AREA -- 905,562 square miles, about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi; it is flanked on the northwest and southwest by ideologically hostile countries, the Congo Republic and Angola.

PEOPLE -- About 200 tribal groups with the Bantu tribes the largest element; half the population is at least nominally Christian.

ECONOMY -- An agricultural exporter, chiefly of palm oil, coffee, cotton and rubber, it has vast natural resources, especially copper, tin and uranium; in recent years it has had a favorable balance of trade.

EARLY HISTORY -- The area, inhabited since the Stone Age, was settled in the 7th Century by Bantus from Nigeria, colonized by Portugal in the late 15th Century and ruled by Belgium as the Belgian Congo from 1885 until 1960, when it became independent under the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

RECENT HISTORY -- The first 10 years of independence brought a succession of civil wars and breakaway movements with running hostilities among such early leaders as President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The United Nations intervened a week after independence; Belgium, the Soviet Union and the United States were variously involved. At one point in the 1960s, four major groups contended for power; major secessionist attempts were led by Moise Tshombe in Katanga, Albert Kalonji in Kasai and Antoine Gizenga in Stanleyville, now Kisangani. In 1965, Lt. Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko dissolved the civilian government and took power. The country has been generally calm during the past decade of his rule.

GOVERNMENT -- Since 1974, the effective ruler is the president, who heads the single legal party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution.