Mawu and Artemis: Why the United States should make Africa a priority for space diplomacy
by Nico Wood
|By pursuing more African nations as partners in the Artemis Accords, the United States can capitalize on Rwanda and Nigeria’s momentum, demonstrate a sustained presence on the continent, and inspire a new generation of Africans through space.|
With the recent establishment of the Space Force and Artemis Accords, it is clear that the United States views space as a domain worth exploring. The country now has aims to return to the Moon and establish a permanent human presence there. However, the United States cannot do this alone. The difficulty of space exploration is only matched by its cost, and we look to partner countries to help support this burden of expertise and finance. Our greatest partners in these endeavors have been of no surprise; they are the countries with which we share a great cultural and ideological affiliation, and which possess the technological and economic capabilities to contribute to the mission. However, Mike Gold stipulates that the advantage of the Accords, as compared to membership to the International Space Station, is that it is considerably easier to join, and every country, regardless of wealth, education, or resources, can contribute. In discussing possibilities for non-traditional space partners, Gold says, “I do get particularly excited about some of these small countries, and in terms of what they would do, even if it’s as modest as grad students studying some of the lunar imagery or science to help us out, even that, I think would make a huge difference and add to the diversity and vibrancy, sustainability, and ultimately success of the Accords.”
Fig. 1: Signatories to the Artemis Accords as of December 13, 2022.
On December 13, 2022, Rwanda and Nigeria made history by becoming the first African nations to sign on to the Artemis Accords. The Space Forum was the first event of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, highlighting the impact of space for all. In his opening remarks, Chirag Parikh, executive secretary of the National Space Council, stated that the intent of the forum was to highlight the shared space goals between the United States and Africa and to discuss the use of space in support of sustainable development, capacity building, and the private sector.
Before this event, none of Africa’s 54 countries had signed on to the Artemis Accords, begging the question of why it took until the second anniversary of the Accords for that to happen. There are two possible explanations for this gaping hole in space diplomacy: either the United States had not been interested in or willing to engage with African nations to convince them to sign, or the United States had done so, but African nations were still uninterested or unwilling to sign. One US government official claimed that it was a mix of both but favored the latter. The United States has approached many African nations and demonstrated the importance of signing the Accords. Deputy NASA Administrator Pam Melroy said at a Secure World Foundation event on the Artemis Accords that during meetings with America’s space partners, the US delegation regularly floats the idea of signing the Accords, but did not infer that it is a hard sell.
In 1964, a Zambian schoolteacher named Edward Mukuka Nkoloso made the headlines in Time magazine by launching the first African space program. The nature of his training program (to include rolling students around in an oil drum and teaching them to walk on their hands as they would in space) was derided by the world as at best a publicity stunt and at worst a mentally ill outburst from a backwater former British protectorate. Given the context of Zambia establishing independence, this author believes that the short-lived space program served as a message to the West to take the continent seriously. Nkoloso requested funds from the United States and the Soviet Union to develop the program, but neither superpower saw fit to respond.
More than 50 years after Zambia’s short-lived program, space has become more important than ever for all countries. The leaders of African countries are not naïve; they understand the benefits that the space domain offers, such as telecommunications and remote sensing, and how partnering with major space powers allows them to develop their domestic capabilities more quickly. However, in a patronage system between the United States and China, no African country wants to be seen as affiliating itself too much with one or the other so as not to close any doors in the future. By playing each country off each other, African nations can benefit from both sides and extract maximum perceived value. China’s space diplomacy has been significantly more influential on the continent, resulting in many bilateral agreements and programs to build and launch satellites. That said, the United States still has an opportunity to establish serious dialogue and make inroads with African nations in the field of space. In this section, I will examine several African countries’ motivations for establishing a space program and for cooperating with other countries, with particular emphasis on Rwanda and Nigeria as newly signed partners to the Artemis Accords.
