First inhabited by pygmies, Congo was later settled by Bantu groups
that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and Zaire, forming
the basis for ethnic affinities and rivalries among those states. Several
Bantu kingdoms--notably those of the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke--built
trade links leading into the Congo River basin. The first European contacts
came in the late 15th century, and commercial relationships were quickly
established with the kingdoms--trading for slaves captured in the interior.
The coastal area was a major source for the transatlantic slave trade,
and when that commerce ended in the early 19th century, the power of the
Bantu kingdoms eroded.
The area came under French sovereignty in the 1880s. Pierre Savorgnon
de Brazza, a French empire builder, competed with agents of Belgian King
Leopold's International Congo Association (later Zaire) for control of
the Congo River basin. Between 1882 and 1891, treaties were secured with
all the main local rulers on the river's right bank, placing their lands
under French protection. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa
(AEF), comprising its colonies of Middle Congo (modern Congo), Gabon, Chad,
and Oubangui-Chari (modern Central African Republic). Brazzaville was selected
as the federal capital.
Economic development during the first 50 years of colonial rule in Congo
centered on natural resource extraction by private companies. In 1924-34,
the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO) was built at a considerable human and financial
cost, opening the way for growth of the ocean port of Pointe-Noire and
towns along its route.
During World War II, the AEF administration sided with Charles DeGaulle,
and Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France during 1940-43.
The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 heralded a period of major reform in
French colonial policy, including the abolition of forced labor, granting
of French citizenship to colonial subjects, decentralization of certain
powers, and election of local advisory assemblies. Congo benefited from
the postwar expansion of colonial administrative and infrastructure spending
as a result of its central geographic location within AEF and the federal
capital at Brazzaville.
The Loi Cadre (framework law) of 1956 ended dual voting roles and provided
for partial self-government for the individual overseas territories. Ethnic
rivalries then produced sharp struggles among the emerging Congolese political
parties and sparked severe riots in Brazzaville in 1959. After the September
1958 referendum approving the new French Constitution, AEF was dissolved.
Its four territories became autonomous members of the French Community,
and Middle Congo was renamed the Congo Republic. Formal independence was
granted in August 1960.
Congo's first president was Fulbert Youlou, a former Catholic priest
from the Pool region in the southeast. He rose to political prominence
after 1956, and was narrowly elected president by the National Assembly
at independence. Youlou's 3 years in power were marked by ethnic tensions
and political rivalry. In August 1963, Youlou was overthrown in a 3-day
popular uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses) led by labor elements and joined
by rival political parties. All members of the Youlou government were arrested
or removed from office. The Congolese military took charge of the country
briefly and installed a civilian provisional government headed by Alphonse
Massamba-Debat. Under the 1963 Constitution, Massamba-Debat was elected
president for a 5-year term and named Pascal Lissouba to serve as Prime
Minister. However, President Massamba-Debat's term ended abruptly in August
1968, when Capt. Marien Ngouabi and other army officers toppled the government
in a coup. After a period of consolidation under the newly formed National
Revolutionary Council, Major Ngouabi assumed the presidency on December
31, 1968. One year later, President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa's
first "people's republic" and announced the decision of the National Revolutionary
Movement to change its name to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT).
On March 18, 1977, President Ngouabi was assassinated. Although the
persons accused of shooting Ngouabi were tried and some of them executed,
the motivation behind the assassination is still not clear. An 11-member
Military Committee of the Party (CMP) was named to head an interim government
with Colonel (later General) Joachim Yhomby-Opango to serve as President
of the Republic. Accused of corruption and deviation from party directives,
Yhomby-Opango was removed from office on February 5, 1979, by the Central
Committee of the PCT, which then simultaneously designated Vice President
and Defense Minister Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso as interim President. The
Central Committee directed Sassou-Nguesso to take charge of preparations
for the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT, which proceeded to elect
him President of the Central Committee and President of the Republic. Under
a congressional resolution, Yhomby-Opango was stripped of all powers, rank,
and possessions and placed under arrest to await trial for high treason.
He was released from house arrest in late 1984 and ordered back to his
native village of Owando.
After two decades of turbulent politics bolstered by Marxist-Leninist
rhetoric, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Congolese gradually
moderated their economic and political views to the point that, in 1992,
Congo completed a transition to multi-party democracy. Ending a long history
of one-party Marxist rule, a specific agenda for this transition was laid
out during Congo's national conference of 1991 and culminated in August
1992 with multi-party presidential elections. Sassou-Nguesso conceded defeat
and Congo's new president, Prof. Pascal Lissouba, was inaugurated on August
Congolese democracy experienced severe trials in 1993 and early 1994.
President Lissouba dissolved the National Assembly in November 1992, calling
for new elections in May 1993. The results of those elections were disputed,
touching off violent civil unrest in June and again in November. In February
1994, all parties accepted the decisions of an international board of arbiters,
and the risk of largescale insurrection subsided.
However, Congo's democratic progress was derailed in 1997. As presidential
elections scheduled for July 1997 approached, tensions between the Lissouba
and Sassou camps mounted. When on June 5, President Lissouba's government
forces surrounded Sassou's compound in Brazzaville with armored vehicles,
Sassou ordered his militia to resist. Thus began a 4-month conflict that
destroyed or damaged much of Brazzaville. In early October, Angolan troops
invaded Congo on the side of Sassou and, in mid-October, the Lissouba government
fell. Soon thereafter, Sassou declared himself President and named a 33-member
In January 1998, the Sassou regime held a National Forum for Reconciliation
to determine the nature and duration of the transition period. The Forum,
tightly controlled by the government, decided elections should be held
in about 3 years, elected a transition advisory legislature, and announced
that a constitutional convention would finalize a draft Constitution. However,
the eruption in late 1998 of fighting between Sassou's government forces
and a pro-Lissouba and pro-Kolelas armed opposition disrupted the transition
to democracy. This new violence also closed the economically vital Brazzaville-Pointe
Noire railroad; caused great destruction and loss of life in southern Brazzaville
and in the Pool, Bouenza, and Niari regions; and displaced hundreds of
thousands of persons. In November and December 1999, the government signed
agreements with representatives of many, though not all, of the rebel groups.
The December accord, mediated by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, called
for follow-on, inclusive political negotiations between the government
and the opposition. During the years 2000-01, Sassou-Nguesso's government
conducted a national dialogue (Dialogue Sans Exclusif), in which the opposition
parties and the government agreed to continue on the path to peace. Ex-President
Lissouba and ex-Prime Minister Kolelas refused to agree and have been exiled
for all practical purposes. They were tried in absentia and convicted in
Brazzaville of charges ranging from treason to misappropriation of government
funds. Ex-militiamen were granted amnesty, and many were provided microloans
to aid their reinsertion into civil society. Not all opposition members
participated. One group, referred to as "Ninjas," actively opposed the
government in a low-level guerrilla war in the Pool region of the country.
Other members of opposition parties have returned and have opted to participate
to some degree in political life. A new Constitution was drafted in 2001,
approved by the provisional legislature (National Transition Council),
and approved by the people of Congo in a national referendum in January
2002. Presidential elections were held in March 2002, and Sassou-Nguesso
was declared the winner. Legislative elections were held in May and June
2002. In March 2003 the government signed a peace accord with the Ninjas,
and the country has remained stable and calm since the signing. Internally
displaced person are returning to the Pool region.