BLANTYRE, Malawi—Chinese telecom giant Huawei continues to be the focus of controversy, the latest being a purported link to spying by some African nations on political opponents.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported earlier this year that Huawei employees, embedded with cybersecurity forces in Uganda and Zambia, helped in intercepting “encrypted communications and used cell data to track opponents” of the countries’ ruling political parties.
In Uganda, government officials allegedly worked with the technicians to infiltrate music-icon-turned-politician Bobi Wine’s WhatsApp chat group, the WSJ reported. The authorities “scuppered his plans to organize street rallies,” then arrested Wine and his supporters. Similar intelligence-gathering operations were reported in Zambia and Algeria.
The report also said that Huawei technicians have, at least in two cases, “personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents.”
Huawei has refuted claims of its involvement in hacking activities, and in a letter addressed to the WSJ, threatened to sue the publication over “false statements.”
The news from the WSJ has been met with concern in Africa, with activists and writers saying it will likely make people across the continent feel threatened when using the internet and other mobile communications.
Huawei didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story. Meanwhile, the WSJ also hasn’t publicly commented on the letter.
Not Safe on the Internet
Huawei has links with African countries on several levels.
In Malawi, for example, the Chinese regime financed, with a “soft loan,” a national fiber backbone project, which was implemented by Huawei. According to the Malawi government, the project aims to “connect all major sectors of the economy and government agencies in the country to a high-speed optical fiber-based network.”
People aren’t going to feel safe when using the internet, says Richard Mulonga, founder and chief executive officer of Bloggers of Zambia, a nonprofit independent think tank that works in Zambia and southern Africa on internet governance and digital rights.
“Africans must be worried, because if the said activities are happening, then democracy in Africa is being undermined. People’s ability to hold people in power to account using internet platforms is also undermined,” Mulonga told The Epoch Times.
But the report on spying didn’t come as a surprise to Mulonga.
“We’ve heard this kind of narrative in Zambia before, in regard to the Chinese equipment being used to surveil citizens and political opponents,” he said.
He added that the purported spying, coupled with repressive laws to close the “civic space online” by the government, is an abuse of human rights.
“This is an abuse of digital rights and the right to free association and assembly,” he said. “This is an affront to democracy, people’s rights to entitlement in this digital age.”
Zambia introduced a cybercrimes and security bill in 2018, which has yet to be drafted into law. The country also plans to implement an internet tax, whereby social media users are charged a fee—following the lead of Tanzania and Uganda. But activists say the laws are aimed at “gagging online spaces under the guise of curbing social media abuse.”
The governments of Zambia and Uganda have dismissed the WSJ report.
“The WSJ article on government spying on political opponents is malicious. We refute it with the contempt it deserves,” Zambian government spokesperson Dora Siliya wrote on Twitter.
Ugandan presidential spokesman Don Wanyama told AFP, “It is totally false to claim Huawei helped African governments, among them Uganda, spy on its political opponents.”
Huawei has been blacklisted in the United States over security concerns surrounding its 5G network infrastructure and links to the Chinese regime. New Zealand and Australia have also already banned Huawei from their 5G networks, while the UK government has postponed a decision on whether Huawei can build 5G mobile networks in the country until it assesses the potential security risks fully.
Attack on Democracy?
The Chinese have taken advantage of Africa in ways that are deeper than those currently being discussed, says Shadreck Chikoti, a Malawian writer and activist.
“They have banked their neo-colonialism—because that’s what it really is—on the fact that African leaders are greedy, the African peoples are too afraid to demand justice and accountability, and that there is hardly any spirit of nationalism and patriotism anywhere in Africa,” Chikoti said.
“The Huawei problem is just a drop in the ocean, because in a few years, Africa will be the new China, and it is so much because we, Africans, are deliberately turning a blind eye to this encroachment.”