Fig. 2: African Space Activities, Capabilities, and Infrastructure as of 2019
The African Space Agency (AfSA) was established in 2018 as a constitutive space body between the African Union’s (AU) 55 member states to fulfill the goals of the Africa Agenda 2063. AfSA’s objectives include harnessing the potential benefits of space for addressing Africa’s socio-economic challenges; developing a sustainable, indigenous space market; adopting good corporate practices; and promoting an African-led space agenda through international partnerships. The AU’s space agency cannot be compared to the European Space Agency (ESA), which possesses far greater agency and far more independent authority, though both entities do coordinate among member nations. Some have argued for greater authority to be vested in AfSA so that the continent can act as a united bloc rather than 55 weaker nations. This level of international coordination and trust would likely take years and be unprecedented for Africa, but states may find strategic value in such a project. Without banding together, these relatively emergent space programs could fall prey to the same colonial tactics superpowers used in the past to divide and exploit the continent.
|The leaders of African countries are not naïve; they understand the benefits that the space domain offers, such as telecommunications and remote sensing, and how partnering with major space powers allows them to develop their domestic capabilities more quickly.|
In announcing the country’s signature to the Artemis Accords, Rwandan President Paul Kagame stated that “space-based technology is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for addressing global challenges such as agricultural productivity and climate change.” These needs were the catalyst for the establishment of the Rwandan Space Agency (RSA) in 2020 and the future Space Center of Excellency for Research and Development. The RSA is the coordinating body for all space activities in the country, with goals to promote socioeconomic and industrial development for local and international markets. Satellite communications and remote sensing technologies are two key projects for RSA, and the agency has regularly publicized its interest in participating in the formulation and development of international law and space governance through forums such as the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
Colonel Francis Ngabo, Chief Executive Officer of the RSA, stated that Rwanda joined the Artemis Accords because it “reaffirms Rwanda’s commitment to support peaceful, sustainable, and responsible space exploration. The accords are a reminder of international partnerships as humanity returns to the Moon and the registration of space objects and release of scientific data are some of the accords’ provisions that are in line with our agency’s mandate.” As a unifying rallying cry for developing space powers, President Kagame concluded his speech by saying “As we shoot for the stars, literally and figuratively, let us be sure that exploration of outer space benefits all of… humankind for generations to come.”
In 1999, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo established the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) under a new democratic government. Six years later, NASRDA established several extremely ambitious goals: manufacture a satellite, train a Nigerian astronaut, and create a domestic space launch vehicle program. Nigeria has since launched five satellites through cooperation with and funding from both Russia and China. Although met with regular funding issues incongruent with its lofty targets, Nigeria nonetheless possesses one of the most advanced space programs on the continent.
The Nigerian Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), also spoke at the US-Africa Leaders Summit and underlined Nigeria’s space interests in security, agriculture, deforestation, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Indeed, the Director General of NASRDA has stated, “What we need to look at is using the space program to look at how we can create typical Nigerian solutions to most of our problems,” not vanity trips to the Moon and Mars. The country has been able to update its maps, track climate change impacts, and locate members of the terrorist group Boko Haram thanks to the Nigerian satellites in orbit. Minister Ibrahim went on to say that “NASA… is the leading space institution in the world, and any effort to work together will support our country significantly in attaining our vision and also our objectives.” It is clear from his remarks that Nigeria views cooperation with the United States in space as both a practical and prestigious effort. He highlighted the large population of Nigeria and pointed to remote sensing and communications satellites as incredibly important to the country. The country looks to participate in international research and development to improve citizen welfare and capacity building.
Cameroon was the only African country to speak at the US-Africa Leaders Summit Space Forum that did not sign onto the Artemis Accords, and the country lags behind other African nations in terms of space organization, infrastructure, and successes. The country lacks a unified space agency, and although the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications did launch a feasibility studies project on developing a space program called “Camspace,” no news has followed the original statement in 2019.
