Today marks the 50th anniversary of independence for the Democratic Republic of Congo. At 4am this morning I caught a snippet of the BBC's Martin Plaut asking Congolese people in Kinshasa what there was to celebrate. Not a lot, came the reply. With crumbling infrastructure, continued border conflict, systematic rape of women and girls, and loose trade regulations on the extractives sector - there doesn't seem a lot for the population of DRC to feel good about.
The story of this nation is a miserable one, and even with 50 years' distance from the brutality of Belgian rule, DRC has been serially plundered by its own governing class and international markets. After the horrors of King Leopold's years, which saw the European power pull out prematurely leaving just 11 Congolese graduates in the whole country, there came a moment of hope with the political ascendence of Patrice Lumumba. However, his unwillingness to play the international power games saw him kidnapped and executed by Katangan forces and Belgian paratroopers, supported by the United States, within a year of independence.
With Lumumba gone, the ensuing chaos cleared the way for a coup in 1965 led by Mobutu Sese Seko. His kleptocracy lasted until 1997 and saw the country deteriorate beyond recognition. By the end of his rule, such was the level of infrastructure neglect that a popular joke was doing the rounds: 'What did Zaire have before candles? Electricity'. At the same time it is said that Mobutu himself amassed a personal fortune (which is still being searched for) that ran into the billions of dollars.
Since Mobutu, DRC has struggled to create a new identity as a fully democratic state, with the country's next elections tabled for 2011.
Although there is genuinely something to celebrate about a nation freeing itself from colonial rule of any kind, and certainly one that saw its 'subjects' as little better than animals, what we mustn't think now is that the situation in DRC is so complex and so embedded that there is nothing to be done to improve it.
There are key steps that can be supported by the international community to bring about lasting change. Support needs to be given to the DRC government to push ahead with security sector reform, so that its armed forces behave professionally and effectively, protecting the population and not preying on it. Allegations of acts of gender-based sexual violence made against members of the armed forces must be investigated and alleged perpetrators brought to a transparent system of justice. There must be no impunity.
The international community must make sure that in its last months of operation, MONUSCO (previously MONUC) is adequately resourced to fulfil its mission of disarming the militia and providing adequate protection for the civilian population.
There must be increased international regulation of the trade in minerals, to bring to an end the enormously destructive illegal trade in the east, which is fuelling so much of the violence. Collaboration from neighbouring states, through whom the minerals are exported, must be solicited. And the agreements signed over recent years: The Goma Accord, the Nairobi Peace Pact and others, which involve other countries in the region and deal with regional security issues, must be implemented in spirit and letter. There must be no safe havens for militia, there must be no cross-border movement of weapons, there must be no support given to opposition political groups in neighbouring countries.
None of these changes are small asks, but they can be achieved. And when they are, the people of DRC will really have something to celebrate.
(c) Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's Advocacy Media Officer. www.cafod.org.uk