There is a common misbelief to assume that “the Republic of the Congo” and “the Democratic Republic of the Congo” refer to the same country. The mistake is understandable. They both share the word Congo, the name for the massive river that runs through them. The share the world “republic” because they both in fact are. They both have extensive rainforests and in both have French as an official language. They are, however, very different countries. The Republic of the Congo was a colony of France; its president is Denis Sassou Nguesso; and it has always had the phrase “Republic of the Congo” in its name. The Democratic Republic of the Congo gained its independence, not from France, but Belgium; for much of the 20th century it was referred to as Zaire; its president is Joseph Kabila. Still, they can be difficult to differentiate.
Below are some crucial differences to help one recognize that the Republic of the Congo is not, in fact, the same thing as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Brazzaville versus Kinshasa
Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of the Congo. Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Knowing the proper capital of a country is a crucial bit of knowledge and here it really is true. The capitals of these countries are often used to informally refer to one or the other countries. For instance, Congo-Brazzaville instead of Congo-Kinshasa when referring to the Republic of the Congo. A good way to remember Brazzaville is to note it is one of the very few African cities that has retained its European given name. In this case it was named after explorer Pierre de Brazza.
French versus Belgian
It is true that French is the official language in both nations, but that is because both of their former ‘mother countries’ spoke French. France settled the colonies that would eventually become the Republic of the Congo. In 1880, the French established Brazzaville as the capital of French Congo, a colony that became subsumed by a large colony called French Equatorial Africa. They gained independence from France in 1958, hence French as their language. Belgium founded the colony of the Congo Free State, which then became Belgian Congo, followed by Zaire before finally settling on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is no “Belgian” language. Instead, they speak a mixture of French, Dutch and German, the former two by far the most. For whatever reason when Belgium colonized the DROC they chose to use French as the principal language. Thus why they both speak it. A good way to remember the difference is by remembering alphabetic order. “B” comes before “F” (B for Belgium, F for France) in alphabetical order just as “D” comes before “R” (D for Democratic Republic of the Congo, R for Republic of the Congo).
The Republic of the Congo is west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, west of the Congo River and lies on the right bank of the river. The Democratic Republic is east of the Republic of the Congo and lies on the left bank of the Congo (later on both banks when the river turns inward towards the country). Once again that’s: Republic of the Congo is west, Democratic Republic of the Congo is east. But perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference between the two is that the Republic of the Congo is the “small Congo.” Democratic Republic of the Congo is the “big Congo,” spanning over 900,000 square miles to Republic of the Congo’s roughly 300,000 square miles.