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Do we need an African NATO?

Paul Collier's argument that the continent needs a common standing military force that can be deployed against rebellions is a persuasive one.

Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) arrive on September 22, 2013 at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photograph: Getty Images.

Oxford academic Paul Collier is well known for his book The Bottom Billion in which he maps the links between the world’s poorest people and the world’s most war-torn countries. In a chapter in a new book for IPPR, edited by Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, Collier argues that what Africa needs is an "African NATO".

He writes that the international community oscillates between "pusillanimous passivity" and "gung-ho intervention". He puts Kuwait '91 and Somalia '93 in his gung-ho category, with Rwanda '94, Ivory Coast '99 and Somalia post-'Black Hawk down', into his passivity category. Although he sees Sierra Leone '02 as gung-ho, he also describes Britain’s intervention as "spectacularly successful", and he’s not the only one. I was chatting to a security guard in London the other day who told me that he and his family were alive today "thanks to Tony Blair".

Not surprisingly, Collier puts Afghanistan and Iraq into his gung-ho category and connects the backlash against them to passivity over Syria. But, for me, it is when considering conflict in Africa that his analysis is most interesting. He says Mali could have been "another Somalia", by which he means it could have been a conflict which lasted two decades had the French not intervened when the Americans stood back. The African Union’s inability to establish a peace for their mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to keep without American help and the humiliation of the American standing force devoted to Africa (AFRICOM) in Mali, are further examples of the Washington phrase "leading from behind".

A senior Foreign Office official once jokingly told me that if we bought aeroplane tickets for every teenager in your average London FE college, and then bought them each an AK-47 in the local market, we could take and hold Mogadishu. He wasn’t serious, of course, but his point was that a little money goes a long way in the developing world, and that a small number of people can make a big difference.

The Westgate shopping mall siege put Somalia back into the British spotlight in a way for the first time since the Chandlers were taken hostage. The British couple had been holidaying on their sailing boat a thousand miles away from the Somalia coast but they still fell victim to kidnap and ransom. Previously, Somalia had been known for widespread piracy of commercial vessels, but all of these incidents that affect British nationals are symptoms of a toxic mix of state fragility, conflict and poverty. Without alternative livelihoods, teenagers turn to criminality. In the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, the pirate played by Barkhad Abdi makes this very point.

In Uganda, Sudan and Congo, the African Union estimates that the Lords Resistance Army has been responsible for over 100,000 deaths. Only this week, the US warned that M23 rebels could cause a "cross-national war". But most of the British public would be completely unaware of this, and no 'red line' has been crossed for the international community.

So, Collier argues that "West Africa, and perhaps Africa as a whole, needs a common standing military force that can be deployed against rebellions." He describes it as an "African NATO". The reason this makes sense in Africa is that the kinds of conflicts that occur are ones where a few thousand gunmen with small arms can be relatively easily out-gunned and out maneuvered by well equipped and professional forces. That’s not the same in many other parts of the world, but in Africa the practicalities of military interventions are relatively simple, it’s the politics of intervention that’s the problem.

Influencing Tomorrow, by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP & Dr Ian Kearns, is published on 7 November 2013 and is available from Guardian Bookshop