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TematicheAfrica SubsaharianaSub-Saharan Africa's space race: intra- and extra-regional geopolitical implications

Sub-Saharan Africa’s space race: intra- and extra-regional geopolitical implications


In the field of economic and human development, a marked divergence between widespread public opinion and experts is often noted regarding perception and awareness of the influence which science has on the lato sensu growth outlook; space science field is no exception. Few indeed know the impact – in the past, and ever more in the future – of several space technology applications and spin-offs on everyday life and on the structure of the overall economic system.

Nevertheless, it has been years since some Sub-Saharan African countries have acquired awareness of this remarkable effect, and they are now animating the so-called (maybe with just a bit of journalistic exaggeration, but not without grains of truth) “Africa’s race to space”.

Considering the intrinsic factors and aspects of this field (the need for high scientific skills and a strong technical-industrial background, large amounts of resources, a wide variety of extra-science applications, etc.), the Sub-Saharan interest in space is anything but free from geopolitical consequences.

Not unimportant details: SSA actors and initiatives in space

Aby Warburg, a German art historian who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth, said that God (and the Devil too) hides in the details.

This may be what the delegates of the African Union Member States thought, when they gathered for the XXV° AU Summit (Pretoria and Johannesburg, June 2015) and had been given some up-to-date information on the Pan-African University (PAU), established by the African Union and composed of five Institutes located across the region. The last one, the African Space Science Institute, will be located at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and has already drawn the interest of the United States and European Union for future partnerships on scientific projects. This might seem a bit odd, but it is meaningful, as the ASSI is not a completely operational and well-framed institution yet.

A significant detail, though essentially unknown except to the experts, is the fact too that “NIG-SAT-1”, the first Nigerian satellite (built by Surrey Satellite Technology – UK, and put into orbit by a Russian rocket in 2003) had been the first space object to provide the U.S. authorities with useful information when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

These details, as much as many others that can be listed, seem to have little meaning, if individually considered. But actually, they are some simple clues revealing a growingly intense vivacity of some Sub-Saharan African actors in the field of space science. This activity can have quite relevant implications, both on intra-African and Africa-World relations.

Since the 2000s, the interest for space technologies has arisen in the Sub-Saharan region, and an increasing, non-random political commitment led to some initiatives and projects which certainly will contribute to shape Africa’s future. African activity received attention – not  accidentally – from the most relevant global actors too, which are at the same time the greatest players of the so-called “geopolitics of space”, or “astropolitics”.

In order to understand this ongoing phenomenon, it suffices to think of the establishment of national space agencies, such as the National Space Research and Development Agency (Nigeria) and the South African National Space Agency, respectively operational since 2001 and 2010, and already having their satellites in orbit. Other countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Angola and Ethiopia, have no comprehensive administrative and scientific operational architecture yet, but they are setting up or moulding their own national organisations. Special attention must be given to the African Space Policy and Strategy. Africa’s hope would be to make these two documents, approved after more than five years planning, the prelude to the future establishment of a pan-African space agency, something similar to the European Space Agency.

Regarding the so-called “ground-based infrastructures”, particular mention must be made to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the most ambitious project in the history of radio astronomy, which will be located mainly in South Africa (and eight other SSA countries).

With regard to education, academic courses on space science and astrophysics have strongly grown in number in recent years, also across countries with no specific governmental organisation developing space programmes. The institution of the African Astronomical Society must be reminded too, as well as the appointment of South Africa as hosting country for the headquarters of the Office of Astronomy for Development; the OAD was created and officially launched in 2011 as an operational branch of the International Astronomical Union, and operates on a global scale to promote astrophysical science as a propeller of growth in the developing countries.

Which are the aims of the African interest toward space? And who are the key players?

Sub-Saharan race to space: where does it lead, and who is leading it

Sub-Saharan Africa currently hosts seven countries out of the first ten by growth rate. The regional most pressing problem to solve in the near future is how to stabilise this positive growth trend and make it economically sustainable in the long term. One of the main African worries is that the basic and applied sciences are very far from being sufficiently widespread and autonomously developed within the region. If Sub-Saharan Africa fails to tackle adequately the “science issue”, much of African effort to fully harness the benefits of knowledge-economy  will be frustrated. That is why the African commitment on space science has been emphasized: space science is a high technological content sector, which is at the same time “consumer” and “producer” of basic science knowledge and skills. And its benefits go far beyond those related to the mere academic spread of scientific culture.

In fact, by nurturing their space ambitions, some Sub-Saharan countries directly and indirectly expect positive results in terms of economic wealth. Indeed, contemporary space technologies (primarily satellite applications, which is not by accident the most appealing sector for African actors too) are, to a great profit, employed in several fields where Africa has historically been paying the heavy price of decades of underdevelopment, which translated into chronical dependence on import of high technology services and scientific skills.

Satellite applications nowadays are used in agriculture, environment protection and environmental disaster prevention and mitigation, search for underground water, monitoring of pandemics and outbreaks. Most of all, space shows a strong impact on telecommunications and IT: TLC field, which is among the best-performing driving forces of the current global economic system, is not accidentally experiencing an impressive – though not uniform – growth in the Sub-Saharan region, thanks to the expected results in terms of commercial and human development (just exempli gratia, satellite technology can be employed in telemedicine too).

