China-Africa Relations: An African Bull in a China Shop

How Spymaster China is using its ambitious infrastructural development and financial “assistance" to Africa to gain unfair advantage by expanding its surveillance network in Africa according to a recent study.

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China-Africa Relations:
How already deep is Spymaster China;s incursion into Africa?

China-Africa relationship in recent times have left many pundits severally asking the question – what does China really want from Africa?

To bring it back home, the question is, what is the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government up to given its glaring macabre romance with the Chinese government perhaps in more ways than meet the naked eyes?

It all started with China and it is still all about China but this time, not only here in Nigeria but indeed on the continent and around the globe.

China-Africa Relations:  An African Bull in a China Shop
A cross section of African leaders at Forum on China Africa Cooperation

No doubt China has become an awfully stupendous player that is presently rocking the world stage thanks to its growing economic, political, technological, military and need I add even “COVID-19” influences around the globe but especially in Africa.

Much more than that however, China is perhaps daringly more ambitious than the African continent and indeed the rest of the world might possibly be giving it credit for.

Recall the arrival on the 8th April, 2020 of the so-called “15-member team of the Chinese medical personnel” who came into the country? They came in supposedly “to share their experiences in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with Nigeria” as then declared by the Minister of Health himself, Osagie Ehanire, who personally was at the airport to receive the Chinese visitors.

Although some Nigerians and medical associations had kicked against the decision to allow the so-called Chinese medical experts into the country, the government nonetheless went ahead with the “plan”.

Few weeks later however, only for the same federal government to publicly deny custody or knowledge of the whereabouts of the team claiming instead that the team was in Nigeria on the bill of China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a Chinese company working in Nigeria to assist in building and equipping isolation centres.

The Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, while responding to questions at the daily Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 briefing made the turn-around disclosure to reporters.

“Indeed, 15 Chinese nationals came into Nigeria on 8th of April. They are here on the bill of the CCECC, a Chinese company doing some works for us in Nigeria in conjunction with some Nigerian companies. They agreed to support us in the effort to respond to the pandemic,” Aregbesola said.

China-Africa Relations:  An African Bull in a China Shop
15 Chinese nationals who came into Nigeria on 8th of April

Most Nigerians have since reached the conclusion that the Chinese team’s arrival in Nigeria was obviously in furtherance of the usual Chinese government subversive dealings with the full endorsement of the federal government of Nigeria. Except of course that this time around, to which end or motive the deal is applicable would as usual remain a subject of public conjectures.

However, what is clearly no longer in the realm of conjectures is the findings of a new research undertaken by a US conservative research institution and think tank – the Heritage Foundation.

According to the study, Beijing may have better surveillance access to Africa than anywhere else in the world. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) over two decade-long blitz of engagement in Africa has likely given it extensive surveillance access to the continent given the fact that all Chinese companies are legally obliged to help the CCP gather intelligence.

The report analyzes how China’s construction projects are a trojan horse for spying on African governments, based on China’s long-standing pattern of using its foreign infrastructure projects for political advantage and industrial espionage.

Accordingly, the research study reveals that China has quietly embarked on government building and other sensitive projects across Africa based on the following facts:

“Chinese companies have constructed or renovated (or both) at least 186 sensitive African government buildings; Chinese telecommunications firms have built at least 14 intra-governmental “secure” telecommunications networks that give Beijing the opportunity for unprecedented surveillance on the continent; and the Chinese government has gifted batches of computers to at least 35 African governments.

“As the world leader in economic espionage and foreign influence operations, Beijing almost certainly uses its engagements in Africa to surveil African officials and business leaders. The Chinese government could use the information it harvests to recruit or influence senior African government officials amongst other things.”

An immediate reference case is China’s infiltration of the computer network in the glitzy African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the goal to steal sensitive data -a task made easier by the fact that China itself built the headquarters building.

Recall that in January 2018, the French Newspaper Le Monde reported that servers installed by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the African Union (AU) headquarters were daily uploading their content to servers based in Shanghai, China.

An inspection of the building built by the state owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation also uncovered listening devices hidden throughout the building. Three days later, the Financial Times newspaper confirmed Le Monde’s story.

“Beijing’s eavesdropping on African government buildings likely extends well beyond the AU headquarters. Given the difficulty of gathering comprehensive data on independent China’s nearly seven decades of engagement with Africa, there are compelling reasons to believe that the CCP is using the opportunity afforded it by Chinese companies constructing government buildings to gather intelligence. Doing so would be in keeping with Beijing’s extensive use of espionage and other malpractice to gain an economic advantage amongst others.

“Breaking it down even further, the study revealed that Chinese companies have built, expanded, or renovated at least 24 presidential or prime minister residences or offices; at least 26 parliaments or parliamentary offices; at least 32 military or police installations; and at least 19 ministries of foreign affairs buildings.

“Having surveillance access to these buildings is an extraordinary opportunity for the CCP to gather intelligence directly from the highest levels of African governments.

“The opportunity is so enticing, in fact, that Beijing may have financed and constructed some of the buildings to improve its surveillance of certain governments. Furthermore, most of the Chinese companies that built these structures are probably state-owned enterprises (SOEs), given that Chinese law compels both SOEs and private companies to assist the Chinese government in collecting intelligence.

