Future Tense

The Terrestrial Challenges to Nigeria’s Ambitious Space Program

The country had early success with satellite launches, but it’s since been thwarted.

Courtesy of Deji Bryce Olukotun
The satellite wing of the Nigerian space agency.

Deji Bryce Olukotun

In the heart of Abuja, the federal capital territory of Nigeria, there is a bank of huge satellite dishes. They are part of the country’s Earth station—the place that connects with five Nigerian satellites in orbit, the stream of data they generate, and the scientists interpreting them—which serves as the most visible aspect of Nigeria’s space infrastructure. Very few countries locate these in their capital’s central business district, for reasons ranging from geography to demography to security. But Nigeria does. The dish cluster strikes a curious pose in the city center, as if challenging conventional wisdom.

Nigerians are many things, but Luddites they are not. By October of 1959 the first public television service in Africa had begun broadcasting in Western Nigeria, more than a full year before Ireland had such a service. In 1973, the celebrated Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun contemplated the moon landing with a poem that said, “We are annexing the kingdom of the gods.” He was identifying with a global phenomenon, one that people here hoped to take part in—people here began clamoring for a space program as early as the ’70s.

Why, then, is Nigeria only now being mentioned in discourses involving space? The answer lies in Nigerian political history. Nigeria became independent of British rule in 1960, but in 1967, the country plunged into both military rule and a bloody civil war. The civil war ended in 1970, but military rule lasted until 1999 (with the exception of 1979–84, when there was a democratically elected government). In the last seven years of the military interregnum, the country became a proper pariah state. There were all kinds of sanctions in place to discourage the military from staying on in Africa’s most populous country. The country had 99 million citizens with 144,000 telephone lines between them. Nigeria was in the rapacious clutch of Sani Abacha, a man with such pathological aversion to intellectual inquiry that schooling practically stopped throughout the country under his watch. The country has yet to recover from the mass exodus of its intellectuals.

It was no surprise, then, that one of the first things the new civilian government of Olusegun Obasanjo did upon coming to power in 1999 was to start seriously discussing a space program. Practically all the sanctions slammed on Nigeria during years of military dictatorship had been lifted by 2000, and foreign direct investment was making its way into the country at a dizzying pace. The Obasanjo administration voted to spend $93 million to create two institutions: the National Space Research and Development Agency, and the National Space Program.

The NSP was conceived as the catalyst for boosting awareness of space science and technologies as well as disaster monitoring in Nigeria. But a major part of its goal was to bridge the telecommunications gap within the country and between Nigeria and the rest of the world. A zoologist, professor Ajayi Boroffice, was tasked with getting the program off the ground. At the time, it seemed an odd choice—but hindsight accords him credit for the modest success Nigeria has recorded so far.

In less than a decade Nigeria successfully launched five satellites from foreign territory. The first satellite, NigSat, was launched in 2003, in Plesetsk, Russia, as part of a world disaster monitoring and relief constellation. The latest known launch into space occurred in 2011. That satellite was part of an agreement between the NSP and a company based in the United Arab Emirates. The plan, worth more than $200 million to the NSP over 15 years, gives the UAE company access to bandwidth from the satellite. It seemed like a promising return on Nigeria’s investment in space.

Nigeria hopes to launch from home territory in the near future, but experts decry the near total absence of necessary infrastructure to achieve this. Overall, the NSP has faced serious problems in recent years. Those heady early days of Nigeria’s space endeavors were bolstered by the influx of petrodollars into the Nigerian economy. Since then, declines in Nigeria’s oil revenue and a stubborn economic recession have toned down the program’s profile, giving way to a quieter atmosphere of scientific inquiry and cooperation as well as research and application. It has had some significant challenges along the way as well. Many in the country are still rankled by the memories of an expensive false start in NigComSat-1, the nation’s first high-end communication satellite, which launched into orbit in collaboration with the Chinese in 2007. It was designed to work for five years but ended up lasting for only 18 months.

The program has also faced bureaucratic changes under current President Muhammadu Buhari, whose administration merged the Ministry of Science and Technology, under which the NSP was originally placed, with the Ministry of Education. Historically, major administrative mergers by the federal government of Nigeria tend to reduce efficiency rather than enhance it. It remains to be seen whether this merger will yield any changes. Overall, Buhari has not impressed Nigerians since taking office. Under his administration, it seems that little has happened outside of the battlefields on which the war with Boko Haram is fought. Serious questions about the utility of Nigerian space infrastructure arose after more than 300 were killed early in 2017 in a botched aerial attack on a presumed Boko Haram site that was actually a camp for internally displaced civilians—a refugee camp. The Nigerian government claimed to have relied on satellite images from a friendly nation, but defense experts queried why those were never cross-checked using Nigerian space assets.

Nigeria’s space ambitions are further limited by its higher education system. The country has only one university with facilities to teach and research engineering physics, a discipline crucial to space science and instrumentation. The University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, is one of the few functioning universities in Nigeria running a serious science program. Professor Oladele Ajayi, a pioneer in the field and an alumnus of Stanford University, believes that the will to commit to serious scientific inquiry is lacking in the university’s administration and even the students. Most of his best and brightest graduate students go back to the United States or Europe to work in universities and corporations because the country simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to absorb them presently. The University of Nigeria is the only institution where astrophysics and astronomy are taught. But it can’t afford a standard observatory. In fact, no Nigerian university or polytechnic even has a planetarium. There is clearly a great gulf to cross before Nigeria is truly space-ready.

Yet Nigerian scientists and engineers continue to acquire advanced degrees from institutions like MIT, Moscow University, the Sorbonne, Caltech, Cambridge, and McGill. Some are sponsored by state scholarships and bursaries. Most choose to stay abroad. They are scattered throughout institutions and corporations utilizing their skills in America, Europe, and Asia. Getting skilled scientists on board the NSP hasn’t been easy. Tales of intrigue and opaque negotiations have trailed the space program especially after the NigComSat-1 fiasco. In his sci-fi novel Nigerians in Space, Deji Olukotun, for example, explored some of these themes using fiction and noir elements to depict the greasy pole that is the NSP and NASRDA. These institutions qualify as apt metaphors for the country itself. I can’t help feeling that the NSP is unfocused and overstretched, with scientific inquiry, disaster monitoring, telecommunications, and now national defense jostling for pole position in the program.

But however poorly articulated and coordinated the NSP may be at the moment, the Nigerian vision for space remains riveting.

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.