Kenya, Italy diplomatic tiff simmers over Malindi space centre

Satellite dishes at Luigi Broglio Space Center popularly known as San Marco at Ngomeni village in Magarini Sub County, Kilifi County. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

A diplomatic tiff is brewing between Kenya and Italy over the operations of the Luigi Broglio Malindi Space Centre.

So bad is the situation that the Government of Kenya has expressed intentions of pulling out of the bilateral agreement.

Defense Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale on Thursday told the National Assembly Implementation Committee that he has already briefed President William Ruto on the matter and was preparing a Cabinet memo on the government’s intent to disengage from the agreement.

Duale also vowed not to attend a joint-inter-ministerial meeting in Rome slated for July 18 to discuss the matter.

Kenya and Italy had in 2020 entered into an agreement for the use of the Luigi Broglio Malindi Space Centre for scientific, technological and socioeconomic development of both countries. The Kenya Space Agency (KSA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) were to jointly manage the space centre that sits on 3.5 hectares of the Kenya Defense Forces land.

Under the deal, Kenya was to benefit by gaining access to Earth Observation and Space Science Data, support to the KSA, education and training, telemedicine and the establishment of a centre for earth observation.

The Budalang'i MP Raphael Wanjala-led committee however heard that three years after the ratification of the agreement by Parliament, there was slow implementation of the agreement and that the Italian Space Centre was conducting activities exclusively benefiting it and its Western partner agencies.

“The facility is currently undertaking a number of commercial activities in support of satellite launches and provision of telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) services to a number of clients including the French Ariane Space, European Space Agency, NASA, SpaceX, Chinese Aerospace Administration and other international clients, with no significant share of profits accruing to the Government of Kenya,” revealed Duale.

The CS was concerned that Italy has made only token fulfillment on select obligations while avoiding the substantive ones, such as that requiring them to make full disclosure on their commercial contracts with third parties.

According to the agreement, Duale said, the Italian government is required to remit 50 per cent of the profits of contracts with third parties for commercial services provided by the facility. This has not happened.

“ASI has kept the list of the third parties engaged on commercial contracts a closely guarded secret and despite several requests, including direction from the Joint Steering Committee, ASI has failed to provide the information," he said.

Defence CS Aden Duale when he appeared before the Committee on Implementation regarding the  implementation of the agreement between Kenya and Italy on the Luigi Broglio-Malindi space center. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

"They have also failed to disclose the value of the contracts or avail copies of all the contracts to KSA. The Government of Kenya is therefore unable to determine its fair share of the profits and authorization fees due, owing to their lack of full disclosure,” the CS added.

Duale also said that the Italian Agency was yet to make payments for annual authorisation fees amounting to Sh7.06 million (USD50,000) for all third parties contracted on commercial services as provided for in the agreement.

There are other outstanding payments including land rent amounting to Sh35.3 million (USD 250,000), third party authorisation fee for European Space Agency for 2021, amounting to Sh7.06 million of (USD 50,000) and a further third party authorisation fees for telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) support to Chinese Human Space Flight Mission and NASA/SpaceX launch missions for 2021 and 2022.

Duale noted that ASI has also been under reporting its commercial activities and has been economical in declaring proceeds from the activities at the Malindi facility.

Over the last two years, ASI declared Kenya's share of profits to be Sh10.3 million (EUR 64,951.57) for 2021, and Sh Sh2.9 million (EUR 18,382.00) for 2022.

“No detailed and transparent explanation has been provided on how the amounts were arrived at. Our efforts to get our Italian counterparts to make full disclosure of the commercial contracts and commitments in implementation of some of the priorities in the Agreement have so far not borne much fruit,” noted Duale.

The committee further heard that ASI was dealing with other institutions or individuals in Kenya on space matters without the consent of the KSA. Duale lamented that the Kenya Space Agency Deputy CEO had been denied access to operational information contrary to the agreement.

Kajiado Central MP Memusi Kanchory however sought to know why the government had not taken over the space centre as it was clear that the Italian side does not respect Kenya’s sovereignty.

“It is clear that we are dealing with a hostile government that does not care about our sovereignty. Previously, the Executive and even Parliament have tried accessing the premises but were denied access. Why has the military not locked up the place?” Posed Kanchory.

Kipkelion West MP Hilary Kosgei who chaired the session said that it was unbecoming of the Italian government to have operated on Kenyan soil for the last 60 years and do so with impunity.

Duale however said he was seeking Parliament’s input before disengaging from the bilateral agreement.

“If we wanted to take over the space agency we can do so even tomorrow morning because it sits on KDF land. We however want to engage Parliament to get a way forward before resorting to any measures,” he remarked.

“I have a feeling that over the years the agency has had a way of bypassing the law probably aided by previous governments,” he added.

Embakasi West MP Mark Mwenje sought to know whether there would be any diplomatic consequences if Kenya pulled out of the pact.

The CS assured that that there would be no diplomatic consequences since the agreement had explicit clauses on the terms of disengagement.