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[ABUJA] Africa's first communications satellite has suffered an energy failure just 18 months after its launch.

The solar panels have malfunctioned on the Chinese-manufactured satellite according to Alhassan Zaku, Nigeria's minister of state for science and technology.

The NIGCOMSAT-1 satellite was launched from China in 2007 (see Satellite launches boost African communications) amidst optimism that it would aid development by linking up rural communities and progressing telemedicine and long-distance learning. There were also ambitious commercial goals. But these are now dashed, say commentators.

Ahmed Rufai, managing director of Nigeria Communication, which runs the satellite management company, said the satellite was powered down on Sunday night (9 November) after it was discovered that the batteries were failing faster than expected.

But Nigeria's ThisDay newspaper (12 November) claims that the satellite has already fallen out of its orbit and been destroyed in order to prevent it from harming others. The paper quotes unnamed sources who allege that the Chinese manufacturers of the satellite used poor-quality materials.

Akin Soyinka, chair of non-governmental organisation Nigeria Internet Watch, told SciDev.Net that the loss of the satellite would damage the country's efforts to bridge the digital divide (See African action plan pushes satellites for development).

"The federal government invested a lot of resources in building the satellite — to the detriment of education and health in the last four years — with the hope of bridging the digital divide and accelerating the country's development," Soyinka said. "But now all that is gone down the drain."

The 40 billion Nigerian Naira (US$240 million) satellite was entirely government-owned but was "fully insured," said Rufai.

A geostationary satellite, it was supposed to work for 15 years, and is officially monitored by a ground control station in Abuja, Nigeria, with backup stations in China, Italy, northern Nigeria and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) satellite applications centre in Hartebeesthoek, South Africa.

Zaku told SciDev.Net that Internet service providers in Nigeria and telecommunications companies who were using the satellite would be moved to other satellites if engineers confirm that it is unfixable.