14 minute read

Democratic Congo

History & Background

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, covers 905,063 miles—making it one quarter the size of the United States. Its capital, Kinshasa, has approximately 4.2 million inhabitants, making it twice the size of St. Louis, Missouri, and almost as large as Chicago. Some 52 million people live in the DRC. People can vote once they reach the age of 18. The population is growing at 3.19 percent per year, which is very fast, and young people are the vast majority. Many people are age 15 years or younger. The rural population is dominant as 71 percent of the total. Only 29 percent of the population live in cities. The major languages spoken are French and Lingala in the capital as well as equator region and Upper-DRC, followed by Kingwana and Swahili in Kivu, Shaba, and the Eastern provinces, Kikongo in Lower DRC and Bandundu, and Tshiluba spoken in Kasai. Despite the fact that Arab slave traders from Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on the east coast of Africa introduced Swahili as the language of the slave trade, most people in the eastern DRC speak Swahili. Swahili is the lingua franca of the eastern one-third of the DRC, despite the bitter memories of slavery associated with it and the Nyamwezi and Arab slave traders who brought the language to the DRC. Swahili is a Bantu language, and most of the DRC's 200 ethnic groups are Bantu speaking people. An estimated 70 percent of the population is Christian, 20 percent follow indigenous faiths, and 10 percent are Muslims.

Life expectancy for males is 47 years and for females it is 51 years. Malaria, AIDS, and other diseases are common and keep the population from experiencing explosive growth. The infant mortality rate is 101.6 per 1,000, and there is one doctor for every 15,584 people. Most health care is concentrated in a few large cities. The adult literacy rate is 77.3 percent. This is a result of Joseph Desire Mobutu's dictatorship of the late twentieth century in which the needs of the people and country were neglected. Education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 12. There is 1 internet provider, 21,000 telephones, and 3 daily newspapers per 1,000 people, so information is difficult to acquire for many people in the DRC. The DRC has 97,340 miles of roads, but many are in such poor condition that people prefer to fly between destinations. There are 3,206 miles of railroad lines, 232 airfields, and 530,000 cars and trucks on DRC's roads. Despite the nation's vast mineral wealth the per capita income is a mere $710 per year. The GDP is growing at a rate of 1 percent per year, and there are approximately 14.5 million laborers in the workforce. The DRC has cobalt, copper, cadmium, petroleum, zinc, diamonds, manganese, tin, gold, silver, bauxite, iron ore, hydroelectric power, timber, coffee, palm oil, rubber, tea, manioc, bananas, corn, fruits, sugarcane, and much more. There are cement, mining, diamond, and light industries that process consumer products.


Political History: Europe has brought many new ways of doing things to the DRC, but historically its influence has been negative as well. When kings of the ancient Kongo kingdom asked Portuguese rulers for metal nails so that they could build modern homes and ships, they were denied access to this technology and encouraged to trade their own people as slaves instead. Portugal paid for each slave in guns, which set off a destructive arms race still seen in the Civil War that occurred in the 1990s. Belgium's King Leopold was notoriously cruel toward the population of the DRC after declaring the country a colony of Belgium. He brutally coerced the population of the DRC into hunting elephants to provide him with ivory to sell. He encouraged the growth of rubber plants. Those who either did not grow rubber or did not work fast enough to please Leopold's agents had their right hand or foot cut off. He destroyed whole villages to intimidate regions into working for him without pay. Some experts estimate that Leopold killed more than 10 million Africans over a period of 20 years. The people of Belgium eventually forced the King to abdicate his throne and started a series of reforms which ended Leopold's outrageous atrocities.

Belgium ruled the DRC from 1908 until its independence in 1960. Labor was recruited by corvee or force through local chiefs who collaborated with European authorities. Concessionaire companies forced laborers to work on plantations and in mines. Health and education were offered to African families that collaborated and withheld from those who resisted European rule. Few high schools were built and there was no local university in the DRC under Belgium colonial rule. At independence only 16 people from the DRC had earned any type of university degree. This elite was called evolues (developed or civilized ones) and worked with Belgium to rule the DRC. Union leaders and urban residents caught independence fever during the 1950s. Political change was sweeping across Africa, and the DRC was caught up in it as well.

