Timiebi Aganaba: “Space governance is an area where Africa could punch above its weight”

Timiebi Aganaba, is an assistant professor of space and society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, at Arizona State University. She previously worked for the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA).

This interview is also available in French.

As an advisor on the first legal team of Nigeria’s space agency in 2006, how were partnerships established back then? Which countries were key to Nigeria’s space program development? Tell us more about Nigeria’s negotiation processes and strategy back then? Were there specific challenges and how were these addressed?

I was a trainee in the Legal Affairs and International Cooperation department of the Nigerian Space Agency in 2006, as a requirement of my national youth service corp. I was part of the first legal team of the agency, and it was a very interesting experience. Nigeria’s space ambitions date quite far back. In 1987, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology created a national committee on space applications. In 1993, the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure set up a committee to develop a draft space policy and in 1999 a National Space Research and Development Agency was established.

NASRDA conducted an open, international competition for its first satellite, the Nigcomsat-1 using Telesat Canada, a Canadian company, as an intermediary and if I recall correctly received 21 expressions of interest from American, European, Russian, Israeli, and Chinese companies. China Great Wall, a Chinese state-owned Enterprise, was the only bid received by deadline that met the specifications. This was a significant deal as it was China’s first satellite export sale. Included in the contract was the satellite based on China’s DFH-4 platform, the launch, insurance and a technology-transfer package, a capacity-backup provision, and options on future satellites.

Nigeria was also an early adopter for the UK’s small satellite offerings, developed by the UK Surrey Satellite Limited (SSTL), supported by the British Government. SSTL made an optimistic statement that the NigeriaSat-1 satellite it built, with Nigerian engineers, earned 3.87 million Naira (16,400 GBP) in royalties in the first six months of commercial operations of the satellite developed as part of the Disaster Management Constellation (DMC). They use the example that NigeriaSat-1 was the first satellite to share images of Hurricane Katrina in the US, a feat described by the US as a “proud achievement” for Africa.

I will highlight two challenges from both satellite deals with the Chinese (Nigcomsat-1) and the British (NigeriaSat-1).

As reported in Space News in 2005, the Russian and Israeli bidders were unable to meet the contract terms, and the major manufacturers in Europe and the United States appeared not to believe that the Nigerian government would follow through on the contract work, as well as coping with stringent export control rules. Nigcomsat-1 ended up failing in orbit due to a malfunction in its solar arrays. The public did not take well to this news. One of my first tasks was to write a legal opinion on a loss of the satellite, at the launch site, but I certainly underestimated what the effect of an in-orbit loss would mean in terms of morale and the ability of Nigerians to begin to adopt this solution, rather than remain with trusted foreign offerings.

Another challenge arose with the Earth observations satellite. According to Adigun Ade Abiodun, Founder of the African Space Foundation, the Purchase and Sale Agreement between the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST) and UK’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited signed on 7 November 2000 in Abuja, Nigeria, stated that “FMST shall not remove or alter any copyright or other proprietary on any of the know-how”. According to Abiodun, this clause foreclosed Nigeria’s ability to modify the design and software codes it was to receive from SSTL, codes which are very critical to a successful technology transfer and subsequent technology development in Nigeria. The issue at hand is that it is the buyers responsibility to obtain the rights to use the software in the way it is needed, but while commercial off-the-shelf software licenses rarely grant a right to modify, pre-2000, one could say these exchanges were still “experimental”, and so could have been possible. The Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC) model could have worked well in this instance, whereby as part of Canada’s foreign affairs and development efforts, IDRC champions and funds research and innovation within and alongside developing countries. In the IDRC model, when a promising technology is still under development and testing in the Global North, its usefulness and capacity to help solve development problems in the Global South can often be explored. IDRC believes that an efficient way to prepare people to use a technology is to encourage their participation in its early fine tuning. This seems a more “honest” approach.

Rwanda and Nigeria have signed the US deal on space governance at the latest US-Africa summit in Washington DC in December 2022. What is your analysis of the geopolitics of space and how can African countries best navigate these?

