Nigeria, the African space race and a president’s galactic ambition

By IndepthAfrica
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Jun 20th, 2013
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Nigerian President , Goodluck Jonathan

Nigerian President , Goodluck Jonathan

Stars in his eyes, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is urging his country’s budding space industry onto new heights – an initiative he thinks is going to fix all kinds of other problems. Is this the beginning of a glorious new era of space exploration, or is Jonathan just taking advantage of the romance of space to keep his own dreams alive? By SIMON ALLISON.

We can’t pretend otherwise: space has always been cool. But right now, it’s really cool.

Since the high point of the moon landings (pun fully intended), the space race calmed down a little as the superpowers either disintegrated or occupied themselves with other things. No one’s been back to the moon in decades, and the ongoing work of the International Space Station (ISS) doesn’t seem to have captured the public imagination in quite the same way (David Bowie covers aside).

But in the last year or so, there’s been a flurry of new space-related activity. Virgin Galactic has sold all its tickets for space trips, and is in the final stages of testing their own rocket. A Dutch production house is planning a reality TV series in which contestants will win a one-way ticket to set up a human colony on Mars. The Mars Rover expedition has been an unprecedented success, sending back never-seen-before images and data from the surface of the red planet. Nasa is talking about sending more men to the moon, or maybe even women – times have changed, after all.

And more countries are getting in on the act. China is developing its space program at a rapid pace, just this week sending three astronauts on another manned space flight. This is in preparation for building their own space station, which would be the first time an individual country had its own permanent, manned presence in space (the ISS is an international effort). India has launched a couple of satellites, and cabinet this week endorsed plans to send an orbiter to Mars by in 2014.

The latest nation to get bitten by the space bug is Nigeria. This may seem unlikely – Nigeria has a reputation for many things, but not for cutting-edge zero-gravity technology. You’d be forgiven if you thought the closest Nigeria had got to space was its cameo role in District 9, where thoroughly dislikeable Naija gangsters sold cat food to helpless aliens (this is a sore point; the Nigerian government was so enraged by the depiction of Nigerians in the film that they asked cinemas in the country to ban it).

However, in Africa at least, Nigeria deserves more credit. Although their space program only started in 2001, they are the only African country that owns and operates their own spacecraft, with four satellites in orbit around earth. One of these, the NigeriaSat-X, was even built by Nigerian engineers. This is an impressive achievement, and one which not even South Africa has emulated (our talents are in other areas. The South African National Space Agency concentrates developing systems for satellites, maintaining state of the art ground station facilities and data analysis).

As far as the African space race goes, so far Nigeria is winning.

But President Goodluck Jonathan is not satisfied. He wants more. In Abuja on Tuesday, the president unveiled the grandly-named National Space Council whose mandate is to oversee the next stage of Nigeria’s space-related development. Jonathan chairs the council, obviously, because the only title that sounds cooler than ‘President and commander-in-chief’ is ‘Chairman of the National Space Council’. Deputy President Namadi Sambo is his second in command, and seven cabinet ministers also get a seat at the table. Only four scientists (that is, the people who might actually know a thing or two about space) are on the council, including the director general of the Nigerian Space Research and Developing Agency.

But that’s ok, because the new project is not really about space. Jonathan has told the council that their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to use space technology to jumpstart the Nigerian economy. “We must evolve clear cut initiatives that will not only fast track our industrialization process but one that will also see us within the shortest possible period to be able to build our own motor vehicles, our own boats and our own aircrafts and of course launch our own satellite manufactured in Nigeria, from a launch site in Nigeria on a launch vehicle made in Nigeria…this is a challenge not only to the members of the council but to all Nigerians, we should dedicate ourselves to building a better technologically advanced stable and prosperous Nigeria for our children.”

Build a satellite, in other words, and cars, boats, planes, security, stability and prosperity will follow.

Jonathan was less clear on how exactly all this was going to happen – he’s an ideas man, clearly. And no one’s mentioned any kind of budget for the Space Council. The budget will be crucial to the success or failure of the whole project – too small and it won’t achieve anything, too big and the potential for corruption is magnified (this is Nigeria, after all).

The skeptics, then, might suggest that Jonathan’s initiative is little more than a publicity stunt that adds nothing to Nigeria’s existing space program, a cynical manipulation of the romance of space to distract from the rather more pressing issues that the president has shown himself ill-equipped to handle (Boko Haram, for instance, or the economy). And there is the little matter of a general election coming up in two years time, which the president has already said he’ll contest.

But for once, let’s ignore the skeptics. Anything to keep the romance of space alive. DM

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