Today marks the 50th anniversary of Congo's independence from Belgium. It will be a bitter-sweet occasion, for this is a state that epitomises so many of Africa's historic and contemporary problems. The Congo is shackled with a terrible (and notoriously brutal) colonial legacy. This is a nation the size of Western Europe with only a handful of usable roads. With its stark east-west divide and countless ethnic and tribal divisions it is doubtful whether it is actually a viable state at all.
Congo has suffered from Western influence in the decades since independence, too. During the Cold War the US used the brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, as a proxy against Soviet-backed Angola. But the greatest disaster to have befallen Congo was the civil war between 1998 and 2003, which left 3 million Congolese dead and countless more brutalised. Democratic elections were held in 2006. But political killings continue. A Kinshasa human rights activist, Floribert Chebeya, was murdered earlier this month and the finger of suspicion has been pointed at the police. Media workers who expose official corruption often face harassment and arrest.
Congo is also a country, like Nigeria, that is cursed by its natural resources. Its vast gold, copper, coltan, cobalt and tin reserves make it a mineral superpower. But these resources are mined and sold by armed groups, often sponsored by Congo's stronger neighbours. Rwanda's role in destabilising Congo for profit has been particularly grotesque.
Despite today's celebrations, it is very hard to be optimistic about Congo's future. President Joseph Kabila is expected to seek re-election next year. But his rule has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years. The 17,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force is being withdrawn, despite continued violence in the east of the country. And unlike in other African nations, outside investment is drying up. There are far fewer European businesses working in the country today than at the time of independence.
The outside world is not powerless to help Congo. The West should ban imports of goods made with materials that are mined in Congo. This would stem the flow of money and weapons to the warlords. But this, on its own, would not end the violence or improve its governance. The best hope for Congo is regional co-operation, and firm action from the African Union to prevent the state's neighbours preying on its resources. Congo is an African disaster. And, ultimately, only Africa will be able to offer its long-suffering people the chance of a better future.