A reminder of when Accra was at the center of struggles against nuclear imperialism. African people have always been at the forefront of peace and sanity.
There are a few small but somewhat important details missing from director Christopher Nolan’s epic, three-hour biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the UC Berkeley theoretical physicist and Manhattan Project director often described as “the father of the atomic bomb.” No mention is made in Nolan’s Oppenheimer that the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos, New Mexico testing site was not a remote, empty, and unpopulated desert. Instead, as Tewa Women United reminds us, Los Alamos — that is Tsankawi and the Pajarito Plateau — has long been inhabited by Indigenous people. They were displaced by the project of US nuclear colonization and continue to suffer from the contamination and poisoning of their lands and water. Similarly, Oppenheimer says nothing of the incineration of 250,000 innocent Japanese civilians when the US used the atomic bomb in 1945 in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It remains the only time atomic weapons have been used, and it is no coincidence that non-white populations were targeted.
In typical Hollywood fashion, Oppenheimer elevates the moral conundrums of a single white man over the horrific consequences to hundreds of thousands of non-white victims, from Tsankawi to Nagasaki and beyond. Indeed, also missing from Oppenheimer is mention of the fact that, in the nuclear arms race that accelerated after World War II, European powers experimented with their atomic weapons of mass destruction in the “uninhabited” territories inhabited by Asian and African communities. As with “Los Alamos,” the inhabitants of these places have long suffered.
Take France, for instance. Between 1966 and 1996, France detonated a hardly-imaginable 190 nuclear devices in the Pacific colonial islands of French Polynesia. Yet before France poisoned Polynesia, they irradiated Africa: Between 1960 and 1966, the French performed seventeen nuclear tests in the Sahara, in both colonial and independent Algeria – four above ground and thirteen underground.
The first of these nuclear devices – nicknamed “Gerboise Bleue,” after a color of the French flag and a Saharan rodent – was detonated on February 13, 1960, thirty miles south of the Saharan town of Reggane. The capacity of the blast was 70 kilotons – more than four times the strength of the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima. The explosion seared the earth, turning the desert sand to glass while contaminating the vast blast zone with plutonium and uncontained radiation. Residents of the area were and are afflicted with blindness and leukemia and cancers of the liver, stomach, and skin; babies were born with atrophied limbs and other birth defects. Depending on who provides the figures, between 27,000 and 60,000 Algerians have been affected by the French nuclear tests. While the Algerian government erected a protective fence around the site, radioactive sands have blown across Africa – and, in an act of nuclear blowback, to Europe.
Yet what is also striking about the French atomic tests in Algeria are not the tests themselves, but the reaction to them. Algeria became the cause célèbre of Africa, both as a bulwark for Pan-African independence struggles and for the fight against nuclear colonialism, for disarmament, and for peace.
Accra, the capital of Ghana, was ground zero, as it were, for these movements, with Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People's Party leading the charge. A speech September 1, 1960 at Accra’s Palladium by Tawia Adamafio, the CPP’s General Secretary, captures this moment. Adamafio states “Every one of you can tell France what the answer is; it is NO! NO! to all nuclear imperialism in Africa; NO! to the murder of women and children through radio-active fallout. It is NO to the Cold War which provoked these evil tests. It is NO to the destruction of mankind with which these weapons threaten us.” Unfortunately, it is a message missing from Nolan’s Oppenheimer, but it is a reminder that African people have always been at the forefront of peace and sanity. We reprint Adamafio’s speech below.
French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara
Speech delivered by Hon. Tawia Adamafio, then General Secretary of the Convention People's Party at the Palladium, Accra on September 1, 1960 on the French plan to hold another nuclear test in the Sahara.
What I have come here to say today, and what all of us have come here today to say can be put very simply. It is this: LET FRANCE TAKE HEED!
Last week-end there were announcements in the French press and authoritative rumours that France was planning to hold yet another nuclear test in the Sahara - this time an underground test. Nearly a week has already passed since these reports and these rumours were first published and spread abroad. Some reports even mentioned the approximate time when the tests were likely to take place; they gave the time as mid-October and said that work on the site was already well under way. Yet these reports have never been denied by the French Government. Why?
