Africa Embraces Huawei Technology Despite Security Concerns | Africa | DW
Chinese tech giant Huawei faces headwinds in the Global North: Sanctioned by the US, it also faces legal hurdles in the UK and European Union (EU) countries, which means that Huawei parts cannot be used in the technical infrastructure. In Lithuania, the government has even called on citizens to give up their Huawei smartphones.
But that’s a different story in Africa: Huawei components account for around 70% of 4G networks across the continent.
Many areas are shifting to 5G technology, with Huawei firmly in the lead in supply. For example, in Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, the first 5G masts are already ready to go into service.
Gbenga Adebayo, the head of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), says Huawei’s devices have many advantages.
“Traditionally they come with low prices. They come with very attractive terms for operators, and it’s easy for people to work with them,” Adebayo told DW.
Huawei has expanded to most African countries including South Africa
All Huawei transactions are handled directly by Exim Bank, which is responsible for Chinese foreign investment. Adebayo points to another key reason why Huawei is so popular on the continent.
“In terms of reliability, their systems tend to offer some measure of performance guarantee,” he explains.
When the infrastructure is not neutral
So why do African consumers treat Huawei so differently from their Western counterparts?
Partly because Western countries want to strengthen their own telecommunications systems, Arthur Gwagwa of the Institute of Ethics at Utrecht University told DW. But worries about Huawei and security are well placed, says Gwagwa, who has worked on several cybersecurity projects in Africa and specialized in the subject as a lawyer in Zimbabwe.
“Not only does Huawei have the capabilities to steal military information or sensitive country security information, but it also has equipment, sometimes I think negligently manufactured, that allows vulnerabilities for cyber attacks for purposes military and industrial espionage,” adds Gwagwa.
He accuses some governments of naivety: “The issue of digital foreign interference is a new phenomenon that many Africans, especially leaders, do not really understand because the digital sphere is something that is not tangible.” Gwagwa points to Chinese Secret Service Law implemented in 2017 as potential danger to users
“Some of the vulnerabilities in Chinese equipment are intentional,” he explains. “They are introduced for malicious purposes. For example, China’s National Intelligence Law enacted in June 2017 requires Chinese companies to collect secret information.” Gwagwa interprets this law as forcing Chinese companies to cooperate with intelligence services, including the coercive installation of “backdoors” and the provision of private data to the government.
Hidden from the end user are so-called “mediation boxes”: these distribution stations transmit information and are able to filter and manipulate information. Valentin Weber, cybersecurity expert from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), and his colleague Vasilis Vesveris analyzed the data flows around Huawei’s middleboxes. They found that in 17 countries, the device blocked certain websites. Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Burundi and South Africa have been affected.
Burundian point of sale blocked
In Burundi, online content from several critical outlets has been blocked, including that of DW partner Iwacu. Weber told DW that the local media watchdog promised to re-allow access to the sites. “But we can see that these websites are still blocked, despite the efforts of media watchdogs.”
Iwacu’s editor, Leandre Sikuyavuga, confirmed that the media’s website was still not accessible in Burundi.
“It is harmful because it limits freedom of expression in general, a fundamental principle in a rule of law,” Sikuyavuga told DW.
Huawei did not respond to a question from DW about whether the telecom company was aware of events in Burundi or censorship in other African countries using Huawei hardware.
Huawei components are attractive in this context, says Arthur Gwagwa: “Authoritarian African governments see the benefit of custom censorship mechanisms in Huawei infrastructure. They can use the vulnerability of Chinese equipment for surveillance and other malicious purposes to cling to politics. Powerful.”
Smartphones are only part of Huawei’s technology interests
Uganda: Wiretapping of Bobi Wine
In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei employees were directly involved in obtaining messages from the smartphone of Ugandan opposition leader and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. Police stormed a concert where opposition politicians were due to appear. Vin and dozens of supporters were arrested. Huawei later denied having anything to do with the events.
Meanwhile, surveillance in Uganda with the help of Huawei’s “mediation boxes” could be much more extensive. According to Weber and Ververis, the capital Kampala is one of the African sites designated as a future destination for Huawei’s “Safe City” technology. “Safe City” stands for a network of surveillance cameras, which use facial recognition technology. The rationale is crime prevention.
“Safe City” could mean trouble in countries without a strong constitutional status. “If you consider that websites can be blocked, that all streets can be monitored, you can imagine that the government has more power to mark its authority and do whatever it wants,” says Weber.
Huawei did not respond to a request for other African sites with “Safe City” technology. However, Weber and Ververis believe that Johannesburg, Nairobi and Accra could be monitored.
Uganda has shown interest in Huawei’s 5G technology
Tech decisions could affect generations
Huawei’s market power in Africa puts the group in a favorable position to provide the next generations of technologies: “People often buy ‘legacy systems’: they want new devices to be compatible with old ones”, explains Valentin Weber , researcher at the DGAP. Additionally, the devices must continue to be serviced by Huawei.
For this reason, Arthur Gwagwa wants to see African civil society ensure that “a Chinese digital silk road that will affect generations to come, unfolds with respect for human rights”.
This article has been translated from German.
Edited by: Ineke Mules and Chrispin Mwakideu