Challenges and Opportunities of Nigeria’s Space Program

A Photo of Nigeria from Space
Source: Globe Master 3D/Wikimedia

A Brief History of Nigeria’s Space Program

Nigeria has had a complicated history over the last century, as the country began the 20th century as a British colony and gained independence in 1960. Following independence there have been several military governments and dictatorships. Nigeria’s space goals stemmed from a reaction to a military regime from 1993 to 1998 led by General Sani Abacha. This administration was known for its aversion to intellectual inquiry. Abacha’s successor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, advocated strongly for Nigeria’s future to be beyond our planet, and in space.1 In 1999, when Nigeria became a democratic government under President Obasanjo, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) was formed and the government then began to pursue formalized space projects.2  In 2003, Nigeria procured the launch of its first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, an Earth observation satellite that became part of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC).3 Since then, Nigeria has launched a total of five satellites, with three still operational as of 2020.4 This includes the first satellite designed and built by engineers from African countries, NigeriaSat-X.5 Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari—elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019—is supportive of the Nigerian space program.6

Goals

In 2005, NASRDA unveiled a radical plan for its future. However, its progress is currently not on track with what NASRDA had envisioned. In 2005, Nigeria stated its main goals were for the Nigerian program to: manufacture a Nigerian satellite; have a Nigerian astronaut; and create a Nigerian launch vehicle to launch Nigerian-made satellites from a spaceport located in Nigeria.7 As of today, however, there are no Nigerian astronauts or training programs, and the only goal that has been accomplished has been the manufacturing of a Nigerian satellite.8 In a 2016 article by CNN, Professor Calestous Juma, a specialist on space programs in developing countries at the Harvard Kennedy School, suggests the mission to send a Nigerian to space on a Nigerian-built rocket represents a “lofty ambition.” Professor Juma continues to note that he believes the vision of Nigerian space exploration is more important than meeting the deadlines.9

Outside of these stated formal goals, the implicit objective for the program has been to aid in the socioeconomic development of the Nigerian people through investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and earth observation technology. Nigeria intends to utilize these future technologies to help fight climate change, aid in agriculture, oppose Boko Haram, and combat the issue of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.10 The goals of NASRDA align well with the stated goals of the Nigerian government to work towards attaining the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).11

Nigeria aims to benefit its populace through investments in space, and space is an integral part of the plan for Nigerian technological independence. Felix Ale, NASRDA Communications Chief, believes that because of the benefits Nigeria—and Africa—would receive, such as increased security in the fight against Boko Haram, climate monitoring of desertification in the North, or agricultural planning in the Niger Delta, investment in space technology is worth further financial consideration.12

“…Space technology could have a significant impact on the socioeconomic development of Nigeria”

Nigeria has ambitious goals for its future in space. Investing in space technology could have a significant impact on the socioeconomic development of Nigeria; however, there are significant political, social, technical, and economic challenges that will need to be overcome if Nigeria is to develop a thriving space program. Important for Nigeria and the world is viewing these challenges not as hurdles, but opportunities for growth.

Political Challenges

Nigeria is a relatively young democracy, as such it faces unique challenges of recovering from its past. Corruption was a huge issue within the military dictatorship of the late 20th century. In an attempt to combat corruption in its space program, NASRDA was built with anti-corruption measures, including that no person convicted of corruption shall be able to hold any high level office in the organization.13 An important criticism of this policy, however, is the historically low rate of corruption prosecutions.

President Muhammadu Bahari won reelection in 2019 on the campaign promise of ending corruption. He has cracked down on corruption, but has faced accusations of using his crackdowns for political gain—investigating his rivals and exonerating his friends.14 The Nigerian space agency is considered prime examples of bureaucratic corruption—large amounts of money going to organizations that have no direct impact on the lives of Nigerians.15

Unfortunately, corruption in Nigeria is somewhat ubiquitous. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Nigeria was ranked 144 out of 180 countries listed in 2018.16 Over the decade17, Nigeria has declined from being ranked 121 out of 180 to its current position.18 Without improving measures to combat corruption, the space agency risks losing its credibility as an organization committed to combating corruption. Investing in space with no discernible benefit for citizens can be perceived as bureaucratic corruption.19 Addressing this issue within the government and the Nigerian space community is necessary to establish public trust in the government’s space goals.

