A river runs through it: why are there two Congos?
On either side of the world’s deepest river lie two countries with extraordinarily similar names: The Republic of the Congo, and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the fourteenth century, they were both encompassed by the Kingdom of Kongo, an independent state until 1857, when it was colonised by the Portuguese, which gave its name to the river.
In the following centuries, the Kingdom of Kongo was to be sliced up, restitched, sliced again, and toil under any number of ideologies. Following the Berlin Conference of 1884, European countries decided Congo should become French Congo, in the West, and Belgian Congo, in the East. There was also Portuguese Congo, which is nowadays a coastal exclave of Angola. Additionally, there was a Free State owned privately by King Leopold II of Belgium, who claimed ownership of it based on his human rights record…
Which of course, was abominable. His period of rule became known as the Congo Horrors, and Leopold was forced to give up the colony, which became part of Belgian Congo.
Following WWII and the creation of the UN, the decolonisation of Africa began, and both Congos became independent in 1960, both calling themselves the Republic of the Congo. In the East, power was seized by Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed the country Zaïre and became an autocratic dictator. Meanwhile in the West, that Republic became the People’s Republic of the Congo, a Communist state.
Both of these states collapsed in the 1990s, Zaïre due to pressure from the Rwandan genocide, and the People’s Republic due to the fall of the Soviet Union, and they reestablished themselves respectively as the Democratic Republic and the Republic of the Congo. And unchanged, the mighty Congo river runs through them still.