The Danger of Wild Mushrooms: Africa and nuclear weapons disarmament

Mushroom cloud to illustrate the dangers of nuclear weapons

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story“, she broadly explored the political and cultural power of stories and the effect of power on stories. Among other things, she argued that a ‘single story’ can perpetuate a simple misreading of history and politics, and that these stories can be intentionally suppressive. She posits that people, especially in their childhood, can be “impressionable and vulnerable” when it comes to single stories.

In the relatively specialist, demanding, and fast-paced field of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, I find that being “impressionable and vulnerable” has little to do with one’s age or experience. Rather, the impressionable and vulnerable consist of practitioners, diplomats and raring civil society, ultimately caught-up in an incessant battle to stall the impending doom of nuclear warfare (impending, because as long as these weapons exist, so too does the probability of intentional or accidental nuclear detonation). Thus, very few observers can embark on the prodigal venture of correcting prevalent, one-sided misreadings of history, especially when the attendant dangers of these misreadings are not as vivid, or urgent.

In this field, there are many ‘single stories’ – the logic of deterrence, the unbearable lightness of luck, the sustainability of nuclear non-proliferation, and my favourite, responsible nuclear weapon states… the list is seemingly endless. 

As an African concerned with the politics of nuclear weapons, I grapple with a thorny issue – the incomplete information about the historical and contemporary contributions of Africa to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The single story of the African contribution not only dictates what is said about the African contribution, but it also influences how we foresee African engagement with the nuclear conversation itself. It determines the (im)possible, the (im)probable, the “natural”, the “normal”, and what counts as a problem. 

There is an assumption that pacifism is the essence of the African story -and that there are fixed boundaries to our ascribed and internalised capacities, and inclinations for action. Thus, in historical accounts, African agency is usually reanimated within the role of a sacrificial victim of the techno-racial desecration of the western Sahara, or viewed in terms of their affiliation with the Western or Eastern bloc, merely reflecting the interests of our affiliates, and not in the pursuit of our own objectives. In contemporary accounts, this agency is usually animated within the purview of the humanitarian approach, or as mere appendages to the collective opinion of the international community, offering only incensed responses to the persistent practices of denial, nonchalance and arrogance that signify the endurance of nuclear exceptionalism and imperialism. In fact, Africa’s contribution is confined to the story of pacifism within the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), or “the South” and even then, within the lexicon of nuclear disarmament

Are we expected to be content with half of a single story?

The presumed modesty of Africa’s contribution to nuclear arms control; its marginality, is what imperialism is all about. For some actors, nuclear weapons serve to fuel their narcissistic cravings, providing the ‘ideal’ tools with which they can demonstrate their ‘superior’ positionality, relative to the social relations of power that exist. In these performative rituals, they conceive of the ordinary (including nuclear possession, testing and posturing), determine the imaginable (including the fictional logic of nuclear deterrence) and the possible (in this case, the ‘impossibility’ of disarmament) – indeed, they are the hostage takers who sentence us all, to nuclear destruction.

to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” – Adichie

By continuing to view Africans as victims and supplicants in this field, instead of as dynamic and thoughtful agents, we suppress a history punctuated by the articulation of discourses on rights, liability, morality, and legal obligations that have shaped contemporary practices of weapons control. This history can be found in the conclusions of Bandung, the powerful initiatives of Black internationalism (particularly with regard to anticolonialism, non-alignment, and peace, that resonated throughout the April 1958 conference of independent African states), the sanctions levied by the Nigerian and Ghanaian governments against the French, the Asian African Legal Consultative Committee (AALCC) and many more. South Africa for example, is the only country in history to discard indigenously developed nuclear weapons. Africa is a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (ANWFZ) today, and many African countries proactively support the Ban Treaty. However, again, this history only animates the pacifist, abolitionist portions of Africa’s agency.

You see, there have been at least two schools of thought concerning nuclear weapons in Africa. Both highlight the link between nuclear weapons, imperialism and racism (you might recall Nkrumah’s swords of Damocles analogy):

Premier Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana told the African “positive action” conference here today [April 7] that the two “swords of Damocles” hanging over Africa, “namely nuclear tests and apartheid,” had to be removed. He told delegates from 28 African states and colonies that the “critical situation” called for concerted action. The conference should set up training centers for volunteers to learn the essential disciplines of concerted positive action, Mr. Nkrumah said. Mr. Nkrumah attacked the association of African territories with the European Common Market. This, he said, was a “striking instance of new imperialism.”

But a lesser-known African approach to tackling the problem of nuclear weapons was propagated by Ali Mazrui. Mazrui was a renowned Kenyan scholar who advocated for what I would call a “proliferate to disarm” approach. It is common knowledge that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) legalises a few states’ nuclear hegemony indefinitely. But, Mazrui went further to underscore the resemblance of the NPT, and all those treaties of renunciation that were signed between European powers and African rulers during the scramble.

In clarifying the connections between nuclear imperialism and racism, Mazrui suggested that one of the (numerous) factors behind the NPT’s successful and urgent negotiation in the 1960s was the fear of the impending surge in the number of states that could now acquire nuclear weapons upon gaining independence. 

Mazrui subsequently advocated for African states to withdraw from the NPT and “go nuclear”, with the goal of securing a modest nuclear capability. This was a radical and highly controversial approach, but it had nothing to do with making the countries militarily safer. Mazrui was banking precisely on the racist assumptions inherent in the dynamics of difference, stating that: 

“Only when the West discover that they cannot make the rest of the world refrain from nuclear power, while they themselves refrain from a credible disarmament commitment, ..will [the World] at last address itself, on the fundamentals of human survival…imagine Emperor Bokassa, playing napoleon with a nuclear bomb…perhaps this will scare Northern warmongers to sanity at last”

So when we look at Africa’s single story, we should not forget the betrayal of the smiling Buddha test, after Bandung. We should not forget the complexities of the South African example, and the Vela incident. We should note that, it is the white President whom we choose to credit for South Africa’s decision to disarm, despite the ANC’s long standing opposition to nuclear weapons. We should remember that, although Africa is a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (ANWFZ) today, the ANWFZ was one of the first mooted, and last implemented nuclear weapons free zones -because it was held hostage by numerous state parties. We should avoid erasing Black internationalism, by distinguishing between African and African-American contributions to nuclear disarmament in our narratives today. We should not reduce the link between nuclear weapons and racism to the opportunity costs of government spending. We should recognise the intentionality of African pacifism, and we should not take as straightforward, Africa’s support for disarmament.

But in all these considerations, we must not forget Mazrui’s lesson: “that Wild Mushrooms are Dangerous”.

Dr Olamide Samuel is an arms control expert, and the Coordinator of SCRAP Weapons. He is also a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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