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U.S. Department of State Background Note

Republic of the Congo

PEOPLE

First inhabited by Pygmies, Congo was later settled by Bantu groups that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), forming the basis for ethnic affinities and rivalries among those states. Several Bantu kingdoms--notably those of the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke--built trade links leading into the Congo River basin. The first European contacts came in the late 15th century, and commercial relationships were quickly established with the kingdoms--trading for slaves captured in the interior. The coastal area was a major source for the transatlantic slave trade, and when that commerce ended in the early 19th century, the power of the Bantu kingdoms eroded.

The area came under French sovereignty in the 1880s. Pierre Savorgnon de Brazza, a French empire builder, competed with agents of Belgian King Leopold's International Congo Association (later Zaire) for control of the Congo River basin. Between 1882 and 1891, treaties were secured with all the main local rulers on the river's right bank, placing their lands under French protection. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa (AEF), comprising its colonies of Middle Congo (modern Congo), Gabon, Chad, and Oubangui-Chari (modern Central African Republic). Brazzaville was selected as the federal capital.

Economic development during the first 50 years of colonial rule in Congo centered on natural resource extraction by private companies. In 1924-34, the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO) was built at a considerable human and financial cost, opening the way for growth of the ocean port of Pointe-Noire and towns along its route.

During World War II, the AEF administration sided with Charles DeGaulle, and Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France during 1940-43. The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 heralded a period of major reform in French colonial policy, including the abolition of forced labor, granting of French citizenship to colonial subjects, decentralization of certain powers, and election of local advisory assemblies. Congo benefited from the postwar expansion of colonial administrative and infrastructure spending as a result of its central geographic location within AEF and the federal capital at Brazzaville.

The Loi Cadre (framework law) of 1956 ended dual voting roles and provided for partial self-government for the individual overseas territories. Ethnic rivalries then produced sharp struggles among the emerging Congolese political parties and sparked severe riots in Brazzaville in 1959. After the September 1958 referendum approving the new French Constitution, AEF was dissolved. Its four territories became autonomous members of the French Community, and Middle Congo was renamed the Congo Republic. Formal independence was granted in August 1960.

Congo's first President was Fulbert Youlou, a former Catholic priest from the Pool region in the southeast. He rose to political prominence after 1956, and was narrowly elected President by the National Assembly at independence. Youlou's 3 years in power were marked by ethnic tensions and political rivalry. In August 1963, Youlou was overthrown in a 3-day popular uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses) led by labor elements and joined by rival political parties. All members of the Youlou government were arrested or removed from office. The Congolese military took charge of the country briefly and installed a civilian provisional government headed by Alphonse Massamba-Debat. Under the 1963 constitution, Massamba-Debat was elected President for a 5-year term and named Pascal Lissouba to serve as Prime Minister. However, President Massamba-Debat's term ended abruptly in August 1968, when Capt. Marien Ngouabi and other army officers toppled the government in a coup. After a period of consolidation under the newly formed National Revolutionary Council, Major Ngouabi assumed the presidency on December 31, 1968. One year later, President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa's first "people's republic" and announced the decision of the National Revolutionary Movement to change its name to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT).

On March 18, 1977, President Ngouabi was assassinated. Although the persons accused of shooting Ngouabi were tried and some of them executed, the motivation behind the assassination is still not clear. An 11-member Military Committee of the Party (CMP) was named to head an interim government with Colonel (later General) Joachim Yhomby-Opango to serve as President of the Republic. Accused of corruption and deviation from party directives, Yhomby-Opango was removed from office on February 5, 1979, by the Central Committee of the PCT, which then simultaneously designated Vice President and Defense Minister Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso as interim President. The Central Committee directed Sassou-Nguesso to take charge of preparations for the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT, which proceeded to elect him President of the Central Committee and President of the Republic. Under a congressional resolution, Yhomby-Opango was stripped of all powers, rank, and possessions and placed under arrest to await trial for high treason. He was released from house arrest in late 1984 and ordered back to his native village of Owando.