Technical Challenges

With the growing success of commercial launch vehicles lowering the cost of launching satellites into space, many more countries can afford access to space. While the goal to have domestic capabilities is admirable, Nigeria may be missing out on a larger opportunity to take advantage of falling launch costs.20 Nigeria currently does not have any launch system in development and relies on Chinese and Russian rockets to launch its satellites into orbit. Technical issues for Nigeria start with the capacity of its workforce and a framework for learning, teaching, and retaining workers knowledgeable in this field.21

“…Chinese funding and technology for its satellite program could boost Nigerian involvement in space and lead to a major influx of space technologies.”

China has become increasingly interested in investing in emerging space programs as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).Viewing satellites as infrastructure, China often invests in BRI countries’ satellite capabilities. In 2018, Nigeria agreed to give a $550 million equity stake in the state-owned satellite operator NigComSat to a Chinese satellite company, China Great Wall, to manufacture two communications satellites to be launched by China two years after the final agreement is signed.22 China Great Wall now owns close to 50 percent equity in the Nigerian government-owned satellite operator. This increased reliance on Chinese funding and technology for its satellite program could boost Nigerian involvement in space and lead to a major influx of space technologies. This Chinese investment may support national satellite projects that perhaps Nigeria would not be able to have otherwise, capitalizing on the investment.23

To build a national technical base, NASRDA is also working with the U.K.-based company Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) to build satellites. As part of these projects Nigeria has required capacity training for Nigerian engineers to learn how to construct and design satellites.24

Technical capacity is a growth area for Nigeria. Recognizing this, Felix Ale, Deputy Director of Media and Corporate Communications at NASRDA, said in an interview with The News: “We are not just interested in launching satellites, we are also interested in building capacities and that is why we always include capacity building components in all our projects.”25 Cooperating with other nations, such as China and the United Kingdom, helped Nigeria launch the first ever African-built satellite into orbit, NigeriaSat-X, in 2011.

Economic Challenges

Oil is the backbone of the Nigerian economy. The peaks and troughs of Nigeria’s GDP often align with spikes or declines in the price of crude oil.26 Due to a lack of diversity in the exports of Nigeria, the success or failure or the Nigerian economy is intimately linked to oil.

With a growing global emphasis on renewable energy, Nigeria should look to diversifying its economy to further ensure it can thrive. Nigeria is already making great strides to diversify economically through increasing infrastructure spending, agriculture, agro-based industry, innovation, and STEM industries—including space.27

A majority of Nigeria’s budgeted money for space goes to its civil space agency, NASRDA. As of December 2019, President Buhari approved a budget for space that is nearly 20 percent of the total budget for the Ministry of Science and Technology. The 2020 budget allocates $59.26 million (USD) for space activities in Nigeria. NASRDA was given $44.18 million, which is roughly 75 percent of the total budget for space. NigComSat, the Nigerian state-owned satellite operator, was allocated $9.54 million—roughly 16 percent. The Defense Space Administration, which focuses on military applications for space, received 9 percent of the total budget for space, totalling to $5.48 million.28 The majority of funds going to the civil agency of Nigeria indicates the government’s commitment to civil operations, such as weather monitoring and climate change research and mitigation.

Nigeria’s Space Budget

Amid the tough economic times globally caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian government decided to revisit a 2014 report written which made multiple recommendations that were never enacted.  President Buhari decided to revisit this report and consider the advice due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these recommendations are transitioning NigComSat to a fully commercial venture, therefore suspending any government funding. The Nigerian government has decided to pursue this goal so long as NigComSat can secure funding from outside sources. However, in the meantime, the government has reallocated NigComSat’s research and development funding to NASRDA.29 These adjustments, as well as others from the aforementioned report, will be worthwhile changes to allow NASRDA to focus on replacing their aging communications satellites and work toward other future space goals.30

If Nigeria wants to reach its goal of launching a Nigerian satellite into space on a Nigerian rocket, it will likely have to dramatically increase funding to its space program by orders of magnitude. However, doing so may cause some backlash from the people of Nigeria, who may not understand the impact space can make in their daily lives. 

