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Africa and the Atomic Bomb: Part III

How African decolonization drove its disarmament.

Words: Toni Haastrup and Robin Möser
Pictures: Justin Lane

“Africa and the Atomic Bomb” is a three-part series that explores Africa’s role in the global nuclear order by examining the complexity and variety of African relationships with nuclear arms and nuclear energy through the lenses of security, development, climate change and the environment, and global justice and equality. Many thanks to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, which hosted a panel titled “Africa and the Atom” on March 26, 2021 that prompted the series. 

In Part III, Toni Haastrup describes how African states have reacted to France’s abuse of the Saharan desert a nuclear testing site and how this collective action has shaped African nuclear narratives, while Robin Möser focuses on South Africa’s contribution to the global nuclear order, and how disarmament is possible. Part I focused on recognizing Africa’s role in the global nuclear order while Part II described the impact of the Sahara desert’s use as a nuclear testing site on African states.



Toni Haastrup

African activism and agency on nuclear weapons extend beyond its strategic positioning as a nuclear free zone. The dominant discourse of nuclear politics, however, cannot tell the whole story of Africa’s experience of nuclear weapons. How we situate Africa in discourses of nuclear politics and who gets to voice knowledge about nuclear politics has broader implications for Global North-South relations, of the past to the present.

Nuclear power is dependent on the colonial practices of extraction, testing, and desecration of Indigenous lands. Since 1960, France has tested nuclear weapons including in or near former colonies, including in Algeria. The first time that France detonated its bomb in 1960, African countries protested against this nuclear test. Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and Ghana challenged the action and its timing, which was before the 1960 Africa summit in Casablanca where African countries were seeking to articulate a postcolonial vision for Africa in international politics.

Nuclear power is dependent on the colonial practices of extraction, testing, and desecration of Indigenous lands.

African countries acted in solidarity in response to France’s actions. Sudan recalled its ambassador in Paris, and soon after Nigeria expelled the French diplomatic mission and closed Nigeria’s ports and airports to French ships and planes. Collectively, these actions demonstrated African agency in international politics. But this position also meant that landlocked former French colonies Chad and Niger were significantly impacted economically, eventually convincing Nigeria that it could not sustain this position.

France’s colonial domination of Algeria ended in theory with the Evian Accords. But this ceasefire agreement — the symbol of Algeria’s self-determination triumph — came with a caveat that guaranteed nuclear testing sites for years after formal decolonization. France conducted 17 nuclear tests in Algeria between 1960 and 1967, including 11 tests in French military installations on Algerian lands after the country gained its independence. France’s reputation and status as a nuclear power is thus contingent on the exercise of colonial power.

France’s Nuclear Colonial Legacy

There is evidence of radioactive material in the Algerian desert. According to France’s own ministry of defense, approximately 27,000 Algerians have been affected by the testing while other sources contend a higher estimate. What is clear is that there is a high incidence of communities within distance of the testing facilities affected by various cancers and disabilities. To date, France has not dealt with the human costs of its testing. A 2010 law allowed military veterans and civilians to claim compensation, but very few people have been compensated, with the claims committee rejecting about 80% of applications without justification.

France’s nuclear position and justification for retaining and modernizing its nuclear arsenal is one of masculinist protector of European security, wherein it constructs itself as the core guarantor of Europe’s security via nuclear weapons, thus subordinating other actors without them in a passive role. This position depends on a gendered hierarchy that required the subordinate position of (former) French colonies.

The continued defense of nuclear weapon ownership fails to consider African perspectives in international politics, seeking instead to bypass African claims even as France proclaims a feminist foreign policy — ostensibly a foreign policy that is more ethical. An ethical feminist informed foreign policy would seek to reorient global power hierachies so that they are less oppressive to those discursively and materially situated in the margins of global order.

Challenging Nuclear Narratives

African elites, however, also have a role to play. Nuclearism has been divorced from broader critiques of French colonialism since nuclearism is seen as exceptional outside the realm of “normal” politics as constituted by the Algerian state. This approach has the unintended consequence of downplaying or sanitizing the lethality of nuclear power for weapons.

African elites must challenge narratives of nuclearism beyond elite politics of treaties and strategic positioning. How, for example, does public policy consider the experiences of communities living through the slow violence that has resulted from tests, contaminated environments, and illness? How are these experiences written into global, regional, and national security/peacemaking? In an age when we claim the importance of African agency in all its facets, inclusion of these perspectives is essential.

