Main languages: Lingala, Koutouba or Kikongo, Téké, French (official)
Main religions: indigenous beliefs, syncretic Christianity, Islam
Ethnic groups include Bantu groups such as Bakongo (41 per cent), Batéké (17 per cent), M’Boshi (13 per cent), Sangha (6 per cent) and other groups indigenous peoples including BaAka, Mbendjele, Mikaya, Gyeli, Luma, Twa and Babongo. In the absence of reliable census data, indigenous peoples are estimated to make up between 1.2 per cent and 10 per cent of the national population.
The largest ethnic cluster is Bakongo. Traditionally cassava farmers and fishing people, Bakongo are noted (sometimes with animosity) for their preeminence in cash-cropping and especially in trade. They have stood out as assiduous organizers, especially in religion and politics. Bakongo are also numerous in western Democratic Republic of the Congo and north-western Angola. The Bakongo heartland in the Congo is the south, where they are divided into competing subgroups, Laari and Vili. Along the Congo River at Brazzaville/Pool, Laari are the most numerous Bakongo sub-group and the one historically most advantaged by schooling and commoditization. In the Congo’s second city Pointe Noire, on the coast, where the Congo’s oil revenues are derived, Vili people are numerous.
The Sangha group are Bantu and speak the Sangha language. Batéké, another Bantu ethnic cluster, reside in forested country to the north of Brazzaville, extending into southern Gabon. They are well represented in the Cuvette region in the middle-north. Colonial interests dispossessed most Batéké of land and marginalized them as labourers in the forest industries and towns.
Members of the Boulangui ethnic cluster are found mainly in the north and in Brazzaville. M’Boshi form its largest group. Among its sub-groups are Likoula and Kouyou people. M’Boshi-Kouyou have been well represented in the armed forces, especially the officer corps.
The country’s indigenous population includes Ba’Aka, Mbendjele, Mikaya, Gyeli, Luma, Twa and Babongo communities. They are traditionally nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, distinct from the majority Bantu ethnic groups that have held political and economic power since independence from France in 1960. There is no reliable census data, but these groups, some of which still live by hunting and gathering in the forests, are estimated to make up between 1.4 per cent and 10 per cent of the population.
Updated July 2020
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Congo continues to struggle with the legacy of civil conflict, widespread poverty and decades of authoritarian rule under Denis Sassou Nguesso, who, apart from a 5-year period in the 1990’s, has held the presidency since 1979. Congo’s violent modern history has left a tension between the increasingly personalized government of Nguesso, who belongs to the north-central Mbochi group, and the Lari ethno-linguistic group of the Pool region, around the capital Brazzaville. This division, which has taken an increasingly ethnic character since Congo’s two civil wars after 1993, is largely modern in nature, and shows how identity boundaries can harden as a direct consequence of the struggle for political and economic power.
Following the March 2016 elections that handed Nguesso another five years in power, street violence broke out in parts of Brazzaville and an army barracks was attacked by armed men after the Constitutional Court ratified election results on 4 April. In response security forces reportedly used helicopters to drop bombs in residential areas of the south-eastern region of Pool, destroying homes, churches and schools and displacing thousands of people. Security forces claimed to be targeting Pastor Frederic Ntumi, the leader of the armed group they held responsible for some of the Brazzaville violence the preceding day. Over the months that followed, fighting between the government and the Ninjas, a predominantly Lari militia previously active during the civil conflict, saw tens of thousands of people displaced in the Pool region until Ntumi signed a ceasefire in December 2017. In 2018, the combatants began a formal disarmament process following an amnesty agreement.
Congo’s indigenous peoples, who are estimated to comprise between 1.2 and 10 per cent of the national population, have historically suffered poverty, marginalization, limited access to services and discrimination. Efforts are underway to recognize their specific rights as indigenous peoples, not least with the passage in 2011 of Africa’s first national law on indigenous peoples. Nonetheless the law is still awaiting implementing regulations: in the meantime, communities remain under pressure from a range of factors including deforestation due to development, encroachment of agriculture, the growth of extractive industries linked to oil, gas and mining as well as illegal logging.