Social Challenges

Nigeria faces an interesting dilemma when it comes to social dynamics and confidence in its democratic institutions. The people vote for leaders, but often have little belief that what they think matters in the grand scheme of the government’s programs and projects. Some 53 percent of the Nigerian people live on less than $1.90 a day (2011 PPP), and nearly 77 percent live below $3.20 a day.31 A Pew Research study in 2017 found that roughly seven-in-ten Nigerians believe that “most politicians are corrupt” describes their country well.32 The report continues to say that six-in-ten say it describes their country very well. Approval of President Buhari remains at an average of 49 percent over the 4 years he’s been in office; however, he scores low in many issue areas, including unemployment. 

According to the National Multidimensional Poverty Index for Nigeria, at the national level, 54 percent of people are multidimensionally poor, meaning they lack more than one fourth of the classifications shown in the below chart containing education, health, living standard, and unemployment.33

“National Multidimensional Poverty Index for Nigeria,” Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network, November 6, 2018, https://mppn.org/nigeria-national-mpi/.

The government says it is working to address economic inequality in the country, however, there also exists technological inequality within the country. A small portion of the country centered in the southwest has gained a disproportionate amount of the wealth. When oil was found in Nigeria, there was an economic boom and the wealth became highly concentrated in Lagos and the other coastal areas.34 With such a large portion of the country living in poverty, the Nigerian government could utilize the investments in its space program to ultimately benefit the people of Nigeria more broadly. Two popular methods are internet access and climate change mitigation, but other avenues are available. There are multiple issues that affect Nigerian citizens directly that the government could focus on through earth-observation technology—crop planning, climate change monitoring, desertification tracking, and fighting Boko Haram. Applying space technology to benefit the lives of Nigerians presents an opportunity to gain public support for investment in these space programs.

“With such a large portion of the country living in poverty, the Nigerian government could utilize the investments in its space program to ultimately benefit the people of Nigeria more broadly.”

Without national technical capabilities, the Nigerian space program will likely remain reliant on the capabilities and personnel of foreign governments like China. This being said, an obstacle the Nigerian government is working to overcome is the lack of education in the space sciences offered by its universities and schools. The government is investing in programs at the primary, secondary, and university levels to create interest in the STEM fields.35 Organizations like the UN-sponsored Centre for Space Science and Technology Education and a science and technology education program, STEMres Nigeria, work to support building interest in STEM fields. Investment in the future of STEM in Nigeria is critical for NASRDA to meet its space goals. If Nigeria is serious about STEM and STEM education, investing in a launch vehicle may provide some incentive for students to study STEM fields. Otherwise, the investment in a launch vehicle could be a waste of NASRDA’s limited funding due to the already decreasing costs of procuring launches by commercial launch providers and international space powers like India and China.

Before confronting specific education issues regarding STEM education, larger issues of education must be addressed in Nigeria, including the gender disparities in higher education and the lower levels of literacy compared to similar space-faring countries in Africa, such as Egypt, South Africa, and Uganda.36

Going Forward

While the Nigerian space program has stated its goal to launch a Nigerian-built satellite on a Nigerian-built and located vehicle, perhaps a more useful goal is to leverage space for the socioeconomic development of the country through observation and security technologies. Nigeria, in particular, could benefit from Earth-observation data to track crop production, to monitor desertification of the northernmost part of the country, or to assist with the fight against Boko Haram. If the government of Nigeria chooses to continue development of a Nigerian launch vehicle, it should consider expanding its capacity by building programs to include rocket design and manufacturing.

However, the Nigerian government needs to address some fundamental issues such as poverty and corruption that could stymie its goals for NASRDA. Nigeria needs to increase investments in space technology that will directly lead to improving the quality of life in parts of the country that have not seen as many benefits from the country’s economic development. This may also help to build public support and confidence in NASRDA and the Nigerian government overall.

In the 2020s, there will likely be an expansion of Nigerian involvement in space, in part due to investment from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With the support of foreign governments or other international organizations, the Nigerian government may be able to more quickly meet its space goals.

Focusing on indigenous satellite operations and development would greatly improve the benefit of the space program for average Nigerians. Building out its national technical base could create more jobs, increase education levels, and decrease dependence on foreign technology. It is also a more achievable goal than national launch capabilities due to the high cost of producing an indigenous launch vehicle. The path to achieving success in space is a long and difficult one for Nigeria. However, if the issues are addressed honestly, there is no reason to believe that Nigeria cannot come out of its development continuing to be a leader in African space exploration and utilization. Aerospace

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