Early History of the Congo Basin
The Congo Basin lies in the middle of Africa, and has been the site of legends and adventures for the outside world. It is the “dark heart” of Africa, and the first known people to live in the region were the pygmies, or small people. As they were elsewhere, the pygmies were overtaken by more mainstream Africans, the Bantu-speaking people. These included the Bakongo, Bateke, the Sanga, and others. They came to the Congo via trade routes, and kingdoms began to compete for influence, resources, and territory.
The Bantu kingdoms of the Congo made their mark on Africa by profiting from the slave trade, shipping slaves from the Interior to the European traders and explorers along the Atlantic coast. Kingdoms like the Kongo and the Teke rivaled each other and used the slave trade as a way to cut into the other kingdom’s sphere of influence.
When the Europeans began to cut back on and ultimately ban the slave trade, the Bantu kingdoms collapsed. Not much exists of their history for the next few hundred years.
The French Arrival in the Congo
The French took over the region in 1880 out of competition with King Leopold’s brutal Belgians. The Belgians controlled what was known as Zaire, and the French controlled the other people of the Congo. Treaties in the last decades of the 19th century established French control over the African people there. The territories the French ruled were re-organized into a federal system known as French Equatorial Africa and would remain this way for the first half of the 20th century.
Congo-Brazzaville openly supported the Free French movement, and served as the symbolic capital of de Gaulle’s France during the Second World War. From 1956 to the late 1960s Congo-Brazzaville gradually gained independence from France, following the Brazzaville Conference of 1944 and reforms in 1956. Out of the power vacuum left by France’s departure, political parties and re-awakened ethnic strife plagued Congo-Brazzaville.
Congo’s first president, Fulbert Youlou was overthrown in 1963 and replaced with a military puppet. The Prime Minister of this administration would later prove important in Congo’s recent history, a man by the name of Pascal Lassouba. Following another military takeover in 1968, the country plunged into Marxist-Leninist corruption and instability. When the USSR fell the country moderated its behavior a little, introducing multi-party democracy in 1992.
The chief rivals for the next five years or so would be Pascal Lassouba and Sassou-Nguesso. Lassouba would be president following the elections of 1992, but his attempts to rig the elections in 1993 and 1994 caused a serious crisis. Though resolved through an international arbiter, tensions between Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso erupted in 1997.
The Congo-Brazzaville Civil War
The Civil War that followed destroyed Congo-Brazzaville, and with Angolan help, Sassou-Nguesso took over the country. He promised reforms and freedom and stability in the years to come, setting a timetable for these reforms to begin around 2001. They went into effect on schedule. A new Constitution was passed, amnesty was granted to virtually all opponents, though Lissouba’s was delayed a few years. New elections re-instated Sassou-Nguesso in office, and the refugees that fled the fighting had begun to return by 2007.
As of now, Congo-Brazzaville is recovering economically and is experiencing years of political stability and peace. The reforms seem to be working, and each new day seems to bring more promise for Congo-Brazzaville.