We have gathered here today to demand an answer and to demand it immediately. We Africans have a right to know if further outrages are planned against our beloved continent. Not only have we a right to know, we have a right to protest and to take effective measures against any foreign power that is planning such an outrage against us. And we here in Ghana have every intention of taking such effective measures in concert with our brother Africans throughout the continent.
It will be remembered that the first reports of the other Sahara tests also appeared in newspapers before they were officially confirmed. Can it be that France wants to let it be known that she intends to undertake further tests, though without saying so officially so as to test the reaction of African governments and people to such moves? If so she has her answer right here and now.
Every one of you can tell France what the answer is; it is NO! NO! to all nuclear imperialism in Africa; NO! to the murder of women and children through radio-active fallout. It is NO to the Cold War which provoked these evil tests. It is NO to the destruction of mankind with which these weapons threaten us.
The political reasons for opposing these tests are no less powerful than the humanitarian; indeed the two cannot be separated. Does it not mean the continuation of the Algerian war which has already cost over a million lives and condemned many millions to homeless-ness, hunger, and utter ruin ? the reports of further tests, if true, shed a sinister new light on France's continued obstinacy to grant to the Algerian people the right of self-determination which harsh political facts have forced her to accept in her other colonial territories in Africa.
But France does not have to ask questions about African reaction to atomic tests in Africa, either in the Sahara or anywhere else. She already has her answer to this question. Her previous tests were condemned by African organisations and states from the very first rumours that they were being planned. They were condemned by the first All-African Peoples' Conference that met in Accra in December 1958, and they were condemned by the Conference of Independent African States earlier in the same year. Finally, in the months and weeks that immediately preceded the test they were condemned by every Independent African State and every Freedom Movement in Africa—From Morocco and Tunisia in the North to the freedom movements in South Africa; from Ghana on the West Coast to Kenya, and Tanganyika on the East.
Events so far
I do not need to remind you of what happened earlier this year when France first embarked on the criminal adventure of desecrating African soil with nuclear explosions. For Ghana was and is in the forefront of the opposition to these attacks upon the children of Africa and the world and upon the sovereignty, dignity and personality of our people.
In August, 1958, the plans for a French test in the Sahara were made official, and the site of the test was reported to be Reggan, some fifteen hundred miles north of Ghana's border.
Immediately there were mass demonstrations in Accra. The recently formed Ghana Council for Nuclear Disarmament took upon itself to educate the people in the dangers of all such tests to the health and prosperity of the African peoples. A mass demonstration in Accra was led by the Minister of Transport and Communications, Hon. Krobo Edusei, but a delegation led by the Minister himself was rudely refused audience at the French Embassy, and the note of legitimate protest was returned without comment. Later the United Nations condemned the proposed tests by an overwhelming majority.
It was only after these attempts at reason had failed that our great Leader Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah decided that Positive Action was called for. In response to a call from the Ghana Council for Nuclear Disarmament people rallied in support of an International Protest Team under the leadership of the Rev. Michael Scott. The majority of the team consisted of Ghanaians but there were also representatives from Nigeria, Basutoland, the United States, Britain and even France herself. The team dedicated itself to use every non-violent means to enter the testing site at Reggan to challenge the right of France to endanger the life and health of innocent people, and to desecrate the soil of mother Africa. In response to an appeal for funds the people of Ghana contributed over £G9,000 towards the cost of trucks and equipment. The protest team received messages of support and goodwill from every part of Africa and from every continent outside Africa when it left Accra for the Sahara on December 8.
But France again flouted African and international opinion by surrounding the Protest Team with armed guards at the Ghana/ Upper Volta boundary and the members were twice arrested and deported, their trucks and equipment being confiscated. There were further mass protests in Accra. Two days before the bomb was exploded thousands of people held an all-day protest outside the French Embassy followed by a mass rally at the West End Arena. But France had made up her mind to join the other nuclear giants in the race towards race suicide and phoney greatness and on February 13 at dawn, the deadly mushroom cloud rose above our beloved continent and cast its black shadow of death over our people.