These and other issues were highlighted in October 2019 by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples following her visit to the Congo. While crediting the government with the passage of the 2011 legislation and other laws, she drew attention to the continued inequalities that indigenous peoples faced in almost every area of their lives. This includes significant barriers to education, with UNFPA figures suggesting that around 65 per cent of indigenous children between 12 and 15 are not attending school compared to a national average of 39 per cent. This is corroborated by official government data that shows that indigenous adolescents make up just 0.05 per cent of junior high school and 0.008 per cent of high school students. A key barrier for indigenous children is cost. While education is meant to be free for all under-16-year-olds, books, uniforms and travel to and from school can be prohibitively expensive for most indigenous children. Language, discrimination and the lack of culturally relevant teaching materials add further barriers. The picture is similarly dispiriting for health, especially for women and girls, with an estimated 99.8 per cent of indigenous women giving birth at home in the forest, 65 per cent without any form of prenatal health care. This invisibility is reflected in their invisibility in national politics, with the Special Rapporteur reporting that no indigenous representative has been elected to serve as one of the 151 deputies in the national assembly. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that only around a third (35 per cent) of indigenous Congolese have civil registration documents, which means that the majority of indigenous people are unable to vote.
An urgent issue has emerged in recent years, namely the use of force against indigenous communities in the name of conservation – termed ‘fortress conservation’. In 2019, UNDP investigators gathered what they deemed to be credible evidence of multiple instances of violence committed by eco-guards against Ba’Aka people. Violations include torture, rape, beatings, illegal detentions, summary evictions, destruction of houses and confiscation of food. The investigation concerned forest communities living within or near a 1,456 sq km area called Messok Dja. The USD 21.4 million Tridom 11 project was set up to protect the area in 2017 with funding from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), UNDP, the EU and other donors. While WWF has said that the forest guards are employed by the Congolese government, it has admitted to contributing towards their wages and their training. Local Ba’Aka communities were reportedly only consulted by WWF some seven years after the project had been been conceived and long after the international conservation NGO had entered into dialogue with the Congolese government and logging companies.
Updated July 2020
Straddling the equator and in the heart of the Congo Basin, the planet’s second-largest tropical forest basin after the Amazon, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) in the south and east, the Central African Republic and Cameroon in the north, and Gabon in the west. In the south-west, the Congo borders the Cabinda exclave of Angola and the Atlantic Ocean. Congo is highly urbanised, with over half of the population living in the two southern cities of Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, while outside these cities it is among the least densely populated countries in Africa. Much of the north is swampland. Tropical climate and vegetation predominate, but the climate is drier and cooler towards the ocean. The Republic of Congo has offshore oil reserves and mining resources. After hydrocarbons, timber is the second largest export: logging is carried out by the private sector working on government-granted concessions.
Mbuti forest people are indigenous to the area of today’s Republic of Congo, and were later joined by Bantu groups, which established complex societies two thousand years ago, and by the 15th century had formed kingdoms. The largest of these was the Kingdom of Kongo, which extended in all directions from the mouth of the Congo River. Portuguese explorers arrived towards the end of the 15th century, followed by missionaries. Slave traders arrived soon after and engaged in booming business with the Kingdom of Kongo, which had previously applied the practice in local wars of conquest. The European connection accelerated slave raids and contributed to a significant depopulation of the continent’s interior. As the slave trade was abating and the Kingdom of Kongo was nearing its end, French explorer Pierre de Brazza secured treaties with the Batéké people in 1880 that ceded lands to the north of the river as a French protectorate.
France soon took inspiration from Belgian King Leopold II’s lucrative looting of the Congo Free State (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) across the river and granted concessions to private companies in their new colony. The companies committed numerous atrocities against the indigenous population and made wide use of forced, unpaid labour. French concessionary companies set an enduring pattern of coercive labour practices and ecological destruction at the outset of the colonial period.
