Documents published by Le Monde late last year have highlighted the way that the digital communications revolution, which has given half of Africans a mobile phone, has also made the continent’s businesses and governments extremely vulnerable to the former colonial powers in the 21st century. The French paper’s revelations illustrated how Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain ran a continent-wide electronic surveillance operation that spied on targets in 20 African countries. These documents were part of the cache of data leaked by Edward Snowden, who subsequently shared them with Le Monde and its partner, the investigative journalism website The Intercept.
British surveillance came as no surprise after previous revelations abroad, with a range of African politicians, military and intelligence leaders, rebels, and diplomats being targeted. Le Monde adds that the papers from Snowden revealed that an extensive range of business and finance figures from the continent had their communications intercepted by the British spying agency from 2009 to 2010. Among others, their targets included Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, an influential figure in the continent’s West African powerhouse, and Chris Kirubi, a wealthy Kenyan tycoon. In 2009 Elumelu was the head of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) and a close friend of then-president of Nigeria Umaru Yar’Adua.
What is surprising is the methods that GCHQ used to achieve such a widespread penetration of African nations’ private communications. The UK does not have the resources to run vast networks of agents across the continent, infiltrating every corner of African life. Instead British spies primarily relied upon intercepting communications on the cheap, as they were being beamed between satellites. Le Monde revealed that GCHQ also listened in on the communications of multinational corporations operating in Africa, such as household name Orange, France Télécom, and the Mediterranean Shipping Company, an Italian-Swiss logistics firm.
The digital communications revolution, which has given half of Africans a mobile phone, has also made the continent’s businesses and governments extremely vulnerable to the former colonial powers in the 21st century
The importance of communications intercepts to modern spying can be seen by the stress GCHQ placed on infiltrating a large number of roaming managers for African and telephone service providers. The Intercept named the South African telecommunications firm MTN and Kuwait-based Zain as two companies whose employees had their communications regularly intercepted. The site said that workers in at least 15 African countries, including Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, DR Congo, and Mali, had their emails hacked in search of technical documents that would contain helpful information that GCHQ could use to worm their way into the firms’ networks and eavesdrop on their users’ communications.
Spying and business often go hand in hand, of course — hence the coining of the term “industrial espionage.” However, the British surveillance operation has dramatically revealed the extent to which African governments and businesses must rely on compromised foreign telecommunications and information technology that renders them more vulnerable than most to the most popular methods used by foreign intelligence agencies to gather information. Although the recent revelations are unlikely to really shock any high-profile African political or business leader, they will confirm long-held suspicions about the breadth and depth of Anglo-American signals intelligence penetration on the continent.
That even a medium-sized European power like the UK keeps itself keenly aware of the economic and technological developments within African states highlights the profound disadvantages faced by poorer countries as they modernize their communications networks using Western technologies. Modern agencies like GCHQ can monitor their most commercially sensitive decisions and secret discussions at will by electronically keeping tabs on the communications of African banks, ministries, development organizations, and commercial enterprises. This happens to all institutions, of course, but better-resourced states such as Japan, Russia, China, or France can generally protect themselves to a degree, or even fight back. Meanwhile sovereign African governments and businesses are put at a potential disadvantage in matters ranging from international trade talks to submitting competitive bids on contracts at home and abroad.
This technological imbalance is also yet another reminder that the information revolution, which in some ways has put business on the continent ahead of that in the West, from the common usage of electronic money on mobile phones to hugely improved communications, has come at the price of increased vulnerability. In the last decade, the global technology sector has been dominated by a handful of large Western-based firms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Although China and a number of other states have opted to restrict the digital giants’ access and allow their own local firms to flourish — Baidu and Alibaba are major players in the Chinese market — no digital giants have yet emerged from South Africa, Nigeria, or other large African economies. With the pace of technological change quickening as automatization and artificial intelligence emerge to revolutionize modern economies, African states risk falling further behind.
From mobile phones to digital currencies, Africa’s citizens have been some of the quickest consumers to take up new opportunities online. Nigerian criminals, for instance, have become notorious for their savvy online financial scams despite living in a country which often struggles to keep its lights on. But Africa’s inhabitants keep living their digital lives through the online platforms and physical infrastructure created by others. That puts the continents’ citizens and their institutions in a world where they are forever playing catch-up, and forever on the receiving end of a digital power imbalance. African nations increasingly need to follow the lead of many of their Asian counterparts and plant the seeds of their own digital futures, or else this imbalance will only widen.