Perhaps the first Europeans to have contact with the region's Bantu kingdoms were the Portuguese, who located the Congo River in 1482. Soon they were trading with local tribes and began exporting Africans to the New World as part of the burgeoning slave trade. When the slave trade ended in the early nineteenth century, the Bantus went into a sharp decline, as they could no longer sell slaves from the continent's interior.
During the mad dash for colonies in Africa in the late nineteenth century, the French staked out a position in the region. In a race of sorts with Belgian King Leopold, who was also establishing colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, France solidified its control over the areas that it wished to influence. In 1908 the French formally organized their regional possessions into the AEF, with its capital at Brazzaville and including the Middle Congo (now the Republic of the Congo), Gabon, Chad, and Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic). France exploited the AEF for its natural resources, while the inhabitants remained mired in poverty and illiteracy.
Local AEF administrators supported the Free French during World War II, the result of which was a significant shift in French colonial policies there. After 1944, local advisory bodies were permitted, colonial subjects received French citizenship, and forced labor was abolished. Partial self-government was granted in 1956, and after the constitution for the new Fifth Republic was approved in 1958, the AEF was dissolved and the four territories became autonomous members of the French Community. This transition brought violence and riots in Brazzaville in 1959 as ethnic tensions became politicized. When independence came in August 1960, severe rioting took place in the neighboring Belgian Congo, ultimately forcing Belgium to also move toward independence for its African colonies.
The National Assembly elected Fulbert Youlou as the Congo's first president. His tenure was brief and riddled with problems, including rising ethnic rivalries and vicious political infighting. Youlou was ousted in August 1963 in a three-day popular insurrection known as Les Trois Glorieuses (Three Glorious Days). The military then installed a provisional government headed by Alphonse Massamba-Débat, a civilian who went on to establish a Marxist-style regime. Massamba-Débat's communist economic policies did little to lift the nation's languishing economy, and he was deposed in a military coup in August 1968. After several months, during which the military sought to aggregate its power under the just-formed National Revolutionary Council, Major Marien Ngouabi, the chief instigator of the coup, became president in December.
In 1969 Ngouabi proclaimed his nation as Africa's first people's republic and changed the name of the lone ruling party to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT). Ngouabi dramatically increased the amount of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric; however, the alleged embrace of the people's best interests usually did not measure up to expectations. On the other hand, the Left-tilting politics of the Congo attracted both interest and support from communist bloc nations.
In March 1977, Ngouabi was assassinated. An eleven-member military junta became responsible for establishing an interim government under the leadership of Colonel (later General) Joachim Yhombi-Opango, who had been serving as army chief of staff. Less than two years later, in February 1979, Yhombi-Opango was ousted by the PCT's Central Committee. He was accused of having strayed from party directives and of corruption in office. More than likely, his downfall was nothing more than political hardball within the PCT leadership. The constant changes in government, meanwhile, left little time and even fewer resources to devote to economic development or poverty mitigation.
Denis Sassou-Nguesso became interim president in February 1979. He was soon elected president of the PCT Central Committee and president of the republic. For the next decade, the nation's politics remained relatively stable, but the PCT leadership refused to back away from its orthodox Marxist prescriptions, which were proving increasingly ineffective.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union's impending collapse forced major changes in the Congo's political landscape. In July 1990 PCT officials decided to end the one-party political system. The following year, at a national political conference, Marxism was formally renounced, opening the doors to free elections. By then, Congolese leaders knew that their decades-long experiment with orthodox communism had to be aborted. With loss of support from the crumbling Soviet Union and other former communist bloc countries, the handwriting was on the wall—to survive in a post–Cold War world, changes had to be made. The nation's first free elections were held in August 1992. Pascal Lissouba was elected president, defeating Sassou-Nguesso.
The transition to democracy has been anything but easy. After national elections were held in May 1993, the disputed results set off violent protests. In 1997, as the presidential elections neared, strife between the Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso factions grew ever more bitter. When Lissouba ordered troops to surround Sassou-Nguesso's home in Brazzaville, a four-month civil war ensued that ravaged large parts of the capital city and killed scores of people. The carnage stopped only when Angolan troops intervened. Sassou-Nguesso once again became president in late 1997. Since then, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Thompson, Virginia, and Richard Adloff, eds. 2nd ed. Historical Dictionary of the People's Republic of the Congo. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984.