In 1910 France grouped ‘Middle Congo’ (today’s Congo), Ubangi-Chari (today’s Central African Republic), Chad and Gabon into the colony of French Equatorial Africa, with its administrative centre in Brazzaville, on the banks of the Congo. This decision contributed to a trend of urbanization lasting into today’s Republic of Congo and drew diverse peoples from around the territory to Brazzaville. In the late 1920s, in reaction to continuing brutality and forced labour, African peoples launched a protracted rebellion against the concessionary companies. Construction of the Congo-Ocean railway had resulted in the deaths of over 17,000 Congolese. An independence movement took shape in the 1940s, and in 1946 Middle Congo was allowed to elect territorial representatives and have representation in the French parliament. In 1958 the territory became an autonomous unit within French Equatorial Africa and changed its name to Congo Republic.
Ethnicity had become highly politicized during the colonial period, as France viewed the coastal Laari and Vili sub-groups of the Bakongo people first encountered by Europeans as more capable of assimilation and education, while peoples of the interior such as the M’Boshi, who were encountered later, were seen as backwards and warrior-like. Thus, while the Bakongo were groomed for administration and their elites assimilated to a greater extent, the M’Boshi and other interior peoples became over-represented in the military and police, and resentful of southern, coastal privilege. Colonial administration and construction of the Congo-Ocean railway had drawn diverse Congolese to the urban centre of the colony’s administrative hub in Brazzaville, and in 1959 ethnic tensions erupted into rioting and neighbourhood segregation between northerners and southerners.
In November 1960 the Republic of Congo became independent, and a Laari leader who had roots in a syncretic Christian cult with a wide Laari following, Fulbert Youlou, became President. France retained strong influence and backed Youlou, but by 1963 the President had angered his political base by unleashing the army on the cult, and faced broad labour unrest as well as growing anger among the marginalized M’Boshi, who dominated the army. Southern control also led to jostling for power that split the Bakongo into Laari and Vili factions. When the unions called a general strike and rioting grew out of control in August 1963, France refused to come to Youlou’s assistance. He fled the country and ceded control to the military. A military junta created a one-party socialist state under the Mouvement National de la Révolution (MNR) and installed Alphonse Massemba-Debat, another Laari, as President. Massemba-Debat had to contend with factionalism among the various pillars of the regime, including the continuing north-south divide. One faction, the Jeunesse MNR (JMNR) youth wing of the party, developed its own militia that received Cuban and Soviet support. As JMNR influence grew at the expense of the army, the military leadership grew increasingly angry. Following an army mutiny supported by officers of various ethnicity but also with some ethnic overtones, a weakened Massemba-Debat remained in office until a creeping coup finally ousted him in September 1968. Military commander Marien Ngouabi, became party leader and President.
Ngouabi inherited the problem of factionalism within the regime; tensions persisted between Marxists and Maoists, Catholic conservatives and cultist radicals, and northerners and southerners. As a Kouyou northerner, he tried to play down ethnic rivalries with the majority Bakongo southerners, but many Laari in particular were distrustful. In 1970 Ngouabi renamed the country the ‘People’s Republic of the Congo’ and the MNR to ‘Parti Congolais du Travail’ (PCT). Years of internal political turbulence culminated in Ngouabi’s assassination in March 1977. The circumstances surrounding the assassination remain murky, but the regime blamed ‘tribalism’; diverse regime critics were rounded up, including former President Massemba-Debat, who was executed.
General Joachim Yhombi Opango, a Laari but from the north, succeeded Ngouabi. During his tenure, power shifted from the PCT to the army, and the influence of northerners grew more dominant. Powerful defence minister Denis Sassou-Nguesso out-manoeuvred Opango and in 1979 the PCT removed Opango as leader. In March 1979 Sassou-Nguesso, an M’Boshi, became President.
