete in the international economy; at the same time, they did little
to ameliorate the poverty of much of the population.
Congo continued to remain a heavily indebted country. Failure to make
payments on outstanding debts prompted the suspension of disbursements
by the World Bank in the late 1990s, shortly before the halt of all
international aid with the outbreak of civil conflict. In 2000 the IMF
approved emergency assistance, and the World Bank resumed its activities
in 2001; in November 2007 the London Club of creditors canceled some
four-fifths of Congo’s debt.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
For the most part, agriculture, which occupies more than one-third
of the workforce, is subsistence in nature. Poor soil and the lack of
fertilizers limit yields, and the country is not self-sufficient in food
production. Most of the cultivated land is in family holdings that are
too small for mechanized farming; international development strategies,
which are shaped by reliance on large-scale production, have yet to
devise effective ways to enhance small-scale production. In the savanna,
land is cleared by burning, and women work the fields with hand tools.
Cassava (manioc) is the basic food crop everywhere but in the south,
where bananas and plantains are prevalent. Rice is grown in the Niari
valley and in the north around Djambala. The diet is supplemented with
yams, taros, sweet potatoes, corn (maize), peanuts (groundnuts), and
fruit. Livestock consists of sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry. The
government has sponsored the raising of cattle since the introduction in
the 1960s of n’dama cattle, a breed resistant to the tsetse fly.
Sugarcane and tobacco are major cash crops. Palm kernels, cacao, and
coffee are grown in more modest amounts. Other cash crops include rice,
bananas, and cotton. Commercial agriculture and cattle ranching are
concentrated in the Niari valley.
Forest products accounted for more than 60 percent of the total
exports in the late 1960s. Two decades later, however, petroleum made up
more than 90 percent of exports, and it has remained the preeminent
export product since that time. The relatively accessible forestry
reserves of the country’s south have been exploited since the 1940s.
Although the extensive forest reserves of the north were previously out
of reach because of the region’s isolation, this changed rapidly from
the mid-1990s. Congo is among the world’s largest producers of limba and
okoumé woods. Products include logs, sawn wood, and veneers. Forestry
was largely under French control until the 1960s, when African
Commercial marine fishing is conducted off Pointe-Noire. The catch
includes tuna, bass, sole, and sardines. Freshwater fishing on the
rivers, lakes, and swamps is largely a subsistence activity. In the
early 2000s, industrial and artisanal fishing activities yielded a
roughly comparable catch.
Resources and power
Important resources include petroleum and natural gas, most of which
are produced in offshore fields. Large reserves of potash (potassium
chloride) are found at Tchitondi (Holle), 30 miles (48 km) northeast of
Pointe-Noire. Iron ore is found in the south and in the western Sangha
basin. Minor deposits of gold and diamonds are located in the Kouilou
valley, and there are copper and lead deposits west of Brazzaville.
There are also deposits of zinc, tin, uranium, bauxite, and titanium.
Forests of softwoods and hardwoods cover much of the country. The
rivers and lakes are home to substantial fish resources. Hydroelectric
power accounts for nearly all of the country’s domestic electricity
production; additional energy needs are met through imports, chiefly
from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The manufacturing sector is limited by small domestic markets,
dependence upon foreign investment, and a lack of skilled labour. Most
factories are located in Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, Kayes, Loubomo, and
towns in the Niari valley. Products include processed foods
(particularly flour and sugar), beer and other beverages, cigarettes,
textiles and clothing, footwear, processed wood and paper, chemicals,
cement and bricks, glassware, and metal goods such as nails and metal
furniture. The first petroleum refinery went into operation in 1976 at
Pointe-Noire. Handicrafts include carvings, pottery, needlework, tiles,
Finance and trade
Congo is a member of Financial Cooperation in Central Africa
(Coopération Financière en Afrique Centrale; CFA) and the Central
African Economic and Monetary Union (Communauté Économique et Monétaire
de l’Afrique Centrale; CEMAC). The central bank, Banque des États de
l’Afrique Centrale, is based in Cameroon and issues the CFA franc, the
currency used in CEMAC countries.
