Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to compete with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the growing space sector of the black continent

India and China are competing in Nigeria for Africa's important space market

PHOTO/AP - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has agreed with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to strengthen space relations between the two countries

The historical 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 populated in Africa and thanks to its oil wealth is the first economic power of the black continent.

The recently re-elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, has taken a big step recently by promoting a major cooperation agreement in space matters with the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, winner of the elections held in February 2019 and who has renewed his second four-year term.

Aimed at strengthening the "exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes", according to the official document signed between the two governments, New Delhi's intention is to bring closer to the Executive of Muhammadu Buhari and his National Space Research and Development Agency - NASRDA - the alternatives for collaboration with Beijing offered by India's extensive institutional, industrial and commercial space network. 

The bilateral Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between the Asian nation's Foreign Minister, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, and the African country's Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu. But it has had to be formalized by telematic means due to the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that affects about 3 million people in the great Asian country and 50,000 in Nigeria.

India's space sector is spearheaded by the Indian Space Exploration Agency (ISRO), which is committed to "providing assistance for capacity building, sharing scientific knowledge, encouraging cooperation among academic institutes and centres and holding joint forums and symposia.

El coronavirus ha forzado que el acuerdo se haya formalizado a mediados de agosto por video conferencia entre el ministro Federal de Ciencia y Tecnología de Nigeria, Ogbonnaya Onu (en la imagen, de blanco) y el titular de Exteriores de India, Vellamvelly Muraleedharan
Africa's main trading partner

New Delhi's interest in bringing the recently concluded agreement to a successful conclusion is at its highest. India's main trading partner in Africa, Minister Vellamvelly Muraleedharan has not hesitated to call Nigeria a "close friend", so both governments have agreed to strengthen their relations in the space field, which were in a state of flux for more than a decade.

A previous agreement of technical collaboration has only served to train half a hundred Nigerians in the field of remote sensing over 12 years, which contrasts with the more than 500 technicians trained by the Chinese. Now the aim is to promote space science, planetary exploration, earth stations, joint R&D projects and especially the development of micro and mini satellites.

The Indian technicians, through ISRO and all its state and private organizations linked to the space field, are going to contribute with their wide experience in Earth observation and satellite navigation to promote President Muhammadu Buhari's projects in oil and mining exploitation, environment, improvement of agriculture and maximum use of the water basins. The Indian Agency and the country's industry have designed, produced and placed in space numerous observation satellites of all types and sizes.

Nigeria fue el primer país del continente negro en firmar una alianza estratégica con China, lo que ha convertido al presidente Muhammadu Buhari es uno de los principales socios comerciales de Xi Jinping en África

With much more patience, ISRO will also try to introduce its technologies in satellite communications and broadband connectivity to meet the demands of the African country and even the continent. It will even propose its launchers to put into orbit platforms that both countries can develop jointly or that Nigeria can acquire from Indian industry. But the authorities in New Delhi have to implement their plans by measuring their steps very well, and under a long term horizon.

Xi Jinping is not going to make it easy for Narendra Modi. The presence and influence of Beijing has a major weight in the government of the West African country. In 2006, Nigeria became the first African nation to sign a strategic alliance with China, and in the present millennium it has become one of its main commercial partners in the continent.

De grandes dimensiones, 5.150 kilos de peso y construido en China, el satélite de comunicaciones NigComSat-1 sufrió un fallo al poco de estar en órbita que le dejó fuera de servicio. Sustituido por el NigComSat-1R, Nigeria ya ha contratado otros dos satélites
China manufactures Nigeria's communication satellites

Since the beginning of the new century, Beijing's aid, loans and investments have skyrocketed, both in infrastructure construction and in the energy and military sectors, as well as in the space field. The government of the nationalist Olusegun Obasanjo founded NASRDA in August 2001, in April 2004 he created the state-owned telecommunications company NigComSat and in December of the same year he contracted the Chinese authorities to build the country's first communications satellite, NigComSat-1, based on the Chinese DFH-4 platform.

The operation was carried out through a US$ 200 million credit from the Export-Import Bank of China, which included training of Nigerian technicians and the construction of control stations. It was the first time that China delivered a turnkey satellite, a policy that it has since applied to its partners in Latin America and elsewhere. 

El presidente de la Agencia espacial de India, el profesor Kailasavadivoo Sivan, tiene una amplia gama de satélites de observación para ofrecer a las autoridades de Abuya

Large in size, weighing 5,150 kilos and with an estimated lifespan of 15 years, the satellite was launched in May 2007 on board a Chinese Long-Range 3B rocket from the Xichang space base. However, in mid-2008, repeated anomalies in its solar panels caused serious malfunctions, which made it advisable to launch it in November. Fortunately, the cautious Nigerian authorities had taken out a malfunction insurance policy, and in March of the following year ordered a relay platform. Named NigComSat-1R, it was launched from the same space base in December 2011.

Muhammadu Buhari has already agreed with Xi Jinping to build two more communications satellites in 2018. The Beijing government has provided a loan of $550 million, the return on which is expected to take the form of Chinese state-owned companies entering the capital stock of NigComSat, which has been in deficit since its inception. China sees the Nigerian telecommunications company as a springboard for increasing its influence and covering the growing market that is opening up on the African continent day by day.

But the Indian authorities and the ISRO management are not looking at space communications but at remote sensing. So far, successive governments in Abuja have diversified their space ambitions and entrusted their Earth observation satellites to the United Kingdom (manufacturing) and Russia (putting them into orbit). It is precisely in this sector that Narendra Modi intends to reach concrete agreements with Muhammadu Buhari and position himself in this field in Africa.

Nigeria ha diversificado su estrategia industrial espacial. La fabricación de las plataformas de teledetección la ha asumido hasta el momento la compañía británica Surrey, propiedad de Airbus, y su lanzamiento en cohetes rusos, espacios que ahora quiere ocupar India. En la imagen, el satélite NigeriaSat-2 con ingenieros nigerianos.

Nigeria has three small platforms. Two of them 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 weighs 100 kilos and was launched in September 2003 and should be out of service by now. By contrast, NigeriaSat-2 (300 kilos) and NigeriaSatX (100 kilos) were placed in orbit at the same time in August 2011 and are still operational at an altitude of 693 kilometres, although their lifespan is being extinguished.