Frequent Kidnap of SchoolGirls in Nigeria: Can Nigerian Satellites Help?

#Bringbackourgirls campaign in 2017. (AP Photo/ Sunday Alamba)

The night of 25 February 2021 witnessed a terrorist attack on yet another school, Government Girls’ Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State, northwest Nigeria. By morning, 317 of the 500 schoolgirls in boarding hostel in the school were unaccounted for. The attackers, who were said to have come in about 20 motorcycles, shot and killed the police officer on duty and marched the girls into the forest.

On 17 February 2021, about one week earlier, an all-male school, Government Science College, Kagara, Niger State, north-central Nigeria, was similarly attacked. One student was killed, and 27 others abducted as well as three members of staff and 12 of their family members. On 21 February 2021, a Beechcraft King Air B350i aircraft belonging to the Nigerian Air Force dispatched to conduct surveillance on the kidnappers, developed an engine problem and crashed on its flight back to base in Abuja, killing all seven airmen on board.

Following intensified negotiations with the kidnappers, all the 42 abducted persons were released 10 days after they were taken hostage with terrible stories to tell. On the night of 11 December 2020, there was an attack on Government Science Secondary School with 884 boys in a boarding hostel, in Kankara, in the north-western state of Katsina. Boko Haram claimed to have taken 334 of the schoolboys’ hostage. A new slogan: #BringBackOurBoys started trending and after six days in captivity, following negotiations, the 334 abducted boys were released. In April 2014 there was the kidnap of 276 schoolgirls from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, northeast Nigeria, by Boko Haram.

Presidents, world leaders, United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, condemned this act of terrorism while market women-led protests across the country demanding the immediate release of the girls. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign that followed locally quickly gained global support, creating awareness and also demanding the girls’ release.
Again, on February 19, 2018, 110 schoolgirls, aged 11 to 19 years, were kidnapped from Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, Dapchi, in the north-eastern state of Yobe, 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 schoolgirls abducted in 2014, 112 are still missing to date. 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 injuring 60 others. The attacks continued, attracting worldwide condemnation. As if to stultify the earlier efforts of the military and local vigilantes, Boko Haram terrorists attacked and killed 43 rice farmers in Zambamari village, near Maiduguri, Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria, on 28 November 2020. Some unconfirmed sources even put the casualty figure at 110 people dead and many more injured. The method adopted by Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for the crime, was decapitation. A lot of the survivors were left with deep machete cuts. Some people expected the security situation in Nigeria to improve immediately with the appointment of a new Chief of Defence Staff and service chiefs for the army, navy, and air force.

Some others though, feel that may be too early because the appointments were only approved by the Nigerian Senate on 23 February 2021 though they have been in an acting capacity since February 2 2021, after their appointment on 26 January 2021 by President Muhammadu Buhari. The reports from the National Security Tracker of the Council of Foreign Relations Nigeria, quoted in the local media, indicate that in the first six weeks of 2021, a total of 1,525 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Nigeria. On 22 February 2021, the government of Canada issued a travel advisory asking its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Nigeria due to “unpredictable security throughout the country.”

What role can all the national satellites launched for Nigeria play in efforts to prevent acts of terrorism in the country and rescue the abducted girls still in captivity?

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?
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 bigger than that. NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X however, have 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 security operations and emergency response.

Images from the satellites can help security operatives understand the terrain better; see its changing nature daily, and therefore plan and carry out their operations more efficiently. Also, Nigeria is a member of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation which shares satellite images freely to assist members when in trouble. Access to remote sensing images from satellites for security planning like in rescuing abducted schoolgirls will, therefore, not be a big problem. 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 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 and the others 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. Its C-band covers entire West Africa. 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 direct communication with the satellite, not requiring an intermediary backbone or service provider. The orbital slot for NigComSat-1R is 35,786 kilometres from the Earth, 42.5 degrees East, on the plane of the Equator. It is a Geo-stationary satellite and has footprints in the entire continent of Africa, southern Europe, and parts of the Middle East.
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 that decodes the coded or scrambled signals. When your subscription expires, your decoders 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.

In addition to traditionally providing additional security for schools, the government can set-up emergency response teams throughout the country and equip every school with communication devices to report terrorist attacks to them through NigComsat-1R. 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 and can be particularly useful in preventing terrorist attacks in schools. Nigeria, through its National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, is joined to the worldwide humanitarian COSPAS SARSAT satellite-based search and rescue programme which has satellites in Geo-stationary orbit, 35,786 kilometres away, and in Low Earth Orbit, LEO, about 500 kilometres from Earth.

Signals are more potent when the source is closer. These LEO satellites in the constellation 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. Emergency beacons, which are devices carried by airplanes 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 the nearest 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.

Some beacons also have a unique identification number allowing the Mission Control Centre to identify them and their registered owners when their distress alerts are received.
There are different types of emergency beacons and in some the distress alert can be activated or triggered-off manually, making them useful at times of maritime hijack and for missing campers. Such emergency beacons can be particularly useful in Nigerian schools susceptible to terrorist attacks as they can be activated or set-off manually when the school is in trouble. Emergency beacons work: 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 that transmits on 406 MHz frequency. There are over 600,000 emergency beacons in use in the world. For a very long time, a common impression was that 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. A satellite is basically, anything in a planet’s orbit. It can be natural like the Moon. It can also be artificial when it is human-made. The first artificial satellite is Sputnik-1 launched on October 4 1957, by the Russians.

By March 2020 there were 2,666 known artificial satellites in orbit. The US has 859 artificial satellites; China, 250; Russia, 146; France, 73; Japan, 72; Germany, 67; India, 55; Canada, 54; the 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 in.

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 and the incessant attacks on schools.

It is hoped that this is what she will do as terrorism is a great hindrance to her growth and national development.


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