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With America’s unilateral attack on Syria, a Russian ally, there are reasonable fears that the worsening relations between Washington and Moscow could escalate. Africans should not imagine that these events are too far away to affect them. The US and Russia are nuclear powers. War between them endangers the whole world. Africans should explore creative ways of putting the issue of nuclear disarmament firmly back on the global agenda.

Upon reflection on events of the past week, during which the United States launched cruise missile attacks against government military targets in Syria, the world now appears to be a much more dangerous place. Ominously, judging by warnings the US government has issued that it reserves the right to launch further strikes against Syrian targets and the Russian government’s announcement that it plans to increase its anti-aircraft defenses around military installations in Syria, the US and Russia (the world’s foremost nuclear powers) seem to have upped the ante in the immediate aftermath of these strikes. To appreciate the volatility of this situation, it is worth bearing in mind that any confrontation between these states, deliberate or accidental, has the potential to provoke a nuclear exchange between them and that even a limited nuclear exchange between these powers could spell global annihilation.

The level of tension between these powers, and hence the potential for conflict between them, is likely to be heightened if we allow the possibility that the US government’s action was motivated more by broader US foreign policy goals rather than the need to punish the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons, the ostensible reason for the strikes. Specifically, they were motivated by the need to send a strong message to the United States’ chief rivals for global geopolitical hegemony, Russia and China. To see how this might have been the case, consider that, ever since his inauguration, President Trump has been dogged by allegations that the Russians engineered his electoral win and that he has been accused of wanting to cozy up to President Putin. Targeting Russian ally and beneficiary of Russian military aid President Bashar al Assad sends a clear message to domestic political opponents that he will be anything but soft in his dealings with Russia and is prepared to make difficult, dangerous even, decisions irrespective of Russian opposition thereto or the harm they might inflict on Russia’s interests.

Turning to relations with China, the opportunity to demonstrate Americans’ willingness to use military force could not have come at a more opportune time for President Trump, due as he was to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the time. White House strategists may have calculated that striking at Syrian targets in the presence of the Russian military would send a clear message to China that the Americans are prepared to act regardless of the potential dangers attached.

In addition to confirming President Trump’s image as a ruthless businessman who is a bold political operator, the audacity of this unilateral strike might serve to put the Chinese on notice that they need to do more to rein in the North Koreans lest the Americans decide to respond militarily to constant North Korean provocations and attack their reclusive neighbor. This message would not have been lost on President Xi and members of his delegation following so soon as it did after President Trump accused the Chinese of ‘not doing enough to contain North Korea’ and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that ‘all options are on the table’ when it comes to dealing with North Korea. 

Though viewing these developments in a broader, international perspective may raise global anxiety levels, some Africans are likely to be indifferent about them, located far away from the current theatre of operations as we are and citizens of countries whose governments appear to enjoy limited diplomatic influence when it comes to these matters on the global stage. Others might despair that it is futile to become alarmed by these developments as, beyond petitioning the nuclear powers to fulfill their obligations to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles, there is little that Africans could do to influence global events in this area. Given the stakes involved, however, few of us are likely to be satisfied with being relegated to the role of mere spectators to this unfolding drama, where the fate of humankind is determined by the leaders of a few countries. To avoid feeling disempowered and growing despondent, Africans may need to explore creative ways of not only putting the issue of nuclear disarmament firmly back on the international agenda but also ways to actively facilitate the reduction of the stockpile of global nuclear weapons.

One of the more creative things Africans could do to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament and avert the risk of nuclear confrontation is lobby those African states that harbour nuclear ambitions to leverage the influence afforded by their planned sizeable investments in this area to signal their citizens’ desire to promote a more peaceful global agenda. These African governments could leverage their influence by deciding to scrap their nuclear plans altogether and to forgo the pursuit of nuclear energy. In so doing, they will send a clear message to the nuclear powers that they do not want any part of the industry and the processes that are used to create the weapons that now threaten humanity’s very existence.

Crucially, for this message to be most effective, it would mean stopping the mining and extraction of uranium, the raw material from which these weapons are made. Although members of mining communities in which these mines are located yet which typically remain some of their countries’ most impoverished communities and enjoy the least benefit from their nations’ mineral wealth may approve of this initiative, there is likely to be a great deal of opposition to this course of action at the national level as it would mean forgoing the revenues which flow from the mining and sale of uranium. A good place to start enlisting wider support would be by tallying the true cost of uranium mining in Africa; accounting for the total financial and economic costs of the environmental damage associated with the rehabilitation of mines and fairly apportioning responsibility for the payment of these costs between African countries and the consumers of these raw materials in the developed world.

Alternatively, if countries decide to proceed with their nuclear build programmes, governments could specify that they are only prepared to embark upon these initiatives if vendors’ reactors were designed to run on enriched uranium sourced from decommissioned nuclear weapons that have been given up by nuclear-armed countries. Since the companies that are the major players in the nuclear industry are either wholly owned subsidiaries of, or heavily subsidised by, the governments of the nuclear weapons states, contract award could be made contingent upon securing guarantees of decommissioning (and crucially, non-replacement of decommissioned nuclear weapons) and access to enriched uranium. In the event that countries that put up their weapons for decommissioning not replace warheads once decommissioned, this policy would have the effect of reducing the absolute number of nuclear weapons in the world.

Admittedly, it might be difficult to persuade African countries to sign up for this scheme as they, along with all non-nuclear states, might be weary of the guarantees given by countries that have constantly reneged on the promises to reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals which they have committed to abide by in the numerous treaties which they are party to. Furthermore, convincing the nuclear powers to give up weapons grade uranium and to turn it over to what are perceived to be less than stable states, many of which are in the midst of bloody insurgencies, might seem to present an insurmountable obstacle due to fears about the increased risk of proliferation of nuclear materials which this scheme would pose. Perhaps so, but this would seem no more or less difficult a task than asking these same countries to agree to have nuclear installations constructed in African countries in the first place.

Regardless of the decisions that individual African countries ultimately take in this regard, it is asserted that Africans do possess some power to act to advance the goal of world peace and help realise a world that is finally free of the threat of nuclear weapons. The many African countries that harbour nuclear ambitions and whose citizens are unhappy with the status quo, in terms of which the fate of the world gets to be decided by the leaders of a handful of countries, are urged to exercise this power by making world peace and nuclear disarmament an explicit goal of their nuclear programmes. Anything less means relinquishing Africans’ legitimate desire to have a meaningful say in determining humanity’s common destiny and accepting Africa’s role as bystander in world affairs.

* Dr Gerard Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Population and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.



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