Congo’s chief export is petroleum, which accounts for the vast
majority of its export earnings; wood and wood products, including logs
and sawn timber, are also notable exports. Significant imports include
machinery and transport equipment, food and live animals, and basic
manufactures. Among Congo’s principal trade partners are France, the
United States, China, and Taiwan.
The contribution of the services sector, sizable in the early 1990s,
was diminished as a result of both the rise of the petroleum industry
and the effects of civil conflict. By the early 2000s services accounted
for more than two-fifths of the Congolese gross domestic product (GDP).
Diminished as a result of the instability of the late 1990s, the tourism
sector has been slowly recovering. The majority of tourists arrive from
France or from neighbouring countries.
Labour and taxation
Agriculture employs more than one-third of the labour force,
although it accounts for only a fraction of GDP. About three-fifths of
the workforce is engaged in the services and industry sector.
Among the taxes in Congo are those levied on income, including wages
and real-estate income; capital and property taxes, among them land and
stamp taxes; taxes on expenditure, such as the value-added tax and
excise taxes; and taxes on business activity, including business and
Transportation and telecommunications
Congo’s road system is most developed in the south. Major routes
link Brazzaville with Pointe-Noire and Loubomo with the Gabon border.
Many roads are impassable during the rainy season.
Railways are also concentrated in the south. The major Congo-Ocean
Railway line runs for about 320 miles (520 km) from Brazzaville west
through Nkayi and Loubomo to Pointe-Noire. There is also a 175-mile
(280-km) branch line from Favre north to Mbinda on the Gabon border.
These railways offer important transshipment services for neighbouring
countries, producing significant revenue. They are also important to
mining and industrial development, for most industrial towns are located
Water transportation has long linked Congo, Chad, and the Central
African Republic. The rivers, however, are interrupted by rapids and
subject to seasonal variations in flow. Brazzaville is linked by ferry
to Kinshasa, Dem. Rep. of the Congo. The capital is the most important
inland port; in Brazzaville passengers and freight traveling downriver
from Bangui, in the Central African Republic, transfer to the railroad
and continue on to the ocean port of Pointe-Noire. This seaport is the
major transshipment centre for these three countries as well as western
Cameroon, and it is one of Africa’s most important ports.
Fixed-line telephone services are generally of poor quality. Although
the number of main lines in use continued to increase modestly in the
early 2000s, overall access remained low, particularly in comparison
with cellular mobile telephones, the use of which was expanding rapidly.
Access to personal computers is generally modest, and the proportion of
the Congolese population that makes use of Internet services is low.
Government and society
Under the constitution of 2002, Congo is a republic. The executive
branch of the government is headed by the president, who is popularly
elected to a maximum of two seven-year terms and serves as both chief of
state and head of government. The president appoints the Council of
Ministers. The legislative branch is bicameral and consists of the
Senate and the National Assembly; members are elected to serve six-year
and five-year terms, respectively.
For administrative purposes, Congo is divided into regions and
districts. Brazzaville has the status of a capital district.
The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary.
Congo’s judicial system includes the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal,
and the Constitutional Court. The president heads a Higher Council of
Magistrates and nominates Supreme Court judges at the suggestion of that
council. Supreme Court judges may not be removed.
Since becoming a multiparty state in 1990, Congo has had more than
100 political parties. Among the most active are the Congolese Labour
Party (Parti Congolais du Travail; PCT), the Congolese Movement for
Democracy and Integral Development (Mouvement Congolais pour la
Démocratie et le Développement Intégral; MCDDI), the Pan-African Union
for Social Development (Union Panafricaine pour la Démocratie Sociale;
UPADS), Rally for Democracy and Social Progress (Rassemblement pour la
Démocratie et le Progrès Social; RDPS), and the Union for Democracy and
Republic (Union pour la Démocratie et la République; UDR).
Although ethnic discrimination is proscribed by law, in practice the
prohibition is not well enforced. Divisions along ethnic lines continue,
and although those outside the dominant groups participate effectively
in the government, the president’s group and those related to it factor
prominently in the political process. Women have served in various
government posts, including the National Assembly, the Senate, and the
Council of Ministers.