Again Ghana was the first to act. Within a matter of hours, our Osagyefo, then Prime Minister of Ghana, had broadcast to the nation the news that all French assets in Ghana had been frozen until the extent of the damage from the test could be assessed. The French Authorities confidently asserted that no winds existed in that region of the Sahara that could carry radio-active debris more than 700 miles. Yet within two days the observation posts set up in Ghana with the aid and assistance of trained international staff noted an increase in the level of radioactivity in this country which could only be attributed to the Sahara test. Furthermore, they were able to trace the exact course of the winds that carried the poisonous matter here. Unable to believe that their experts could be wrong, the French Government sent over one of their own trained technicians to verify the results of the findings of the British and Canadian experts already here. His readings coincided exactly with theirs and the French were forced to modify their former statement and to fall on the fallacious argument that the rise in radioactivity was not great.
Countrymen, the World Federation of Scientific Workers point out in their factual booklet on radio-active effects entitled "Unmeasured Hazards," that there is no lower level of radiation below which harm to the human reproductive organisms is not produced. Other scientific bodies have stated that every increase in the level of radio-activity is harmful.
One would have thought that this result would have deterred France from carrying out further tests. But the arrogance and inhumanity of power drunkenness drove her on. Within one month France had exploded yet another atomic bomb in the Sahara; she had, as the statement by the Ghana Council for Nuclear Disarmament put it "joined the nuclear club and contracted out of the club of decency and human rights."
But this time Africa was to speak with a new power and unity on the courageous and brilliant initiative of Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Representatives from the Independent African States and from political and trade union movements from every part of Africa met in Accra on April 7 for an emergency meeting to consider Positive Action for Peace and Security in Africa in face of the threat of further nuclear explosions and of other forms of imperialism threatening our continent.
I would like to quote from the historic opening address of our Osagyefo to this conference: "Fellow Africans," he said: "on this matter of the evil effects of atomic tests we refuse to allow anyone to throw dust in our eyes. I must emphasise that five eminent physicists—three Japanese, one American and one French, two of them Nobel Prizewinners—have announced that more than one million people will die as a result of such explosions. They stated also, among other things, that 'elementary calculation' showed that the fall-out from each "superbomb" provoked the birth of fifteen thousand abnormal children. How can we, in the face of these facts, keep quiet?" the Osagyefo went on: "We must all with one voice vehemently protest against the holding of any more nuclear tests in the Sahara."
These and other sentiments of the Osagyefo were echoed and supported by the other delegates and were the subject of strong resolutions. The conference at the end of its deliberations unanimously declared that: the Government of France, by exploding atomic bombs in the Sahara, has committed an act of hostility and an infringement of the sovereignty and dignity of the peoples of Africa." The Conference vehemently condemned "the action of the Government of France which, in carrying out atomic tests in the Sahara— thereby endangering the health, life, security and posterity of the African peoples and of mankind—has disregarded all peaceful efforts and world public opinion" and it called upon "all Governments, particularly Governments of Independent African States, to use all legitimate and constructive means at their disposal to mobilise world public opinion and sympathy against further nuclear tests in general, against the existence of atomic missile bases in Africa and for total disarmament by collective and concerted action through the United Nations.
The Conference also commended "the economic and financial sanctions imposed upon the Government of France by some Governments and organisations in Africa, such as boycotting of French goods and freezing of French assets," and appealed "to all Governments and organisations particularly in Africa, to adopt in so far as possible, these and other sanctions against the Government of France."
Comrades, it may be that France did not hear, and does not heed these grave warnings. It may be that the leaders of France have been too deafened by the noise of their own atomic bombs to hear the voice of reason, too infatuated with the false power and glory of nuclear might to heed the grave warnings that these resolutions contain. We are gathered here today to appeal to their reason one last time. We are here to say to them again for the last time; "Beware! You have snapped the thread of African patience which stands a great deal of strain, but which finally snaps in the face of obstinate folly. Let France Take Heed!"
While the Conference was taking place, there were persistent rumours that France was indeed planning another test, this time an underground test in the island of Corsica. I am happy to say that she was foiled in this intention by the people of Corsica themselves who rose up as a man to denounce any such action and who began taking practical steps to oppose the French efforts. We should take heart from this gallant success of the people of Corsica. For if the will of a few thousand people could prevail over the determined might of France why should not the united will of 200,000,000 Africans prevail? The lesson we can learn from the success of our brothers in Corsica in preventing their country from becoming a nuclear testing laboratory for France, is that we must be united and must be prepared to act decisively.
