Nestled nearly in the middle of the African continent rests the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Think Tarzan. Dark and mysterious, the country is rich in cobalt, copper, and diamonds. But because of political corruption throughout the years, the country remains largely underdeveloped.
Although the history of the Congo dates back 80,000 years, for the purposes of numismatics, there are five eras to consider: the Congo Free State (1877-1908), the Belgian Congo (1908-1960), the Republic (1960-1971), ZaÏre (1971-1997), and the Democratic Republic (1998-date).
The Congo Free State came into existence due to King Leopold II of Belgium’s exploration of the territory. In 1885, at the Conference of Berlin, he claimed ownership of the land and called it the Congo Free State. As is the case with many colonizers, greed got the best of Leopold. It is estimated that half the population of the Congo died as a result of sleeping sickness and smallpox due to the exploitation of the people in an effort to produce rubber for the industrialized world.
Under international pressure, the Congo Free State was annexed as a Belgium colony in 1908. The emphasis was again on using the Congo for its natural resources, but there was also some improvement in education and healthcare during this period.
By 1960, nationalism had taken hold and Patrice Lumumba was appointed the Congo’s first Prime Minister. Joseph Kasa-Vubu was elected President by the parliament. Lumumba changed the name of the country to the Republic of the Congo. His leadership was short lived and after several coups, the military leader Joseph Mobuto, declared himself head of state. The name of the country was again changed in 1965 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and then in 1971 was changed to the Republic of ZaÏre. Mobuto received international aid while he was in power, most of which he embezzled.
ZaÏre’s delicate infrastructure suffered under Mobuto’s rule and when opposition forces launched the First Congo War in 1997, Mobuto was forced to flee. The first leader of the opposition, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, renamed the country once again to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, the country has experienced several insurgencies and civil wars. The formation of a transitional government which occurred in 2003 has done little to alleviate the problems. Some call the DR Congo the heart of "Africa’s World War." It is estimated that in the last 10 years three million lives have been lost through fighting, disease, and malnutrition.
With such a turbulent history, many of the Congo’s coin issues have been short-lived. The Congo Free State coins (1887-1908) were based on the Belgium Franc. The copper Centimes (1 Centime through 10 Centimes) were holed. The silver 50 Centimes and 1, 2 and 5 Francs featured the bust of Leopold II.
The era of the Belgium Congo was perhaps the country’s longest period of stability. The coins of this era (1910-1949) were again based on the Belgium Franc. The Centime through the 20 Centime were holed. Belgium’s King Albert I was featured on the copper-nickel 50 Centimes and Franc. The brass 1, 2, and 5 Francs had an African elephant on the obverse. In addition, in 1943 a 6-sided 2 Francs was struck. A coin with the bust of Leopold III was struck for a two year 5 Francs issue in 1936-1937. Finally, a one-year 50 Francs in silver, with an elephant obverse, was struck in 1944.
Among the coins of the Republic which were minted from 1965 to 1970, was the first appearance of gold coins in denominations of 10, 20, 25, 50, and 100 Francs. These coins were minted in 1965 and featured the bust of President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Later issues had the controversial president, Joseph Mobutu, on the obverse.
The ZaÏre era again featured Mobuto’s bust on the obverse on virtually every issue from 1971 to 1987. The wildlife of Africa was the theme from 1996 to 1997 on silver and gold coins in denominations from 500 Nouveaux Zaires to 10000 Nouveaux Zaires.
Finally, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the largest selection of coins which begin in 1999. Designs are diversified and metal content include copper-nickel, aluminum, brass, iron, silver, gold and the very unusual acrylic 10 Francs. Shapes include round, rectangular, and triangular. Denominations run from 25 Centimes to 100 Francs. Colorization is used on many of the more recent issues. Subject matters vary greatly from wildlife to the Pope. For the modern coin collector, this era has much to offer.