A political crisis erupted culminating in independence on 30 June 1960. Joseph Kasavubu became President and Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the DRC. The army mutinied and soon chaos ensued during which hatred of their white former colonial masters led to atrocities being committed against whites, many of whom were killed in the violence that broke out. Those who weren't killed fled the country. The wealthy Katanga province seceded, as did Kasai. Lumumba asked the UN for help and requested aid in the form of troops from the Soviet Union. The head of the army, Joseph Desire Mobutu, eventually eliminated Lumumba, and after a power struggle between Moise Tshombe and President Kasavubu, Mobutu assumed power. Mobutu was completely ruthless and very energetic in crushing rebellion after rebellion. Mobutu banned party politics and established a one-party state in which all power was concentrated in the hands of the "Founding Father." Every citizen of the DRC was expected to join Mobutu's Popular Revolutionary Movement (MPR), which was neither popular nor revolutionary. Mobutu was known as "the Guide," and his words, deeds, and decrees became law. Everyone was required to sing his praises at work, in school, and even in churches. He coined the term "authenticity," which meant rejection of European values and norms. He encouraged, for example, women to traditionally braid their hair, and the abandonment of European names for authentic African ones. At the same time he helped Europe rape the DRC of her mineral wealth. Mobutu changed the name of the country from the Belgium Congo to Zaire, a Kikongo word for "river." Mobutu briefly nationalized a few companies to give his program some teeth. This was in essence a sham to cover up the massive enrichment of a small African elite, which included Mobutu. They colluded with external business interests for profit while ignoring the nation's needs. By the mid-1970s Mobutu had amassed a personal fortune of over $5 billion which made him the "richest man in Africa." He owned villas and mansions worldwide and, it is alleged, even bought one entire city block in both New York city and Paris.

With Mobutu stealing billions and his cronies stealing millions, the country operated on a system of bribery and corruption. Common people suffered the most under this system. By 1990 real wages in cities had fallen to 2 percent of what they were at independence in 1960. Rural incomes fell to one fifth of what they were under an exploitative Belgium colonial government. People looked back at the colonial era nostalgically as hyper inflation eroded their meager earning further each day. Internal trade ground to a virtual halt and farmers uprooted cash crops and planted food to live on. Roads deteriorated so badly that trade was discouraged and people reverted to subsistence living. More than 30 percent of the national budget went to service IMF and debts on loans that allowed the rich to steal and forced the poor to pay the tab. Thus, despite U.S. support that propped up Mobutu, internal opposition continued to grow.

Mobotu's opponents were legendary, but he hunted down and killed most, often with help from Moroccan, French, or US military personnel. A few of Lumumba's left-leaning colleagues continued to try to establish a socialist state, despite Mobutu's depredations. These men were romantic figures, some of whom had been trained by the charismatic Cuban companion of Fidel Castro, Che Guevera. Laurent Kabila, was one of these shadowy figures. He created a base in eastern DRC and looked forward to the day when he could inspire the people of the DRC to rise up and overthrow Mobutu and establish a regime responsive to the common person's needs and aspirations. The 1994 Hutu genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu provided Kabila with the opportunity that he had been waiting for. When the Tutsi living in exile in Uganda attacked Rwanda and captured the country to stop the genocidal killings, the Hutu extremists fled Rwanda and sought asylum in the DRC. From refugee camps in the DRC, the perpetrators of the genocide plotted their return to power in Rwanda. They ordered and received weapons from France, which they then used to stage attacks on the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Tutsi feared that the Hutu would use the refugee camps in DRC to rearm, retrain, and invade Rwanda to finish killing the Tutsi. The Hutu in the DRC did begin to attack Tutsi who were citizens of the DRC, and the Rwandan Tutsi came to their defense. Once inside the DRC, Tutsi soldiers began closing refugee camps for Hutus who had escaped. Tutsi soldiers tried to locate the Hutu who were involved in the genocide in Rwanda in order to bring them to justice. The Tutsi hoped to prevent Hutu extremists from recapturing Rwanda and completing the massacre of Tutsi people. Tutsi fear of Hutu assassins was what eventually initiated the war in the DRC. Once Tutsi soldiers were inside the DRC, they looked for allies and found one in Laurent Kabila. Mobutu supported the Hutu extremists thus the Tutsi felt that it was in their best interests to topple his regime. In their minds he was aiding and abetting those bent on genocide in Rwanda. Together with Kabila's forces they defeated the Hutu extremists and closed the refugee camps. They then defeated Mobutu's troops and marched toward the DRC's capital, Kinshasa, to capture the country. Because Mobutu had oppressed the citizens of the DRC for so long, they welcomed Kabila and his Tutsi allies as liberators.

Immediately, after Kabila came to power, he changed the country's name to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo" or DRC. Kabila also immediately announced short term plans to create jobs and build roads, hospitals, schools, and a national fuel supply line. All of these measures resonated well with the common people and in the beginning enhanced Kabila's popularity. Unfortunately Mobutu and his supporters had moved most of the DRC's wealth into banks in Europe and America, and Kabila inherited a treasury that was bankrupt.

