Space programs in Africa are becoming more extensive, with more countries looking up to the skies for socio-economic development and national security. Already, eight African countries have launched satellites into space, and eleven more are developing national space programmes, with the hope of ultimately launching a satellite in the near future.
On a regional scale, the African Union is vigorously pursuing a continent-wide space programme through the proposed African Space Agency, in line with its technology transformation agenda. The strategic approach for the African space programme focuses on four thematic areas: Earth observation, space science and astronomy, satellite communication, and navigation & positioning. In February 2019, Egypt won the bid to house the headquarters of the Agency.
Beyond the shores of the continent, African nations support the global effort for the peaceful uses of outer space through membership of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPOUS) and participation in other international outfits and commitments for space exploration. Currently, 19 African countries hold membership of the UN COPOUS, with Rwanda about to become the 20th after filing a membership application in June 2019.
The emergence of more private companies developing space technologies and offering space-enabled services in Africa further corroborates the theory that the industry is witnessing a multidimensional transformation. The industry is already valued at USD 7 billion and is projected to grow at a 7.3% compound annual growth rate, to exceed USD 10 billion by 2024; combining both estimated commercial revenue generated and government budgets, according to the African Space Industry Annual Report 2019 Edition.
Linked to this booming interest in space is the need for expertise in space law, policy and strategy. Space law is fast becoming the new frontier of international laws and an integral part of the aerospace industry, driven in part by the ambitious quests of national governments and commercial companies to mine resources in space.
Space lawyers and policy strategists draft international treaties and help formulate national space policies. They advise governments, international bodies and private companies on vital decisions concerning international laws and space treaties, and by so doing forge a path for space-faring entities to maximise space exploration under existing laws and treaties. They also help private companies to secure regulatory passes within national jurisdictions and ensure compliance with international laws.
Space Law as an academic study and policy discourse is drawing traction from the academia, international forums and the space industry globally, as a result of the increased commercial use of space and intensifying geopolitics among the committee of nations.
Regulating space exploration is a crucial function in international cooperation that lays out guidelines for the governments of countries as well as private companies to maintain peaceful uses of outer space without endangering the earth or hindering further activities in space. It is imperative that policy and lawmakers regularly harmonise and regulate activities in outer space to meet growing complexities of technology innovations and ever-expanding national interests.
Building Africa’s Capacity in Space Law
“The issue of capacity building when it comes to space law [in Africa] is not a novel one, and it makes such a regular appearance on the agenda of several conferences that one would be well-justified in questioning whether there is anything left to say or do on this issue”, writes J.A Schneeberger in a paper presented at the 3rd African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development (ALC) in Pretoria in 2009.
According to Schneeberger, the issue of building capacity in space law in Africa predates the formation of ALC in 2004 and dates as far back as 1999, when stakeholders at the 3rd UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III) identified the need to develop academic programmes and think tanks in space law for African countries.
Subsequent conferences and stakeholder dialogues further highlighted opportunities for lawyers and policy strategists specialising in space exploration. In June 2010, the African Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education – French (CRASTE-LF), in collaboration with the Moroccan Royal Centre for Remote Sensing and the European Centre for Human Rights Space (ECSL), organised the International Training Workshop on Space Technology Law and Applications, held in Rabat, Morocco. The workshop is one of the foremost capacity building workshops on Space Law in Africa.
Beyond the dire need for more conferences and workshops, Africa still lags in developing academic and institutional expertise in space laws, as well as the formulation of modern regulatory policies to match the region’s booming interest in space science and technology.
In a paper presented at the 6th Luxembourg Workshop on Space and Satellite Communication Law, Riffi Temsamani notes that only about 4 to 6 member states from Africa participate regularly in the Legal Sub-committee of the UN-COPUOS. In 2017, only 5 countries from Africa represented the region on the Legal Sub-committee. This is in part due to the nonexistence of space programmes in about 35 African countries, but also due to lack of capacity in space law in the 19 other countries invested in space.
Space Law is almost non-existent in the academic curricula of universities across the continent, except for a few universities that offer space studies as a unit of postgraduate programme. According to search results on Google, the universities of Pretoria and Witwatersrand – both in South Africa – offer postgraduate courses in space law. While the University of Pretoria offers a Master of Laws (LLM) programme in International Air, Space and Telecommunications Law with an option for students to choose a focus area to research on for a mini-dissertation, the University of the Witwatersrand offers Space Law as one of the core units of its Masters of Laws (LLM) graduate programme.
