Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has issues with satellites. It’s not that he would mind some of his own, if Sudan suddenly developed a working space program. It’s rather those pesky foreign satellites snooping on Bashir’s war crimes and state-orchestrated genocide that he wants to get rid of.
On Wednesday, Bashir called on the African Union (AU) to find ways to “protect” the continent from spy satellites. The dictator urged the AU to “legislate protection of [Africa’s] space,” as the state-owned Sudan Vision website reported, in tandem with developing a new unified space agency. “I’m calling for the biggest project, an African space agency,” Bashir said during remarks at a telecommunications conference in Khartoum. “Africa must have its space agency,” he added.
The dictator — who is wanted by the International Criminal Court regarding his role in the Darfur genocide — has, er, particular reasons for wanting the spy satellites to stay out. Last year, satellites from private space monopoly DigitalGlobe uncovered what appeared to be evidence of mass killings carried out during Sudan’s ongoing civil war. But whatever Bashir’s motivations, a continent-wide space agency actually isn’t a bad idea.
But let’s take Bashir’s motivations first. Images of his crimes are still being collected by DigitalGlobe satellites with funding from the Satellite Sentinel Project, propped up by actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast. Those taken over the past year include what appears to be mass graves and bombed villages, as well as Sudanese troops and artillery on the move. These images were later compiled by the ICC as evidence against Bashir’s defense minister. Like Bashir, that minister, Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, is also wanted for arrest by the ICC for his role in the genocide in Darfur. In the most recent set of images, Sudanese aircraft are seen based within striking distance of refugee camps.
Bashir’s call to legislate the satellites out of the sky is, well, absurd, for one important reason. Satellites can’t violate Khartoum’s airspace if they’re orbiting above the planet. Were Clooney to fly a spy plane over Sudan, he might get shot down, but DigitalGlobe’s satellites are free to go where they please. Now just try stopping the U.S., which operates a secretive arsenal of satellites, and which plans to network its orbital spies into an all-seeing panopticon. You can’t, unless you want to shoot the satellites down with missiles. Sudan definitely cannot do that.
Nor can Sudan even get into space on its own — not even close. The extent of Khartoum’s space program is minimal at most. According to the Space Generation Advisory Council Sudan, the country is limited to studying geographic surveying, researching a “small satellite for multipurpose use” and working with foreign agencies including the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmospheric Research Commission.
And yet an all-Africa space program is an intriguing idea, though problematic if Bashir is packaging it to the African Union while dodging responsibility for his crimes. There’s no indigenous space launch capability anywhere on the continent. South Africa’s space program is the most advanced, but it can’t lift equipment into orbit. It sent three rockets into sub-orbit during the 1980s, but has never sent up a satellite on a domestic rocket. The old rockets, it should be noted, were also intended to support a nuclear weapons program, which was shuttered in the immediate years before the collapse of the apartheid regime. Beyond that, the extent of Africa in space is limited to a few satellites from Nigeria, Angola (planned), Egypt and Algeria.
Planning a unified African space agency is also still in the very conceptual stages. The first glimpse came two years ago, as the AU proposed an agency called AfriSpace (.pdf) to link up Africa’s information technology grid in a continent with a growing demand for internet-connected computers and cell phones. More space research could also have second and third-order effects by improving research within Africa, and reducing the continent’s dependence on other countries for high technology. But if Africa moves too fast, the result could be “unhealthy regional competition in the space domain” (.pdf) between African countries, according to a report from the Space Security Index.
Though, there’s always going the private route of companies like SpaceX, founded by South African-born engineer Elon Musk. But then Bashir probably isn’t too keen on the idea of satellites — like those from DigitalGlobe — that he can’t control.