Kicked out of the U.S. where Donald Trump has blacklisted companies posing a national security threat, Huawei has found a more accommodating refuge in Africa. The Chinese telecommunications giant just extended its cooperation with the African Union for another three years; by doing so, the red lotus brand became Africa’s main partner in the field of information technology and telecommunications.
A very surprising deal if we consider two essential facts: First of all, Huawei will have to continue its operations without support from American companies which are now banned from supplying components and applications like the ones offered by Google on Huawei’s cell phones. The Shenzhen company is looking for alternatives, but for the time being, its users will have to do without the famous Android system.
The second fact has to do with the safety of the African Union’s servers. When Le Monde revealed in 2018 that African Union headquarters in Addis-Ababa could have been spied on by China between 2012 and 2017 since the totality of the servers’ content was transferred in Shanghai, everybody looked in Huawei’s direction, as its engineers had built part of the African Union’s communication network. The company has always refuted the allegations, claiming that its teams never had access to the AU’s data center, and ensures that it supplies equipment with to exacting standards. There is no particular evidence that directly incriminates the company, but Washington partly relied on these allegations to ban Huawei from its domestic markets.
Artificial Intelligence and Video Surveillance
On the other hand, the African Union seems to have no doubt about Huawei’s innocence; it just signed a memorandum of understanding that places the company at the heart of the new information and communication system in Africa. Philippe Wang, Huawei’s boss for North Africa, hopes that the deal will put an end to the spying “rumors” and will position the company as Africa’s “strategic partner.”
Unlike the U.S., the vast majority of African states have sided with China. Huawei has been n Africa for over 20 years. It installed more than 70% of Africa’s 3G and 4G networks in 36 countries via some 50 operators. Advancing Huawei’s partnership with the African Union for the next three years should accelerate the digitization of Africa’s economy, particularly in the strategic areas of 5G and artificial intelligence.
Huawei has a major presence in Africa, not only in telecommunications, but in fiber optic networks and video surveillance. Cameras remotely controlled by Huawei’s servers are installed in the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. The system is often coupled with a digital identification network also managed by the red lotus brand. There is currently no evidence that the management of the data transmitted through the company’s servers will not comply with African law, but cybersecurity issues need to be taken seriously.
The digital sovereignty of African countries is at risk. With a $10 million budget (roughly 9 million euros) allocated to IT, AU cybersecurity is a filter that relies solely on the World Bank’s financial support and Chinese technology to function.
China, an Expert in Internet Filtering
African citizens have other reasons to worry, because spying is not the only danger facing the networks. Freedom of information must also be taken into account, and in that area, too, China brings its capabilities and expertise in network control.
This week the country commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, in the state-controlled Chinese media and internet, there is no mention of the thousands of deaths that occurred on June 4, 1989. China is an expert in filtering information on the internet. Some African countries are being tempted to do the same. In April alone, the five countries of Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Gabon temporarily shut down internet access. Beijing may also be tempted to control what the African networks are saying about it. Recently, a French producer told us that his documentary on Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo (who died in 2017), a film that largely describes the events of June 4, was turned down by all African TV stations in order to avoid angering China. Information control on the internet as well as in traditional media is a major factor in the digital revolution currently taking place in Africa. Companies as powerful as Huawei should not only provide low-cost, quality equipment, but should guarantee that these technologies can be used freely without risk of surveillance. It’s definitely a big challenge.
Limited Access to the Mobile Internet
Africa is the least developed continent in terms of new technology, and China has had a serious head start in developing its digital networks. Even though it’s not Africa’s role to choose sides in the trade war between Beijing and Washington, it should not overlook the risks associated with a Chinese monopoly in that area.
African lawmakers and foreign partners need to respond. Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung and Cisco must also offer turnkey options for mobile and landline internet access at suitable prices for the African market. The first 5G networks have already been tested in South Africa, Lesotho and Algeria, but there is still a long road ahead. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 21% of the population is covered by a connected telecommunication network, and access remains among the most expensive in the world. In the digital cold war between China and the U.S., Africa must make the right choices.
OPD June 3, 2019