These two countries came up in the global space arena at very different times, and “eras” of space so I refer to them as Traditional Space (Nigeria) and New Space (Rwanda). According to the European Space Agency, there have been four eras of space. In their words, “The first era of space, ‘Space 1.0’, can be considered to be the early study of astronomy (and even astrology). The next era, ‘Space 2.0’, came about with spacefaring nations engaging in a space race that led to the Apollo moon landings. The third era, ‘Space 3.0’, with the conception of the International Space Station, showed that we understood and valued space as the next frontier for cooperation and exploitation. … Space 4.0 represents the evolution of the space sector into a new era, characterised by a new playing field. This era is unfolding through interaction between governments, private sector, society and politics.”

In 2020, the Government of Rwanda formed the Rwanda Space Agency (RSA) and thus arose in Space 4.0. However, Nigeria’s history in space goes quite a bit further back as mentioned above, to the Space 3.0 era.

At the US-Africa summit in Washington DC in December 2022, the first US-Africa Space Forum was held. The US is currently on a global endeavour to promote a governance regime to guide all the new proposed activities on the Moon in the coming decades and an agreement known as the Artemis Accords was presented at the forum, with a signing ceremony of the first African signatories. As of May 3, there are 24 signatories. Rwanda and Nigeria, as the first African signatories, will have the opportunity to weigh in on significant topics such as the emerging issue of in-space resources like hydrogen and oxygen derived from ice, and use of strategic areas on the Moon.

While some African perspectives exist with differing understandings of the pros and cons of the emerging governance regime that is unfolding through the Artemis Accords, the topic of the evolutions of international law applicable to space, and what such new regimes mean, will expose differing perspectives due to geopolitics. As the Artemis Accords fosters new exploitation potentials, commodity integration is a key understated issue based on the developing country experience. Primary commodities, including mineral commodities, are the major source of income and employment for several developing countries. The relevant question here is: To what markets in the short-term on Earth will in-situ space resources apply? This is currently unclear. Missions like the NASA-led Psyche mission are of interest because they may involve significant amounts of nickel. The rising demand for electric cars is the underlying factor influencing the increasing production of cobalt, lithium manganese, and natural graphite, much of which is produced in DR Congo. There are specific regimes governing how much they are extracted for and how the value is integrated into the global market. More relevant is that serious early discussions for commodity markets are being discussed at forums such as the U.S. National Space Council User Advisory Group, which proposes a strategic in-space propellant reserve modelled on the petroleum reserve. Alongside game-changing applications such as space-based solar power, which would require wireless power transmission, Africa is in a position to ensure that these leapfrogging technologies are accessible.

How can Africa leverage its voice and position in space governance debates?

There has never been a better time to think about Article 3 of the Outer Space Treaty, (the seminal space law governance instrument) which states that, “State parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.”

As a developing nation, the question is, what does international law mean and stand for? How does the UN charter apply in space and how has international cooperation fared towards the objective of Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty, which states that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.”?

Space governance may in fact be one area that a region like Africa could punch above its weight, because it does not require science and technology mastery. As the current global priority is on space sustainability, ensuring the long term continuation of space activities, Africa has a lot of heritage to contribute to these kinds of governance objectives.

In fact, the first definition of what is now sustainable development, as well as the first Declaration of the Right to Environment can be found in African governance instruments such as the 1968 African Convention on Nature and Natural Resources, the 1976 Algiers Declaration on the Rights of People and the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. With the global spotlight on space debris, Rwanda clearly articulates that “Fighting space debris should start from the design of the space object to include smart collision avoidance mechanisms and systems to deorbit at the end of the object's mission safely … [while recognizing that] the trend of low cost or small satellites will tend to oppose the move of additional mechanism and complexity for collision avoidance and deorbiting mechanism…”

With 42% of global youth expected to be African by 2030, fostering the children, youth and early career professionals and their solutions will also be important as they give practical insights to addressing issue such as space debris, and sustainability. Therefore, Africa will need to prioritise education in the continent to prevent brain drain and to future proof the region. In an editorial in SCIENCE journal, my colleague and I propose a space education summit on the continent.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).