After two decades of turbulent politics bolstered by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Congolese gradually moderated their economic and political views to the point that, in 1992, Congo completed a transition to multi-party democracy. Ending a long history of one-party Marxist rule, a specific agenda for this transition was laid out during Congo's national conference of 1991 and culminated in August 1992 with multi-party presidential elections. Sassou-Nguesso conceded defeat and Congo's new President, Prof. Pascal Lissouba, was inaugurated on August 31, 1992.

Congolese democracy experienced severe trials in 1993 and early 1994. President Lissouba dissolved the National Assembly in November 1992, calling for new elections in May 1993. The results of those elections were disputed, touching off violent civil unrest in June and again in November. In February 1994, all parties accepted the decisions of an international board of arbiters, and the risk of large-scale insurrection subsided.

However, Congo's democratic progress was derailed in 1997. As presidential elections scheduled for July 1997 approached, tensions between the Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso camps mounted. When President Lissouba's government forces surrounded Sassou-Nguesso's compound in Brazzaville with armored vehicles on June 5, Sassou-Nguesso ordered his militia to resist. Thus began a 4-month conflict that destroyed or damaged much of Brazzaville. In early October, Angolan troops invaded Congo on the side of Sassou-Nguesso and, in mid-October, the Lissouba government fell. Soon thereafter, Sassou-Nguesso declared himself President and named a 33-member government.

In January 1998, the Sassou-Nguesso regime held a National Forum for Reconciliation to determine the nature and duration of the transition period. The forum, tightly controlled by the government, decided elections should be held in about 3 years, elected a transition advisory legislature, and announced that a constitutional convention would finalize a draft constitution. However, the eruption in late 1998 of fighting between Sassou-Nguesso's government forces and a pro-Lissouba and pro-Kolelas armed opposition disrupted the transition to democracy. This new violence also closed the economically vital Brazzaville-Pointe Noire railroad, caused great destruction and loss of life in southern Brazzaville and in the Pool, Bouenza, and Niari regions, and displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. In November and December 1999, the government signed agreements with representatives of many, though not all, of the rebel groups.

The December accord, mediated by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, called for follow-on, inclusive political negotiations between the government and the opposition. During the years 2000-01, Sassou-Nguesso's government conducted a national dialogue (Dialogue Sans Exclusif), in which the opposition parties and the government agreed to continue on the path to peace. Ex-President Lissouba and ex-Prime Minister Kolelas refused to agree and were exiled. They were tried in absentia and convicted in Brazzaville of charges ranging from treason to misappropriation of government funds. Ex-militiamen were granted amnesty, and many were provided micro-loans to aid their reintegration into civil society. Not all opposition members participated. One group, referred to as "Ninjas," actively opposed the government in a low-level guerrilla war in the Pool region of the country. Other members of opposition parties have returned and have opted to participate to some degree in political life.

A new constitution was drafted in 2001, approved by the provisional legislature (National Transition Council), and approved by the people of Congo in a national referendum in January 2002. Presidential elections were held in March 2002, and Sassou-Nguesso was declared the winner. Legislative elections were held in May and June 2002. In March 2003 the government signed a peace accord with the Ninjas, and the country has remained stable and calm since the signing. Internally displaced persons are returning to the Pool region. President Sassou-Nguesso allowed Kolelas to return to Congo for his wife's funeral in October 2005 and subsequently asked that Parliament grant Kolelas amnesty. Parliament complied with Sassou-Nguesso's request in December 2005.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

Before the 1997 war, the Congolese system of government was similar to that of the French. However, after taking power, Sassou-Nguesso suspended the constitution approved in 1992 upon which this system was based. The 2002 constitution provides for a 7-year presidential term. There is a parliament of two houses, whose members serve for 5 years.

