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Colonial rule: 1891-1958

The pioneering efforts of Pierre de Savorgnan de Brazza in 1879-80 give the French a secure foothold north of the Congo river. It enables them to claim the region as a colony in 1891, under the name French Congo. Subsequently, as Middle Congo, it becomes the centre of the new French Equatorial Africa, of which the capital is Brazzaville.

As in neigbouring Ubangi-Shari, French colonial rule involves much exploitation of the African population in the use of forced labour. It is calculated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Africans die in the construction between 1921 and 1934 of the vital railway link between Brazzaville and the coast at Pointe-Noire.

In 1946 Congo becomes, like the rest of France's African colonies, an overseas territory sending elected deputies to the national assembly in Paris. In 1958 the country votes to remain within the French Community, and in 1960 it becomes an independent state.

By the time of independence two rival parties have emerged within the local territorial assembly. The MSA or Mouvement Socialiste Africain favours, as its name suggests, a left-wing policy. The UDDIA or Union Démocratique pour la Défense des Intérêts Africains (Democratic Union for the Defence of African Interests) is the party of free enterprise, advocating strong links with France.

Indpendence: from1960

The first president of the new nation is the UDDIA leader, Fulbert Youlou, but he is soon replaced in office (in 1963) by a Marxist politician, Alphonse Massamba-Débat. A new party, the MNR or Mouvement National de la Révolution is now the only one permitted. But the regime fails to achieve the repressive stability often achieved by Marxist governments.

A military coup in 1968 brings in a new left-wing dictator, Colonel Marien Ngouabi, who is in his turn assassinated in 1977 (allegations that the murder was carried out by henchmen of Massamba-Débat are soon followed by the execution of the former president).

Ngouabi has in 1969 replaced the MNR with another Marxist party, the PCT or Parti Congoloais du Travail (Congolese Labour Party). This remains for the next twenty years the ruling organization in a single-party Marxist state, headed from 1979 by another colonel, Denis Sassou-Nguesso.

To the inefficiencies of state-run enterprises there is added, during the 1980s, the problem of a marked fall in the price of oil, Congo's main resource. By 1990 the economic crisis causes the PCT to renounce its monopoly of power. A national conference in 1991 dismisses Sassou-Nguesso and makes preparations for multiparty elections.

Unfortunately the elections, held in 1992, prove merely the prelude to civil war. The PCT is beaten into second place by one of the new parties, UPADS (Pan-African Union for Social Democracy), led by Pascal Lissouba. He assumes the presidency and forms a coalition, but is forced to call new elections in 1993 after failing to sustain a majority in the assembly.

Again UPADS emerges as the largest single party in the assembly, but opposition groups dispute the result. In 1994 the opposition parties form militias to pursue the argument by other means. Parts of Brazzaville come under the control of urban guerrillas.

During 1995 there are concerted attempts at peace, with plans to enrol the urban guerrillas in the national army. But by 1997 the situation has again degenerated into a civil war between armed factions supporting the incumbent president, Lissouba, and his predecessor, Sassou-Nguesso. In October 1997 Sassou-Nguesso's forces capture both Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. Lissouba and his government flee abroad. Sassou-Nguesso resumes the office of president.

During 1998 refugees from the conflict start to return across the borders. Work begins to restore a crumbling Brazzaville and a shattered economy. Meanwhile the new president promises a return to multiparty democracy by 2001.