Congo’s defense apparatus consists of an army, a navy, an air force,
a gendarmerie, and a special presidential security force, among which
the army is the largest contingent. Service is on a voluntary basis and
lasts for two years.
Health and welfare
The most common health problems are respiratory diseases, malaria,
tuberculosis, and intestinal parasites—all preventable maladies. Other
diseases include trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), yellow fever,
leprosy, yaws, and HIV/AIDS. Although the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in
Congo is below the average for sub-Saharan Africa, it nevertheless
remains substantially higher than the global average.
Disease control is difficult because most water sources are polluted
and sanitation is poor, even in the cities. Two of the largest hospitals
are in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. Other health facilities include
regional health centres, infirmaries, dispensaries, maternal and
child-care centres, and private clinics. Mobile health units combat
communicable diseases in remote areas.
Education is free and compulsory for students between ages 6 and 16.
Primary education, which begins at age six and lasts for six years,
includes instruction in agriculture, manual skills, and domestic
science. Secondary-level education is made up of two cycles of four and
three years, respectively; courses are offered in vocational training,
academic and technical training, general education, and teacher
training. Institutions of higher learning include Marien Ngouabi
University (1961; present name assumed in 1977) in Brazzaville and
colleges and centres for specialized and technical training. Congo
enjoys a literacy rate that is significantly higher than most countries
in sub-Saharan Africa for both men and women, although a notable gap in
literacy between the genders remains.
Precolonial artistic expression emphasized ceremonial music, dance,
sculpture, and oral literature. Christianity and colonialism had a great
impact on these art forms. The carving of ritual objects became
commercialized, and music and dance altered as a result of the
introduction of Western instruments and musical styles. In the 1980s the
Brazzaville region, along with Kinshasa, across the river in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, became a vital centre for the
production of contemporary African music, known as Congolese music or
rumba. The genre, which mixes traditional African rhythms and
instruments with those borrowed from other cultures, enjoys widespread
popularity throughout Africa as well as around the world.
Holidays observed in Congo include those celebrated by Christians
around the world, such as Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. Labour Day
and Independence Day are observed on May 1 and August 15, respectively.
There are a number of libraries in Brazzaville, including the national
library. The Marien Ngouabi Museum in Brazzaville has an excellent
collection of indigenous masks from groups throughout the Congo River
basin, particularly those of the Kongo people, who trace their ancestry
back to the Kongo kingdom that ruled parts of both modern-day Congo and
Sports and recreation
Football (soccer) is very popular in Congo. The Congolese Football
Federation was founded in 1962 and affiliated with the Fédération
Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) that same year. The men’s
national team, nicknamed the Diables Rouges (“Red Devils”), won the
opening African Games tournament at home in 1965 and won their first
African Cup of Nations in 1972. Besides football, men’s and women’s
basketball and women’s volleyball are popular. Congo first competed in
the Olympic Games at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Media and publishing
Radio and television programs are broadcast on both state-owned and
private stations in a variety of languages. The majority of Congolese
receive their news through broadcast media and, in rural areas,
particularly by means of state-run radio. Although the constitution
provides for freedom of speech, some actions, including those that
incite ethnic strife or civil war, are punishable by law. Both the
government-owned and private broadcast media tend to be pro-government,
and journalists often practice self-censorship.
The majority of print media are circulated in the urban centres of
Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. Important periodicals include the
French-language weeklies Le Choc, Les Echos du Congo (pro-government),
L’Observateur (independent), and Le Semaine Africaine (Roman Catholic).
Dennis D. Cordell
Human habitation of the Congo basin came relatively late in the
Sangoan era (100,000 to 40,000 bce; see Sangoan industry), perhaps
because of the dense forest. The people who used the large-core bifacial
Sangoan tools probably subsisted by gathering food and digging up roots;
they were not hunters.
