Bolaji Akinyemi and the black bomb
It all started with my boss, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi who in the 1970s called for the black nuclear bomb. Many people thought his brain had moved from the head to other parts of his body. But he was deadly serious. It is true that the non- proliferation treaty was signed in 1968 but so many countries were on the nuclear threshold – Libya, South Africa, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel, Korea, etc that it made sense for Nigeria, then Africa’s richest country, to think of the bomb. Prof. Akinyemi is a serious thinker, a great scholar, wastes in Nigeria. He went to Oxford and to the Fletcher School of Diplomacy. His pedigree is unimpeachable and a quintessential expert in foreign relations. He was only boss as Minister of Foreign Affairs when I was ambassador to Brazil. Before then, we had worked together when I was in the cabinet office, restructuring the Institute of International Affairs and setting up the Institute of Strategic Studies. Our vision of that latter institute has never been realised. Its job, as we saw it, was implicit in its name – strategic studies – it was not designed to be a place where you sent people, you did not know what to do with, permanent secretaries you ought to have eased out of the system, brigadiers and generals who needed some qualification in their curriculum vitae. We had hoped that the quarterly journals of that institute would rank with its equivalent counterparts in the U.S. and UK.
Alas, that was not to be. We did not see the contagion of sponsored theses – (many students at that institute hired other scholars to write their theses for them). We had hoped that rigorous original research would characterise the institute.
I call him my boss even though I was the desk officer of the Institute of International Affairs where he was Director General (DG). His elder brother was my classmate at Ibadan Grammar School. He is my boss because of his intellect. He understands that the post of the National Security Adviser could not be confined only to the military or trained spies. He had the examples of Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Susan Rice, Condoleezza Rice and several others in the U.S., France and Great Britain who were National Security Advisers but were not from any military intelligence background or narrow security background. Indeed a lot of the problems of that office had been the restricted from which base its occupants were chosen. Needless to say, he wanted me to be the National Security Adviser a la mode Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice and many others. That did not happen because the Presidents and Heads of State we had could not see beyond their noses on this issue, as they were heavily dependent on ‘’the intelligence community” for their position. Or so they thought!!
When he first suggested it, I told him not to be so crass; that the suggestion would never fly in Nigeria. Anyway I went to Brazil, again on his recommendation. I did not want to go because I was then a successful businessman who would have a lot to lose by going there; even though at the time I went, Brazil was our biggest trade partner. Brazil was not where Bolaji Akinyemi wanted me to go. But that is a different story.
The black bomb he argued for would have made us more respected, safer in the world and raised the African profile in the world. He knew that racist apartheid South Africa had it or was on the way to having it, and that those supplying the bomb to South Africa were racists, and believed that South Africa was the Island of stability in Africa; all the Western governments were dealing with South Africa regardless of UN charter and even sanctions.
Professor Akinyemi’s call for the black bomb should be seen against the background of the rising relevance of Africa in the 1970s and the dissatisfaction of many countries as to why the nuclear bomb should only be owned by four Western countries and one Asian country – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. There was a growing belief that there was nothing in the character of these nations that prevented them from using the bomb, that is, the theory of the deterrence of mutual destruction was being queried. In any case, Professor Akinyemi and others had watched how profligate these very countries were in offering nuclear technology to Middle East countries who could afford it. So why not Nigeria which by being in the nuclear club would be able to sit on the table of the top nations?
The 1970s also saw the continual progress of civil rights movement and the iconic position of Nigeria as an African Leader and an inspiration for the black struggle in the United States towards greater refusal to accept discrimination. That movement was influenced by the writings of Wole Soyinka, Leopold Senghor and many others: Nigeria held the Black Arts Festival in 1977 – the purpose, inter alia, was to proclaim loudly that discrimination on the basis of race or religion would no longer be tolerated, that Africa had a long and vibrant culture which had contributed to world development and history and civilisation. In fact, Africa is the cradle of human life.
Nigeria had declared at the UN that discrimination against one Black man was discrimination against all black men. This was one of the cardinal principles of our foreign policy. It guided our decision to remove our reserves from sterling over the Rhodesian crises, our recognition of President Neto in Angola and our sending troops to the Congo in support of President Lumumba.
Those who thought that Bolaji was speaking under the influence of Cuban cigar and fine XO cognac got it wrong. Provocative and calculating yes, reckless never. Unknown to many, the Minister was negotiating with the Israelis under instructions from President Babangida. The Israelis were desperate to resume diplomatic relations with Nigeria and were putting enormous pressure on the Babangida regime. Babangida sent the Minister on a secret mission to buy time. Unsure of Akinyemi’s position as Akinyemi had a hard-line anti-Israeli posture from his NIIA days, Babangida was to send several secret emissaries to Israel. But Akinyemi adopted a technocratic rather than an ideological position. Since it was obvious that President Babangida was determined to reestablish the relationship between Nigeria and Israel, the minister decided that the recognition of Israel should not be on a platter of gold. He accused the Israel of jeopardising Nigerian security interests by helping South Africa in establishing a nuclear capability. He demanded and got Israel to agree to build a nuclear reactor for Nigeria. Stronger Islamic forces prevented this. Nigeria instead joined the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).
The ultimate argument really about nuclear weapons – which can destroy the world as we know it – is that such a dangerous weapon should never have been made. The mutual deterrent argument is flawed. Nobody should have it. But if those who have it refuse to destroy all of theirs, then they have no right to deny every nation which wants it from having it, even North Korea. Indeed there is no stronger argument than if, as the West insists, North Korea’s leader is unstable and cannot be trusted with atomic bomb, when an unstable person becomes President in the nuclear 5 Club, what happens? We keep forgetting that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected; and he was on the way to building an atomic bomb. In fact, many of the scientists who built the bomb at Alamo in the United States were German scientists.
In 1973, Sadat started the Yom Kippur war which had a great impact on the world. The Arabs employed the oil weapon, moving the price of oil from US$3 to about US$12 and more importantly even denied selling oil to some countries. The outcome was that the West was faced with major economic problems while the Middle East was awash with money. The West, in their desperation, were willing to sell or give nuclear technology in addition to every conceivable arms, ammunition, missiles, war planes and other war materials to many Middle Eastern countries. It was this offer of nuclear knowledge which Professor Akinyemi saw and thought Nigeria should benefit from the offers. Unfortunately, no one else had his foresight and Nigeria is the worse for it.
Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), is a former Ambassador to Brazil.