Leading article: We must be realistic about our power to help the Congo

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Imperial rivalry has been the ruin of Africa. For that reason alone, the visit to Central Africa by the foreign ministers of France and Britain is freighted with a high degree of symbolism. At last, the two countries historically at the centre of the colonial Race for Africa are presenting a welcome united front to the crisis around the Great Lakes.

That aside, there is a danger that David Miliband's and Bernard Kouchner's mission to calm the furies around Goma and prevent a Rwandan-backed rebel army from overrunning the city may raise unrealistic expectations. It is, for example, unlikely that Britain's overstretched army is going to be in any position any time soon to deploy in any significant presence. As for the French, they would heighten tensions since the Rwandan government – the real force behind the rebels in eastern Congo – views the country as an enemy, given its complicity in the 1995 genocide.

So where might the extra peacekeeping troops that the two ministers have called for come from? Their answer would seem to be the United Nations. But this is unconvincing, given that the danger to Goma is imminent, while to boost the UN forces would take months, even assuming countries are willing to contribute. And while it has become modish to talk of African solutions to African problems, this notion can hardly be considered vindicated in Darfur or Somalia, where the deployment of African Union peacekeepers has been ineffective.

The problem in eastern Congo is especially complex. The borders – drawn up by the reviled former Belgian overlords – took no heed of ethnic or tribal considerations. In consequence, Hutus and Tutsis live side by side on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda frontier and in a state of endemic conflict.

Moreover, the West's bungled response to the Rwanda genocide included allowing the defeated Hutu perpetrators of this slaughter to slip into the UN refugee camps in Goma and become part of the warp and weft of local society. Add to that the lure of Congo's vast mineral riches and you have two principal factors – money and revenge – forcing the pace of the rebel army's advance.

None of this is an argument for ignoring the plight of the innocent refugees trapped in Goma, victims of a Tutsi-led settling of accounts. But Western countries must be clear eyed if and when they decide to become more directly involved in eastern Congo. If Rwanda suspects an Anglo-French condominium is throwing a shield around the Hutu war criminals ensconced there, all hope of a lasting peace in the region can be abandoned.

The crisis also underlines the discomforting feeling that Western responses to Africa have an arbitrary quality to them, the dynamic too often driven by the incidental concentration of articulate Western charities. This is certainly the case here. There have been far worse atrocities elsewhere in this vast nation, but they are buried deep in regions made inaccessible by the decay of infrastructure or by the violence of rampaging gangs. It also helps to explain why the horrors of Somalia, a virtual no-go zone for Western charities, are more or less ignored.

There is a danger that Goma will become just another photo opportunity for concerned Western ministers and aid groups desperate for funds. After decades of war, rape and pillage, the people of the Congo deserve more. Goma's crisis must be put into the context of a region being torn apart by outside interests. Our actions must support long-term solutions, based on a realistic assessment of what we can do to remedy a situation that – at least partly – is of our own making.

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