Some of the Bantu peoples in the Congo have been here since before ad 1000. When Diogo Cam, the first European explorer of the area, reached the Congo River in 1482, he found two large empires. The kingdom of Loango extended north and east from the river, and that of the Bakongo controlled the land near the mouth of the Congo River southward to the Cuanza River. Eventually, Portuguese imperialism and the slave trade destroyed the Bakongo’s empire and severely damaged that of the Loango. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza of France explored the area in 1879 and 1880. He signed treaties with local rulers, placing the territory under French protection. The region became known as the Middle Congo, which in 1910 became one of the colonies federated into French Equatorial Africa. Brazzaville, the chief city of the Middle Congo, became the seat of government for the federation. After many attempts following World War II (1939-1945) to bind its African territories into a meaningful association, France began to grant them independence. The Middle Congo became an independent functioning republic in 1960 called Republic of the Congo.
Politics after independence were unstable; each disturbance made the government more radical. The first premier, Fulbert Youlou, outlawed all opposition but was overthrown in 1963. He was replaced by Alphonse Massamba-Debat and the National Revolutionary Movement; he secured good relations with Communist states throughout the world, especially the People’s Republic of China. In 1968 a coup organized by the army and more militant leftists overthrew Massamba-Debat and installed Marien Ngouabi as head of state. During the nine years of Ngouabi’s rule the Congo became even more of a Marxist country. In 1970, under a revolutionary constitution, the name of the nation was changed to People’s Republic of the Congo. Ngouabi was assassinated in 1977, and his place was assumed by General Joachim Yhombi-Opango. Despite its good relations with the Communist world, the Congo’s closest ties and much of its trade remained with France.
In 1979 Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso succeeded Yhombi-Opango as president; a treaty of cooperation and friendship was signed with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1981. Reelected to the presidency in 1984 and 1989, Sassou-Nguesso faced rising opposition as the 1990s began. A national conference that was held in 1991 and 1992 changed the country’s name back to Republic of the Congo, introduced a new national flag and anthem, and approved a new constitution to make the Congo a multiparty democracy. Pascal Lissouba defeated Sassou-Nguesso in the presidential election of August 1992. Accusations of ethnic favoritism plagued Lissouba during the mid-1990s. Armed factions arose in opposition to his rule, with many Congolese rallying behind Sassou-Nguesso. In 1997 heavy fighting erupted in Brazzaville, destroying much of the city. In October of that year Sassou-Nguesso overthrew Lissouba with military assistance from Angola. Lissouba and his prime minister, Bernard Kolelas, fled the country. Factions loyal to the former leaders rose up to challenge Sassou-Nguesso, and the Congo descended into civil war. Some 10,000 Congolese died in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Sassou-Nguesso oversaw the signing of a peace accord with the rival militias in 1999, offering an amnesty to participants in the civil war. The amnesty notably excluded Lissouba and Kolelas, who remained in exile. In 2000 and 2001 Lissouba and Kolelas were tried and convicted in absentia for treason and war crimes.
A new constitution was approved by public referendum in 2002. In presidential elections held in March, Sassou-Nguesso was elected to a seven-year term. Lissouba and Kolelas were prevented from running for president by a residency law, and international observers criticized the elections for their lack of competition.