That said, it is clear that Cameroon does recognize the importance of space. In October 2022, the Cameroonian representative to the United Nations pointed to satellite disaster management and weather forecasting as space-based sources of information which are improving people’s lives. The President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, said in his remarks at the US-Africa Leaders Summit that “right now, even as I speak to you this morning, young Africans and youth around the world are able to watch this talk, and those young people are able to get an idea of what is happening and what is being said thousands of kilometers away. That shows us one of the ways we can use commercial space.” President Biya emphasized the importance of space-enabled communications across the continent and their abilities to advance economic development in Africa. He went on to note that those African countries with satellites do not possess the capability to fulfill all the needs of Africa, and that is why partnering with developed space nations is a necessity. The United States in particular, said Biya, is a leader in space exploration and launching satellites. Remote sensing and data sharing would allow for tracking of the effects of climate change, the development of sustainable urban planning, and the plight of terrorism across the country. However, it is crucial for Cameroon to avoid the militarization of space and he argued for a solely peaceful and noble use of outer space.
Still more African countries have put forward significant resources towards space industry and infrastructure. Ethiopia’s interest in space stems mainly from climate change, economic concerns, and the prestige of joining satellite-operating nations. Ethiopia has focused its two satellites on remote sensing and the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI) on producing technological knowledge and empowering its citizens to take full advantage of the space economy. ESSTI absorbed the Ethiopian Geospatial Information Institute in 2021, indicating a greater unity of effort in the country’s space program. The country’s space budget has rapidly increased since 2018, with a 300% increase between 2019 and 2020.
|China has become a mover and shaker of space norms on the African continent, approaching parity with and in some cases outpacing the United States in the competition for African hearts and minds.|
South Africa is another country worth investigating. The country has broken ground on a deep-space ground station set to come online by 2025, which will support the tracking systems necessary for the Moon to Mars program. The South African National Space Agency (SANSA), established in 2010, will operate and maintain the station and feed information to the Artemis program along with its Australian and US foils. In 2020, SANSA received a R4.4 billion (equivalent to about $250 million) allotment to build a space hub, increasing its previous budget from R150 million (about $8.5 million). Progress on the Space Infrastructure Hub is ongoing, and it will be the construction site for six planned satellites. Given the country’s involvement in the Artemis program as well as its sizeable space capabilities, a source at NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program says that it is likely South Africa will sign the Artemis Accords soon.
Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for Secure World Foundation, said that developing space countries like those in Africa “are looking at this differently. They are looking for different things, not just to go to the Moon or something, but also benefits on Earth.” Given the tremendous costs of space, many emerging space powers rely on major space powers to launch or service their satellites rather than indigenously create the entire infrastructure. Human spaceflight seems relatively pie in the sky for Africa, and to date, only one “afronaut” exists. From the comments of heads of African governments and space agencies, we can see that the main space concerns for these many African countries are tangible benefits on Earth. African space agencies and policymakers cite core themes, such as economic and socio-economic development, public-private coordination, geopolitical prestige and security, and regulatory and legal influence.
China has become a mover and shaker of space norms on the African continent, approaching parity with and in some cases outpacing the United States in the competition for African hearts and minds. The most recent white paper from Beijing starts by quoting Xi Jinping: “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream,” and space is a critical component of national strategy. The paper goes on to state China’s intent to formulate a “law-based” system of space industry governance based on Chinese research. China’s voluntary cash contributions to UNOOSA in 2020 far outpaced any other single country, and Beijing’s footprint as a Security Council member continues to grow. China’s response to United Nations Resolution 75/36, Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours, paints the United States and the United Kingdom as warmongers in space and warns against weaponizing the environment. Given China’s interest in becoming the world’s premier leader in space and the United States’ perceived great power competition with the country, many are calling this the new “space race.” The Biden administration has made it a priority to “boldly engage the world” amidst a growing rivalry with China—space diplomacy in Africa may seem like a small step, but it could become a giant leap in the great power competition with China.
Given a lack of American space diplomacy in the continent, Africa has looked to the East for guidance. China’s taikonauts aboard the Chinese Space Station recently spoke virtually to citizens of the member states of the African Union (AU), answering questions from young people interested in space. This approach has been remarkably successful in inspiring the next generation of Africans who see China as a means to enter into the club of spacefaring nations. Additionally, China seeks to expand political influence in space partner countries like Ethiopia, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt to compete with the United States. China recognizes the power of the podium and seeks to have its phrases echoed inside and outside the country. The verbiage from Cameroonian President Biya with regards to avoiding the militarization of space is close to the language used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While this does not mean that Cameroon is in the CCP’s pocket by any means, it may indicate a reluctance to sign on to the Accords and risk rupturing their relationship with China.
