Democratic Republic of Congo Essential Facts and Information

Mature male Silveback gorilla looking at the camera, picking his teeth.
••• Ger Bosma/Getty Images

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the second largest country in Africa (now that Sudan split) and dominates Central Africa both economically and culturally. Its politics have been messy since colonial times, and in the east, in particular, various rebel movements have made that part of the country quite unstable to the present day. This is unfortunate for visitors looking to travel to the DRC to see one of its main attractions - the rare Mountain Gorillas, living in the Virunga Mountains.

The DRC's history of civil war has made it difficult for the nation to attract outside investors, as well as tourists.

Fast Facts About the Democratic Republic of Congo

The DRC is located in Central Africa. It borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi in the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo, the Angolan exclave of Cabinda, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country has access to the ocean through a 40-kilometre (25 mi) stretch of Atlantic coastline at Muanda and the roughly 9 km wide mouth of the Congo River which opens into the Gulf of Guinea.

DRC is Africa's second largest country and covers a total of 2,344,858 sq. km, which makes it slightly larger than Mexico and about a quarter the size of the US. The capital city is Kinshasa. Around 75 million people live in the DRC. They have quite a few languages: French (official), Lingala (a lingua franca trade language), Kingwana (a dialect of Kiswahili or Swahili), Kikongo, and Tshiluba.

About 50% of the population is Roman Catholic, 20% is Protestant, 10% is Kimbanguist, 10% is Muslim, and 10% is other (includes syncretic sects and indigenous beliefs).

The DRC generally enjoys a tropical climate. It can get very hot and humid in the equatorial river basin area, and generally cooler and drier in the southern highlands.

It's cooler and wetter in eastern highlands. North of Equator the DRC's wet season falls between April to October, with a dry season December to February. South of Equator, the DRC's wet season runs from November to March, with the dry season from April to October. The best time to visit the DRC is when the region is peaceful and when the weather is dry. The currency is the Congolese franc (CDF).

DRC's Main Attractions

Mountain Gorilla Tracking in Virunga is cheaper than in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. However, you really have to be up to date on what the rebels are up to in this region. Check out the excellent Virunga Park visitors website for current details and read all about the Rangers and what they do to protect the gorillas. Chimpanzee treks are also possible in Virunga.

Nyiragongo, one of the world's most beautiful and active volcanoes, is a large stratovolcano. This type, also known as a composite cone, is the most picturesque of the volcano types with gentle lower slopes that rise steeply near the summit, and then break to reveal the smoking caldera. Trips can be organized by booking through Virunga's visitor site. It's a great combo with tracking mountain gorillas.

Lowland Gorilla Tracking, in Kahuzi-Biega National Park - tracking the rare eastern lowland gorilla is the main attraction of this lovely national park.

Please read the park blog to stay abreast of current conditions in the park before planning your trip. November to December is the best time to see lowland gorillas as they tend to stay in family groups during this season.

Cruising the Congo River is an amazing cultural experience, but certainly better suited to those who have an adventurous spirit.

Travel to DRC

DRC's International Airport: The N'Djili International Airport in Kinshasa is served by various international airlines including: Air France, Brussels Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines.

Getting to DRC: Most international visitors arrive at the N'Djili airport (see above). But land border crossing is numerous. If you wish to go Gorilla tracking the border between Rwanda and the DRC is open, and Safari reps will meet you across the border post.

The borders between Zambia and Uganda are also usually open. Check with the local authorities regarding the border with Sudan, Tanzania, and CAR - as these have been closed in the past due to political conflict.

DRC's Embassies/Visas: All tourists entering the DRC will need a visa. Check with the local DRC embassy in your country, The form can also be downloaded here.

DRC's Economy

The economy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo - a nation endowed with vast natural resource wealth - is slowly recovering after decades of decline. Systemic corruption since independence in 1960, combined with country-wide instability and conflict that began in the mid-90s has dramatically reduced national output and government revenue and increased external debt. With the installation of a transitional government in 2003 after peace accords, economic conditions slowly began to improve as the transitional government reopened relations with international financial institutions and international donors, and President KABILA began implementing reforms. Progress has been slow to reach the interior of the country although clear changes are evident in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. An uncertain legal framework, corruption, and a lack of transparency in government policy are long-term problems for the mining sector and for the economy as a whole.

Much economic activity still occurs in the informal sector and is not reflected in GDP data. Renewed activity in the mining sector, the source of most export income, has boosted Kinshasa's fiscal position and GDP growth in recent years. The global recession cut economic growth in 2009 to less than half its 2008 level, but growth returned to around 7% per year in 2010-12. The DRC signed a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility with the IMF in 2009 and received $12 billion in multilateral and bilateral debt relief in 2010, but the IMF at the end of 2012 suspended the last three payments under the loan facility - worth $240 million - because of concerns about the lack of transparency in mining contracts. In 2012 the DRC updated its business laws by adhering to OHADA, the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa. The country marked its tenth consecutive year of positive economic expansion in 2012.

Political History

Established as a Belgian colony in 1908, the then-Republic of the Congo gained its independence in 1960, but its early years were marred by political and social instability. Col. Joseph MOBUTU seized power and declared himself president in a November 1965 coup. He subsequently changed his name - to Mobutu Sese Seko - as well as that of the country - to Zaire. Mobutu retained his position for 32 years through several sham elections, as well as through brutal force. Ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees in 1994 from fighting in Rwanda and Burundi, led in May 1997 to the toppling of the MOBUTU regime by a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda and fronted by Laurent Kabila. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but in August 1998 his regime was itself challenged by a second insurrection again backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Troops from Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe intervened to support Kabila's regime. In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated and his son, Joseph Kabila, was named the head of state.

In October 2002, the new president was successful in negotiating the withdrawal of Rwandan forces occupying the eastern DRC; two months later, the Pretoria Accord was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and establish a government of national unity. A transitional government was set up in July 2003; it held a successful constitutional referendum in December 2005 and elections for the presidency, National Assembly, and provincial legislatures took place in 2006. In 2009, following a resurgence of conflict in the eastern DRC, the government signed a peace agreement with the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a primarily Tutsi rebel group. An attempt to integrate CNDP members into the Congolese military failed, prompting their defection in 2012 and the formation of the M23 armed group - named after the 23 March 2009 peace agreements. Renewed conflict has lead to the displacement of large numbers of persons and significant human rights abuses.

As of February 2013, peace talks between the Congolese government and the M23 were on-going. In addition, the DRC continues to experience violence committed by other armed groups including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and Mai Mai groups. In recent national elections, held in November 2011, disputed results allowed Joseph Kabila to be reelected to the presidency.