The Nigerian Space Conundrum On 20 Years of Space Exploration in Nigeria

20 years have passed since Nigeria opened its first space-related institution. Today, Nigerian space institutions strive to meet the objectives set out in a 28-year roadmap amid widespread scepticism and constrained funding.

cluster of satellite dishes sits in Misau Street, Garki at the heart of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. This ‘bank of satellites’, according to Tade Ipadeola, forms a part of Nigeria’s Earth station, which connects the five Nigerian satellites currently orbiting the Earth in outer space. Indeed, countries, as Ipadeola notes, do not typically locate such structures in a central business district, choosing instead to establish them in city outskirts. But these countries are not Nigeria. The choice of Abuja is quite obvious. Nigerians are loud, proud, show-offs, even with our under-developed utopian structures, which is what the National Space Research Development Agency is: a dilapidating utopian project.

The National Space Research Development Agency, NASRDA, like most public institutions in Nigeria, is a vast, airy collection of buildings. The buildings are an amalgamation of unattractive yellow, blue, grey and brown shades; a festival, in short, of disappointing colours. The only structure at the agency that embodies a burgeoning space-related future is the Space Incubation Centre, a dome-like building at the agency’s centre. Unveiled earlier this year in April, the Space Incubation Centre looks quite similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kresege Auditorium designed by Finnish-American Architect, Eero Saarinen.

As Nigeria struggles to develop its space programme, the United States is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US moon landing, an event that represented a major victory for America in its space race against its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. And yet it seems that while America’s celebrations coincide with gradual cut backs on US space programs, and despite both local and international scepticism, Nigeria still nurtures considerable ambition about embarking on more space-related endeavours.

A Brief History of NASRDA

In 1976, during an intergovernmental meeting in Addis-Ababa, Nigeria declared its space ambition to the members of the Economic Commission for Africa and the Organization of African Unity. Evidencing our non-luddite qualities, a decade later, in 1988, the then-National Council of Ministers approved the establishment of the National Centre for Remote Sensing (NCRS) to be located in Jos, with a Ground Receiving Station for all obtained data, at Kerang, in the Mangu Local Government Area of Plateau State. The NCRS eventually took off in October 1995. Launched by President Olusegun Obasanjo, the NCRS was Nigeria’s first national space agency and operated under the auspices of the National Council on Space Science and Technology. The council later became a full-fledged ministry in 1998 and, thereafter, the National Space Research and Development Agency was carved out from it. But NASRDA was significantly different from the already existing NCRS.

When NASRDA was created in May 1999, it was to have a broader objective than the more specific NCRS. NCRS stood as the focal point for remote sensing activities in Nigeria. It was to acquire and apply remote sensing and geographic information system and other related space technologies for the development and the management of the Nations natural resources and the environmental protection of all of mankind. NASRDA, however, had the overall objective of establishing a fundamental policy for space science and technology for the socio-economic benefit of Nigeria. According to its website, NASDRA is committed to building Nigeria’s indigenous technology in basic space technology and breaking new frontiers through space exploration. The already established NCRS later became one of the six development centres under the aegis of NASRDA. The intent behind the creation of these agencies were no more than explicit overtures to space science and technology, as well as disaster monitoring and control in Nigeria.

The Political Emergence of NASRDA

When President Obasanjo established NASRDA in 1999, the move signalled a president taking incredible strides to convince the world that his newly democratic country could catch up with fast-developing nations. However, much of the truth behind the development of NASRDA lies in the political history of Nigeria.

Not long after Nigeria gained independence from Britain, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war closely followed by military dictatorship. One of such dictatorships was that of General Sani Abacha, a man of rapacious qualities with a notoriously strong aversion to intellectual inquiry. Abacha ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998 and against his legacy of intellectual and socio-economic crisis, Olusegun Obasanjo in an unprecedented move by any African leader at the time, started discussing the future of Nigeria as one that extended beyond our planet and into outer space. Under Obasanjo, the government directed a staggering $93 million dollars into the creation of NASRDA and the National Space Programme. NASRDA was to use the initial funding over a period of four years, from 2001 till 2005, in developing a space programme, after which, it was expected, NASRDA would generate its own revenues. Till today, NASRDA has failed to provide an account of how the allocated funds were spent over the years, leaving it, as is common with public institutions, to the imagination of Nigerians.

