WASHINGTON - The accusations were explosive: For five years, the Chinese government had spied on communications at the African Union. Every night, data streamed from computers at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to unknown locations controlled by China, anonymous sources at the AU told reporters with the Financial Times and Le Monde, a French newspaper.
The breach represented “what appears to be one of the longest-running thefts of confidential government data that we know about,” Danielle Cave, a senior analyst at The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, wrote last July.
At the center of the controversy was Huawei, the Chinese technology giant with close ties to the Communist Party that had supplied the equipment, configured the servers and trained the staff at the African Union.
Now, AU leaders have decided to solidify ties with the Chinese tech company at a time of intensifying international criticism of its practices around the globe.
When accusations of Chinese spying at the AU emerged in early 2018, Moussa Faki, the chairperson of the AU Commission, and Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s former prime minister, categorically denied the allegations, as did Chinese officials.
Huawei called the assertions “completely unsubstantiated” and said they “vehemently reject” any claims of impropriety.
Exactly what information had been compromised, and why the Chinese government would find it valuable, remain unclear.
But the charges fit into a broader pattern of criticism against Huawei.
In 2012, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee labeled Huawei a national security threat and warned it had stolen intellectual property and could be spying on Americans through “back doors” that allow unauthorized access to sensitive data.
Pressure on the company intensified last month, when the U.S. Commerce Department placed Huawei on its “Entity List,” restricting trade with U.S. partners, after President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order effectively blocking the company from operating in the United States.
With criticisms mounting around the globe, Huawei reasserted itself last week when it signed a deal with the African Union to expand partnerships on a range of technologies, from broadband and “cloud” computing to 5G and artificial intelligence.
Thomas Kwesi Quartey, the AU Commission’s deputy chairperson, and Philippe Wang, Huawei’s vice president for North Africa, signed the memorandum of understanding last week at the AU headquarters — itself a goodwill gift from China to Africa — in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The agreement is a show of solidarity at a critical time in Huawei’s history — and a potential wedge between Africa and the United States at a moment of growing antagonism between the world’s largest economies.
It also expands Huawei’s foothold in a market with significant potential for growth in the years ahead; just 36% of Africans had reliable internet access as of March.
Huawei first entered Africa in the late 1990s, when it helped build cellular networks in dozens of countries. Experts estimate Huawei constructed the majority of Africa’s cellular infrastructure, impacting multiple sectors along the way, from education and banking to health and government.
The communications networks Huawei has built, usually with loans financed by the Chinese government, aren’t as visible as massive infrastructure projects like bridges and railways. But their impact is at least as far-reaching.
“On the technological front, China is unmatched in Africa,” Antoaneta Roussi, a journalist based in East Africa, wrote recently in Nature magazine. “The country’s telecommunications giant Huawei has built half of the 4G networks on the continent and most of the 2G and 3G.”
The company has also taken the lead in developing the continent’s 5G capabilities, beginning in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Huawei helped launch a next-generation network in February. With data transfer speeds at least 100 times greater than 4G, 5G technology greatly improves upon existing cellular systems.
Huawei may not offer superior technology, but it has been willing to engage with African nations when Western companies haven’t, W. Gyude Moore, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development and the former minister of public works in Liberia, recently wrote.
And they’ve done so at steeply discounted prices. The Chinese government has subsidized information technology (IT) infrastructure throughout Africa, making it more affordable and more available.
Over the years, ties between Africa and Huawei have only strengthened.
In 2012, Huawei built a “desktop cloud” project for the African Union to help the organization communicate and conduct its business more effectively.
This year’s renewal marks the most ambitious agreement to date.
But the competitive and political landscapes have become more complex.
U.S. tech giants Google and Microsoft have launched new research and development initiatives across Africa to recruit local talent and build cutting-edge technologies.
Meanwhile, heightening tensions between China and the United States could push African nations into choices over whom they partner with, even as interest in African investment increases and more strategic partnerships present themselves.
And worries over security aren’t likely to wane, with growing concerns that emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning could become tools of repression in the hands of authoritarian regimes, concerns raised by groups like Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.