African agency in nuclear policy is not new, but how we understand it has been narrow. Where Africans have articulated their agency to speak out not only to the legacies of colonialism but the continued coloniality of power, they are undermined by the statist focus when it comes to nuclear politics. When we think of agency and nuclear politics in Africa, it is worth remembering the everyday, almost mundane impacts of nuclear testing in Algeria, and fallouts beyond testing grounds in the South Pacific. Paying attention to the stories of the communities affected, in scholarship and policymaking, and thinking through our modes of researching to excavate what agency means also requires the acknowledgment that knowledge and practices are co-constituted.

Toni Haastrup is senior lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland. As well as being a feminist teacher and researcher, Toni is joint editor in chief of JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies and an occasional media commentator.



Robin Möser

An inclusive and multifocal history, which highlights the vociferous roles played by African actors within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in other international fora, as well as their impact on the creation and shaping of the nonproliferation regime, is yet to be written. Such an account would challenge traditionally dominant Western-centric approaches, which have hitherto marginalized actors from the Global South in the narrative of the evolution of the global nuclear order. This stands in stark contrast to the various contributions by African actors on several occasions, representing the continent in its geographical and political diversity.

Arguably the most fascinating aspect from a nonproliferation point of view remains the termination of the South African nuclear weapons program by the last white minority government toward the end of the Cold War. However, besides its immediate consequences for the South African state, the decision to denuclearize had important repercussions beyond the country itself, which tend to be overlooked. During a brief window of four years between 1988 and 1991, after two decades of defying emerging nonproliferation norms, South African diplomats began to negotiate with representatives of the three NPT Depository Powers — the United Kingdom, United States, and the Soviet Union — the terms of entry for Pretoria’s accession to the NPT.

Nuclear weapons programs cannot be dismantled and/or discontinued solely based on the moral conviction of political leaders that may see value in disarmament.

In this unique process, the F.W. de Klerk government managed to skillfully exploit international proliferation fears to advance its own agenda, thereby connecting South African NPT accession with that of the neighboring Frontline States coalition of Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. While this strategy predominantly served to overcome the regime’s domestic white voter’s opposition to succumbing to foreign pressure, enlisting the world’s major powers in a campaign of encouraging NPT accessions across the southern African region laid the groundwork for the establishment of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) a few years later through the Treaty of Pelindaba. This reverting to the region helped negotiations to proceed meaningfully, and between 1990 and 1992, six out of the seven states in the southern African region that had not signed the NPT, acceded during this two-year window. In other words, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe), and President Joaqium Chissano of Mozambique understood the historic opportunity and signed the Treaty.

Moreover, on a normative dimension, it provided the incoming democratic government of President Nelson Mandela — and African actors more broadly — with an enormous boost vis-à-vis other nations, because up until this day, South Africa is the only country whose officials had decided to dismantle an indigenously developed nuclear arsenal. This explained the phoenix-like rise of Pretoria’s leaders on the global nonproliferation scene, which had repercussions beyond the 1995 NPT Review Conference during which the Treaty was indefinitely extended, in part thanks to the bridge-building role played by South African diplomats. With the Treaty’s inception in 1970, it had been agreed that 25 years after entry into force a conference shall be convened to decide about its continuation. But the slow disarmament progress by the nuclear weapons states up until that point had led to a growing discontent among countries of the Global South, ultimately putting at risk an indefinite NPT extension. However, as it turned out, the vote on indefinite extension was successful, which provided a stimulus to the Treaty and strengthened the review process.

Elimination is Possible

Today, the unique South African case serves as both reminder and inspiration that disarmament and the creation of NWFZs are possible. Moreover, it shows that in order to forgo nuclear weapons, domestic political preconditions and a conducive international context are needed. Nuclear weapons programs cannot be dismantled and/or discontinued solely based on the moral conviction of political leaders that may see value in disarmament. Getting the neighboring states to join the NPT as part of a regional initiative brokered by a once hostile government in Pretoria, and making regional accession a reality, placated the criticism the De Klerk regime faced at home and revived the deadlocked NPT talks, and also encouraged parallel accessions — which are all positive, unique, and constructive developments.

Robin Möser is currently a lecturer at the Global and European Studies Institute at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

Toni Haastrup and Robin Möser

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