Nigeria?s Satellite Launch

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Perhaps you?ve heard the news. Nigeria successfully launched a satellite. NigerSAT-1 was one of six satellites launched in Russia in September as part of a $40 million Disaster Monitoring Constellation project backed by Survey Space Center, a private British company.

Who would have thought that the prodigal Nigeria would have come so far so fast after its quarrel with other African nations over a Pan-African satellite project!

The launch of NigerSAT-1 was a proud moment for Nigeria and rightly so, despite harsh criticism of the launch in some circles. Critics say the $13 million Nigeria had to put up for it could have been better spent on more pressing social and economic matters, that its value has yet to be proven, that this politically motivated, overzealous pursuit of high-tech glory had far too many costly failures along the way. For others, the launch should have taken place at home in Nigeria and not in Russia. Still others rue the fact that an unjustifiably large contingent of scientists, technocrats and government officials abandoned the space center in Abuja and hightailed it to Russia to witness the launch at a cost the Nigerian people have to bear. Nigerians at home got to see the launch in a live telecast by the Nigerian Television Authority.

But the government looked its critics in the eye, shrugged ?guilty? to their charges, and stuck to its position that the launch was for the greater good of the nation.

NigerSAT-1?s primary tasks are to gather data for seismic, soil and meteorological studies, provide security surveillance on oil pipelines and monitor the country?s airspace. Data collected at the ground receiving station in Abuja will help authorities more efficiently cope with such natural disasters as droughts, earthquakes and fires; better manage natural resources; and forecast the weather?all of which will revolutionize the country?s agriculture and industrial sectors, supporters say. Other African countries will be able to log on to the services of NigerSAT-1 for data and geographical information, generating income for Nigeria.

Nigeria is on a roll. The launch of NigerSat-1 gives it membership in an exclusive club of satellite-launching nations that it had fought long and hard to join. A second launch, that of NigerSAT-2, is planned for 2005 and is aimed at enhancing telecommunications services.

But Nigeria did not dream its satellite dream alone. Forty other African nations shared the dream when, in the late 1980s, they laid the groundwork for the Regional African Satellite Communications Organization (RASCOM, www.rascom.org), a Pan-African body that today provides satellite capacity to its members with which they can operate their national and international public telecommunications services, including radio and television broadcasting services. The organization formally came into being in 1992. Its goal was, and still is, to launch a Pan-African satellite that will allow African countries to bypass the telephone system still in place from colonial days. To this day, the ability to call from one African country directly to another is virtually nonexistent. African countries pay millions of dollars each year to Europe and the United States for routing telephone, telex, data and video transmissions services through systems such as Intelsat. Even RASCOM is forced to lease resources and space from Intelsat.

Nigeria was part of that original group of 41. In fact, Nigeria hosted the groundwork meeting and had visions of being the site of RASCOM?s headquarters. But the group decided to locate the headquarters in C?te d’Ivoire, arguing that RASCOM had no business being headquartered in a country with a military regime, as was the case with Nigeria at the time. Nigeria promptly pulled out and went solo. It hooked up with Survey Space Center in 1999, a technical partnership that culminated in the launch of NigerSAT-1.

RASCOM, meanwhile, is making its way in fits and starts. Who knows how much Nigeria’s sulking set the organization back in its efforts? RASCOM’s plans now are to launch a satellite system by 2006 to provide low-cost telephony, radio and television broadcasting, and high-speed Internet access for the whole continent, remote areas included. The Europeans are still heavily involved. Alcatel Space, a subsidiary of France?s Alcatel Group and Europe?s leading satellite manufacturer, won the bid to build the Pan-African satellite. RASCOMStar-QAF Co., the project company formed by Alcatel Space, will be the satellite operator.

In December 2000, 11 years after it pulled out of RASCOM, Nigeria rejoined the group, although RASCOM?s headquarters remains in C?te d’Ivoire. Quarrels are standard fare in families. In the interest of the greater Pan-African good, was this one really worth it?