THE second largest country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is blessed with abundant raw materials and minerals but cursed by violence, graft and poverty.
Eighty times the size of its former colonial master Belgium, the DRC covers 2.3 million square kilometres in the middle of Africa, behind only Algeria in area on the continent.
Fewer than 40 percent of its population of 78.7 million people (2016) live in urban areas, according to the World Bank.
It is a nation plagued by conflict and disunity. While the official language is French, it has four indigenous national and 200 vernacular languages, hampering the forging of a national identity since independence in 1960.
Civil war broke out almost immediately after independence and the DRC has since been run by a series of strongmen.
Mobutu Sese Seko grabbed power in a coup in 1965, imposed the name Zaire and set up a dictatorial kleptocracy that lasted 32 years.
In 1997 he was toppled by rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who renamed the country after the mighty Congo river.
Current political crisis
Kabila’s son Joseph inherited the presidency after his father was killed by a bodyguard in 2001.
He went on to win elections in 2006, the first free polls since independence, and a second term in 2011.
Kabila was meant to step down in 2016 at the end of a two-term limit, but declined.
He stayed on thanks to a constitutional clause enabling a president to remain in office pending the election of a successor, but his refusal to go prompted demonstrations met with bloody crackdowns.
Under an agreement brokered by the Catholic Church, he was allowed to stay in office provided new elections were held in 2017.
But there was a new delay until December 23, 2018, blamed on organisational problems amid surging violence.
Two wars in the DRC in the late 1990s and early 2000s dragged in at least six armies and left more than three million dead in Africa’s deadliest conflicts in recent history.
Today, the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu are major centres of unrest involving rival militia.
Central Kasai province is another hotspot, tipping into violence in 2016 after soldiers killed a tribal chief leading a rebellion against the central government.
More than 3 000 people have died in the region since then.
In January 2018, the UN said there were some 4.25 million displaced persons in the country and 600 000 DRC refugees in sub-Saharan Africa.
Two outbreaks of Ebola, respectively the ninth and 10th in the country since 1976, have occurred this year, claiming 40 lives.
Cobalt, copper, coltan
The DRC has the potential to be one of Africa’s wealthiest countries “if it can overcome its political instability,” the World Bank says.
It is the world’s leading producer of cobalt, a key ingredient in top-range batteries including for smartphones and electric cars, and a top supplier of coltan, another mineral used for electronic products.
It is also Africa’s top producer of copper and sits on hydrocarbons, tropical timber, gold, diamonds and other minerals.
But competition for the wealth has bred conflict, graft, smuggling and mismanagement. The watchdog Transparency International ranked it 156 out of 176 countries in its 2016 corruption index.
Economic growth slumped to 2.4 percent in 2016, its lowest since 2001, the World Bank says. This was mainly due to declining prices and a shrinking global demand for raw materials.
The poverty rate dropped to 64 percent in 2012 (World Bank), but the DRC still ranks among the world’s poorest countries.