Kabila unfortunately turned out not to be the hero that he had been welcomed as when he invaded Kinshasa in 1997. The leader of a nonviolent movement that had struggled to overthrow Mobutu peacefully, Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba was, for example, assaulted by Kabila's men soon after Kabila assumed the office of head of state. From that point on the people of the DRC began to worry that they had simply replaced one brutal dictator with another. Kabila allowed the country's decaying infrastructure to disintegrate even further. Mineral rich Katanga was inundated with 2 million refugees from Rwanda, as was the mineral rich province of Kasai. Kabila's Popular Movement of the Revolution ruled the DRC with an iron fist. His Rwandan and Ugandan backers opposed his type of leadership and eventually asked him to step down. Kabila immediately called both the Rwandans and the Ugandans foreigners who were trying to manipulate the DRC and turned the nation against them. Internal war erupted. Uganda and Rwanda backed rebel groups, and Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe backed Kabila and his government forces. A member of Kabila's presidential guard eventually assassinated him, and his son, Joseph Kabila, took over. Joseph asked former Botswana President Sir Ketumile Masire, who had previously attempted to start peace talks but has been thrown out by Kabila, to return, invited UN troops to broker a withdrawal of all foreign troops, and opened talks with the rebel groups. Joseph's flexibility may make peace possible. Whether he can rule the DRC is a different matter. Joseph was raised in Tanzania and is not fluent in either French or Lingala. He is learning French fast but still gives all public speeches in English, which many people in the DRC cannot understand. The future of the DRC is thus still very uncertain.

Educational History: Although the Portuguese took a few Kongolese to Europe to teach them to speak Portuguese and to learn European culture, real Western education did not begin in the DRC until 1906 when the Roman Catholic Church established schools in return for government grants and land concessions. Belgium made the Catholic Church responsible for education under the terms of the 1906 agreement between the Vatican and the government of Belgium. These schools or Ecoles Libres Subsidiees formed the backbone of the educational system until 1948. The Catholics monopolized education throughout this early period.

Catholic schools taught religion and won converts, while also teaching utilitarian subjects that made Congo's population more useful to Belgium. First level primary schools were known as ecole primaire du degre ordinaire. Students began at age six and went to school for five years. Students who successfully completed only the first level of primary school were not considered candidates for secondary school. However, they were eligible to go on to second level primary schools known as, ecole primaire du degre selectionne.


This level took an additional six years to complete. Very few students went on to secondary school. Most were enrolled in the first level primary schools where reading, writing, mathematics, and French were stressed. Upon completion most went immediately into the labor force.

Secondary schools were specialized, somewhat like "A" levels in the British system and comparable to junior colleges. After finishing secondary school, many students spent an additional year taking college preparatory courses to help to qualify to enter universities. During the colonial era, the number of Africans who reached this level was so negligible that for all intents and purposes it was as if none did. Church schools, which received government subsidies were called regime congolaise. Schools that were for Europeans only were known as regime metropolitain. The curriculum in the African schools was far less rigorous than in the European schools where it was assumed that most students would go on to the university. In this two-tiered system equity did not exist. In 1954, the Belgium colonial government tried to remedy this problem by creating secular secondary schools called ecoles laiques or ecoles officelles, which were separate but allegedly equal to the regime metropolitain for whites. This was an apartheid-styled educational system. The aim was to provide minimal or basic education, not complete education. It was an education for servitude, rather than an education that made independent thinkers of learners who became problem solvers. Those who were allowed to receive secondary education concentrated on agriculture and industry, rather than academic preparation for leadership.

Two Catholic universities were created in 1954; the Lovanium and the Universite Officielle du Congo. They planned to prepare a well-educated African elite who would eventually assume power in a peaceful transfer of authority. They were overtaken by events before this could happen, so at independence the African population did not have enough educated individuals to efficiently run a modern government. The world blamed Belgium for failing to prepare them in time. Consequently the world judged the Belgium Colonial educational system a failure, compared to the British and French systems of colonial education.

The newly independent government abolished the regime congolaise in 1960 and adopted the regime metropolitain for all. This was seen as fair and nondiscriminatory. Primary education was reduced to one six year course, which fed into secondary schools without a second level of primary education. Educational opportunities at all levels expanded rapidly for Africans. This created a teacher shortage and the Peace Corps, Belgium, and France sent volunteer teachers to the DRC to fill the void. Primary enrollment increased from approximately 1.6 million students in 1960 to approximately 3.2 million in 1970. By 1990, primary enrollment had skyrocketed to almost 4.6 million students, of whom 43 percent were females. Numbers released in 1996 show that enrollment climbed again to more than 5.4 million (a record number) primary students, but female enrollment declined to 41 percent. Similarly, secondary enrollment steadily climbed after independence from 25,000 students in 1960 to 266,000 secondary school pupils in 1970, a huge increase of 18 percent per year. By 1990, secondary enrollment had reached almost 1.1 million, of whom 32 percent were females. It topped out in 1996 at a little more than 1.5 million students, despite the turmoil gripping the DRC at that time. Female secondary school enrollment increased to 38 percent in 1996.

In 1971, Protestants added a third university known as Universite Libre du Congo. Other institutes of higher learning known as institutes superieurs or institutes of higher education helped train a modernizing workforce. There were 27 of these and together with instituts techniques or technical institutes they tried to add vocational skills to the labor pool. There were 12 such technical institutes. These schools taught technical and vocational subjects as well as humanities, arts, and social science courses. In 1990, some 40,000 students were enrolled in the DRC's universities. By 1996, there were more than 93,000 university students.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceDemocratic Congo - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education