Diplomatic tiff: Kenya accuses Italy of reneging on Malindi Space Centre agreement

Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Bare Duale

Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Bare Duale before the Committee on Implementation at Parliament building, Nairobi on Thursday, July 13, 2023.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Kenya and Italy are in for a diplomatic spat after the Cabinet chaired by President William Ruto took a position to begin the process of withdrawing from the bilateral agreement that established the Luigi Broglio Malindi Space Centre.

Appearing before the National Assembly's Implementation Committee on Friday, July 14, Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale accused the Italian government of reneging on the Malindi Space Centre agreement.

The facility is strategically located on the equator and sits on 3.5 acres of land owned by the Ministry of Defence.

The agreement on the facility was based on five areas of cooperation - support for the Kenya Space Agency (KSA), access to Earth observation and space science data, education and training, telemedicine and the establishment of an Earth observation centre.

However, none of these areas have been implemented and the government is now accusing the Italian government of reneging on the agreement as it seeks a way out through parliament.

"This is the government's position, which has been adopted by Cabinet because these people are operating with impunity. The land where the facility is located belongs to us and we know how to take it," Mr Duale said as he urged the committee, chaired by Budalangi MP Raphael Wanjala, to start the process of revoking the agreement.

Mr Duale, who served as majority leader in the National Assembly for almost eight years, was accompanied by KSA Acting Director General Brigadier Hillary Kipkoskey.

The Italian government has operated the Malindi facility, formerly the San Marco Malindi Space Centre, for more than 60 years.

The ratification of the agreement by the National Assembly on 15 October 2020, which changed the name to Luigi Broglio, came after negotiations with Kenya, which has been pushing to benefit from the facility on its soil.

With the ratification, the KSA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) became the implementing parties.

Mr Duale revealed that he has since declined an invitation to Rome, Italy for the Joint Ministerial Conference on the Space Facility on 18 July 2023 until the issues raised by Kenya are addressed.

The CS told the committee that he blocked the agreement when he was the majority leader in the National Assembly and that within two months of his removal in June 2020, the agreement was tabled in Parliament and ratified.

The Kenyan government was to use the Malindi facility to build its own capacity as an emerging spacefaring nation to realise its aspirations of using space capabilities for its own development.

This is what prompted the government to sign the current bilateral agreement with Italy.

However, after 60 years of cooperation with Italy, a leading spacefaring nation in the world, Kenya is yet to see the significant tangible benefits of the cooperation "and truth be told, there is not much to show for it either at the national or local level around the space centre.

A government document presented to the committee by Mr Duale shows that ASI owes the Kenyan government $250,000 in land rent for the year 2022, or about Sh35.4 million at the current exchange rate.

Also outstanding is the third-party authorisation fee for Telemetry, Tracking and Command (TTC) support to Chinese manned space missions and NASA/SpaceX launch missions for 2021 and 2022.

The document also shows that ASI has under-reported its commercial activities and "has been very economical in declaring revenue from the Malindi facility", declaring Kenya's share of profits at EUR64,951.57 or Sh10.3 million for 2021 and EUR18,382.00 or Sh2.9 million for 2022 for the last two years.

"No detailed and transparent explanation of how the amounts were arrived at has been provided," he said, noting that efforts to get "our" Italian counterparts to fully disclose commercial contracts and commitments to implement the priorities in the agreement had failed.

Mr Duale told the committee that despite his "firm letters" to the ASI President in March 2023 and another to the Italian Minister for Space, expressing his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the implementation of the agreement, nothing has been forthcoming.

What has particularly irked the Kenyan government is the fact that the centre has signed lucrative commercial deals for satellite launches and provision of telemetry, tracking and command (TTC) with France's ArianeSpace, the European Space Agency, NASA, SpaceX, the Chinese Aerospace Administration and others, without the Kenyan government benefiting.

Mr Duale revealed that for every third-party commercial agreement ASI signs, it pockets at least $50,000 "which is remitted to the Italian government".

"There is a reluctance on the part of ASI to provide full disclosure and information on third-party commercial contracts entered into by the entity contrary to the agreement."

Interestingly, despite being on Kenyan soil, senior government officials and parliamentary committees have been denied access to the facility for learning purposes.

This, according to the government, shows a lack of transparency in the operations of the Malindi facility.

In line with the agreement, the agency has appointed a Kenyan as deputy CEO, who is yet to fully settle into the Malindi facility "due to reluctance to provide adequate office space".

"The CEO and other Government of Kenya staff are provided with information on the Malindi Space Centre on a need-to-know basis. The Deputy CEO does not have access to operational information, including commercial contracts, and does not participate in decision making on the administrative and operational functions of the Centre".

As soon as the CS for Defence finished his presentation, the committee took a decision to visit the facility from August 10 to 13, 2023, with Mr Duale promising to use military force if ASI blocks the MPs as it did to the House Committees - ICT and Defence and Foreign Affairs of the 10th Parliament.

But when asked by Kajiado Central MP Kanchory Memusi, a member of the committee, why the government should not go full throttle and take over the facility, Mr Duale said Kenya is governed by the rule of law and Parliament has a role to play because it ratified the treaty establishing the space agency.

"If Parliament has a role to play in ratifying the treaty, it must surely have a role to play in formalising the country's withdrawal from the agreement," he said, adding, "We are not asking for anything outside the agreement."

"I will only prepare a Cabinet memo on Kenya's withdrawal from the treaty after the National Assembly ratifies the Cabinet's position on withdrawal," the Defence CS said.

Mr Duale told the committee that as a developing country, Kenya faces "many challenges related to agriculture and food security, natural resource management, land and physical planning, disaster management, national security and the adverse effects of climate change".

Yesterday, Mr Duale told the committee that current activities at the Malindi space centre "benefit only the Italian Space Agency and its Western partners".

Kenya's main concerns are that there is no single joint capacity-building project between ASI and KSA, and that Kenya has yet to be given access to Earth observation data, contrary to the agreement.

The Italian government is committed to providing 15 annual scholarships and fellowships to selected Kenyan nationals, but only 9 were offered in 2023.

The agreement also provides for the training of Kenyan medical personnel in telemedicine and ICT infrastructure development, but nothing has been implemented yet.

On 15 June 2023, the Kenyan government sent a delegation to Rome, Italy to find a way out of the issues surrounding the implementation of the agreement but "to our utter dismay, our Italian counterparts refused to sign the joint resolutions".

"Instead, they preferred to table a watered-down version of the resolutions that omitted most of Kenya's demands."