During the 1980s north-south tensions persisted, but Sassou-Nguesso managed political turmoil through numerous purges and crackdowns, and with the support of the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War Soviet assistance ceased, and in 1990 the PCT abandoned Marxism. With the economy in tatters and various factions nursing grievances, domestic and international pressure mounted on Sassou-Nguesso to open up the political system. In 1991 he convened a national conference of 1,500 diverse delegates from around the country. Although Sassou-Nguesso attempted to control the conference, the three-month meeting took on a life of its own, and by June 1991 had drafted a new Constitution that would establish multi-party democracy. The Constitution was adopted by referendum in 1992, and in June 1992 elections, Sassou-Nguesso came in third and the PCT won only 19 of 125 seats in parliament. Pascal Lissouba, a southerner of the tiny Nzabi people who had been Prime Minister under President Massemba-Debat, became President after a run-off election.
Congo’s attempt at democratic transition received little international support, and the Lissouba government soon faced rebellion within the M’Boshi-dominated armed forces that remained largely loyal to Sassou-Nguesso, as well as conflict with party-based militias operated along ethnic lines. The M’Boshi faction took the name ‘Cobras’, the President commanded the loyalty of a Bakongo faction called ‘Coyotes’, and the Laari formed a faction called the ‘Ninjas’. An estimated 2,000 people were killed in fighting during the second half of 1993. Clashes continued until cease-fire arrangements in 1994 and 1995 brought opposition leaders into government.
One month before elections scheduled for July 1997, vicious fighting erupted again as warlord factions scrambled for power and control over Congo’s offshore oil wealth. France and Angola threw their weight behind Sassou-Nguesso, whose faction prevailed after five months of full-scale civil war that killed thousands and displaced some 700,000 people in the south. Elections were cancelled and the Constitution suspended, as skirmishes continued.
While the first round of violence, after the defeat of the previous single-party military ruler Sassou at the polls in 1992, was largely dominated by political and military allegiance (with much of the army loyal to Sassou), a resurgence of conflict from 1997 saw three major political figures – Sassou, head of state Pascal Lissouba and Lari figurehead Bernard Kolelas – recruit militias on consciously ethnic grounds, often from villages away from the major centres in one of francophone Africa’s most urbanized societies. The result has been the hardening of ethnic prejudices between Sassou’s north-central Mbochi ethnic group, which dominates government, and the southern Lari. Matters were complicated by the absence of effective political leadership among the Lari: an ageing Kolelas compromised with Sassou, apparently for the sake of his immediate family, and lost much credibility with his own previously loyal Lari followers.
Sassou-Nguesso entered into a peace agreement with rebel factions in 1999, and a referendum approved a new Constitution in January 2002. The new document kept a multi-party system, but banned parties organized along regional or ethnic lines, and removed many of the checks and balances built into the 1992 constitution. In March 2002 elections marred by the banning of two main candidates and the boycott of a third, Sassou-Nguesso won a seven-year term with almost 90 per cent of the vote; his PCT party and its allies won around 90 per cent of the seats in parliament. The Laari militia called the ‘Ninjas’, aligned with one of the banned presidential candidates—former prime minister Bernard Kolelas—again took up arms against the government. Intense fighting in the southern Pool region displaced thousands. In 2003 the government signed a peace agreement with the Ninjas, restoring relative peace. However, ethnic tensions, particularly between Sassou-Nguesso’s north-central Mbochi ethnic group, which dominated government, and the southern Laari, have persisted.
The Republic of Congo has continued its pattern of conflict and dictatorship, and Sassou-Nguesso remains in power to this day. Having held the presidency for more than 35 years, he is scheduled to run again in the 2021 elections.
The Republic of Congo continues to be characterized by high levels of corruption, repression and the domination of the country’s politics by Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has, apart from a 5-year period in the 1990’s, monopolized the presidency since 1979. In 2015, following a referendum that attracted widespread accusations of fraud and irregularity, the Constitution was amended to remove the presidential age limit and so allow Nguesso to run again for office.
In this context, Congo’s marginalized indigenous population are particularly affected by poverty and discrimination, despite significant steps in recent years to formally recognize their rights. Lack of access to national identity cards and birth registration means that most indigenous people are not registered to vote and lack any means of political participation.