The Global Directory of Education Opportunities in Space Law, which is maintained and updated by the U.N Office for Outer Space Affairs (following the recommendations of the Legal Subcommittee of the COPUOS), does not contain any information about an African university as of April 2019.
How Important is Building Space law Capacity in Africa?
The successful operation of space programmes, policies and institutions in a country depends on the experience of qualified professionals. Institutions that are knowledgeable in space law and policy play an essential role in harnessing national expertise in the space sector. Their role in providing suitable policy objectives and working towards optimal gains of national space programmes cannot be overemphasised.
In Africa, there is no platform or institution that provides policy direction and advise policymakers on the ever-changing implications of international space laws. Etim Offiong and Valanathan Munsami, in a research paper titled “Towards Developing Space Policy Institute in Africa”, posit that the “shortage of indigenous knowledge and expertise in the drafting of such crucial instruments [national space policies] and in analysing the changing global space policy context and its implications for Africa”, limit the potentials of space on the continent.
It is pertinent to note that global space policy trends are changing rapidly in response to contemporary inventions, similar to the space race bubble of the 1960s and 1970s, but in a more subtle manner fraught with geopolitics and power dynamics across several national and regional fronts. Schneeberger posits that “Africa runs the risk of missing the ‘boat’, as space legislation moves ahead to keep abreast with space exploration in the 21st century”.
The call for Africa’s participation in shaping the future of space law coincides with the global agitation for review of existing international space laws. Some experts argue that commercial space activities such as space tourism and asteroid mining have travelled far beyond the scope imagined by existing space laws; hence, the call for a holistic review of space laws to better regulate contemporary and future challenges.
There is no better time than now for Africa and other developing regions of the world to contribute to the new frontiers of international space laws. Speaking to Space in Africa on this issue, Memme Onwudiwe, former Co-Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Africa Policy Journal, said: “I do think it is good timing; these issues [space laws] are only going to become more and more important, so it makes sense to begin building expertise now. Even at Africa’s nascent levels where less than half of the nations in the region have formal space agencies, the African space economy is already worth several billion dollars. As more commercial activities occur in space, legal counsel and advisors will need to be equipped to advise businesses on extraterrestrial issues”.
Beyond having a stake among the comity of nations whose interests are well-presented in the formulation of international space laws, local experts have to guide national governments to maximise the benefits of national space programmes.
“Over the next decade and a half, more [African] nations will develop space agencies, and these will need to be staffed in part by lawyers well versed in international rules and norms in space, and who have thought about issues from an African perspective”, adds Onwudiwe.
The Promise of ARCSSTE-E Post-Graduate Programme in Space Law
The African Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education – English (ARCSSTE-E), an affiliate of the U.N Office for Outer Space Affairs that is operated by Nigeria’s National Agency for Space Research and Development, in June told Space in Africa that it plans to commence a postgraduate programme in Space Law by 2020. If the plan is actualised by 2020, ARCSSTE-E will become the first institution in Africa to offer a full post-graduate programme in Space Law in Africa.
Commenting on the proposed postgraduate programme in space law, Onwudiwe says, “the programme will go a long way in giving African Law students interested in the field an academic goal to target. More importantly, it creates an environment for robust conversations about how issues in global space policy will affect Africans at the national level and as a continent. [The program] is important for the development and dialogue around domestic and regional space policies on the continent”.
“I would recommend that ARCSSTE-E be bold and brave in its curriculum instead of conservative. Space Law as a field is one that is largely archaic in its current outlook, and in need of a large-scale overhaul to meet contemporary space activities and the ever-evolving space inventions. Instead of focusing on the observance of stagnant international space treaties, there should be an emphasis on imagining alternative regulatory frameworks and investigating the potential impact of technologies like AI and blockchain, as well as interstellar transactions and value chains”. Onwudiwe adds
While Offiong and Munsami may applaud the proposed postgraduate programme by ARCSSTE-E, they make a stronger case for the establishment of an African Space Policy Institute (ASPI) that will be an embodiment of academic research, as well as a policy think tank for to help guide African governments and commercial space companies. According to them, “the African space programme needs to always be an African agenda, driven by Africans for the benefit of Africa. This brings to the fore the need to establish a continental institution for education, research, advising and capacity building in space policy development. The proposed African Space Policy Institute will fill a gap in capacity building for policy formulation, analysis and training, with the view of catering for the African needs and supporting the African space agenda”.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.