Comrades, it was no fault of our brother Africans in the French community territories that they were still suffering under French imperialist rule when the previous French tests were undertaken. Their silence at that time was not a voluntary silence. They were gagged and threatened by their political bosses in Paris. Nevertheless it is an undoubted fact that the enforced silence of the very French Community countries in Africa adjoining the Sahara was a powerful weapon in the hands of France, and played a considerable part in making it possible for her to carry out her evil intentions. We are not blaming our African Comrades for we realise that they had no freedom to express their opinion genuinely.
But now things have changed. France has been forced to recognise the political realities of Africa and to grant independence to her former colonies in the French Community. Now the French Community countries are in a position to speak oat and condemn the aggression upon their territory and people of Africa. Now they can show the reality of their independence by telling France very firmly that they will not countenance policies that are to the detriment of the African people and which are firmly and unanimously opposed by them. We have no doubt that they will do this. Already the President of Mali, M. Modibo Keita, has warned France that it cannot support its repressive policies in Algeria and may shortly recognise the Algerian provisional Government. A heavy responsibility rests upon these our brothers in the French community countries. Their united protest could save Africa from further nuclear desecration. Their silence could mean further outrages; further indignities; further sickness and death.
Reasons For Opposing Tests
I would like once again to remind you all of the reasons for our opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear tests, not only in Africa but anywhere in the world. These can be divided into two main categories: humanitarian and political. But in fact the two are inseparably bound up in our mind.
Firstly we oppose nuclear tests because they threaten the whole future existence of mankind on this planet. If there is a nuclear war between the great powers, there is a considerable likelihood that few people will be left alive in the whole of the world. Comrades, it is not I who say this. It is one of America's most brilliant atomic physicists and Nobel Prizewinner Dr. Linus Pauling. He estimates that 4,000 H-Bombs - the sort of bombs that France has said she is determined to manufacture and test - are enough to kill everybody living in the world. The two greatest powers of the world have this number several times over.
This is what Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah means when he says that the nuclear Powers are holding humanity to ransom. This is why Ghana has opposed and will continue to oppose the manufacture and testing of such weapons.
Secondly the testing of such weapons are frought with danger. Scientists who have sold their services to the various nuclear powers to try to minimise these dangers. But as Osagyefo said at the Positive Action Conference, we Africans will not have dust thrown in our eyes about these evils and dangers.
The fact is that an atomic bomb that is very small by present-day standards - several times smaller than the first atomic bomb exploded by France in the Sahara - killed 200,000 people when it was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and that people are still dying every year in Japan today, 15 years later, as a result of the radioactive poisons it produced! People who were small children when the bomb was exploded or who were conceived and not even born, are today falling sick and dying as a result of that bomb. Children are every year being born blind, lame, deformed because their parents were exposed to these deadly poisons. True, this was a bomb actually dropped upon people with the expressed purpose of destroying them. But they are a grave warning of what radio-active poisons can do.
In 1954 the Japanese people were again exposed to lethal radiation when, in March, a powerful H-bomb was dropped at Bikini in the Pacific Ocean. Fishermen hundreds of miles away, outside the safety zone indicated by the United States' scientists, were covered with radioactive ash. One has since died. The others are still suffering from incurable radio-active burns and sickness.
Let me once again quote from the American physicist Dr. Linus Pauling on this particular test. He revealed that radio-active fall-out, the deadly poison that results from a nuclear test, contaminated 7,000 Square Miles of the Pacific. A bomb of similar strength exploded in the Sahara would have disastrous consequences for the people of Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, Ghana and others. And the most alarming thing is that the French Government have recently announced that they intend manufacturing and arming their forces with H-bombs. An added reason therefore why we speak out now against any bomb tests in Africa, large or small, underground or above-ground, is that once France finds that she could test with impunity, she may use Africa to explode more and more powerful bombs.