The Chinese Ambassador to the AU, Hu Changchun, remarked, “In recent years, driven by the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, space cooperation has become a strong point in promoting our comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. The diversified exchanges have yielded abundant fruits, especially in the manufacture and launch of satellites, the construction of aerospace infrastructure, the sharing of satellite resources, the training of engineers and joint research.” After working with China for years on pragmatic satellite projects, Nigeria’s NASRDA sent a delegation to Beijing to discuss the possibility of training a Nigerian astronaut and sending them to space.
There are clear economic incentives for China to develop space relations with African countries: the African space economy was valued at over $19 billion in 2022, and experts believe it could grow to $22 billion by 2026. While this timeline may be overly ambitious considering the country’s current capabilities in space, leaders claim that the vision is more important than the execution, and China is delighted to create inroads into the biggest economy in Africa through space.
|From many African perspectives, the Artemis Accords seem inextricably linked with the United States framework despite NASA’s insistence that it is a multilateral agreement.|
Ethiopia’s success in space, for example, has come thanks to cooperation with China. Ethiopia’s first foray into space was researched, constructed, and launched almost entirely by Beijing. China took on $6 million of the $8 million total cost to construct and launch the Ethiopian Remote Sensing Satellite-1. Only a year later, Ethiopia launched a second satellite thanks to Chinese patronage. This nanosatellite was to provide an even clearer picture and resolution and relied heavily on research and development collaboration with China. The Director of the China National Space Administration and the Ethiopian Minister of Innovation and Technology signed a bilateral agreement for space cooperation that same year. The two nations have agreed to collaborate on a future communications satellite, but this will be built in Ethiopia, perhaps indicating a greater level of independence and domestic control.
From many African perspectives, the Artemis Accords seem inextricably linked with the United States framework despite NASA’s insistence that it is a multilateral agreement. By reframing the nature of the Accords through strategic public affairs and increased financial and operational contributions by non-US members, African countries may have an easier time signing on and avoiding future Chinese cuts to development projects. Top-level discussions between heads of government convinced France’s government to sign the Accords in June 2022—were the Biden administration to continue making the Accords a priority for African nations, the Accords would likely see a spike in signatories. While it is extremely unlikely given the current political environment, having China sign the Accords would also potentially inspire many non-aligned countries to follow suit.
Africa is the demographically youngest continent with the fastest growing population and economy in the world. The United States has so far failed to recognize this and implement a geopolitical and economic strategy to capitalize on Africa’s potential. In the most recent version of the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Biden administration organizes Africa on page 43, just after the Middle East but before the Arctic. This sets the United States up to cede the continent to outside influence. The main goals outlined in the NSS are reversing democratic backsliding, countering terrorist activities, and combating economic, food, and human insecurities. There is no mention of space activities with Africa, though incorporating satellites into climate change and counterterrorism solutions is not too far a stretch. As with any form of diplomacy, space diplomacy requires sustained, vigorous engagement. However, the United States tends to spend its limited political capital in Africa on security and aid.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson spoke at the US-Africa Leaders Summit and noted the importance of space partnerships with Africa, in particular deforestation, communications, and improving people’s lives. He emphasized the rule of law in separating those countries that prosper from those which do not, then spoke of NASA’s collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in supporting sustainable development and emergency relief in developing nations. He summarized the Artemis Accords as “a commonsense statement of principles of what we should do peacefully in space,” involving mutual aid, standardization, and transparency. Invoking President Kennedy, Nelson stated that space is hard, but it is how we can come together as peoples.
