Reports of Huawei Spying Worries Activists in Africa

By Charles Pensulo, Special to The Epoch Times
September 6, 2019 Updated: September 6, 2019

BLANTYRE, Malawi—The  Chinese telecom giant Huawei continues to be the focus of controversy, the latest being its link to spying on political opponents in Africa.

Huawei has been blacklisted in the United States over security concerns surrounding its 5G network infrastructure and links to the Chinese government.

The UK government has also postponed a decision on whether Huawei can build 5G mobile networks in the country until it was clearer what the impacts of the U.S. blacklisting would be.

Recently, the company has again come under fire after it emerged its employees, embedded with cybersecurity forces in Uganda and Zambia, “intercepted encrypted communications and used cell data to track opponents” of the ruling political parties, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.

The report further stated that technicians from the company have, at least in two cases, “personally helped African governments spy on their political opponents.”

In Uganda, government officials worked with the technicians to infiltrate music-icon-turned-politician Bobi Wine’s WhatsApp chat group. The authorities then “scuppered his plans to organize street rallies” leading to the arrest of Wine and his supporters. Similar intelligence-gathering operations were reported in Zambia and Algeria.

Not Safe on the Internet

The news has been received 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 has links with African countries on several levels.

In Malawi, for example, the Chinese government-financed with a “soft loan” a National Fiber Backbone Project, which was implemented by Huawei. According to the 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.”

Richard Mulonga, founder and chief executive officer of Bloggers of Zambia, a non-profit independent think tank that works in Zambia and southern Africa on internet governance and digital rights, said people are not going to feel safe when using the internet.

“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. Africa must really be worried,” Mulonga told The Epoch Times.

The report on spying did not, however, come as a surprise, according to Mulonga. “We’ve heard this kind of narrative in Zambia before in regard to the Chinese equipment being used to survey on citizens and political opponents,” he said.

He added that this spying coupled with repressive laws to close the “civic space online” by the government is an abuse of human rights, especially the right to free association and assembly.

“It’s very unfortunate because we are aware that the [Zambian] government intends to bring repressive laws to close civic space online. It is also sad because 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 much-criticized cybercrimes and security bill in 2018, which has yet to be drafted into law. The country also plans to implement an internet tax. If successful, the country will follow in the footsteps of Tanzania and Uganda.

But activists believe these laws are aimed at “gagging online spaces under the guise of curbing social media abuse.”

An Attack on Democracy?

Shadreck Chikoti, a Malawian writer and activist, said the Chinese have taken advantage of Africa in ways that are deeper than those currently being discussed.

“They have banked their neo-colonialism—because that’s what 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 come 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.”

The governments of Zambia and Uganda have dismissed the Wall Street Journal 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.

And the 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.”

In a statement, Huawei also refuted the claims, calling them “unfounded and false.”