What Is the Congo and Whatever Happened to Zaire?

The Two Congos Explained

What is The Congo? Some might know it a 1980 science fiction novel by Michael Crichton, but what we’re focusing on here is the country. Or more specifically, two countries in central Africa.

If you look at a map of Africa, you may be surprised (or confused!) to see that there are two countries sharing the Congo name – both of which border the Congo River. They are the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. However a lot more than just the word “Democratic” sets these two nations apart.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the larger of the two Congos. With some 75 million residents, it is Africa’s second largest country by area. It is also considered one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. When people say the “Congo”, they are usually referring to the DRC.

Modern humans have been living in the territory around the DRC for thousands of years. From the 14th to the 19th century, an independent state called the Kingdom of Kongo ruled the region, which consisted of the better part of west central Africa. When European sailors first encountered the Kingdom of Kongo in the 16th century, they named the Congo River after it.

Furthermore, in the eastern part of the DRC was the Kingdom of Luba and the Kingdom of Lunda, each lasting from the 16th/17th centuries to the 19th century. Unfortunately, explorers were unable to locate the Kingdom of Wakanda.

However, the region would go through drastic changes in the 1870s.

Just prior to the onset of the Scramble for Africa, European exploration of the Congo intensified. Henry Morton Stanley, under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium, would be one of the most prominent explorers of this region. Leopold would formally acquire the rights to the Congo territory at the Berlin Conference in 1885, renaming it the Congo Free State, and making it his own private property for exploitation.

Military units forced locals into producing rubber and other natural resources. Nearly half the population would die or be killed. In 1908, Belgium formally annexed the Congo Free State where it became known as the Belgian Congo.

Republic of the Congo

What Is the Congo

Across the Congo River to the northwest is the Republic of the Congo. Bantu-speaking peoples founded various tribes in the region starting around 1,500 BCE. Several Bantu kingdoms, like the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke, built trade links all over the Congo River basin.

In the late 15th century, Portuguese explorers reached the mouth of the Congo River. They would establish economic relationships with the inland Bantu kingdoms, trading various commodities, goods, and slaves. The territory that is now the Republic of the Congo would become a major transatlantic trade hub, lasting until the 19th century when European colonization would diminish the power of these Bantu societies.

At the same time that Belgium attempted to gain sovereignty over the Congo, France also wanted pieces of Africa to exploit. The area north of the Congo River came under French sovereignty in 1880 as a result of treaty between France and King Makoko of the Teke. The territory was confirmed in the Berlin Conference, coming to be called French Congo, then Middle Congo in 1903.

In 1908, France established the French Equatorial Africa (FEA), comprising of Middle Congo, Gabon, Chad, and the modern Central African Republic. Brazzaville became the federal capital. Much like in Belgian Congo, French rule of FEA was marked by the exploitation of both people and natural resources.


Both Belgian Congo and Middle Congo gained their independence in 1960.

The Belgian Congo would become the Republic of the Congo. However, in 1965, military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko took power of the country in a coup. You guessed it, Mobutu changed the country’s name to Zaire in 1971, establishing a dictatorial one-party state. Despite his suppression of freedoms, Mobutu received a lot of support from the United States because of his anti-communist views. However, during the 1990s, his government began to weaken. After the First Congo War, Mobutu’s 32-year rule came to an end, and Zaire became known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Today, the DRC is also known as Congo-Kinshasa, after the name of its capital city.

The People’s Republic of the Congo

The Republic of Congo (formerly Middle Congo) has also gone through a name change since gaining independence. In 1965, President Massamba-Débat started relations with several communist countries and adopted “scientific socialism” as the country’s constitutional ideology. Massamba-Débat would be deposed in a bloodless coup in 1968, but the new president, Marien Ngouabi, would retain the country’s socialist elements. In 1969, Ngouabi proclaimed the People’s Republic of the Congo, which lasted as a Marxist-Leninist one-party state until 1991, when “People’s” was removed from the official name, and democratic elections were held for the first time.

Like the DRC, the Republic of Congo is sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville (again, taking from the name of its capital city).

So exactly what is the Congo?

In the end, the Congo is a term that can be used to describe either the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Republic of the Congo.

Both countries are biodiversity hotspots, home to dense rainforests and a multitude of animals. However, while the two countries share a border, their unique histories have shaped the two nations into pretty different places.

The Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) is smaller and a bit more stable. It is a springboard for safaris and travel into the jungles of the north. Brazzaville has even been referred to as the “Little Paris of Africa” due to its French colonial past.

10 kilometers from Brazzaville, across the Congo River, is Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (Congo-Kinshasa). The DRC has a long history of political turmoil and unrest, dating back to the atrocities of King Leopold II. Years of turmoil and lack of infrastructure have given the DRC a bad reputation throughout the years. However, gradual development and the presence of the UN has led to a small, yet quickly growing tourism industry. Much of the draw to the DRC centers on Virunga National Park, home to the famed mountain gorillas. So hopefully things will continue to improve for the DRC.

Want to learn more about Africa? Check out this post on Interesting Geography Facts – Africa