Refined versions of this tradition continued through the Lupemban
(40,000 to 25,000 bce; see Lupemban industry) and Tshitolian eras. The
early inhabitants of these eras were farmer-trappers, fishing peoples,
and Pygmy hunters. People lived in households that included kin and
unrelated individuals; at the centre of the household was a “big man,”
who represented the group. Mobility—of individuals, groups, goods, and
ideas—figured prominently and created a common social environment. Such
intercommunication is evident from the closely related Bantu languages
of the region. Speakers of Adamawa-Ubangi languages lived in the north
but maintained ties with their forest neighbours. Research now suggests
that agriculture emerged among the western Bantu of the savannas
adjacent to the lower Congo River in the 1st millennium bce—much earlier
than previously thought.
Larger-scale societies based on clans whose members lived in
different villages, village clusters with chiefs, and small forest
principalities emerged between 1000 and 1500 ce. Chiefdoms on the
southern fringes became more complex, and three kingdoms eventually
developed: Loango, at the mouth of the Kouilou River on the Atlantic
coast; Kongo, in the far southwest; and Tio (Anziku), which grew out of
small chiefdoms on the plains north of Malebo Pool. Rulers derived power
from control over spirit cults, but trade eventually became a second
pillar of power.
In 1483 the Portuguese landed in Kongo. Initially, relations between
the Kongolese and Portuguese rulers were good. Characterized by the
exchange of representatives and the sojourn of Kongolese students in
Portugal, this period was a harbinger of late 20th-century technical
assistance. Unfortunately, the need of Portuguese planters on São Tomé
for slaves had undermined this amicable arrangement by the 1530s.
Between 1600 and 1800, the slave trade expanded enormously. Local
leaders challenged state control; among the Tio, the western chiefs
became more autonomous. Contact with Europeans also introduced New World
food crops; corn (maize) and cassava (manioc) allowed greater population
densities. This, along with the emergence of a “market” for foodstuffs,
led to greater use of slaves, intensified women’s work, and changed the
division of labour between the sexes.
The colonial era
By the early 19th century, the Congo River had become a major avenue
of commerce between the coast and the interior. Henry Morton Stanley, a
British journalist, explored the river in 1877, but France acquired
jurisdiction in 1880 when Pierre de Brazza signed a treaty with the Tio
ruler. The formal proclamation of the colony of French Congo came in
1891. Early French efforts to exploit their possession led to ruthless
treatment of the local people and the subjection of the territory to
extreme exploitation by concessionary companies. Brazza returned in 1905
to lead an inquiry into these excesses. In 1910 the French joined Congo
with neighbouring colonies, creating a federation of French Equatorial
Africa, with its capital at Brazzaville.
The French were preoccupied with acquiring labour. Forced labour,
head taxes, compulsory production of cash crops, and draconian labour
contracts forced Africans to build infrastructure and to participate in
the colonial economy. No project was more costly in African lives than
the Congo-Ocean Railway, built between 1921 and 1934 from Pointe-Noire
to Brazzaville; between 15,000 and 20,000 Africans died.
In 1940 Congo rallied to the Free French forces. Charles de Gaulle,
Gov.-Gen. Félix Éboué, and African leaders held a conference in
Brazzaville in 1944 to announce more liberal policies. In 1946 Congo
became an overseas territory of France, with representatives in the
French Parliament and an elected Territorial Assembly. Ten years later,
the loi cadre (“enabling act”) endowed the colony with an elected
government. Congo became a republic within the French Community in 1958
and acquired complete political independence on Aug. 15, 1960.
Congo since independence
Two major parties existed at independence: the African Socialist
Movement (Mouvement Socialiste Africain; MSA) and the Democratic Union
for the Defense of African Interests (Union Démocratique pour la Défense
des Intérêts Africains; UDDIA). The two parties pitted the north against
the south, an opposition that stemmed from the privileged place occupied
by the southern Kongo and Vili in the colonial era. The two parties also
had different political philosophies. The MSA favoured a powerful state
and a partially publicly owned economy; the UDDIA advocated private
ownership and close ties with France. UDDIA leader Fulbert Youlou formed
the first parliamentary government in 1958; in 1959 he became premier
Corruption, incompetence, mass disapproval, general strikes, and lack
of French support led to Youlou’s ouster in 1963. His successor,
Alphonse Massamba-Débat, shifted policies to the left, notably by
founding the National Revolutionary Movement (Mouvement National de la
Révolution; MNR) as the sole party. The country sought assistance from
the Soviet Union and China and voted with the more radical African
states in world forums. Regionally, Congo extended concrete support and
offered a geographic base for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of
Angola (MPLA), the Marxist movement that won independence for that
country. Congo also offered asylum to the Patrice Lumumba followers who
fled the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (from 1971 to
1997 called Zaire).
