A few years ago there was a Fleet Street story about two hacks in El Vino, one saying to the other: "You've heard the news from Zaire? They say it's another Congo." At the time that seemed quite funny. Less so is Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on foreign affairs. He explained recently that the French were naturally concerned in the Congo, since "we must remember that what we call Congo was formerly Zaire, part of French Equatorial Africa". And this is a man who, if we ever get a Blair-Ashdown coalition, might yet be foreign secretary.
For Mr Campbell's benefit, what we now call the Democratic Republic of the Congo was formerly Zaire, under the long reign of the mad kleptocrat Mobutu, who amassed a personal fortune of several billion dollars while his country disintegrated. Before that it was Congo, which had become independent in very unhappy circumstances, having formerly been the Belgian Congo and, a hundred years ago, as the Congo Free State, the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of the Belgians and one of the most horrible stains in the history of imperialism.
None of which explains the rights and wrongs, if any, of the present conflict, which has a topsy-turvy political and moral character. Just over four years ago, Rwanda saw appalling massacres even by this century's standards, with 800,000 people of the minority Tutsis - a tenth of the country's population - butchered in the space of a few weeks. Now Tutsi forces from Rwanda have helped turn the civil war in the Congo into a proxy international war. Along with Ugandan troops, they are fighting with the rebels against President Laurent Kabila, who is supported by troops from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Back in 1960, it was the Congo that caused the first disillusionment with independent Africa. Hopes had been so high. The decolonisation of Africa had begun in 1957, when the British colony of the Gold Coast became sovereign Ghana. That inspired Peregrine Worsthorne, a romantic High Tory, to think of writing a book called "Democracy in Africa", after Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It was just as well for him that the book was one of those literary projects that remained unwritten: the title would have a painfully ironical ring today.
Why has Africa gone so horribly wrong? In place of the optimism of 40 years ago, there is a new wave of bitter books such as the American journalist Keith Richburg's Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, in which he gives thanks that his forebears were taken in slavery across the Atlantic, and the Ghanaian George BN Attiyey's Africa in Chaos, describing a continent "wracked by a never-ending cycle of civil wars, carnage, chaos and instability ... censorship, persecution, detention, arbitrary seizures of property, corruption, capital flight, and tyranny".
More than 30 years ago the French writer Rene Dumont saw that "black Africa is off to a bad start", partly because of the ideological claptrap that was among Europe's legacy. Others took a little longer to learn. In 1960 Conor Cruise O'Brien was sent to lead the ill-starred United Nations operation against the secession of Katanga from the newly independent Congo. He was then very much a man of the anti-colonial left and, although his diplomatic career came to an end with that episode, he became vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana as a kind of consolation prize; from there he observed the corruption and megalomania of Kwame Nkrumah's rule at close quarters.
Years later, in 1985, he looked back at the "African experiment" with bleak honesty. "Not all the capitalist African states have been successful, but all the (relatively) successful states have been capitalist. 'African socialism' has no success stories to tell. I say this not because I wish to make a fashionable Reaganite point, but simply because it is true, and important."
Even that is only part of the answer, which goes deeper still and further back. During the Boer war of 1899-1902, English radicals such as JA Hobson denounced the war on the plausible ground that it was being fought to make the Transvaal safe for the gold-mining companies. But from there, Hobson went on to develop a broader thesis, which Lenin appropriated wholesale, which has influenced opinion far beyond the Marxist left ever since and which is false. Imperialism was a racket, Hobson said, the motives of which were greed, the pursuit of outlets for investment and sources of raw materials. His mistake was to extend this argument from one valid example: South Africa really was an economic prize worth having. It remains hugely rich in mineral resources, as to some degree do the countries grouped round it south of the Tropic of Capricorn. And the countries of the Mediterranean coast, north of the Tropic of Cancer, likewise enjoy undeserved oil wealth.
That simply wasn't true of tropical Africa. It had, and has, rather few natural resources. Even Leopold's bestial exploitation of the Congo was a short-lived horror: quite soon the brutal slave-labour was made pointless (as if it had ever been justified) when rubber could be artificially cultivated. More than 60 years ago, AJP Taylor wrote that, although the enormous areas of tropical Africa look tempting on a map, "of most of them the truth is that they had for so long remained ownerless because they were not worth owning".
That blunt verdict is true still. The most depressing thing about Africa today isn't civil war in the Congo or elsewhere, or endemic corruption, or even the terrible scourge of Aids which is ravaging one country after another, it is this: the 40 countries of tropical Africa have between them a total economic product substantially less then either Sweden or Switzerland. And capitalism, with its bluff amorality, recognises this. By the mid-1990s, Africa attracted about 1 per cent of all investment in developing countries, $2bn in total against the $5.8bn invested in Singapore alone.
Certainly things have been made much worse by the incompetence, greed and stupidity of Africa's rulers. Almost all them took the wrong paths, eager to fill their own pockets, or contemptuous of the agriculture which should have been the bedrock of African development. Nkrumah once referred to cocoa farming, on which had been largely built the prosperity of the Gold Coast, before it became Ghana (and fell into his hands), as a "poor nigger's business". With rulers like that...
There was a further misunderstanding, bred from absurdly high hopes and a kind of false analogy. For all their rhetoric, those who attacked colonialism and Eurocentricity unconsciously expected Africa to be like Europe, and projected European notions on it even when apparently denouncing white rule. When the first universal suffrage elections were held in South Africa in 1994, a sententious cartoon appeared in a British newspaper. Two black men were queuing at the polling booth; one asked the other how long he had been waiting, and was told: "Since 1652". What was this supposed to mean? That South Africa had been a flourishing multi-party democracy before Jan van Riebeek arrived in the 17th century? The truth - which it is in everyone's interests to recognise - is that South Africa is an entirely European creation, the product of white skill, white capital and white greed. To borrow a phrase, the part played by the non-white peoples was blood, toil, tears and sweat, and that largely involuntary.
Three hundred years ago, Europe did something horrible to Africa, as the slave trade burgeoned. A hundred years ago, more horrible things were done, in South Africa and in the Congo. But then Europe played a final cruel trick, leaving Africa to its own devices with a vague - but ludicrous - expectation that Africa would develop overnight the sophisticated political and economic structures which in Europe are the product of hundreds of years of history.
In hindsight, Europe should either not have gone to Africa at all, or, having gone there, have stayed much longer.
There is even a case for saying that we should return and take responsibility once more for the Heart of Darkness. But with all of Europe's own troubles, who is going to tell it to take up the white man's burden once more?