Africa and Nuclear Weapons

Africa – Unite or Perish!  Kwame Nkrumah might as well have been referring to the threat from the ever diversifying number of countries in the nuclear armaments race – India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and in the near horizon, Iran.  To this list of countries that follow the formula of mutual deterrence today for mutual destruction tomorrow add the United States, France, Russia, Britain and Israel. 

During the cold war, many believed that Africa would become the theater of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Today the question is whether the continent will become the theater of a nuclear dance between two predator nations – a growing and hungry China and the ever expansionist United States. 
It is therefore a great relief that Africa has arguably the most advanced non-proliferation treaty: the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (ANWFZ) also known as the Treaty of Pelindaba which came into effect in 1996.  According to the African Union, 22 countries have thus far ratified it. 

The ANWFZ is impressively comprehensive.  Amongst other things, the signatories are not to participate in any activities that will lead to the development of nuclear weapons; they shall not test or allow such weapons to be tested in their territories; and they are to permit inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  By the same token the treaty recognizes the importance of scientific nuclear advancements, and categorically states that nothing in it “shall be interpreted as to prevent the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes”.  

A notable party to the treaty is Libya which in 2003 promised to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction and abandon the development of nuclear weapons.   Also notable is South Africa, where De Klerk in1993 admitted to having nuclear weapons which it consequently destroyed and passed a law criminalizing the pursuit of nuclear weapons.  So close to an ANC victory, the racist regime did not want nuclear weapons to fall into black hands.  The ANC government however has to be commended for not politicizing the racist decision and doing the right thing by ratifying the ANWFZ in 1996.

The rest of the world is far behind Africa for two reasons.  The hypocrisy of United States and Russia which continue to have nuclear warheads in the thousands and a double standard when it comes to who is welcomed into the Nuclear family.  India and Pakistan, allies in the US newly minted war on terror are glanced over. Or take the example of Egypt and Iran which have both stated that they are pursuing nuclear energy for civilian purposes and the hammer comes down only on Iran.  The non proliferation treaties are undermined by the glaring hypocrisies. 

Nuclear bombs cannot be preferable in the hands of a trigger happy Bush or a posturing Ahmadinejad, or an Israel that feels it is constantly under siege.  Neither are they desirable in Pakistan and India where past wars all but promise a nuclear holocaust in the future.  The mandate for those of us still sane is quite simple: No one, absolutely no one, should have nuclear weapons. 

Our tragic mistake is to assume that Africa is not always part and parcel of international politics.  But consider this:  The atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan, was ironically enriched with uranium from what was then the Belgium Congo, and today, most nuclear weapons have uranium from an independent African state making us complicit in future atrocities.  But by the same token, Africa through the ANWFZ treaty shows it can be a moral leader.  With two countries that have destroyed their Nuclear Weapons, and many others that have vowed not to even start the race, Africa is on the right side of history.  Africa has the moral authority to demand a world safe from nuclear bombs. 

But is a moral stand enough?  What is this stand worth if the bark does not have a bite? Uranium producing countries such as Namibia have not ratified the ANWFZ.  This means that some African countries even though not developing nuclear weapons are aiding other nations, mostly Western, produce them – something the ANWFZ treaty forbids.  But with no discernible gains from the continent, Namibia has no incentive to ratify the treaty. In other words, the union of Africa has to bear material fruit.

As the scramble for Africa intensifies, our biggest threat becomes dependency because it makes the ANWFZ treaty vulnerable to manipulation by donor nuclear powers.  On the one hand there is the United States which through the African Command Center seeks to further consolidate its holdings.  On the other China, and the usual European suspects.  In a replay of cold war politics and proxy wars, can the possibility of nuclear warheads being placed in an African country by one power to deter another be ruled out? No, not while the big powers have them.

A treaty is only as strong as its signatories.  We simply cannot afford to separate the question of nuclear weapons from the larger questions of our economic and military dependencies. A divided, weak and dependent continent, even one with a higher moral ground and a comprehensive non-nuclear proliferation treaty will bend to the will of the more powerful predator nations.  In this sense and it is quite literal, Nkrumah’s cry – Africa: unite or perish remains as urgent as ever.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change, Hurling Words at Consciousness (poetry) and editor of the forthcoming, New Kenyan Fiction (Ishmael Reed Publications, 2008). He is a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine where this essay first appeared.

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