Stephen Harper enters Africa's heart of darkness

Leaders from the French-speaking nations of la Francophonie are meeting this weekend in Kinshasa, Congo - a challenging location for an organization that exists in part to promote the values of human rights and equality.

Francophonie leaders gather in country ranked last on UN's human development index

What, exactly, has changed since 1899, when Joseph Conrad published his Heart of Darkness, inspired, if that's the word, by his own nightmarish trip up the Congo River as the inadvertent captain of a Belgian steamer?

Of course, the Democratic Republic of Congo has changed a great deal — but remains very close to the heart of darkness after decades of war and dictatorship.

Today, it is ruled under its new "democratic" name, by President Joseph Kabila, the son of the assassinated Laurent Kabila, who overthrew the infamous dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Nobody believes that Kabila's election at the end of last year was free of fraud. Two thousand ballot boxes from opposition strongholds seem to have gone missing. Not that it makes much difference in the east of the country, where a devastating war continues.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila, centre-right, met with other regional heads of state in Uganda last month to discuss the worsening violence in Eastern Congo. (Ronald Kabuubi/Associated Press)

Tens of thousands of refugees live in wretched camps and the DRC, as it is known to distinguish it from the neighbouring Republic of Congo, has earned its title as the country which made rape a weapon of war.

The decades of bloodshed have taken — to date — more than five million lives, which is the worst death toll of any conflict since the Second World War. One outcome is that Congo ranks dead last — number 187 out of 187 — on the United Nations Human Development Index. It's the most wretched country on the face of the earth.

Odd site for a summit

Into this zone of horror now comes the summit of the world's French-speaking nations, la Francophonie, which is pledged to promote not merely the French language but classical French values: freedom, human rights, brotherhood and equality.

Rarely has there been such an odd dateline for such a story.

In fact, the French President himself, François Hollande, has denounced the country's human rights record as "unacceptable" and can hardly bring himself to attend the summit. He has chosen to drop in for one day but not to spend even one night.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, by contrast, will spend two — although he has been bending over backwards to make clear that this conveys no approval. He has scheduled a meeting with critics of the Kabila government and told reporters Friday in Dakar, Senegal that he will make his feelings known.

"We will be expressing those concerns very clearly when we are in the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Harper, although no meeting with President Kabila is scheduled.

The best anyone hopes for is that the summiteers will meet without incident and quickly disperse, waving an agreed statement on energy development and the environment.

In the refugee camps, they likely won't hear about it.