Dr. Linus Pauling has further estimated that as a result of tests already carried out by the nuclear powers between ONE AND A HALF AND THREE MILLION CHILDREN WILL BE BORN DEFECTIVE - that is to say will be born blind, lame and malformed. Let us take a look at the children in this country, strapped to their mothers' backs, or running around. This is how we want Africa's children to be! We do not want them to be blind and lame and ill. Does the heavy hand of imperialism know no mercy? Must imperialism, driven, from our dear land, express itself in still more brutal forms to poison the air we breathe and scourge our children yet unborn ? Must France, to prove her supposed greatness, add her quota to the slaughter of the innocent and the unborn? We say NO, NO, NO, a thousand times NO! Better that we should perish than that the children of Africa be condemned to such a fate!
The French Government have assured us that their tests are harmless. The increase in radio-activity produced by their bombs, they say, are so small that their effects will be nil. I will not bother you with more quotations from renowned experts, but I can readily assure you that they all agree on one thing; any increase in radioactivity is harmful and that from the point of view of genetics, that is from the point of view of our unborn children, there is no "safe" level of increase in radio-activity. It was M. Jules Moch, the French statesman who undertook the task of devils advocate at the United Nations debate on the French tests, who said only a short time previously that because all tests were dangerous his Government wished to see all nuclear tests brought to an end.
The French Government will no doubt claim that the test they now propose is harmless, because it will be held underground. We do not yet know the site of the proposed test, but if it is anywhere near the Reggan testing site it will be anything but harmless for the people of that area. A French geologist who is well acquainted with the area reports that an underground test could contaminate the underground water system laboriously produced by decades of hard work by the indigenous peoples. This could mean the ruin of their crops and their health. Furthermore, it is now well known that there are vast underground water supplies in the Sahara, which, if properly harnessed, could make the desert blossom. Here is a task to which French technicians might honourably and usefully put their knowledge and their skill. But an underground test could contaminate these precious waters and render the reclamation of the Sahara impossible.
But above all these tests could be the prelude to further tests with even more powerful weapons. France announced last month that she was determined to arm her forces with the H-bomb—a bomb many times more powerful than those already detonated by her in the Sahara. Where does France intend to test these even more hthal weapons? One thing we do know is that she does not intend to test them in Paris! We say to the French Government today, "If you don't want to test them in Paris don't come to Africa to test them!"
Some of the political reasons for our opposition to the particular tests in the Sahara have already been touched upon. They can be summed up as follows:
Firstly we do not wish for, and we shall not allow, new forms of imperialism to take hold in our emerging continent.
Secondly, we shall not allow Africa to become the cockpit in the Cold War between East and West—a war in which we have no interest and no part.
Thirdly, we recognise that the bomb-tests in the Sahara are bound up with the French policy of holding on to Algeria in spite of the wishes of the overwhelming number of her people and a war that is costing thousands of lives every year.
We shall not allow new forms of imperialism to take root in this continent. For centuries our people have groaned under slavery and conquest. We have been robbed of our lands, our traditions, our history. Our children have been packed like cattle into the dark holds of foreign ships and sold in chains in foreign lands. They have groaned under the conquest of colonial exploiters for whom they offered much cheap labour. But Comrades those days are over. Those days are over and everyone of us — all of us — is determined that they shall never return. At last the African people can work out their own destiny, and they will not allow the power of foreign money or foreign bombs to deter them. We shall be on our guard against economic imperialism, nuclear imperialism, and every other sort of imperialism. Osagyefo has lit the flame of freedom in Africa and it will burn to the remotest corners of our continent.
If France, or any other country for that matter, establishes the tradition of using Africa as a laboratory for obnoxious experiments, too dangerous to be carried out in her own territory, the African people will be under a constant threat of blackmail. If France can establish such a precedent, the reality of our hard-won freedom will largely disappear. That is why All our efforts, All our energy, All our strength must be put into the fight against nuclear madness in Africa.
But comrades, we have spoken enough. When Africa is being ravaged, it is no time for words: it is time for action. We shall act. Tomorrow we shall march to the French Embassy. When we do so we shall not be attacking the French people, among whom we count many good friends and allies, but the particular evil policy of the French Government and ask France to take heed of our warning. Now and forevermore Africa is on the march to victory.
Tawia Adamafio, French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara, 1960.
Also, please visit Tewa Women United, “Oppenheimer — And the Other Side of the Story.”