Fight against terrorism in Nigeria: Prospects and potentials of satellites

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Fight against terrorism in Nigeria: Prospects and potentials of satellites



By Obiechina Obba

It is estimated that at least 37,500 people have been killed by terrorists in Nigeria since May, 2011 when terrorism became a significant national issue. Nearly 2.3 million people have been displaced with 244,000 still living in refugee camps. The mainly notorious terrorist groups in Nigeria: Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa and Ansaru, engage in attacks on places of worship, recreational facilities, schools and kidnapping for ransom. The attacks are indiscriminate and even international organisations and aid workers assisting the country are not spared. On August 26, 2011 a Boko Haram suicide car bomber detonated his explosive device at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, killing 26 people and wounding 60 others. The attacks continued, attracting worldwide condemnation.

The daring kidnap of 276 school girls from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria, by Boko Haram in April, 2014 shocked not just the nation, but the entire world. Presidents, world leaders condemned this act of terrorism while market women led protests across the country demanding the immediate release of the girls. The #Bring Back Our Girls campaign that followed locally quickly gained global support, creating awareness and also demanding the girls’ release. Again, in February 19, 2018 110 school girls, aged 11 to 19 years, were kidnapped from Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria. After international outcry and negotiations, the girls were released one month later by Boko Haram, their captors, but one of them, Leah Sharibu, is still being held because she refused to renounce Christianity. Five of the girls died in captivity. Out of the 276 Chibok school girls abducted in 2014, 112 are still missing to date.

As if to stultify the collective efforts of the military and local vigilantes against terrorism, Boko Haram terrorists attacked and killed 43 local rice farmers in Zambamari village, near Maiduguri, 28 November, 2020. Some unconfirmed sources even put the casualty figure at 110 people dead and many more injured with tales of woe to tell. The method adopted by Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for the crime, is by decapitation. Many of the survivors were left with deep machete cuts.

Many have been questioning the role that all the national satellites launched for Nigeria could play in efforts to rescue the abducted girls still in captivity and prevent such and other acts of terrorism in the country. Nigeria also has intermittent cases of communal violence like the ones in Benue and Kaduna states; banditry and cattle rustling particularly in the north-eastern part of the country; farmers-herders clashes and religious crisis. Nigeria’s first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, an Earth observation micro-satellite weighing 94 kilograms with a design life of five years, was launched on September 27, 2003. It cost the country 13 million US dollars. On August 17, 2011 a replacement, NigeriaSat-2, was launched. An equivalent satellite, NigeriaSat-X, built by Nigerian scientists and engineers from the National Space Research and Development Agency, NASRDA, was co-launched with NigeriaSat-2. On May 13, 2007 the country’s first communications satellite, NigComsat-1, a large satellite weighing five tonnes, was launched. It developed a Solar Array Deployment Assembly problem and de-orbited on November 11, 2008 and a replacement, NigComsat-1R, was launched December 19, 2011.

What roles can these satellites play in securing the country and in national development? It is important to note that the role a satellite can play is not limitless. This is because the work a satellite does depends on the payload it is carrying. The payload is the cargo of equipment the satellite carries into space to do the work for which it is being launched. Earth-observation satellites, like NigeriaSat-1, carry a payload of imagers or cameras that take pictures and send them down to the Control Station on the ground. NigeriaSat-1, with its six imagers, had a Ground Sampling Distance, GSD, as spatial resolution is called in the satellite industry, of 32 metres. This means that it can only “see” objects on the ground not smaller than that dimension. NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X however, have a GSD of 2.5 metres. By 2013, the two satellites had sent over 1,400 images. These images, apart from assisting in studies on flooding, erosion, deforestation, desertification etc, are also invaluable in planning emergency response. For instance, if satellite images show that the only road to a place is cut-off by flood, humanitarian agencies dispatching lorry loads of aid to the victims can plan how to use support boats to deliver them. Images from the satellites can also help security operatives understand the terrain better, see its changing nature daily, and therefore plan and carry out their operations more efficiently.

A few Earth observation satellites with expensive, high resolution imagers are commonly used in espionage as well as in intelligence gathering in the fight against terrorism. They do reconnaissance like nuclear explosion detection, communication eavesdropping, photo surveillance and radar imaging using synthetic aperture radar at night or through thick cloud cover to get clear pictures. Five of such reconnaissance satellites were used to expose war crimes and human rights abuse in Sudan and South Sudan for nine months between 2012 and 2013 when the government there, it was said, refused humanitarian agencies access to rebel-controlled areas. If countries that have these spy satellites, as they are called, like the United States, Russia and China can avail Nigeria of their services, the location of the yet-to-be-found abducted Chibok girls and Leah Sharibu can be clearly seen from the images and their kidnappers identified without their knowing it. This is safer than flying noisy helicopters or other low-flying aircraft, or slow and conspicuous unmanned drones over their heads, annoying them and endangering the lives of the girls. Earth observation satellites usually have an altitude of about 500 kilometres from the ground. Their orbits are mostly closer to the Earth than other satellites so that they can take clearer pictures. NigeriaSat-1 had an altitude of 368 kilometres. Communications satellites have a higher altitude of approximately 36,000 kilometres. It is therefore, impossible to know that any of these satellites is there, without sophisticated instruments, as they orbit and make a pass.

