On this day in 1997, troops of General Laurent Kabila marched into Kinshasa and Zaire was officially renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The name was not new. Before it was Zaire, the country was known by six different names, including Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-Leopoldville, Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971, the country and its namesake Congo River, were renamed the Republic of Zaire and the Zaire River, respectively, by former President Sese Seko Mobutu. Supported by the US because of his staunch opposition to Communism, Mobutu brought relative peace and stability to Zaire—along with human rights violations, political repression, and corruption. In an effort to identify himself with African nationalism, Mobutu began renaming his country’s cities, ending in 1971, with renaming the country itself.
When Mobutu left Zaire for Europe to get cancer treatment in 1996, General Kabila led an army of rebels in attacking the Zairian army. After Mobutu’s return from Europe, the resistance continued for a year, until on 17 May 1997 Kabila and his troops took the capital, Kinshasa, sent Mobutu into exile, and because the name Zaire carried strong connections to the corrupt regime of Mobutu, renamed Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On that day, Kabila was named President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he held until his assassination in 2001.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is often confused with its neighbour to the west, the Republic of the Congo. Though one is often mistaken for the other, differences abound. The DRC is much larger in both population and area: Its population is some 71 million, compared to a mere 4 million for the Republic of the Congo. Similarly, the DRC is about 2.3 million square kilometres, compared to about 342,000 square kilometres for the Republic of the Congo.
Sadly, today the DRC is known for its bloody Second Congo War, which officially stretched from 1998 to 2003. The Second Congo War killed 5.4 million people, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII. The war devastated the DRC and although peace accords were signed in 2003, fighting continues in the east of the country to this day.