Nigeria is looking to tackle terrorists from space, with the military this month requesting tens of millions for spy satellites.
Space has always been the purview of the world's wealthiest nations – the US, China, Russia, Japan and Israel have Earth observation satellites for military purposes but other countries' efforts are seen as more aspirational than effective (In April 2020 the US described Iran's spy satellite as “a tumbling webcam".)
But now Nigeria is hoping to get its own eyes in the sky — not an unrealistic prospect, given the country's existing satellite programs, launched with foreign assistance, such as the Russian-assisted NigeriaSat-1, launched in 2003 for monitoring the environment.
Nigeria faces several unique challenges. It is trying to police porous borders and keep tabs on the vicious Boko Haram insurgency, which at one point covered 180,000 square kilometres of rugged jungle – an area about the size of Belgium.
Kiburu Adamu, a security consultant and Managing Director Beacon Consulting Nigeria, said satellites could enable the military to see suspicious movements of terrorists or armed bandits, from one semi-arid community or forest to another.
“With space technology, you can see that movement, zoom in on that movement, confirm who or what is in that movement and then you can deploy assets,” he added.
Even reconnaissance aircraft, both helicopters or autonomous drones, struggled to track militants over such vast areas.
Although the regulations are gradually being relaxed, commercially available satellite data is limited under the US Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, which places restrictions on the resolution of available imagery and therefore denting their usefulness for the military.
Established in October 2014, Nigeria's Defence Space Administration (DSA) has attempted to develop indigenous space technology for gathering intelligence images to support the Nigerian army's operations.
Rampant insecurity is in part due to Nigeria's porous borders and its proximity to countries that are dealing with militant groups, including Niger, Mali and Cameroon, which are also facing ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoots.
Northern Nigeria is also home to around 75 million of the country's 200 million people, spread out across jungle and rugged, hilly landscape.
Before using satellites, Nigeria procured 16 Chinese-made armed reconnaissance drones — Wing Loong Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — as well as three fighter jets and six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft from the US, to conduct low altitude surveillance and targeted air strikes.
Both the DSA and Nigerian Air Force trained their personnel in how to handle the UAVs, analyse satellite imagery and map terrain, for the purpose of fighting insecurity.
But this year, President Muhammadu Buhari approved $86.5 million for the space imagery programme, an increase of 54 per cent from the 2020 budget's $59.36m, out of an annual defence budget of around $2 billion.
But the increased funding doesn’t impress some Nigerians.
Mukhtar Dotun, a data analyst who has works in the development sector, argues that preventing public funds from going missing during the procurement process is one of the biggest problems facing Nigeria.
“Procurement processes with military equipment are always opaque and before the Buhari era, every Nigerian had concerns about a lack of transparency in the military’s procurement of equipment,” he told The National.
“It isn’t a problem that is peculiar to the Buhari-led government, there have been issues with the embezzlement of funds meant for procurement of equipment with past administrations. So, how are we sure that we won’t hear the same stories when this government leaves office?”
David Otto, a counterterrorism and organised crime specialist at the Siso consultancy, said the intensity of cross-border movements and the consistent presence of terrorists across Nigeria would continually place the country at the top of the global terrorism index.
Mr Otto said that given Nigeria’s high population and the number of security challenges it faces, the military’s plan to launch dedicated satellites for fighting insecurity was a step in the right direction.
“One must recognise that Nigeria is the world’s most populous black nation and shouldn’t lag behind in launching dedicated satellite systems to help deal with her lingering insecurity,” he told The National.
“While insecurity has become innovative, security also needs to be innovative and so the Nigerian security agencies need to make sure that they are always one step ahead.”
Mr Adamu agrees. “In the last few years, the military has increased its knowledge and capabilities within geospatial space and any additional capability that it can acquire. We are hoping that it will be useful. Especially in our context where the military is stretched, it is currently involved on several fronts in almost 34 states of the country in the last 15 years and there is no end in sight to those operations,” he told The National.
The military's efforts could also win public support, although it is early days.
Rotimi Akinrogbe, a business consultant based in Lagos, said Nigeria was at war on all fronts, fighting insurgency and other security challenges.
“So, it is only fair to them that they are given the necessary tools they need to combat this menace at every point. It is not enough for us to claim that we are a giant of Africa when we cannot tap into the technological world and try to expand our reach in terms of defence and security,” he said.