The second class of satellites that the country has is a communications satellite, NigComSat-1R. This large satellite with a design life of 15 years has 40 transponders in Ka, Ku, C and L-bands. A band is a frequency range and a transponder is a satellite device that receives and relays or transmits signals it received back to Earth. It is useful in telecommunications, broadcasting, aviation, maritime, defence and security. In fact, the country’s security agencies have safe, dedicated channels in it in NigComSat-1R for their communications which cannot be bugged because it is a direct communication with the satellite not requiring an intermediary backbone or service provider. Its uplink, or signals to it from the ground, is safe and the downlink, or the signals beamed down by it, are encrypted or scrambled to prevent unauthorised persons from using them. Just as in your satellite television, the downlink signals are scrambled using a secret code and you cannot watch without a valid device which decodes the coded or scrambled signals. When your subscription expires, your decoder’s access is automatically turned off by your service provider and you cannot watch scrambled signals on your television. NigComSat-1R also offers an avenue for cheaper satellite bandwidth and rural telephony in Nigeria. This creates a possibility for people to report crimes directly to the police emergency numbers or security hotlines from all parts of the country without using solely land-based channels which have limited penetration.

A special type of communications satellite is the so-called Search and Rescue satellite. Such satellites are invaluable in search and rescue efforts, like for airplanes downed by terrorists and hijacked vessels or sinking ships. Nigeria, through its National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, is joined to the worldwide humanitarian COSPAS SARSAT satellite-based search and rescue programme. There are 15 satellites in the COSPAS SARSAT constellation. Five of the satellites are in low Earth orbits, LEO, making it possible for them to receive very weak signals. The other 10 satellites are in Geo-stationary orbit, 35,786 kilometres away. Signals are more potent when the source is closer. These LEO satellites make a pass or orbit over every spot in the world up to 24 times a day. The frequency of a pass is important to reduce the time a distress alert is made and received so that help can be organised and get to the victims quickly, thereby saving lives.

Emergency beacons, which are devices carried by aeroplanes and ships, are activated and transmit distress signals on harsh impact like in a plane crash; or when wet, as in a sinking ship, to a satellite in the constellation. The satellite on receiving the signal will transmit it to the nearest Local User Terminal, LUT, which are satellite dishes or antennae on the ground. The LUT will immediately alert a Mission Control Centre, MCC, like NEMA, which informs a Rescue Control Centre, RCC, covering the area so that rescue operations can commence. All these are done without wasting time going through the COSPAS SARSAT headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Global Positioning System, GPS, in the satellite with the help of the Geographic Information System, GIS, software in the MCC will indicate the spot the distress signal is coming from.

There are different types of emergency beacons and in some the distress alert can be activated or triggered-off manually, making it useful at times of maritime hijack and for missing campers. The Gulf of Guinea, to which Nigeria belongs, is a maritime hotspot and such beacons are particularly useful in that gulf. The International Maritime Bureau reports say Gulf of Guinea is the world’s most pirate-infested spot, accounting for 90% of maritime kidnappings in the world today. There were 28 reported attacks there in 2014, 72 in 2019 and 98 attacks with 77 seafarers taken hostage in the first half of 2020.

Pirates not only kidnap, they also steal oil from tankers off Nigeria’s coasts and oil is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, accounting for over 60% of her national income. Emergency beacons can be particularly useful as hijacked ships and ships in trouble can use them to send distress alerts and get help quickly. Some beacons have a unique identification number allowing the Mission Control Centre to identify them and their registered owners when their distress alerts are received. NEMA says it received 92 distress alert signals in 2013: two were real; 54 were undetermined; and 36 were false alerts, which it says, emanated from beacon mishandling or abandoned beacons. NEMA has RCC in Kano and Lagos and shares another RCC with Cameroon. It is now mandatory for every aircraft and big ship in Nigeria to carry an emergency beacon which transmits on 406 MHz frequency. This has the potential of boosting search and rescue efforts and particularly enhancing maritime safety off Nigeria’s coasts. There are over 600,000 emergency beacons in use in the world today.

Satellites are basically anything in a planet’s orbit. They can be natural like the Moon or artificial when it is human-made. The first artificial satellite, the Sputnik-1, was launched by the Russians on October 4, 1957 (the first American satellite is the Explorer-1, launched January 31, 1958). For a very long time, a common impression was that artificial satellites are purely an ego thing. The ordinary man however, started feeling he has something to gain, other than his country’s ego, from space science and technology since the launch of the first weather satellite, Tiros-1, carrying low-resolution television and infrared cameras in April, 1960 by America. By March, 2020 there were 2,666 known artificial satellites in orbit. The US has 859 satellites; China, 250; Russia, 146; France, 73; Japan, 72; Germany, 67; India, 55; Canada, 54; United Kingdom, 52; Israel, 21; Egypt, 9; Algeria, 6; Pakistan, 6; Nigeria, 5; South Africa, 5; Morocco, 2; and North Korea, 2. Today, the role of satellites, no doubt, seems to be better understood in the world but, it can be argued, it is still not fully appreciated.

Forbes in 2019 rated Nigeria, even in peace time, the third most dangerous country in the world to live. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that the government, security agencies, armed forces and people of Nigeria are rising up to the challenges of insecurity and terrorism. The country has five national satellites: the full benefits of space technology can therefore, no longer be correctly said to be beyond her because she is a developing nation. Nigeria’s satellites that have outlived their design lives may soon be replaced. The National Council on Science, Technology and Innovation, the highest advisory body in science and technology in Nigeria, in its 18th meeting in Abuja in December, 2020 unanimously agreed to this and has passed its resolution to the Federal Government.

Satellites offer the country a unique opportunity to fully add them to her mix of options in fighting insecurity, especially terrorism. It is hoped that this is what she will do as terrorism is a great hindrance to her growth and national development.

Obiechina Obba, a science journalist, writes from Abuja.

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