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Africa moves to halt the evolution of the Shaka spear into a nuclear warhead

September 10, 2009

By Dr. Walter Odhiambo – IPPNW Regional Vice President, Africa

Thirteen years after it officially opened for signature, the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba) finally came into force with the twenty-eighth deposit of its ratification instrument by Burundi on 15 July 2009. This is a major historical development applauded by the entire IPPNW fraternity and Africa region in particular. We congratulate the leaders of African States for this noble vision that sets the continent ahead in the right trajectory. A brief review of the history of conflicts in Africa will illustrate why this development is worthy of some jubilation.

“With passage of time and advancement in technology, weapons of war and violence have undergone unmatched metamorphosis. The discovery of the gunpowder marked a major but sad revolution, catapulting humanity to the age of firepower and replacing the traditional tools of war like swords, machetes and Shaka Zulu spears. These crude historical weapons had a limited range and were not as lethal as the gun.”

The above statement is an excerpt from an editorial I wrote in the December 2008 issue of The Annals of African Surgery entitled “The Burden of Firearm Injuries.Shaka is the name of a fearless and ruthless Zulu warrior whose reign of terror in the Southern region of Africa is legendary. He lived at a time when man considered war the most popular, respectable and effective mode of settling disputes. Kings and Emperors attacked their neighbours simply for the purposes of expanding their Kingdoms or empires and to acquire the neighbour’s wealth and property. It was an era when, according to Chinua Achebe in “Things Fall Apart,” a man’s greatness was judged by “how many human heads he brought home from the battle field.”

While modern civilization has given birth to diplomacy, however, and violence and war no longer enjoy the respect they have had historically; nations that consider themselves at the top of human civility maintain stockpiles of nuclear weapons capable of global ecocide in a matter of minutes!

This contradiction has in the past been driven by the arms race. While these nations believe that arms races are inherently dangerous and create a delicate balance of power — hence their support for arms control treaties such as the NPT — they are still entangled in a paradoxical dilemma. On the one hand, they believe that strength and a military buildup deter aggression and on the other they worry that the arms race itself might precipitate a hot war.

The cold war itself was very hot in Africa; true to the African saying “when two elephants fight the grass suffers.” The surrogate wars resulting from cold war posturing were largely fought in the developing World with Africa experiencing the greatest brunt that reverberates to date. The traditional tools of war like swords, machetes and Shaka Zulu spears with limited range underwent metamorphosis into the lethal AK-47 and allied weapons transforming the continent into a theater of endless gun battles.

With the unrestricted spread of nuclear weapon technology largely facilitated by the internet and ready access to uranium required for nuclear energy, it was only a matter of time before the Shaka Zulu spear made another evolutionary mutation into the nuclear warhead. The past is replete with examples of how noxious conditions including HIV/AIDS have a high tendency of rapid transnational spread with devastating consequences in Africa. It is not hard to imagine what would happen in a nuclear-armed Africa.

It is with this ominous picture in mind and backed by scientific evidence on the consequences of nuclear war that IPPNW founded the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. In 2007, IPPNW launched a new International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The policy demands of ICAN included negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention; an immediate halt to the upgrading, modernizing and testing of nuclear weapons, taking existing nuclear weapons off high alert;  a pledge by every nuclear state never to initiate nuclear exchange (no first use) and the expansion of nuclear-weapon-free zones around the world.

The declaration of Africa as a nuclear-weapon free zone (Treaty of Pelindaba) is the climax of a process that started in July 1964 when the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) — now the African Union (AU) — adopted the Declaration on the Denuclearization of Africa. The treaty of Pelindaba was agreed to in June 1995 in Addis Ababa. As of 1 October, 2008, all 53 member countries of AU had signed the Treaty.

While we applaud this significant achievement, however, it is not lost on us that this is just the beginning of a very long journey. Other countries must be compelled to ratify and compliance remains a great challenge.

We also applaud the new initiative by the US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart President Medvedev aimed at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. We encourage them to lead in the stigmatization of nuclear weapons and make their possession abominable and barbaric. The current status confers the nuclear-armed states with a falsified state of prestige and power that continue to entice several non-nuclear armed states.

We are optimistic that nuclear weapons abolition is possible in our lifetime, but even if not, we are optimistic that the generation of our grandchildren will look back and ask “How was this kind of madness possible?” Just as we frown at our primitive ancestors, who threw their twin born babies in the forest believing that they signified ill luck!

  1. Hellen Cherono permalink
    September 15, 2009 3:11 am

    very well said and how scary to think about especially when you think about gun smuggling across our borders; the thought about the possibility of nuclear head smuggling through our very porous borders is indeed scary enough to give us sleepless nights.

  2. September 11, 2009 11:10 am

    The history of Africa cannot be complete without the mention of wars and resistance to colonization which eventually ended up in peace agreements. It was equally historic for then Organization of African Unity in their Cairo meeting of July 1964 to kick-start discussion at making Africa a nuclear weapon free zone. Perhaps, some world leaders might have imagined such dream as herculean especially in those ‘dark days’ of our great continent. Subsequent negotiations following the Cairo summit and the support of the UN in 1965 culminated in the opening for signatures in 1996 of Palindaba treaty which went into force with 28 countries deposition of its ratification instrument on 15 July 2009.
    This is a wake-up call for peace advocates to put in place a mechanism to monitor the compliance of parties to the treaty as stated in Article. 12 of the UN GA documents A/50/426.
    Mechanism of compliance may be achievable not only from the governments’ angle, but by concerted efforts by network of NGOs of like minds who as one of their mandate liaise with a commission to be set up by the AU in this regards. In addition, NGOs in the countries yet to ratify this treaty need to mount significant pressure on their governments to deposit their instrument of ratification.

    Ime A. John
    Co-President, IPPNW

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