Direct and indirect benefits, deriving both from space technology applications and the resulting expansion of the consumer market, would contribute, together with other factors, to make the SSA a more and more relevant commercial area in terms of regional and global economic relations, while at the same time allowing the region to achieve more independence from developed countries’ scientific output.

The prominent role played by South Africa and Nigeria in the present and future Sub-Saharan space race, is another relevant factor at the geopolitical intra-African level. Therefore space science too becomes field of the remote competition between Abuja and Pretoria: both of them are well aware that a national space programme is an essential tool for domestic economic development and for the strengthening of their respective positions on the African arena. The two countries have been competing for the role of first regional power within a geopolitical area chronically affected by state weakness or failure and by local and widespread conflicts. In such a context, aerospace and satellite superiority is an essential element to carve out and preserve the role of self-reliant regional power and regional security provider, as well as that of the driving force of economic growth.

Necessity of cooperation in space science

It is unlikely that African actors can finance and sustain their space ambitions by simply relying upon their own resources: this will implies that Africa must seek opportunities of cooperation with those global space powers most willing to provide technical, scientific and financial support. Therefore, along the ridge of the Sub-Saharan race to space, another significant geopolitical factor materializes: the overlapping between the great geopolitical-geoeconomic game in Africa among global powers and their race to cooperate with those emerging countries and scientific communities south of the Sahara desert investing most in space science.

The region is already field of remote contest between the United States and China, and its race to space offers Washington and Beijing another occasion of competition. This is basically for two reasons: the African “hunger” for industrial know-how and technical-scientific skills, and the military projection of space technologies (most of all in terms of launch capabilities and satellite exploitation in defence and intelligence activities, such as IMINT, ELINT, SIGINT).

The role of other space powers as well (the Russian Federation and the European countries, both individually and collectively as European Space Agency) must not be underestimated. Specific consideration must be paid to the prospects of cooperation with India, which proved able to achieve ambitious technological goals (i.e. putting a satellite into Mars orbit on its first attempt), albeit with limited resources, compared to the great powers. The Indian example could be successfully imitated by those African countries ever more committed to space.

The Sub-Saharan space scenario draws a wide range of interests, and reveals many complications and heterogeneities. It is not unusual that African countries cooperate at the same time with more global actors which are politically and commercially opposed one another, both in and out of Africa. Nigerian satellites built by British enterprises have been launched by Chinese space rockets, whereas South African Space Agency cooperates with the NASA Mars Curiosity mission, but its satellites have been put into orbit with Russian launch vehicles too.

Outlook analysis

Space ambitions pursued by Sub-Saharan actors will contribute – though not uniformly – to stabilise the present economic growth trend and extend consumer market, thanks to the spread of scientific culture and, above all, the employment of satellite technologies to the most relevant economic sectors, such as telecommunications. Direct and indirect consequences of this commitment will enable the whole region to emerge economically, politically and commercially as an area of more and more relevant interest. Abuja and Pretoria, currently competing to achieve the role of major regional power, will continue to animate their remote contest in the space field too, whereas no substantial results in terms of regional political power will likely be expected for the other Sub-Saharan countries getting involved in space, even though they will profit from improving the higher education system and from strengthening their economic structure, which is already going through a complicated transition from the past colonial and post-colonial model to the knowledge-based economy.

At international and great powers relations level, current Sub-Saharan theatre sees a strong Chinese strong penetration in the region and the positioning (or comeback) of relevant geopolitical actors (India, Russian Federation), and could be further complicated by space cooperation prospects. Nevertheless this should not likely bring about remarkable changes regarding international political positioning of the major African countries, although some variations in the long term cannot be ruled out with regard to the great space powers’ capacity of political influence on any Sub-Saharan subjects. Growing cooperative relationship in space could be a most efficient channel for scientific, commercial and strategic penetration.

In terms of intra-African relations (first of all between Nigeria and South Africa), it is particularly hard to predict if the competition or the cooperation dimension will prevail. African large-scale cooperation efforts (e.g. in developing a well-structured and comprehensive continental space policy and establishing an African Space Agency) hardly seem to possibly lead to full implementation. Resources needed to establish a regional (or even continental) governance framework somehow similar to ESA are generally insufficient in the region. Furthermore the overall scientific contributions would be limited, in the short-mid-term, to those of few Sub-Saharan actors.

Therefore intra-African cooperation, at least in the mid-term, will reportedly not go beyond single scientific and technological projects to be more conveniently realized by sharing resources only among interested African countries (as in the case of ARMC, a satellite constellation project for Earth observation). Competition between Abuja and Pretoria will rest on both domestic technological progress and (most of all, in particular for Nigeria) the capacity of the two capitals to gain opportunities for cooperation with developed space powers.

Considering that the space independence needs autonomous technological-industrial resources and launch capabilities which, at present, are generally lacking or insufficient in Africa, the Sub-Saharan race to space will likely lead, at least in the short-mid-term, to the “space powers’ race” to catch opportunities of stable cooperative ties with African emerging actors in space, (perhaps) more than the achievement of a space self- reliance of the region.

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