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.

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

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

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.