Is China using Huawei to Spy on African Governments?

Last week’s decision by President Yoweri Museveni to leave the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) the video conferencing equipment that Chinese telecommunication giant, Huawei had donated to State House sparked-off wild speculation with some suggesting that the President could have feared being spied on by the Chinese using the equipment.

The equipment which included two sets of video conferencing systems was received by Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda on April 21, 2020. Rugunda said that one set of the equipment would be installed at State House Entebbe while the other would go to the Nakasero State House.

But on May 19, Museveni, in a televised speech to update the country on the COVID-19 situation, said that instead of State House using the equipment, he had decided to leave it under OPM.

Museveni had previously lauded Huawei for donating the same equipment to the Ministry of Health.

“Huawei Group offered video-conferencing facilities that will enable quick communication between officials at the Ministry of Health headquarters, Mulago Hospital and hospitals across the country. These facilities will allow the medical staff to conduct real-time and interactive communication, including on their phones and computers, without much risk of physical contact,” Museveni said on March 26, 2020, following the installation of the video-conferencing facility at the Ministry of Health.

Museveni in deciding not to use the equipment at State House according to some circles was being cautious in the wake of increasing spy accusations against China.

Last week, Fox News, quoting a report titled,  “Government Buildings in Africa Are a Likely Vector for Chinese Spying,” claimed that China is using newly built or renovated buildings to spy on African governments to the advantage of Chinese companies doing business in Africa.

 The report by US-based conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation claimed there is a possibility that Chinese companies may have installed spying software in over 180 government buildings they constructed, which included residences for heads of state, parliamentary offices, and police or military headquarters, in African countries.

“The Chinese government has a long history of all types of surveillance and espionage globally,” Joshua Meservey, the senior policy analyst for Africa at the Heritage Foundation, told VOA.

“So we know this is the sort of thing they want to do, the sort of thing they have the capacity to do. And also, Africa is important enough for them to do it.”

Last August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei was also helping African governments to spy on political opponents.

But these allegations aside, was Museveni warned by intelligence sources from the US to be careful with the Chinese equipment or did local intelligence reports advise him against using the conferencing facilities?

Senior presidential press secretary, Don Innocent Wanyama downplayed the spying fears.

“We [State House] already have video-conferencing facilities. It’s what we’ve been using for the President’s meetings including the one with East African Community [EAC] heads of state recently,” Wanyama said.  

Although Museveni has welcomed Chinese investment in Uganda by giving most infrastructural development deals to companies from China, he also wants to keep a good relationship with the US and other western powers that are suspicious of China’s interest in Uganda and Africa at large. 

 Striking a balance between China and the US could be the reason why he didn’t outrightly refuse the equipment but donated it to the OPM.

However, Huawei and China must be disappointed and still wondering why the president didn’t find the donation fit for his use. Of course, the telecommunication giant is aware of the spying allegations but it seems not to have expected African nations and leaders like Museveni to take such decisions such as refusing to use their equipment in sensitive areas like State House.

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