In 2002, the Assistant General Director of Training and Capacity Building at NASRDA made a presentation paper setting out a 28-year roadmap for the research, developing and launching of satellites from Nigeria by 2030. The roadmap outlined the agency’s vison to develop, build and launch a Nigerian-made satellite. According to the roadmap, the agency planned to launch Nigeria’s first satellite, the NigSat-1, by 2002; to train Nigerian engineers to build an Earth Observation Satellite by 2006; to launch two satellites, NigSat-2 and NigSat-x, by 2011; to train Nigerian astronauts by 2015; to build and launch a made-in-Nigeria satellite by 2018; and to develop and launch rocketry systems in Nigeria. While the vision of the agency may have seemed remarkable at the time, it appears that the agency’s goals were no more than empty promises made to eager ears.  

Nigeria Launches Its Satellites

A fundamental reason, notwithstanding, that necessitated the creation of these satellites, at least, was Nigeria’s goal to bridge the telecommunication gap that existed between the country and the rest of the world.As at 2003, Nigeria didn’t have a communication satellite that allowed radio, television and telephone transmissions to be sent live anywhere across the globe. That year, after years of training Nigerian engineering experts at Surrey Satellite Technology in London, on the 26th of September, NASRDA launched the first Nigerian satellite into space.

The NigSat-1 was not only Nigeria’s first satellite; it was Africa’s third presence in space. NigSat-1 was built in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s Surrey Space Technology (SST) and launched in Pletsetsk, Russia, as part of a world Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). The DMC included four other Earth observation satellites owned by China, Turkey, Algeria and the United Kingdom. As a network, these countries were to supply information to aid other countries in mitigating disaster threats. Each member had a ground control centre, with Nigeria’s centre located in Abuja. The NigSat-1, as a part of the DMC, was used for environmental monitoring including the mapping and monitoring of the impact of gully erosion and flood-affected areas.

As at 2010, the NigSat-1 still captured images of the Earth and sent information to the Ground Receiving Station in Abuja.  Since then, Nigeria has launched more than three satellites including the NigComSat-1, Nigeria’s first communication satellite, which was launched in 2007 by China Great Wall Industry Corporation in the Sichnan Province of south-west China. The launch symbolized China’s evolving relations with Nigeria; the NigComSat1 was supposed to run for 15 years but lasted only 18 months owing to an anomaly in its solar array, which, subsequently led to loss of power. The NigComSat-1R which launched on 19thDecember 2011 was Nigeria’s third satellite in space and it served as a replacement for the defunct NigComSat-1. The launching of these satellites reveals the candidness through which Nigeria sought to cement itself a seat at the table of global space exploration.

The Gains of Space Exploration

Notwithstanding Nigeria’s spotty history with space exploration, one could ask: what are the benefits of these satellites to Nigeria’s economy? And, if there are indeed benefits, how can these benefits help revive the deflated condition of the country today?

In truth, the advancement of a country in space provides an array of  benefits relevant to national security, urban planning, food management and security, communication, agricultural management, disaster management and primarily nation building. The socio-economic benefits of satellites include the ability to access and use high-resolution images of the country for urban planning. In Lagos, for example, which is the expected to be the 7th largest urban area in the world by 2020, large-scale development projects have seen the conversion of coastal wet lands into urbanized communities. With the use of satellite imagery, urban planners are in a better position to create better housing schemes by identifying which areas of land are realistic options for improving the housing conditions in a state. Similarly, satellite imagery can improve food security by enabling us identify the areas with the best soil for farming, monitor large-scale food production, and observe the extents of food shortages.

