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Africa

Early next week a French-led contingent of multinational troops will pull out of the Congo town of Bunia after barely three months of peacekeeping. Thankfully, some high-level diplomacy at the United Nations by the secretary general, Kofi Annan, has secured a replacement force to serve a further year in an attempt to end the regional conflict which since 1998 has claimed more than 3.3 million lives.

But while efforts are rightly focused on seeking a truce between the Hema and Lendu militia groups, and urging an end to Ugandan and Rwandan interference, western diplomats might also think about getting their own houses in order. In an uncanny repetition of western intervention in the region that dates back to the 19th century, complicit multinational corporations and unknowing - or unthinking - western consumers have contributed to the regional conflagration. The Democratic Republic of Congo is an area cursed by an abundance of natural wealth from gold through diamonds and timber to oil and even the mobile-phone mineral coltan. Foreign companies, happy to cut deals with military commanders, have sustained the conflict by exploiting natural resources with near-total disregard for human rights or long-term development. In turn, when we use our phone, give a PlayStation to a teenager, or buy a diamond for a loved one, we too risk being an unwitting accomplice.

Since King Leopold II of Belgium first decided on Congo as a suitable site for his imperial ambitions in the 1870s, the west's role in the region's history has constituted an almost apocalyptic rape of resources and people.

It was under the guise of the International African Association and with the assistance of that criminally overrated explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, that Leopold II carved out his territory. Local chiefs were forced to hand over vast tracts of land in exchange for cloth, beads and a couple of bottles of gin. But unlike France or Britain, Leopold was never interested in the geopolitics of Africa - he wanted the riches.

To begin with, it was ivory. Trading posts were established along the Congo river manned by Belgian military officials with strict targets for collection rates. Armed with the gun and the chicotte (a whip made of hippo skin), they quelled local villages, who pressganged tens of thousands into railway construction and liquidated any resistance.

Then came rubber slavery. With the demand for bicycle and car tyres growing in the west, the wild rubber trees of the Congo basin became a goldmine for Leopold. Whole villages were taken hostage to ensure men went into the jungles to tap trees. Villages that refused were massacred en masse and hands hacked off as evidence of orders carried out. Brussels always had a good eye for bureaucracy. Every bullet needed to account for every smoked limb. The "savage" African custom of mutilation - seen to such horrendous effect in Sierra Leone and Rwanda - owes much to the introduction of Belgian bureaucratic rigour.

The forests and rivers of Congo became a killing field as King Leopold's officers destroyed a civilisation with the racial determination of Nazi death camp commandants. And as Adam Hochschild has shown in his masterful book, King Leopold's Ghost, it was no surprise that it was in this "heart of darkness" that Conrad found his Kurtz. Was the prototype Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, who paid his soldiers 2d for every human head they brought him during military operations, or perhaps Leon Rum, who surrounded his garden with severed African heads and thought himself, like Kurtz, "an emissary of science and progress"?

By the time world opinion finally woke up to Leopold's atrocities, the Congo Free State had been stripped of its wealth, some 10 million people slaughtered in one of the worst genocides in history, and an entire cultural tradition extinguished. The west, of course, hadn't finished with Congo, deciding later in the 20th century to support the brutal kleptocracy of General Mobutu for some 30 ruinous years.

Today a familiar pattern continues. A UN panel of experts recently concluded that foreign interests sustain the current war by illegally subsidising militias, in return for gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan and other loot. Vast quantities of the country's natural wealth are shipped out illegally, leaving behind an impoverished population that is often pressganged into labour or, literally, pillaged and raped. The conflict has witnessed some of the worst sexual violence in history, and is dubbed Africa's first world war: millions of casualties, and 18 million people with no access to services of any kind - no clean water, health, education, transport, or housing.

A wave of bloodletting earlier this year sparked fears of a Rwandan-style genocide. Renewed attempts to broker peace have now, thankfully, led to a transitional government headed by the young Joseph Kabila - son of Laurent - and the promise of an enhanced UN peacekeeping force. But history runs rings round Congo. Back in 1960 it had the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to host a UN peacekeeping force. So what's new?

Well, for a start, the UN might finally have some power. Next month, the UN mission, Monuc, will increase from just over 2,000 to approximately 8,000 by the end of September. Of course, it needs more. If it had the same troops-to-land ratio as in Kosovo, Congo would have 10 million peacekeepers. But Monuc's new power - a mandate authorising active intervention to protect civilians, rather than its former observer status - does mark significant progress. It is a departure from the UN's dark days in 1994, when it walked away from the Rwandan genocide only to return some months later to hang curtains around 800,000 corpses and accidentally provide sanctuary for the murderers regrouping in Congo, thus preparing the ground for today's conflict.

Since the arrival of the French-led international force, including a British contingent, Bunia, the town where daylight robbery and murdering militias went hand in hand, has been demilitarised. But a large number of the population are displaced in the surrounding countryside, too terrified to return. The British government has so far increased humanitarian assistance this year to £16m. But Congo also needs protection from exploitative western interests. It needs an extension of controls on diamonds and other minerals; the enforcement of OECD guidelines for multinational businesses; an effective small-arms embargo; and stricter conditionality on assistance to other regional governments linked to Congolese resource exploitation.

As Congo knows from its past, UN peacekeepers are not enough. Only good governance and economic transparency will drain the illegal swamp of economic and military networks that have, throughout its history, conspired in crimes against humanity.

Published in The Guardian on 30 April 2003