The historic geostrategic struggle between China and India has just reached Nigeria, a country located in the Gulf of Guinea, which with more than 200 million inhabitants is the most populous in Africa and which, thanks to its wealth oil, is the first economic power of the black continent.
Newly re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a big step forward in August 2020 by negotiating a major space cooperation agreement with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. He won the February 2019 elections and renewed his second four-year term.
The agreement signed between the two governments tends to strengthen “the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes“. New Delhi’s intention is to get closer to the executive of Muhammadu Buhari and his National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA).
The Indian space sector is led by the Indian Space Exploration Agency (ISRO), which is committed to “providing assistance for capacity building, sharing of scientific knowledge, fostering cooperation between institutes and university centers and the holding of joint forums and symposia“.
The bilateral memorandum of understanding was signed between the Asian nation’s foreign minister, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, and the African country’s federal science and technology minister, Ogbonnaya Onu. But it had to be formalized by telematics means because of the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic which affects around three million people in this large Asian country and fifty thousand in Nigeria.
India wants to become the main trading partner in Africa
New Delhi’s interest in carrying out the recently concluded agreement is crucial. India’s main trading partner in Africa, Minister Vellamvelly Muraleedharan did not hesitate to call Nigeria a close friend. The two governments have therefore agreed to strengthen their relationship in the space sector, which has been in flux for more than a decade.
A previous technical collaboration agreement only trained half a hundred Nigerians in remote sensing in twelve years, which contrasts with the more than five hundred technicians trained by the Chinese. It is now a question of promoting space science, the exploration of planets, earth stations, joint research and development projects and above all the development of micro and mini satellites.
Indian technicians, through ISRO and all its public and private organizations linked to the space sector, will contribute, thanks to their great experience in Earth observation and satellite navigation, to promote the projects of President Muhammadu Buhari in the areas of oil and mining, environment, improvement of agriculture and maximum use of watersheds. The Indian Agency and industry in the country have designed, produced and placed in space numerous observation satellites of all types and sizes.
ISRO will also try to introduce its technologies in satellite communications and broadband connectivity to meet the demands of the African country. It will even offer its launchers to put into orbit platforms that the two countries can jointly develop or that Nigeria can acquire from Indian industry.
The presence and influence of Beijing have an important weight in the government of this West African country. In 2006, Nigeria became the first African nation to sign a strategic alliance with China. During the present millennium, China has become one of the main trading partners on the African continent.
China already manufactures Nigeria’s communications satellites
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, aid, loans and investments from Beijing have skyrocketed, both in infrastructure construction, in the energy and military sectors and in the space field. The government of nationalist Olusegun Obasanjo founded NASRDA in August 2001, in April 2004 established the state-owned telecommunications company NigComSat and in December of the same year it contracted with the Chinese authorities to build the first communications satellite of the country, NigComSat-1, based on the Chinese DFH-4 platform.
The operation was carried out with a two hundred million American dollars loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, which included training Nigerian technicians and building control stations. It was the first time that China had delivered a turnkey satellite, a policy it has since applied to its Latin American partners.
Large in size, weighing five thousand kilograms and with an estimated lifespan of fifteen years, the satellite was launched in May 2007 aboard a Chinese Long Range 3B rocket from the Xichang space base. However, in mid-2008, repeated anomalies of its solar panels caused serious malfunctions, which made it necessary to stop the mission in November. Fortunately, the Nigerian authorities had been cautious and had taken out a malfunction insurance policy. In March of the following year, they ordered a relay platform. Dubbed NigComSat-1R, it was launched from the same space base in December 2011.
Muhammadu Buhari already agreed in 2018 with Xi Jinping to build two more communication satellites. The Beijing government has granted a loan of five hundred and fifty million American dollars, the return of which should take the form of an entry of Chinese state-owned enterprises in the capital of NigComSat, which has been in deficit since its inception. China sees the Nigerian telecommunications company as a springboard to increase its influence and cover the expanding market that is opening day by day on the African continent.
Indian interests in Africa
The Indian authorities and the ISRO management are not interested in space communications, but in remote sensing. So far, successive governments in Abuja have diversified their space ambitions and have entrusted their Earth observation satellites to the United Kingdom (manufacture) and Russia (put into orbit). It is precisely in this sector that Narendra Modi intends to conclude concrete agreements with Muhammadu Buhari and to position itself in this field in Africa.
Nigeria has three small platforms. Two of them were manufactured in the United Kingdom by the British firm Surrey (NigeriaSat-1 and NigeriaSat-2) and a third (NigeriaSatX) with the support of Surrey, but under the responsibility of a team of Nigerian engineers. NigeriaSat-1, which weighs one hundred kilograms, was launched in September 2003 and is currently out of service. On the other hand, NigeriaSat-2 (three hundred kilograms) and NigeriaSatX (one hundred kilograms) were put into orbit at the same time in August 2011 and are still operational at an altitude of seven hundred kilometers, although their lifespan tends to reach its limit term.