Felix Ale, the Head/ Deputy Director, Media and Communications, National Space Research and Development Agency, NASRDA, in this interview, speaks about the agency’s contribution to efforts to tackle the security problem in North-East Nigeria and Nigeria’s space programme
How well would you say NASRDA has been able to fulfil its statutory responsibilities of helping the country to develop a space programme since its establishment?
I would say NASRDA has lived up to expectation. As you are aware, when NASRDA was established, there was a 25-year roadmap which was put in place for the development of the sector. And this roadmap has been religiously followed, with a lot of success recorded. As you know, we launched the first Nigeria satellite codenamed NigeriaSat-1, which was designed to last for five years, but it outlived its designed lifespan by spending eight years in the orbit. After its de-orbiting, we successfully launched the Nigeria SAT II and also Nigeria SAT X. NigeriaSat- X was meant to be an experimental satellite, solely designed and built to flight standard by Nigerian engineers using the facilities of our technical partners in Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the United Kingdom. And it was launched successfully with Nigeria SAT II. The two satellites are doing fine in the orbit, they have advanced capacities and are an improvement on NigeriaSat-1, which has been de-orbited. You know we launched the first communication satellite codenamed NigComSat-1, but there was a problem with the solar panel and the satellite was successfully de-orbited. But we now have a replacement for it in the orbit, which was launched without any extra cost to Nigeria because by the time it developed problem, it had not been officially handed over to us by our Chinese partners. So, they immediately swung into action and the NigComsat-1R, which was the replacement for the NigComsat-1, was successfully launched and it is doing well.
What would you say have been the contributions of those satellites to Nigeria’s development?
Nigeria has benefitted immensely in the area of space science and technology. In the area of human capacity development, there are quite a number of our engineers that have benefitted from the series of training. And like we said sometimes ago, we are not just interested in launching satellites, we are also interested in building capacities and that is why we always include capacity building component in all our projects. When NigeriaSat-1 was launched, many of our engineers were trained as they worked alongside our technical partners and when Nigeria Sat-2 was launched, we also trained a number of our engineers. When the NigComsat-2 was also worked on, we also trained a number of engineers. And that was why we said, let us test our capability and the idea of NigeriaSat-X now came into being – it was meant to be a model for our engineers to test their capabilities and expertise to know if they have benefitted from their previous trainings. And they successfully built the SAT X, which is doing well in the orbit. And we are also contributing to Nigeria’s technological development, particularly to the teaching of science and technology in our universities. We have been able to provide imageries to support students in different areas.
The universities used to get some of the data from outside the country before, but now our satellites provide the data for them. And then we have through collaborations, assisted a number of our universities. At a point, we had collaborations with Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife on forestry development in the South-West part of the country. We also have collaboration with one of the federal universities in the East in the area of control of erosion which is a problem in the eastern part of the country. And then, we also have collaborations with some universities on how to revive the mangrove in the Niger Delta, so we carry out a lot of research. And we also embark on the mapping of the entire nation and we came up with an atlas, which is the first of its kind in the history of this country. We were able to map all the communities in this country; if you search the map, you will see your community there and we make this available at no cost to institutions and individuals who are interested in having them for one reason or the other. And also, we provide data to all relevant government agencies and parastatals.
And in the area of security, though these are the issues we cannot discuss in public, I want to tell you that all the strategic roles expected to be played by the agency are being met. We have been collaborating with all the relevant security agencies in the provision of data; maps that could assist in the area security. Also, if you talk about demystification of science and technology, we have the Centre for Space Education at Ile-Ife, specifically saddled with responsibility of educating the young ones, especially primary and secondary school pupils as part of efforts to demystify space science and technology. So, the centre comes up with series of programmes from time to time. It organises conferences, competitions and if you recall, there was a time a lady, Stella Felix, participated in a programme in the United States of America. The programme was anchored at our centre in Ile-Ife and it was very successful.
There are quite a number of things we are doing. We are not relenting, but as at today, the name of Nigeria rings a bell across the world as a country that has the leading space agency in Africa.
Many Nigerians have said if the managers of our satellites had been up to the task, they should have provided images that can help the various security challenges the country is facing, especially in the North-East part of the country?
Many people don’t know much about space science technology and how satellite operates. But the best we can do, we have been doing it. We have been collaborating with security agencies and I want Nigerians to appreciate what they have and the efforts of the security agencies to safeguard this country. The best we can do is to provide images and data, which we have been doing. And some of the data we have been giving have a lot of security implications, so, we can’t go to the public and say we have given so, so to the Nigerian Army or we have given this to that agency. We won’t do that. If you may recall, when the issue of Baga came up, there was this foreign organization that raised false alarm about the issue. But when we went into the archive, brought out satellite images that were captured by Nigeria Sat X, which is even designed by Nigerians, and we called the press and various independent groups, they came and they saw the images and were amazed. They now discovered that the report by the foreign group was exaggerated because we put the images captured by our satellites on the table for them to see.
