China accused US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, of trying to damage its ties with Africa after she accused technology giant Huawei of undermining the sovereignty of African states. On 6 May Sherman said that the US believes that African countries electing to use Huawei technology are “giving up their sovereignty”. The diplomatic spat is another indicator of the great-power rivalry emerging between the two powers in the African technology and communications space. It comes as the US-backed mobile network provider Africell launched in Angola.
The US accuses Huawei of letting Chinese intelligence agencies access users and customers data – an accusation that China vehemently denies. Tensions over the matter reached a head in 2019 when the US placed sanctions on Huawei and its technology. This disrupted the supply of critical components to Huawei. US technology giants such as Google was also unable to work with the firm or provide products and services for Huawei products. This, however, did little to stop Huawei from growing further in Africa where it has become a service provider of choice. Huawei is currently the world leader in providing 5G technology and currently commands over 31% of the global 5G market. In Africa, Huawei has partnered with local companies and governments in countries that include South Africa, Angola, and Ethiopia.
Still, Sherman’s comments are not with basis. Reports have repeatedly surfaced over data security and suspicions that Huawei’s technology allow a ‘backdoor’ data access to Chinese intelligence agencies have not entirely gone away. A 2019 report alleged that in 2011 British telecommunications multinational Vodafone found vulnerabilities in its Huawei provided equipment that potentially could have granted Huawei unauthorised access to Vodafone’s network in Italy. In another development - although one not involving Huawei - the African Union (AU)’s internal IT team discovered a breach in the network of the Chinese-constructed AU headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2018 which was allegedly sending data to unidentified servers in Shanghai. It is widely believed that this had been an intelligence-gathering effort by China on senior government officials and diplomats seconded to the AU.
However, there is no publicly available proof that Huawei is providing private data to the Chinese government, Yet the matter has become a central issue in the US-China rivalry. The US is actively promoting this narrative in a bid to side-line Huawei in favour of US firms. Sherman made her comments soon after her visit to Africell’s new operations in Angola. Africell is a UK-based network provider that operates in Sierra Leone, Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, and had just launched in Angola in April. The company is Angola’s fourth mobile network operator and the first new entrant in the country in almost 20 years.
Although Africell is UK-headquartered it has strong links in the US and its largest external investor is the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Africell was launched in Angola with a US$150m investment and the country’s wider African expansion is being financed by a US$100m loan facility from the DFC. This partnership is significant as the DFC is seeking to position itself as an alternative to the low-interest infrastructure loans offered by the Chinese government, and Africell’s expansion is overtly intended to counter Chinese technology firms (specifically Huawei). The new mobile network was launched with a fully capable 5G network to rival the one developed in partnership between Huawei and Angolan network operator Unitel.
China has long viewed Africa as key to its so-called ‘Digital Silk Road’ initiative which aims to improve the presence and influence of Chinese mobile technology, social media, and e-commerce platforms across the world. However, it is increasingly clear that the US views the continent as important to its own China-containment strategy. As the US and China view for influence, further manoeuvring in Africa’s telecommunications sector is expected. African sovereigns should be wise to the opportunity this geopolitical game presents.
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