In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Data Sources
  • Yearbooks
  • Society and Cultures
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Women and Gender
  • Urbanization
  • Language
  • Literature
  • Art
  • Music
  • Philosophy

African Studies Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
Thomas Turner, Robert E. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0023


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) lies astride the equator, with a small coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The country corresponds to a great extent to the basin of the Congo River. Although there is savanna (grassland) in the north and south of the country, the central basin is covered with equatorial rain forest. The DRC is the second-largest state in Africa (after Algeria) and is fourth largest in population (after Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia). The DRC is extremely well endowed in mineral resources (including gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, tin, and tantalum). The poverty of most Congolese stands in stark contrast to the country’s underground riches. The DRC has been the site of widespread conflict on three occasions since the late 19th century. During the partition of Africa (1880s and thereafter) imperial rivalries and the forcible extraction of natural resources (especially ivory and rubber) led to enormous loss of life. In the era of decolonization (1960 and thereafter), Congo was the site of Cold War rivalries and domestic strife. Beginning in the 1990s the country was invaded by its neighbors; “conflict minerals” financed armed groups from abroad and from within the DRC. Again, Congolese civilians suffered tremendous loss of life. The Congo Free State (État Indépendant du Congo) of Leopold II won international recognition in 1885. Following an international scandal provoked by massive human rights abuses, the Free State was transformed into an orthodox colony, the Belgian Congo, in 1908. Congo gained its independence in 1960, as the Republic of the Congo, and changed its name to Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1964. The president, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, changed the country’s name to Zaire in 1971 (and changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko). Upon overthrowing Mobutu in 1997, Laurent Desire Kabila changed the name back to Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country often is called Congo-Kinshasa, to distinguish it from the former French Congo (Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville). There is a vast amount of literature on the DRC. This work is spread around but is accessible especially in Brussels and the Brussels suburb of Tervuren, at the Museé royal de l’Afrique centrale. Principal controversies in the study of the history and politics of the DRC include the extent to which Congo is a typical African state or sui generis and the extent to which models derived from other continents (feudalism, social class, elites, patrimonialism, and even the state) can be applied to Congolese realities. Various authors debate the autonomy of different sectors (e.g., politics and the economy, religion and politics). Historians debate methods (e.g., oral history, analysis of documents and discourse, structuralism; the use of game theory by Robert Harms is a welcome innovation). Political scientists search for methods and techniques, because those they use elsewhere (public-opinion sampling, models of decision making) seem rather irrelevant.

General Overviews

The country study of Meditz and Merrill 1994 is the final volume in the Library of Congress Federal Research Division’s Area Handbook series and remains an important resource, combining essays and bibliography. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has not been dealt with under the division’s Country Profiles (online), which succeeded the hardcover handbook series.

  • Meditz, Sandra W., and Timothy Merrill, eds. Zaire: A Country Study. 4th ed. Area Handbooks. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1994.

    Chapters on historical background, the society and its environment, the economy, government and politics, national security. Numerous maps and tables; lengthy bibliography. Text available online.

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