What I am telling you is that we are doing our best and there is no space agency in the world that would tell you that they can use a video satellite to identify a particular spot; that this is the location, this is where these people are. Otherwise, the United States would have been here to say they have been able to use their video satellites to locate the girls with the kind of publicity given to the pathetic situation. Even some of the foreign organisations still rely on the data we have been able to get to do whatever they want to do to assist us. What we can do is to provide the location; for example, we have the satellite image of Sambisa forest which we have made available to the security agencies. It now behoves them to read it and interpret. I know it is a very pathetic situation, but the fact that we have not been able to achieve results should not give people the opportunity to say the Nigerian military or the space agency is not doing anything. A lot of underground work is going on and I can assure you that success will be achieved very soon. We are just starting and there are different categories of satellites and I can assure you that it will get to a level that we will have the opportunity of launching higher resolution satellites that will even be more useful for this country.
Are you saying if we’ve had higher resolution satellites, the situation might have been different?
Our responsibility is to provide data at a time like this and that we have been doing. We are also a member of Disaster Monitoring Constellation, DMC, and with our membership, some other higher resolution satellites in other parts of the world can be used to provide higher resolution images for whatever needs we may require them for either in Nigeria or in the continent. But even at that, if it is possible that you can use satellites to directly identify the location of the ladies, we have support from the US, UK and other advanced countries, but they have not been able to say, ‘We have used our satellites with video camera to identify the location of these ladies.’ So, as far as I am concerned, there is no space agency that can do more than what we have done. Even NASA, what it will do is to provide satellite images of the area, which we have done. Look at the issue of the missing Malaysian plane. You know up till now they have not been able to locate the missing aircraft. Nigerian satellites participated in supply of images to the Malaysian government because of our membership of DMC. I’m sure if it were to be Nigeria, they would be calling for the head of everybody. I can tell you that the space agency at present is doing its best, especially with the support we are receiving from the present administration.
What about the use of the satellites for disaster prevention….
Yes, we have been doing that. You know if you look at it, there is a particular department responsible for that and that is NEMA (National Emergency Management Authority) and we will not want to usurp the responsibilities of other government parastatals and whatever information we have, we pass it over to them. And because of the flood disaster of two years ago, early this year we did an analysis and identified some communities that are prone to flood and we went there for sensitisation programmes. Nigeria’s investment in space technology has been adequately justified and a lot of things will still happen in the years ahead. We pray to have more funds so that we will be able to launch more advanced satellites and develop our Assembly Integration and Testing Centre, which is the engine room for the design and manufacture of satellites. If we succeed in having that in Nigeria, we would be able to launch, we wouldn’t need to go to Ukraine or Russia to launch. We can design our satellites here, and we can also launch. It is like the engine room. We have the building here, but we have not been able to get funds for its completion. As long as we are able to do that, we can launch series of satellites.
Some people also argue that since we still have rely on other countries to launch and design our satellites, we should not have ventured into the space programme until we had the expertise to do it ourselves?
You cannot, you must start from somewhere. Even a lot of countries started like this. But with what we are doing now, we are developing manpower that will be able to man the sector. Now, we have many engineers we have trained in satellite development and by the time we are able to have the Assembly, Integration and Testing Centre, these are the people who will work there with the experience they have been able to gather from outside the country. And let me tell you that most activities around the globe now revolve around space science and applications and because of that, we cannot just fold our arms and not be part of it. Right now, Nigeria is being commended all over the world because of the strategic roles we are playing and our success stories in space science and technology. Look at the issue of GSM, telemedicine, tele-education, so it will get to a level that everything will revolve around space technonogy. So, we should give kudos to the federal government for even starting now.
Are we really fully utilising these satellites to capacity?
Of course, we are. Just like the Baga issue I told you about, it was a very serious issue – a foreign organisation raised a global alarm. But we swung into action. Immediately we swung into action and we tasked our satellites, got the recorded image of that community before, during and after the incident. And by the time we tabled it, we were able to douse the tension. That is the essence. Satellites are tools for development for any nation. So, even if it is in the area of support to universities, you can imagine what we could have been spending. But now we have domesticated it, and there are a lot of requests – people requesting for satellite images of a particular community, and all we need to do is to go to our Control Room and bring them out. So, we don’t need to consult any foreign organisation. For example, the satellite map we have been able to produce ordinarily would have cost millions of naira to acquire, but it has been locally produced and is available. And we have been training quite a number of personnel. We have a commercial outfit known as Geo Earth; it is in charge of training government officials in strategic government departments on how to read maps, operate GIS labs. We are collaborating with state governments. Right now, there is a particular project we are handling with Kogi State government.