The Congo—One River, Two Countries

The word "Congo" is precise enough if you're talking about the Congo River in central Africa, but if you're referencing either of the two countries that border that river, there's more to it.

Democratic Republic of the Congo flagThe larger of the two countries is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its capital city of Kinshasa is located on the Congo river, and the country is sometimes referred to as "Congo-Kinshasa."

Republic of the Congo flagThe smaller country, located to the northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the Republic of the Congo. Its capital city is Brazzaville; the country is sometimes referred to as "Congo-Brazzaville."

Brazzaville, with Kinshasa in the background. Source: Wikimedia

Kinshasa and Brazzaville sit across from one another on a section of the Congo River that's just one mile wide, making them the two closest capital cities in the world. Both countries are sometimes called "Congo" or "the Congo," but, by official name and many other factors, they're very different.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the two closest capital cities in the world.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is Africa's second-largest country, though centrally located in the continent, the sprawling country extends to the ocean, with a 25-mile stretch of Atlantic coastline. Although it's rich in natural resources, the country has suffered from centuries of instability with little widespread development. The much smaller Republic of the Congo, while it also has a history of instability, is more prosperous, having become a major oil producer.

The area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the home of Bantu peoples during the first millennium BC. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium asked the Belgian government to support his plan for colonial expansion in the Congo Basin. The Belgian government waffled, so Leopold established the colony himself. With support from several Western nations, the Congo Free State gained international recognition in 1885. Leopold's colonization was characterized by extreme violence against and economic exploitation of the indigenous Congolese. It led to unrelenting diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take control, which, in 1908, it did.

From 1908 to 1960, the region was called the Belgian Congo. It had its current name for a while in the 1960s, was the Republic of Zaire between 1971 and 1997, and is now back to being called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Republic of the Congo also has a fascinating ancient history as a region that was dominated by Bantu-speaking tribes over 3,000 years ago. It was colonized by France in the late 1800s, and even then, the name had to be clarified to distinguish it from the neighboring area to the southwest—it was called French Congo or Middle Congo. The country was established as the Republic of the Congo in 1958 and gained independence two years later.

Both of these central African countries have and are currently experiencing civil and political unrest, dealing with infrastructure problems, crime, and rampant poverty—the problem of having similar names doesn't even register. As geography buffs, we must recognize these two Congos as the distinct countries they are. If you're interested in learning more, check out this video, and you can play our map quiz covering Central Africa.