Regionalism and policy failures led the military to replace
Massamba-Débat with Maj. Marien Ngouabi in 1968. Ngouabi maintained a
socialist line, renaming the country the People’s Republic of the Congo
on Dec. 31, 1969; the Congolese Labour Party (Parti Congolais du
Travail; PCT) replaced the MNR as sole ruling party at the same time.
Ngouabi was a northerner, and his regime shifted control of the country
away from the south. Such moves created opposition among workers and
students in the highly politicized environment of Brazzaville and other
southern urban centres. Ngouabi was assassinated in March 1977. His
successor, the more conservative Col. Joachim Yhombi-Opango, soon
clashed with the PCT, and Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso replaced
Yhombi-Opango in 1979.
Although Sassou-Nguesso represented the more militant wing of the
PCT—and immediately introduced a new constitution intended as a first
step toward building a Marxist-Leninist society—he paradoxically
improved relations with France and other Western countries. The regime’s
political language became more moderate, but inefficient state
enterprises created by earlier socialist policies remained in operation
in the early 1980s. In the 1970s they had been subsidized by petroleum
production, but the subsequent drop in oil and other raw material prices
led to economic crisis. The external debt surpassed $1.5 billion in
1985, and debt service consumed 45 percent of state revenue.
Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund the following year led
to an agreement to help the national economy in exchange for cuts in
public spending and in the state bureaucracy.
Dennis D. Cordell
In 1991 a new constitution was drafted, and it was adopted by
referendum in March 1992. Pascal Lissouba defeated Bernard Kolélas and
Sassou-Nguesso and acceded to the presidency following elections that
August. A period of shaky parliamentary government ensued. Competing
politicians built followings by politicizing ethnic differences and
sponsoring militias such as the Cocoye, Cobra, and Ninja groups (aligned
with Lissouba, Sassou-Nguesso, and Kolélas, respectively), which led to
civil conflict in 1994 and 1997. With the support of France and
Angola—whose government was troubled by Lissouba’s support for the
National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para
a Independência Total de Angola; UNITA) and other rebels fighting for
the independence of the exclave of Cabinda—Sassou-Nguesso led a
successful insurrection against the government in 1997 and reclaimed the
presidency late in the year. However, violence spiraled beyond the
control of the leaders who instigated it. A devastating civil war raged
for the next two years, in which forces loyal to Kolélas and to the
ousted Lissouba—both of whom had since left the country—battled
government troops for control. A truce was signed between the warring
parties in late 1999 in an attempt to reopen a national dialogue.
Additional talks held in early 2000 were positive, and by the end of the
year the government was able to focus on drafting a new constitution and
planning the country’s future.
The new constitution was promulgated in January 2002, and
Sassou-Nguesso was reelected president in March; around the same time,
rebels resumed fighting in southern Congo, displacing tens of thousands
of Congolese by late May. Legislative elections held that month were
marred by violence and allegations of fraud. The violence and fighting
continued throughout the summer, primarily in the southern part of the
country, and finally ceased when a peace agreement was reached in early
2003. Congo’s newfound peace provided stability and cultivated the
opportunity for progress, and the country enjoyed an improved economic
and political climate. Despite these promising steps, sporadic
instability continued—especially in the south, in the Pool region in
particular—and civilians again faced displacement.
Dennis D. Cordell
The 2009 presidential election, held on July 12, was boycotted by the
main opposition candidates, and Sassou-Nguesso was reelected by a wide
margin of victory. Although the opposition and some organizations
claimed that there were incidents of fraud and intimidation,
international observers from the African Union declared the election
free and fair.