The United Nations cannot enforce a peace that does not exist

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We are not five months into it, but whichever well-meaning soul at the United Nations decreed that 2000 should be the "Year of Africa" must surely have already locked up the prize for misnomer of the year. The "Year of Africa" it has been, but not in the sense intended. Floods in its south, war and threatened famine in the Horn of Africa, civil war in the Congo, political chaos in Zimbabwe, now the renewed fighting in Sierra Leone, which threatens to engulf the UN peace-keeping mission there - rarely has the continent appeared in such disarray.

Nowhere is as much at stake as in Sierra Leone: not just the future of that wretched country, but the credibility of the United Nations and Kofi Annan, its first secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa, and the fate of the proposed UN peace-keeping mission to the Congo. And once again the question arises: what is to be done with "failed states", countries that in reality exist only on the pages of the atlas? Were there easy solutions, the crises in Sierra Leone, the Congo and Angola would have long been settled. Cut off the supply of weapons, some say. Yet they are self-financing wars, in which the warring parties use diamonds and other resources from areas they control to buy arms. And in the arms trade, willing buyers invariably find willing sellers.

Others advocate the delegation of responsibility to regional powers, much as Nato intervened in Kosovo. But in Sierra Leone, intervention by the West African Ecomog group did not bring lasting peace. In the Congo, it is the country's very neighbours who are feasting on the carcass. Yet in diplomacy, also, we are addicted to the quick fix, the notion that resolving conflicts must be as simple as broadcasting their horrors on our television screens.

But history's lesson is, to paraphrase Bismarck, that more countries are born from blood and iron than from speeches and artificially set borders (even borders more sensitively drawn than those of post-colonial Africa).

We must try to make arms embargoes more effective and promote regional peace-making. But the UN cannot be expected to enforce a peace that does not exist. When the world body intervenes, it should be either to nurture a true peace or to impose one by overwhelming strength. But, as interventions from the Gulf to Kosovo and Bosnia make plain, "overwhelming strength" means Western, in particular, American strength. Is that what we want?

Britain was right to send troops to Freetown yesterday to evacuate British and European nationals, if that proves necessary. But in the long run, only Africans can end African wars. Our business, and our post-colonial moral duty, is to provide all available help for these countries, once reasonable stability is assured. That means cancelling debt, increasing untied aid, ensuring decent prices for vital commodity exports and opening our markets to African goods.

It can be done. Not so long ago Mozambique was embroiled in a murderous civil war of its own. Then the country put its house in order and struggled free of its crippling debts, only to be devastated by the recent floods. Yet last week - long after the television cameras had departed to cover fresh African disasters in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and now Sierra Leone - Western donors actually oversubscribed a $450m request from the country for reconstruction aid. The trouble is that for every Mozambique, there seem to be a dozen Sierra Leones.