The Rwanda Space Agency

Rwanda experienced Africa’s worst genocide in modern times, but the country’s recovery was marred by its intervention in the conflict in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has been beset by ethnic tension associated with the traditionally unequal relationship between the dominant Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus.

Although after 1959 the ethnic relationship was reversed, when civil war prompted around two hundred thousand Tutsis to flee to Burundi, lingering resentment led to periodic massacres of Tutsis. The most notorious of these began in April 1994. The shooting down of the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, near Kigali triggered what appeared to be a coordinated attempt by Hutus to eliminate the Tutsi population.

In response, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a military campaign to control the country. It achieved this by July, by which time at least eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been brutally massacred.

Some two million Hutus fled to Zaire, now the D.R. Congo. They included some of those responsible for the massacres, and some joined Zairean forces to attack local Tutsis. Rwanda responded by invading refugee camps dominated by Hutu militiamen.

Meanwhile, Laurent Kabila, who seized control of Zaire and renamed it the DR Congo, failed to banish the Hutu extremists, prompting Rwanda to support the rebels trying to overthrow him.

Rwanda withdrew its forces from D.R. Congo in late 2002 after signing a peace deal with Kinshasa. But tensions simmer, with Rwanda accusing the Congolese army of aiding Hutu rebels in eastern D.R. Congo.

Rwanda has used traditional gacaca community courts to try those suspected of taking part in the 1994 genocide. But key individuals, particularly those accused of orchestrating the slaughter, appear before an International Criminal Tribunal in northern Tanzania.

The country is striving to rebuild its economy, with coffee and tea production being among its main sources of foreign exchange. Nearly two thirds of the population live below the poverty line.

Briefly

Politics: Rwanda is trying to shake off its image associated with the 1994 state-sponsored genocide; the government argues the country is now stable.

Economy: growth has exceeded five percent in the five years since 2001, driven by coffee and tea exports and expanding tourism; poverty is widespread and Rwanda is highly dependent on international aids.

Justice: the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), sitting in Tanzania, rendered thirty judgements related to the 1994 genocide by October 2006.

Rwanda’s first steps in the space race

Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest countries, and its space program is not surprisingly, nonexistent.

Rwanda was active in the African Union Space Science and Technology Working Group which drafted the African space policy and strategy and launched its first RWASAT-1 satellite in 2019. It was launched in partnership with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The second Rwandan satellite was put into orbit on the night of February 27, 2019, launched from the Kourou base in Guyana by a Russian Soyuz rocket. Rwanda’s telecommunications ministry has formed a partnership with the OneWeb program, an American company based in Arlington, Virginia headed by Greg Wyler, which was carrying out its first launch of 6 dedicated Internet communications satellites.

The satellite called Icyerekezo was built in France, in Toulouse, like the five other satellites of the OneWeb program. Its purpose is to provide high-speed Internet access to St. Pierre Nkombo secondary school, located in the District of Ruzizi Island. It is scheduled to enter service in April 2019.

The president of OneWeb said “Rwanda will be connected with the rest of the world next year around April. We are now focusing on providing 24/7 internet to all over the world. St. Pierre students will be among the beneficiaries, probably in April. They will have free internet access for ten years. After ten years, prices will be negotiated by OneWeb and the Rwandan government depending on the quality of the internet and the competition in the global internet market by then”.

The announcement of the creation of a space agency

A cabinet meeting held on Monday, May 18, 2020 approved a bill establishing the Rwandan Space Agency (RSA), marking a new step for the country towards the promotion of Earth observation technologies.

Few African countries have national space agencies. However, some countries have already taken the step in the past. These include Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Rwanda’s new space agency should be operational by July 2020, according to the Ministry of ICT and Innovation. In August 2020, the Office of the Prime Minister had named Lt. Col Francis Ngabo as the CEO of RSA. And the Agency also created its official Twitter page on December 14, 2020.

Long-term goals

Rwanda’s long-term space program aims to increase the country’s adoption of space technologies and stimulate research and development in space science. The plan was announced with the aim of harmonizing ongoing government collaborations with foreign partners related to space science and technology.

The Government stated that Rwanda considers international cooperation and partnership in the global space arena, in particular active participation in COPUOS, as essential to achieve this goal.

Indeed, in June 2019, Rwanda applied to join the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (C0PUOS) during the ongoing 62nd session of COPUOS in Vienna, Austria.

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza highlighted the need for the country to create contingencies of international connectivity, leverage geospatial services for agriculture, urban planning, emergency response and build a knowledge base on space technologies. “This required the creation of a dedicated entity to coordinate these interventions at the national level” she said.

Africa’s space economy is now worth around seven billion American dollars and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of seven percent to exceed ten billion American dollars by 2024, according to the 2019 African Space Industry Report.