Are you half-decent at geography and keeping up with the news? See if you can guess the country I'm talking about without cheating, and see if you can do it before reading every hint.
1. It is home to the deadliest conflict since the end of World War II, responsible for somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million deaths.
2. It is the 11th-largest country in the world by area and has a population greater than France, UK, South Korea, Spain, Poland, or Argentina.
3. It is the world's leading producer and exporter of cobalt, and in the top ten for diamonds and gold.
4. It is the largest country in the world with French as an official language.
5. Foreman and Ali fought in its capital city in 1974 (the "Rumble in the Jungle").
6. It used to be called Zaire.
The correct answer, if the final one didn't give it away, is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And I am fascinated by it. I have no proper academic experience studying it, but I wish I did. It is the absolute perfect example of the long shadow of colonialism, the minimal attention paid in the western media to conflicts – sometimes enormous conflicts – in the Wrong parts of the world, and a lesson I hoped Americans might learn after Iraq about the fallacy of placing any importance on map lines in that region.
The DRC as a nation-state has zero historical basis. None. It's kind of amazing. This notion of "Zaire" as a historical entity barely goes back 100 years and was drawn up by Belgium with the assent of the other European colonial powers. The USA is a fairly ethnically diverse country, right? We're such a melting pot, right? Well within the modern borders of the DRC there are over two hundred distinct ethnic groups, often with no common language. And some people from outside the continent simply decided, OK you're all a country now.
Hmm. I wonder why it hasn't become a stable democracy yet.
Ethnic conflict is just one of the many reasons behind its enormously bloody civil war, sometimes called the Second Congo War when it is noticed at all. Eight – eight! – different African countries in the region have sent armed groups, massive floods of refugees, or both across the borders into the DRC in the past two decades, contributing to the chaos and death toll. If you think it would be impossible for 3-5 million people to die in a war without anyone noticing, surprise. Here you go.
Like many ex-colonies, DRC is cursed and blessed with resources. If its people had any basis whatsoever for coming together as a modern nation the potential for wealth is there, but of course not only do they have any common national identity but the extensive corruption, in-fighting, and constant outside interference ensure that will never happen.
It is, even by post-colonial African standards, just a broken place. It should not exist as a country, as its people had to be informed that they were to exist as one and were not consulted in the matter. And it amazes me the extent to which such an enormous place with so much turmoil can get so little attention. It's an example begging us to learn something from it, hiding in plain sight. When was the last time you read anything about it on the news?