Monica Medina, the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), began her speech at the US-Africa Leaders Summit by saying that the first images revealing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not come from an American satellite, but a Nigerian satellite. This, she continued, demonstrated the impact of space partnerships, and space has become the backbone for economic development and scientific cooperation. Assistant Secretary Medina highlighted the diversity and peaceful nature of the Artemis Accords as well as the US commitment to the anti-satellite moratorium. The United States, in support of shared early warning systems for all, seeks to communicate data to reveal information about the climate challenge ahead of us. She continued by saying that the now $469 billion space economy can act as an economic driver towards development. Medina concluded by hoping that Rwanda and Nigeria’s signatures provide momentum towards other African nations signing on to the Accords.
As mentioned in Assistant Secretary Medina’s remarks, Africa also offers significant scientific opportunity for the future of space exploration. By sharing remote sensing data internationally, African nations can contribute to the fight against climate change; this information could prompt leaders to take deforestation and overgrazing seriously and reverse harmful policies. Astronaut training or long-term habitation programs could take advantage of much of the Sahara Desert’s Mars-like environment. The Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is one of the most alien and unique environments on Earth and continues to inform scientists on how extremophilic life could survive in such harsh, acidic conditions. Equatorial spaceports facilitate the launching of objects into space, and Africa is home to the majority of landmass surrounding the equator. In fact, Kenya is home to the Luigi Broglio space center, an offshore launch facility formerly owned and operated by Italy. The facility has not been used for launches since 1988 and has since become Kenyan property. By refurbishing the Broglio space center and establishing others, Africa could have a potential comparative advantage to many other space launch facilities around the world.
The most cogent counterargument to this paper stems from the fact that there is little US political interest in Africa, represented in a relatively meager budget stretched across security and aid. In the 2021 posture statement to the US Congress, the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) claimed just 0.3% of the total Department of Defense budget and manpower. With so many competing interests, why should the United States focus on Africa? Is our money not better spent on other projects and our political capital not better spent on immediate concerns? Also, what tangible benefits does the United States actually receive out of this arrangement?
|Investing increased political and economic capital in Africa may not appear like a priority to the White House, but it is the best way to position the United States for a future in which Africa’s influence has grown dramatically.|
In the era of globalization, policymakers must be tapped into every part of the world, since a merger of two Asian countries could affect the New York Stock Exchange and an insurgency in Africa could direct military funding in Europe. By hyperfixating on what appear to be the biggest challenges of today, we grow myopic and neglect the challenges of tomorrow. This is the essence of strategic forecasting: the process creates alternative futures and crucial junctures to help policymakers understand where relative advantages and vulnerabilities lie.
Investing increased political and economic capital in Africa may not appear like a priority to the White House, but it is the best way to position the United States for a future in which Africa’s influence has grown dramatically. Furthermore, many African nations are at a nascent phase of space development, with most not having established a centralized space program. By involving these nations early in the process, the United States can share standardized practices and norms to promote interoperability and open communication. This is not to say we should pivot from a great power competition strategy with China and Russia towards a minor power cooperation strategy with Africa, but that African nations will bear the greatest returns on investment in terms of space diplomacy. By understanding what Africa needs out of space and working with leaders to make small steps, a small adjustment in US foreign expenditures could make a world of difference.
In conclusion, the goals of the Artemis include establishing unifying international principles in civil space in the pursuit of science, economic benefits, and inspiration for the next generation. The Accords seek diversity of thought, nationality, and ethnicity. Africa represents untapped potential in achieving these goals, and the United States should not be satisfied with the recent signing of Rwanda and Nigeria but rather capitalize on the momentum to attract new signatories from the continent. Countries that have already engaged with the United States on space projects such as South Africa make for the likeliest targets. This will require renewed interest in Africa and an increased, sustainable budget to dedicate long-term diplomatic efforts. By involving African nations early on, the United States can demonstrate its commitment for multilateral direction of the Accords and rebuff the narrative of American space hegemony. The economic, security, and science incentives to partner with African nations on the Artemis Accords are compounded by the fact that if the United States fails to do so, China happily will. Thousands of years ago, humankind looked up to the stars and created stories that were bigger than ourselves. These myths inspired us to unite and discover what else was out there. The United States should work with African nations to sign on to the Artemis Accords and create an opportunity for generations to come to be united and inspired once again.
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