The World In Their Hands

  • PublishedJune 22, 2009

“It is never wise to appear to be more clever than you are” – Willie Whitelaw, deputy prime minister under Mrs Thatcher, who inspired the Iron Lady for her famous quote: “Every prime minister needs a Willie”.

For the long-suffering readers of New African, and especially Beefs, I have a little secret for you. When they say time flies, you don’t really get the import until it happens to you. This July issue you hold in your hands is my 10th anniversary issue as editor. After my two earlier metamorphoses as assistant editor (1988-1994) and deputy editor (1994-1999), I became the substantive editor in June 1999, at the same time as Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki in South Africa came into office. Thus, my first issue as editor had both Obasanjo and Mbeki on the front cover, with the prophetic headline “A New Dawn”, an inspiration from Mbeki’s inauguration speech: “Our country is in that period of time which the seTswana-speaking people of Southern Africa graphically describe as the dawning of the new dawn, when only the tips of the horn of the cattle can be seen etched against the morning sky,” Mbeki, the poet, waxed lyrical.

I had told my colleagues in the office then that we would see where democracy and the “new dawn” would take the three of us at the end of our terms. Now that both men are in retirement, after serving two terms each, and I, like the good old Johnnie Walker, am “still going strong”, perhaps it is time for me to change the constitution and run for a fourth term. Obasanjo tried it – for a third term – and failed. Mbeki, not quite that brash, nonetheless tried to hang on to the ANC presidency beyond his second term as state president, but Polokwane became his Waterloo. Coincidentally, London’s Waterloo Station is the favourite of our CEO and Group Publisher, Afif Ben Yedder, on his daily grind to and from work. He hasn’t invited me there yet, so maybe Coldbath Square may not produce a Waterloo after all. So let us all raise a glass to my 10th anniversary (those of you who don’t drink, like me, can pour water into your glasses) and say three cheers: “To Africa … To Africa.” Which reminds me of the old Royal Navy toast: “To sweethearts and wives, may they never meet.” Clever cats, these British sailors!

So, on Friday 12 June 2009, my colleagues in the office, perhaps not wanting to accept future brown envelopes for my Fourth Term Project, surprised me with an impromptu drinks party, thanks to the deviousness of my deputy – some lady from Zambia, the only one who knew that my 10th anniversary was nigh. You should have seen the look on my poor face when I was called downstairs to be confronted by a gathering around a conference table laid with drinks and small chops, and 10th anniversary cards signed by all telling Methuselah that it was time to get on his bike! It was so touching that, but for my Fourth Term Project, it may even have brought a tear or two to my old eyes.

Thank you guys, but you will still vote for me for a fourth term – to square the circle from assistant editor, to deputy editor, to editor part one, and now editor part two. Am I not tired of living in a foreign land, you may ask, especially when the friendly natives of my host country all want a place in the sun, the African sun? You bet, I am tired! “There is no place like home,” they say; but that’s another topic for another time. For now, let me concentrate on a little matter on my mind. At a time when we are all yearning for some global peace, there they come with another round of noisy “nuclear talk” – this time, not about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (they would like to see a regime change there, you know it from their media coverage), but about the old “axis of evil” country of North Korea throwing its nuclear weight about, by embarking on an underground nuclear test on 25 May. “We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” thundered America’s defence secretary, Robert Gates. But don’t they all do it?

When I had occasion to write about this very subject, in these very columns in November 2006, I wondered what kind of food that Bush, Blair and the other world leaders (including those in Japan, Russia and China) eat? “Seeing what they do, and hearing what they say, I tell myself, these leaders can’t be eating the same food as the rest of humanity. Potatoes, vegetables, rice, pastries, beef chops, Christmas pudding, and the like? Please don’t tempt me to add sadza, fufu, yo-ke-garri or plain eba with egusi soup. That would be asking for far stronger stomachs.” Three years on, I still maintain that these high mortals who call themselves presidents and defence secretaries do not eat the same food as we the mere mortals eat. “Else,” I wrote in November 2006, “they would see that what they do and what they say do not make sense at all!”

They have manufactured for themselves, for the so-called security of their countries, piles of nuclear bombs on which they still sit, and then they have the grace to tell North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the world that if we dare do as they have done, they will knock our heads off – because these “weapons of mass destruction” are bad for the world. And you think these people eat the same food as us? Well, they may get diplomatic nods, even silence, from our Western-educated presidents and diplomats, but not from the masses. We laugh at their follies, and wait for the day when we too can print some greenbacks, ready to start our own “Manhattan Project” for the sake of our national security. Please listen to Tony Blair telling the British Parliament on 4 December 2006 why Britain should never ever give up its nuclear weapons (it is a long quote, so you may need to sit down): “There are many complex technical, financial and military issues to be debated in respect of this decision,” Blair told the House. “But none of them obscure or alter the fundamental political judgement at the crux of it. Britain has had an independent nuclear deterrent for the last half century. In that time, the world has changed dramatically, not least in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the original context in which the deterrent was acquired.

“The whole point about the deterrent is not to create the circumstances in which it can be used but on the contrary to try to create circumstances in which it is never used… Ultimately, this decision is a judgement, a judgement about possible risks to our country and its security; and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks. The government’s judgement, on balance, is that though the Cold War is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge … that it is noteworthy that no present nuclear power is or is even considering divesting itself of its nuclear capability unilaterally; and that in these circumstances, it would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent.”
“…In the final analysis, the risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the War, and moreover doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance… In this era of unpredictable but rapid change, when every decade has a magnitude of difference with the last, and when the consequence of a misjudgement on this issue would be potentially catastrophic, would we want to drop this insurance and not as part of a global move to do so, but on our own? I think not… “We will continue to procure some elements of the [nuclear weapons] system, particularly those relating to the missile, from the US. But, as now, we will maintain full operational independence. The submarines, missiles, warheads, and command chain are entirely under British control, and will remain so after 2024. This gives British prime ministers the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control…

“Maintaining our nuclear deterrent capability is also fully consistent with all our international obligations. We have the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads amongst the recognised nuclear weapons states, and are the only one to have reduced to a single deterrent system… It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it isn’t a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgement, it is a prediction. It is probably right. But certain? No, we can’t say that… The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter.

“Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by example … that Britain giving up its deterrent would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example – on the contrary…

“In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgement. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our deterrent is relevant, is highly improbable. No one say it is impossible. In the 21st century, the world may have changed beyond recognition since the decision taken by the Atlee government over half a century ago. But it is precisely because we could not have recognised then the world we live in now, that it would not be wise to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgement we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security, and I commend it to the House.”

In the end, despite significant opposition, the House finally voted in March 2007 to keep and modernise Britain’s nuclear weapons (sorry, deterrent). Perhaps they were hearing the words of Munya Mardoch, the former director of Israel’s Weapons Development Programme, ringing in their ears: “The moral and political meaning of nuclear weapons is that states which renounce their use are acquiescing to the status of vassal states. All those states that feel satisfied with possessing conventional weapons alone are fated to become vassal states,” the Israeli said in 1994. And today, President Obama’s defence secretary says “We will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state”. Well, it comes back to food, doesn’t it?

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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