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African Nations Over the Moon

Space, the final frontier, has so far been out of reach for the majority of African countries, even as the space race raged on across North America, Europe, and Asia. Only over the last decade or so have a handful of African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Ethiopia, started to extend their sights skyward. Several have launched satellites, and, though none are feasibly within reach of the moon, the competition is heating up. Space programs provide a variety of benefits: enhancing communications, monitoring weather data that can then be leveraged for agricultural purposes, counter-terrorism, opportunities for international collaboration on scientific endeavors, and election monitoring, just as a start.  Military uses like reconnaissance and weapons detection also cannot be overlooked.  If the African Union can come to an agreement on a framework for a unified space agency it could help all the member states reap these benefits much sooner; however, concerns over sharing sensitive data and lack of a firm legislative framework around cybersecurity may hinder these efforts.

As a continent, Africa is not new to space: Zambia attempted to join the space race in 1964, the same year it became an autonomous nation, and Kenya successfully launched a satellite in 1970. In 1999 South Africa launched its first satellite, SUNSAT, and followed up with three more satellites and a space agency, SANSA. Algeria launched an observational satellite in 2002 and another in 2010. More recently, Nigeria has used their satellites to track Boko Haram and monitor elections and expressed their interest in becoming the first African nation to send an astronaut into outer space, a goal they hope to achieve by 2030. Ghana deployed their first satellite in July 2017, while Angola is set to launch one in December 2017 and Ethiopia has plans to launch a satellite within the next three to five years.

Despite this continental progress, at this point in time only a handful of African nations have sent satellites into space, and none have successfully launched an astronaut. Most of the satellites that have made it into orbit have been made with—and launched with—the assistance of partners like Russia and India, meaning that there are few African-made, African-launched satellites currently up in space. The African Union has introduced an African Space Policy designed to foster the development of a sustainable and effective space program that will support natural resource management, resource mobilization, and private and public sector development across the continent, but as of now an actual collaborative space-agency is still a ways away.

A cohesive, unified space program offers a lot of opportunities. Nigeria, for example, has used satellites to track Boko Haram and find kidnapped girls, keep an eye on their oil resources in the Niger delta, and monitor elections, which would all be valuable satellite applications in other African countries. Satellites can also be used for agricultural purposes: observing weather conditions, monitoring plant health and soil moisture, and collecting data on precipitation rates, all important data that, for now, most African nations rely on other countries to provide—which is costly. Satellites also improve communication networks and make it possible for more farmers to access this wealth of agricultural data, which has the potential to enhance everything from farm yields to food safety. Programs like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) antenna dish network, which is supported by South Africa and eight other African nations as well as Australia, Canada, China, India, and others, provides a platform for international collaboration in pursuit of a greater understanding of the mysteries of the universe. Being a part of this effort brings some international cache, in addition to all the benefits that the technology and future discoveries will bring.

Satellites also have extensive military applications: they can be used for covert reconnaissance and communications, serve as early warning systems to detect incoming missiles, and, of course, launch weapons themselves, though the Outer Space Treaty limits this usage. The first military-grade satellite was launched in 1959 to conduct reconnaissance missions and as of January 2017 there are well over 1,000 satellites orbiting earth.  It is difficult to say how many are military satellites, as most of those programs are classified and satellites may be jointly used for both military and civilian purposes, but without a doubt a good portion of those satellites are used for at least some military missions.

A unified space program would help all African Union nations reap the myriad of benefits of joining the space age much faster than if they were to each develop individual programs, but navigating the complicated negotiations and bureaucracy necessary to create a lasting partnership will not be easy. Since satellites can be used to spy, launch and track weapons, monitor elections and natural resources, and facilitate—or intercept—communications, finding a balance that allows countries to retain control over their own data could take some time. This is a struggle almost all countries are facing in some form or another in the digital age, where partnerships and collaboration over security, counter-narcotics, trade, counter-terrorism, and almost everything else all rely on a mutual agreement to share sensitive data.

The African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, which was enacted in 2014, clearly demonstrates that the 54 member states have experience negotiating issues related to data sharing and protection, though a year later no countries had ratified the convention and human rights scholars expressed concern over some of the provisions.  As of 2016, eight countries had signed but none had ratified, and many member governments still lacked effective regulations to reduce cyber vulnerabilities. Until satellite-collected data—especially military data—can be secured by all potential participants in the African Union space agency, such a partnership, and its myriad of benefits, is unlikely to get very far.


Michelle Bovée

Michelle Bovee is a Market Intelligence manager at MAGNA Global, where she focuses on global advertising revenues and media cost trends, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's degree in International Relations in 2013 and is currently living in New York City. You can connect with her on Twitter @boveemc.
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