The Congo: Politics, Economy & Culture (1945-Present)

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  • 0:03 Achieving Independence
  • 1:22 Government of the Congo
  • 3:08 Economy of the Congo
  • 4:11 People of the Congo
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Democratic People's Republic of the Congo could be the richest country in the world. However, chronic mismanagement has left it as one of the poorest. This lesson explains how that happened.

Achieving Independence

Few places suffered so much under European colonization as the Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony in West Africa that existed in the early 20th century. An area roughly the size of Western Europe, the region was administered as the personal domain of the King of Belgium, meaning that Belgian law did not necessarily apply there.

Encompassing much of the basin of the Congo River, one of the longest waterways in the world, the river acted as a funnel, allowing all sorts of goods to funnel towards the Atlantic Ocean and the Congo's main port and capital, Leopoldville. In addition to countless atrocities against the natives, the Belgians also extended the ivory trade deeper into Africa from this point, causing much environmental damage.

After World War II, riots and uprising ensued, ultimately leading both to independence and a massive drain of practically all the country's professional class. Due to colonial regulations, these jobs had been limited to Europeans and when the new Democratic Republic of the Congo became independent, there was little incentive for these Europeans to stay. However, it wasn't just a lack of professionals that seemed to keep the country from the sort of democratic future that it had hoped for.

Government of the Congo

Almost from the onset of independence, an army leader named Joseph-Desiré Mobutu gained power. After reassuring Belgian and American officials that he would not fall into the Soviet sphere of influence, he took Western aid as a blank check to run the country as his own personal fiefdom. Widespread corruption crippled the country, even as massive amounts of aid flowed in. He renamed the capital Kinshasa and changed the name of the whole country to Zaire, believing it to be more evocative of the country's African nature. He even renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, eschewing his birth name's European nature.

If there was a way for a dictator to act corrupt and excessive, Mobutu not only did it, but took it to new heights. He had private shopping trips to Paris aboard the Concorde and mansions scattered throughout the country to rival those of any billionaire, all the while denouncing policies of any nation but his own and committing rampant human rights violations.

With the end of the Cold War, the West saw no reason to entertain the reign of Mobutu anymore and when a revolt started in Zaire, he was promptly sent into exile. Since then, the country changed its name back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but has been essentially paralyzed due to a complete lack of infrastructure. This is directly retraceable to the vast amounts of mismanagement during the Mobutu years and is evident to anyone who has ever visited the DRC. Still, people continue on in the same jobs that they have had for years, without any real hope of being paid.

Economy of the Congo

That said, no other country has the sheer economic potential that the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses, even today. While the Belgians may have seen the area as a vast area full of potential for ivory, the DRC possesses trillions of dollars in untapped minerals, ranging from gold and diamonds to uranium and even rare earth metals for use in smart phones. The Congo River is ripe for hydroelectric power and the population, especially those of working age, is remarkably well-versed in the French language.

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