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[LAGOS] The Nigerian government has underlined its determination to boost the nation’s efforts in science and technology — and in particular to meet its promise to launch an ambitious space programme — by allocating US$28 million (3.7 billion naira) to the Ministry of Science and Technology in the 2002 budget.

The amount is the highest allocation ever for the ministry, and represents a 6-fold increase over its budget for science and technology for the current financial year.

Although full details of the budget allocation are yet to be revealed, sources confirm that a substantial proportion is intended to finance the country’s projected space activities, which will include in particular an emphasis on space-based telecommunications and earth monitoring.

The additional spending is in line with a promise made by President Olusegun Obasanjo last July, at the time of the launch of the space programme (see Nigeria answers critics of space plans , 15 October 2001), that the programme would receive 3 billion naira of government funding each year for the next three years.

The science and technology minister, Turner Isoun, was unavailable last week to comment on the unprecedented increase in his ministry’s budget as he was on an official visit to China.

His press spokesman, Clement Egbeama, said that the increase reflected the fact that Obasanjo had been impressed with Isoun’s achievements since being appointed minister, and had personally been excited by the plans for the space programme drawn up by Isoun.

“The minister is blazing a trail in the country’s bid to launch itself into a new world order in the community of nations,” says Egbeama. Mohamed Hassan, director of the Third World Academy of Sciences, and president of the African Academy of Sciences, described the new budget as “a very significant move”.

The budget increase is the latest in a series of moves by Obasanjo that are intended to help achieve a goal that he described earlier this year as transforming Nigeria’s economy “from a primarily natural resource one to a more diversified and knowledge-based one”.

The ultimate goal of the government, Obasanjo said in a speech delivered by Isoun on his behalf at the opening of a new computer science laboratory in Ibadan, was to make science and technology “the engine of socio-economic growth and national development”.

As part of this strategy, Obasanjo recently set up an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the activities of the science and technology ministry, with a particular emphasis on the space programme. The committee will report directly to the president.

The creation of the inter-ministerial committee has come shortly after the opening in Abuja by Isoun at the beginning of November of a 500 million naira satellite technology development centre. At this event, Isoun said that satellite technology could transform a number of important areas of the economy, including agriculture, health, education and commerce.

Isoun revealed that the Nigerian government had last year signed an agreement with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited to design, manufacture and launch a low earth orbit micro-satellite for earth observation. A team of Nigerian engineers and scientists is to visit the UK-based space company as part of the collaborative programme.
Space technology is not the only field of science and technology that the government hopes will be boosted by the budget increase. Other priorities, according to recent statements by Obasanjo, including the promotion of biotechnology - particularly in its application to improving food supplies - and information and communication technologies (ICTs).

But whether the government will be able to meet its budget promises is a separate issue. General economic problems mean that the country’s revenue is expected to fall by 30 per cent in 2002.

In addition, the 2002 budget was based on a price of at least $18 for a barrel of oil, the product on which Nigeria’s economy is almost entirely based. Given recent trends in the global economy, many feel that it could fall significantly below this, potentially creating severe problems for the government in meeting its budget promises.

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