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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Geography
  • Economy
  • Language
  • Literature
  • Arts and Music

African Studies Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
Brett Logan Carter, John F. Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0114


The Republic of the Congo (hereafter Congo), long overshadowed by its eastern neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has suffered a history no less tragic. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza won the right bank of the Congo River for France in the 1880s. Though Savorgnan de Brazza is regarded as a humanist by posterity, the early years of French colonial administration were marked by a concessionary regime, in which French companies forced indigenous populations to collect rubber and other natural resources with a mix of coercion and wages; the colonial administration then expropriated these wages with a poll tax. The early years of Congolese independence were marked by a series of popular protests and coups d‘état, culminating in Marxist dictatorship in 1968 and the rapid nationalization of private enterprise. Controlled by a clique of northern military officers, the Congolese government presided over an expanding oil sector that did little to raise the living standards of most Congolese citizens. Amid the global recession of the late 1980s, the 1991 National Conference stripped President Denis Sassou Nguesso of sovereign authority and organized Congo’s first free and fair elections. The period of optimism that accompanied President Pascal Lissouba’s 1992 inauguration was short-lived, however. As global oil prices rose, the state treasury became increasingly valuable to ambitious politicians. Sassou Nguesso, with the support of the French and Angolan governments, again seized power following the 1997 civil war, ushering in a decade of violence that cost the country 1 percent of its population. Sassou Nguesso has now ruled the country for all but five years since 1979, and though Brazzaville has largely recovered from war, Congo’s economy remains dominated by oil and subject to global market volatility. The country is marked by severe income inequality, with oil revenue controlled by Sassou Nguesso and his political allies. Scholarship has largely reflected Congo’s economic and political fortunes. Until roughly 1975, most students of Congo were based in Europe. They produced magisterial studies of precolonial and colonial Congolese society and assembled detailed collections of primary source material. In the early 1970s, economic historians, mostly Marxists, sought the causes of Congo’s economic stagnation. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, a new generation of Congolese writers contributed vitally to our knowledge of the country’s literature, performing arts, and political history. Congolese historiography, however, also became more overtly political, a trend that intensified as the civil wars of the late 1990s produced clear “winners” and “losers.”

General Overviews

There are a number of general overviews that usefully situate Congo in historical and regional context. Ghazvinian 2007 and Shaxson 2008 both explore the political implications of oil production in contemporary Africa, and both feature chapters on Congo. Ross 2012 is currently the leading account of the natural resource curse; the book places Congo in the context of global oil producers. Knight 2007 describes the economic and political conditions that led to the civil wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s in particularly accessible prose. Manning 1998 provides an excellent survey of Francophone Africa since the early colonial era, while Birmingham and Martin 1983–1998 does the same for Central Africa. Ballif 1993 and Soret 1978 remain the best introductions in the French language; the latter is more appropriate for longtime Africa specialists.

  • Ballif, Noël. Le Congo. Paris: Karthala, 1993.

    A general overview of the country’s geography, vegetation, cultural and religious traditions, economic development, and politics. Written by a noted French documentary film producer, the book is intended for a general audience.

  • Birmingham, David, and Phyllis M. Martin, eds. History of Central Africa. 3 vols. New York: Longman, 1983–1998.

    A three-volume overview of Central African history between 1400 and the late 20th centuries. The first volume includes an essay by Jan Vansina that discusses the Tio and Loango kingdoms of the precolonial period, while the second volume features an essay by Ralph Austen and Rita Headrick on the administration of French Equatorial Africa from Brazzaville. The third volume, published in 1998, features a comparative analysis of Gabon, Congo, and the Central African Republic.

  • Ghazvinian, John. Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007.

    A highly readable survey of oil-producing Africa: part travelogue, part analysis of the political implications of oil wealth. Although the portions on Congo are relatively brief, Gahzvinian underscores the relevance of French oil interests in the civil wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s; he also situates Congo in the broader context of Gulf of Guinea oil producers.

  • Knight, Cassie. Magic and Rebellion in the Republic of the Congo. London: Frances Lincoln, 2007.

    Features a series of historical and cultural reflections that contextualize the author’s experiences as an aid worker in Congo during the early 2000s. Knight focuses particular attention on the political and economic developments in the 1990s that led to the 1997 civil war.

  • Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880–1995. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    An excellent survey of Francophone Africa from early colonialism. Most importantly for scholars of Congo, Manning situates Congo in broader regional trends: French colonial administration, nationalist and independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, and postcolonial economic and political fortunes. He also includes chapters on culture and religion, as well as a number of useful maps.

  • Ross, Michael L. The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

    Currently the leading account of the political effects of oil wealth. Ross finds that oil-producing countries are nearly 50 percent more likely to suffer from civil wars than their non-oil-producing counterparts, and 50 percent more likely to be ruled by autocrats. Oil, Ross contends, enables autocrats to increase spending, reduce taxes, buy the loyalty of the armed forces, and conceal government corruption.

  • Shaxson, Nicholas. Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    A journalistic account of contemporary oil-producing Africa. Like Ghazvinian 2007, Shaxson situates Congo’s experience in broader continental trends; Shaxson’s account is distinctive for its focus on a handful of Congolese citizens who have campaigned—often at great personal risk—for transparency within the oil sector.

  • Soret, Marcel. Histoire du Congo: Capitale Brazzaville. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1978.

    A more thorough overview of Congolese history than Ballif 1993. Soret provides a detailed account of the economics of slavery in the precolonial period, with attention to the implications for domestic political organization. The latter half of the volume focuses on the evolution of French colonial administration and the popular protests that forced Youlou from power. Throughout, Soret includes quantitative data.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.