In testament to the benefits of satellites, in 2005, the NigSat-1 was the first in an international partnership of disaster monitoring satellites to obtain pictures of the eastern coast of the US following the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Satellites have the ability to predict weather changes and can be used as tools to assist rapid response services to better ascertain the impact of a disaster and or to aptly prepare for a natural disaster. Floods are a constant occurrence in the country owing to faulty irrigation systems, drainage systems and soil erosion. These floods destroy homes, physical infrastructure and livelihoods. With the use of satellite images, authorities are better equipped to study the impact of large-scale incidents like floods and take the necessary corrective steps.

Boko Haram’s abduction of the 276 Chibok school girls in 2014, is arguably, one of the most controversial attacks by a terrorist group in recent history. In the rescue mission to find the missing girls, the rescuers met several dead ends. However, in 2015, Nigeria had a breakthrough. The United States shared commercial satellite imagery of Sambisa forest, which the nation relied on before a mission to save the Chibok girls. On the 7thof January 2015, Amnesty Nigeria also published satellite images of Baga, Borno state, showing for the first time the extent of the destruction caused by the terrorist group following a militant attack on Baga and Doron Baga, two neighbouring towns in the state. The images provided chilling evidence of the escalating massacre of civilians in Borno.

Nigeria’s Space Reluctance: Are there Grounds?

Given the foregoing benefits of investing in satellites and, in turn, in space it is quite surprising that the senate is reluctant to release funds to foster its growth. In 2007, Barr. Adebayo Shittu, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications, demanded the senate’s approval for the acquisition of two more satellites. In response, the senate unilaterally questioned the benefit of acquiring more satellites to Nigeria and its citizens. Hearing this, the minister proceeded to threaten the senate that he would approach China for a loan of $550,000 if his demands were not met. For a country just emerging from a recession, the senate was not convinced that satellite technology was what is required to push Nigeria ahead of its economic woes. An influx of petrodollars into the Nigerian economy fuelled the early days of Nigeria’s space endeavours. Since then, the revenue generated by oil has declined and persistent economic challenges have has scourged NASRDA and restricted scientific exploration.

In 2018, Shittu did as promised. Nigeria entered into another agreement with China’s EXIM Bank to launch two more satellites for the sum of $550 million. Worth mentioning, however, the loan of $340 million, which was obtained from China, to develop NigComSat-1 still remains unpaid and the interest on the loan continues to pile. Shittu, however, says that the proposed loan of $550 million to be obtained from China is not a loan per se, but an equity contribution China is making into Nigeria’s space endeavours. Even with the satellites we have currently in space, the country is still snail-like in its response to nationwide flood, suggesting that despite information on the disasters being available, we lack the agencies capable of taking adequate response measures; and additional space ventures may be just another drainpipe for Nigeria’s resources.

In 2016, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Science and Technology, announced that NARDA has plans to send an astronaut into space by 2030 as part of its ambition to develop a globally competitive space industry. This announcement, however, met wide scepticism partly because it happened soon after a viral scam email. The email is known for demanding the sum of $3 million to plan a rescue mission for Nigerian astronaut, Major Abacha Tunde, the first Nigerian astronaut, who was stranded in space after a secret flight mission in 1979. Nevertheless, in 2016, NASRDA received $20 million dollars to keep its operations running. Despite its operational challenges, one cannot easily write off NASRDA’s space ambitions as a lofty pipe dream. In fact, the most recent Nigerian Satellite, NigSat-X, was the first satellite to be designed and built by NASRDA engineers.

20 years have passed since the establishment of NASRDA in 1999. Today, the agency strives to meet the objectives set out in its 2002 28-year roadmap, amid widespread scepticism and constrained funding. Beyond NASRDA, local investment in space-related activities is low. Only one university in Nigeria, the University of Nigeria, in Nsukka, for instance, teaches astrophysics. Perhaps 20 years isn’t enough time to develop space exploration in Nigeria, though NASRDA, the agency’s recent activities suggest, likely disagrees