In April 2007 Congo held an International Forum of Autochthonous Peoples of the Forests of Central Africa (FIPAC), bringing together delegates from all over the region. This was followed by a national consultation process involving indigenous communities, the government, NGOs, international agencies, the media, and other stakeholders from the sub-region which led to the development of a national strategy on indigenous peoples.
Building on the National Action Plan on the Improvement of the Quality of Life of Indigenous Peoples (2009–13), which was not significantly implemented, in February 2011 the Republic of Congo adopted the continent’s first law on indigenous rights. Act No. 5-2011 on the Promotion and Protection of Indigenous Populations contains provisions on cultural rights, education and collective and individual rights to land and natural resources. It also explicitly prohibits any form of discrimination or forced assimilation and mandates consultation on any measures that may affect indigenous communities.
A number of measures have been taken since then to support this, such as the inclusion of promotion and protection of indigenous peoples in Article 16 of the new 2015 Constitution. In 2017 a Directorate General for the promotion of indigenous peoples was also established and has been in operation since the end of 2018. A new National Action Plan for 2019-2021 was being proposed. June 2019 also saw the adoption of six out of nine draft decrees to help implement the 2011 legislation, spanning a range of areas including access to basic services, civil registration and the principles of free, prior and informed consent. Nevertheless, as reported by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in October 2019, communities have complained that these policies have yet to be fully implemented.
Congo was the first Congo Basin nation to agree and sign a Voluntary Partnership Agreement against illegal logging under the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, in May 2010. As part of the process to ensure the legality of timber exports to the EU, the government has reportedly committed to improvement in the areas of participation of civil society in the allocation of forest rights; inclusion of local and indigenous peoples in forest management, including through a community-based approach; and enforcement of rules and agreements between companies and local communities.
The Congolese government also participates in several multilateral REDD+ initiatives. UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries) was first launched in 2008 to combat climate change by reducing global carbon emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Congo took part from an early stage, submitting its Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP) for REDD+ implementation in 2010. This was revised following concerns expressed by civil society and international NGOs about issues including public participation and consultation in its drafting, and was ultimately ratified in 2011, with elements including studies on national drivers of deforestation. In May 2012 Congo opened a REDD+ pilot project in the department of Pikounda North, Sangha region, north-western Congo. In a 2011 report, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples noted the potential impact of the REDD programme on indigenous lands and resources, and highlighted concerns expressed to him about inadequate indigenous consultation and participation in the process, as well as a perceived lack of detail regarding the rights of indigenous peoples to share in the benefits of any government revenues from the programme.
In light of the country’s commitments under FLEGT and REDD+, the Ministry for Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment (MDDEFE) announced a revision of the 2000 Forest Code. Indigenous and other civil society advocates urged in particular that it recognise customary land and natural resource rights and to guarantee indigenous participation in forest management and decision-making, among other provisions. A draft bill was submitted to the executive branch in 2014 for consideration before submission to the legislature, but it was returned with the recommendation that it be accompanied by implementing regulations.
In 2016 the World Bank’s Forestry and Economic Diversification Project (PFDE), initially begun in 2013, supported the drafting of these regulations with the input of civil society. It also worked with indigenous and other local communities to help them develop plans for managing the Community Development Series (SDC), designated areas of forest concessions set aside for their use. In May 2017 the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility approved a USD 6.5 million, four-year extension (until July 2021) of the PFDE, in order to strengthen participatory forest management initiatives and increase indigenous and other local community participation in agroforestry microprojects. In parallel, in 2016 a USD 4.5 million Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (DGM) was set up to finance efforts by indigenous peoples and other local communities to actively participate in and contribute to REDD+ processes at the local, national and international levels. It remains to be seen whether the projects will avoid the pitfalls associated with many REDD+ projects developed on indigenous lands.
Updated July 2020
La Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) (France)
Forest Peoples Programme
RENAPAC (Réseau National des Peuples Autochtones du Congo)
Organisation pour le développement et les droits humains au Congo (ODDHC)
Updated July 2020
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