Principal Government Officials
President--Denis Sassou-Nguesso
Prime Minister, Coordinator of the Action of the Cabinet and of Privatizations--Isidore Mvoumba
State Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Relations with Francophone Countries--Rodolphe Adada
Minister of Economy, Finance and Budget--Pacifique Issoibeka
Ambassador to the United States--Serge Mombouli
Ambassador to the United Nations--Basile Ikouebe

The Congo maintains an embassy in the United States at 4891 Colorado Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20011 (tel: 202-726-5500). The Congolese Mission to the United Nations is at 14 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021 (tel: 212-744-7840).

ECONOMY

For the two decades preceding Congo's 1991 national conference, the country was firmly in the socialist camp, allied principally with the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations. Educational, economic, and foreign aid links between Congo and its Eastern bloc allies were extensive, with the Congolese military and security forces receiving significant Soviet, East German, and Cuban assistance.

France, the former colonial power, maintained a continuing but somewhat subdued relationship with Congo, offering a variety of cultural, educational, and economic assistance. The principal element in the French-Congolese relationship was the highly successful oil sector investment of the French petroleum parastatal Elf-Aquitaine (now called TotalFinaElf), which entered the Congo in 1968 and has continued to grow.

After the worldwide collapse of communism and Congo's adoption of multi-party democracy in 1991, Congo's bilateral relations with its former socialist allies became relatively less important. France is now by far Congo's principal external partner, contributing significant amounts of economic assistance, while playing a highly influential role. However, there is a growing interest in attracting American investors.

Congo is a member of the United Nations, African Union, African Development Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), Central African Customs and Economic Union (UDEAC), International Coffee Organization, Economic Community of Central African States ECCAS/CEEAC), INTERPOL, the Nonaligned Movement, and the Group of 77. Congo holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council during 2006-2007. In January 2006, President Sassou-Nguesso was elected Chairman of the African Union.

U.S.-CONGOLESE RELATIONS

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Congo were broken during the most radical Congolese-Marxist period, 1965-77. The U.S. Embassy reopened in 1977 with the restoration of relations, which remained distant until the end of the socialist era. The late 1980s were marked by a progressive warming of Congolese relations with Western countries, including the United States. Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso made a state visit to Washington in 1990, where he was received by President George H.W. Bush.

With the advent of democracy in 1991, Congo's relations with the United States improved and were cooperative. The United States has enthusiastically supported Congolese democratization efforts, contributing aid to the country's electoral process. The Congolese Government demonstrated an active interest in deepening and broadening its relations with the United States. Transition Prime Minister Andre Milongo made an official visit to Washington in 1992, where President Bush received him at the White House.

Then-presidential candidate Pascal Lissouba traveled to Washington in 1992, meeting with a variety of officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen. After his election in August 1992, President Lissouba expressed interest in expanding U.S.-Congo links, seeking increased U.S. development aid, university exchanges, and greater U.S. investment in Congo. With the outbreak of the 1997 war, the U.S. Embassy was evacuated. The Embassy was closed, and its personnel became resident in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2001 Embassy-suspended operations were lifted, and Embassy personnel were allowed to travel to Brazzaville for periods of extended temporary duty from the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa. As a result, U.S.-Congo bilateral relations were reinvigorated. In 2003 and 2004 this practice continued, and a site for construction of a new Embassy was acquired in July 2004. Relations between the United States and the government of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso are strong, positive, and cooperative.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador-- Robert Weisberg
Deputy Chief of Mission--Mark Biedlingmaier
Management Officer--Marcia Oshinaike
Economic/Consular Officer--Chelsea Bakken
Office Manager--Ada Hellyer

The U.S. Embassy accredited to Congo is located at BDEAC Building, 4th Floor, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo (tel: 242-81-14-80; fax: 243-81-5324).

TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans traveling and residing abroad through Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry and exit requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Public Announcements are issued to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.

For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.

The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.

The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov

Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.

STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.

Revised: Jun. 2007

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