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The smaller of the two Congos is potentially oil rich, but its recurring civil war has held back development

The country's official name is the Republic of the Congo, though it is also known as Congo (Brazzaville). Its territory consists largely of two river basins separated by mountains and plateaux. The smaller of the two is the Niari basin in the south and south-west. To the north-east of this the land rises to the Batéké and Bembe plateaux, and then descends to the basin of the Congo River, which also serves as the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the east. More than half the land area is covered by dense tropical forests.

Ethnically, Congo is diverse, though around half the population belong to the Kongo ethnic group, who are concentrated in the capital, Brazzaville, and in the south. The Sangho live in the remote forests of the north, the M'Bochi are in the centre-north, while the Teke are in the Batéké plateau. Congo is the most urbanized country in Sub-Saharan Africa and prior to its civil war from 1997 the concentration of people in Brazzaville helped to ensure relatively good educational standards. But the war has undermined the education system and has also taken a toll on health—not only killing more than 10,000 people and destroying clinics but also enabling HIV and AIDS to spread rapidly: up to 4% of the adult population could now be infected.

Since the late 1970s, the Congo's main source of income has been oil. Oil makes up most of export earnings and 70% of GDP. Reserves are largely offshore and serviced by the port of Pointe Noire, with Total and Agip as the leading producers.

Though this income has given the country a relatively high per capita GDP, the wealth has not percolated through to the rest of the economy. There is little other industry and most people in Brazzaville who do not work for the government are employed in the informal sector.

The country's infrastructure is also weak—even Pointe Noire and Brazzaville are not connected by an all-weather road, though there are a number of railways.

People outside the cities generally survive through farming. The country has good soil and ample rainfall, but agriculture is underdeveloped. Most farmers grow crops like cassava, plantains, and groundnuts for their own consumption. Because road links are so poor they find it difficult to market their crops, so most of the food consumed in Brazzaville is actually imported, usually across the Zaire River from Kinshasa.

The country's vast forest resources, which include around 600 species of timber, have also been under-exploited. For loggers too the main handicap is a lack of transport. The only forests that have been felled are near the coast. Environmentalists are now, however, worried about the arrival of Asian logging companies looking for new opportunities.

Congo's current political rivalries have their roots in the 1960s and 1970s when this was the Marxist ‘People's Republic of the Congo’ run by the Parti congolais du travais (PCT). Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso, a northerner from the M'Bochi ethnic group heading the PCT was elected president in 1984, and again in 1989. But by the early 1990s, popular pressure forced the PCT to legalize other parties, and in 1991 they introduced a new constitution and changed the country's name to the Republic of the Congo.


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