DRC: Land and people
Extracted from: Denis Kadima and Dieudonné Tshiyoyo 2009 "Chapter 4: Democratic Republic of Congo" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 101-103.
Geography and population
With a total land area of 2 344 885 km² and straddling the equator, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the third-largest African country after Sudan and Algeria. Its geopolitical position makes the country strategically key to the entire central African region and even beyond. Situated at the heart of the continent, the DRC is bordered by nine countries, namely Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. The basin of the Congo River, covered by dense tropical rainforest, constitutes the country's principal geographical characteristic. There is a short coastline at the outlet of the Congo River to the Atlantic Ocean.
The climate is equatorial tropical, with average temperatures ranging from 27°C in the coastal and basin areas to 18°C in the hilly eastern provinces. Rainfall is plentiful all over the country and fairly regular in all seasons.
Sparsely populated in relation to its territorial size, the DRC hosts a population estimated at 65 751 512 in July 2007. The population is made up of as many as 250 ethno-linguistic groups from four main cultural categories: the Bantu, the Sudanese, the Nilo-Hamitics and the pygmies. The Bantu is by far the largest group, which has resulted in the others adopting many of its cultural traits.
The majority of the Congolese people are Christians. Although statistics are imprecise in this regard, it is believed that roughly 46 to 48 per cent are Roman Catholics, whereas 24 to 28 per cent belong to Protestant churches. The Kimbanguist Church, named after Prophet Simon Kimbangu, has several hundreds of thousands of members (16.5 percent), particularly in the Bas-Congo province. There is a tiny but growing Muslim community (1 percent), particularly in the Maniema province (Rashidi 2004). Many Congolese also follow traditional beliefs often simultaneously with imported faiths. All these religious communities live together peacefully. French is the official language. There are four national languages: Lingala, Kiswahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo.
The DRC is one of the most richly endowed countries in the world, with a gigantic potential of natural resources and mineral wealth. The country's mineral wealth includes diamonds, cobalt, copper, gold, zinc, uranium, natural gas, phosphate, petroleum, and a range of rare minerals. The Congo River is the second-longest river in Africa after the Nile, and is also the second in the world after the Amazon in terms of hydro-electric potential. Nevertheless, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita annual income estimated at US$300 in 2007 (see Table 2).
The economy of the country, which was one of the most industrialised on the African continent in the sixties and seventies, started to decline drastically in the eighties. In fact, in the mid-1960s, the economy was relatively strong thanks to the high prices of mineral outputs in international markets. During this period the production of copper, then the principal export-earning product, amounted to around 500 000 tones per year. In addition, the then Zaïre enjoyed a significant influx of foreign aid from Western countries aimed at supporting the pro-West government of Mobutu Sese Seko (Braeckman 2003). All of this enabled the Zaïrian currency to enjoy a comfortable exchange rate. In 1967, one Zaïre banknote was equivalent to US$ 2.
However, towards the mid-1970s, the Congolese economy started a deep decline. This was caused, among other things, by the collapse of the copper price; the closure of the Angolan Benguela railway, the main export route for Congolese minerals, and the unilateral transfer of selected foreign-owned small and medium enterprises to nationals, an initiative known as Zaïrianisation; the undertaking of prestigious capital intensive projects by the Mobutu regime; the neglect of agriculture, the secondary sector of the economy; and generalised corruption. Since the late 1980s, GNP per head has been among the lowest in the world. During the early 1990s most foreign investment in the country was withdrawn. Between 1989 and 1994 government revenues had declined by 84 percent. As a result, the World Bank closed its office in the capital, Kinshasa, having declared the country "insolvent" and in June 1994 the DRC was suspended from the IMF (Frame 2008, 318).
The conditions of the economy further worsened as a result of social unrest that accompanied the stalled democratisation process and successive civil wars which broke out in the Great Lakes region from the mid-1990s. It has been established that the military involvement in the DRC of many of its neighbouring countries, like Rwanda and Uganda, was motivated as much by the urgent need to stop rebel forces to continue to stage armed attacks from the DRC territory as by their appetite for the country's mineral wealth. As suggested by a United Nations (UN) panel established to investigate the illegal exploitation of the DRC's natural resources, the plundering of the country's wealth appeared to be one of the main reasons for the outbreak and persistence of the civil war (UN 2001).
The economy of the country is mainly based on the mining sector, which makes up the major portion of the country's GDP and foreign exchange earnings. The immense natural resources are generally underexploited, and the industrialisation of the mining sector is underdeveloped compared with the potential of the country. Diamonds continue to lead exports, as the precious stone regularly accounts for over half of the country's total exports. Agriculture is the other mainstay of the Congolese economy. The main cash crops include coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa. Food crops include cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts and rice. As a result of the turmoil in the country, the bad shape of the means of communication and ill-conceived policies, the national agricultural production in this sector has also declined dramatically.
Furthermore, the country's infrastructure has been adversely affected by both the collapse of the economy and the general situation of political instability. Natural disasters, such as flooding and the eruption of volcanoes, have added to the destruction and dereliction of much of the infrastructure. Poor transport and communication infrastructure has proved a major impediment to the economic development of the country. The road network is inadequate and derisory for a country the size of Western Europe. Of the estimated 157 000 kilometres of roads surveyed in 1999, only some 33 000 km were main roads (Frame 2008, 314-315). Besides, most parts of the road network are in a very poor state of repair.
BRAECKMAN, COLETTE 2003, Les nouveaux prédateurs : Politique des puissances en Afrique centrale, Paris, Fayard,.
FRAME, I 2008 (ed.), Africa South of the Sahara 2008, London, Routledge.
RASHIDI, OBOTELA NOËL 2004 "Les dynamiques religieuses à Kinshasa à l'aune de la transition politique en RDC", Enjeux, 2004/10, no 21, 28-30.
UN 2001 Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, [www] http://www.un.org/news/dh/latest/drcongo.htm [opens new window] (accessed 25 Mar 2010).