Nigeria, France and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Muzzammil Muhammad Shittu
March 4, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: Nigeria (1), in Red, shown in West Africa. French-controlled territories shown in blue. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between France and West Africa, a region wherein it was once the principal colonial power, is among the most important between Africa and the West today. This is so widely recognized that it has been noted as an institution in itself, and dubbed "Francafrique". [1] This relationship has deeply informed development, counterterrorism and inter-state cooperation in Francophone West Africa, all of which, today, feature heavy French involvement. [2]

One of the more curious results of Francafrique has been the deterioration of the relationship between France and West Africa's regional power, Nigeria. Much of this has been the result of competition for influence in the West Africa region, wherein Nigeria is the largest break in an otherwise Francophone region, as shown in Fig. 1. A major symbol of this competition is the ECOWAS bloc, an economic community comprising every West African state. One of ECOWAS' recognized effects, as an organization founded in and largely governed from Nigeria, has been the erosion of French influence in Francophone countries. [3] Another such symbol involves nuclear weapons.

In a manner similar to the United States' nuclear weapons tests in remote, uninhabited parts of the country, France, at the start of the Cold War, developed its nuclear weapons in uninhabited regions of the Sahara, land of which France was the colonial suzerain. [4] The third French bomb tested was half as powerful as that detonated over Hiroshima, equivalent to over 10,000 tons of TNT. [5] These tests were met with much outcry from indigenous leaders in colonized African lands, including Nigeria, whose pre-independence political parties advocated for a boycott of French goods, and where major political figures publicly labeled the French tests a "crime against humanity". These reactions came out of concerns that seasonal winds would carry nuclear contamination from the Sahara southwards, and into the territory of West African nations. [5]

These attitudes continued into the 60's, and the start of the postcolonial era, with a now-independent Nigeria responding to France's third Saharan atomic experiment by ordering the departure of France's ambassador, suspending diplomatic relations with France and barring all French transit within Nigeria in January 1961, hampering much of France's commercial relations with West Africa, a large portion of which were conducted through Nigerian ports. Though many other African countries protested the French nuclear tests through verbal means, Nigeria was the only such country to take diplomatic and economic measures as well. [5]

Diplomatic relations between these two countries would remain suspended until 1965, on the eve of Nigeria's first military coup. [5] Though these relations might have been restored, the circumstances which caused their initial deterioration would continue to affect the West African geopolitical landscape. France, for example, was among the chief supporters of and arms suppliers to the secessionist state of Biafra, which comprised essentially all of South-East Nigeria, in 1966. [6] This support almost caused the end the Nigerian state, and was informed by the long history of tension between Nigeria and France, and by the realities of nuclear weapons testing.

© Muzzamil Muhammad Shittu. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] E. Farge, "Echoes of 'Francafrique' Haunt Central African Democracy," Reuters, 12 Nov 15.

[2] M. Pennetier, "Macron's Promise of New France-Africa Ties Raises Heckles," Reuters, 28 Nov 17.

[3] C. O. Bassey and C. Q. Dokubo, Defence Policy of Nigeria (AuthorHouse, 2011).

[4] L Chikhi, "French Nuclear Tests in Algeria Leave Toxic Legacy," Reuters, 4 Mar 10.

[5] "France Explodes Third Atomic Bomb," BBC News, 27 Dec 60.

[6] A. Igboeroteonwu, "Nigeria Buries its Biafra Civil War Leader," Reuters, 2 Mar 12.