“The effort is paying dividends in Africa. The governments there are usually reliable Chinese allies in international forums. In 1971, African states provided more than one-third of the votes that transferred the U.N. Security Council seat from Taiwan to China”, the study revealed.

One obviously serious implication of Chinese surveillance in Africa is that it readily enables Beijing to recruit highly placed assets within African governments or to collect embarrassing or harmful information on African government official with which it can easily blackmail cooperation from such government officials to do its bidding.

No doubt that through its surveillance mechanisms of government buildings in Africa, the Chinese government could collect damaging or embarrassing information about a country’s senior leadership thus using such information as leverage to ensure African leaders’ pliability, to the palpable harm or detriment of the respective countries they represent.

Additionally, the bigger economic risk for African governments is that since they frequently negotiate with the Chinese government, its banks, and its companies, as China is by far the largest bilateral lender to the continent; Chinese companies easily dominate Africa’s lucrative infrastructure construction sector.

Of course by eavesdropping on African governments, the Chinese government could easily also gain valuable information on African governments’ negotiating strategies, competitors’ bids, and other relevant information to leverage on.

Aside from just the buildings, “Chinese companies -Huawei for example, has built more than 70 percent of the 4G telecom networks in Africa and is proceeding with plans to deploy 5G networks on the continent. Huawei, ZTE (another Chinese telecommunication giant), and other Chinese telecoms have built and/or equipped at least 14 government networks, including dedicated military and police telecoms systems.

“Furthermore, the Chinese government has donated office equipment, including computers, to at least 35 African governments over the years. It is difficult to believe the Chinese government did not take the opportunity to make those computers vulnerable to Chinese spying before gifting them.

“Perhaps, African leaders are likely aware of at least some of the vulnerabilities such Chinese gifts brings and are either too far under the influence of Beijing to resist, believe that Beijing’s surveillance does not matter or that they can manage the challenge. A clear example is Zambia’s National Data Center that processes and stores all government data”, – the detailed construction of which was entirely handled by a Chinese firm.

The study went further to add that “Africa is the most permissive region on earth for Chinese spying and espionage. Beijing and its companies have enormous sway over many African governments, whether because of personal inducements to African leaders or because of African countries’ economic enmeshment with China – something Beijing increasingly uses as a weapon. Hence some African governments might hesitate to be appropriately skeptical of Chinese intentions.

“African countries also have limited cyber-defense capabilities. All of this is in addition to the extraordinary potential for surveillance access the CCP has from the computers it donates to African governments and the Chinese companies building government buildings and sensitive (including intra-governmental) communications networks.”

It may also interest you to know that not even regional blocks on the African continent are left out. In other words, aside the African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; it was the Chinese government which also built the:

  • Central African Economic and Monetary Community Central (CEMAC) Parliament in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea;
  • Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria and the
  • Southern African Customs Union (SACU) headquarters in Windhoek, Namibia.
China-Africa Relations:  An African Bull in a China Shop
Presidents Buhari of Nigeria and Xi-Jinping of China

Back home in Nigeria, the story is even more interesting. Need I mention also that the Nigerian Communications Commission headquarters in Abuja was built and delivered by China in August, 2005.

Only a couple of weeks back, a Chinese construction giant China Gezhouba Group Corporation (CGGC) opened its North-West Africa headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria.

CGGC President, Lyu Zexiang said at the launch that the regional headquarter, which is to cover about 18 African countries (eight in Central Africa, seven in West and three in North) will serve as a semi-independent branch, with power to take certain decisions without first seeking authorization from the China-based parent company.

He said the decision to site a major headquarters in Nigeria was informed by its confidence in the nation’s economy’s growth potentials.

According to an investigative report by the Punch newspaper published August 29, 2019; Chinese firms alone as at back then (August, 2019) were handling key Nigerian federal government’s projects to the tune of over $47bn.

According to the Punch report, “At least 22 major infrastructural projects worth over $47bn have been linked to Chinese firms as China continues to support its companies to win prime contracts in Nigeria to maintain a foothold on the nation’s economy. The projects cut across vital sectors of the nation’s economy such as power, rail, road, aviation and communications.

China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a subsidiary of the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation, has won many of the contracts linked with Nigerian projects since 1995, edging out interested companies from the United States and European nations”, the paper stated.

Furthermore, despite the fact that some of these Chinese companies have failed to deliver on the projects earlier awarded them; 10 years (2016) down the line, same Chinese firms have been rewarded same projects after reviews by the current administration of Muhammadu Buhari.

But what I find even more disturbing is the fact that China is practically extending its spy net on Africa’s biggest economy and largest population by taking hold of sectors as critical as security and communications in Nigeria.

The Punch reports further observes that, “In the communications industry, there are two major projects linked with the Chinese firms worth $670m. One of them is the National Rural Telephony Programme, designed by the Federal Government to extend telecommunication services to rural communities. The project was financed through a $200m concessionary loan from China and awarded to Chinese companies – Alcatel and ZTE Nigeria Limited – in the first phase.

“Another project, the $470m Close Circuit Television contract was awarded to the ZTE during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure. The contractor was said to have stopped work after collecting the sum of $100m.

“The communications system awarded to ZTE Nigeria Limited is meant to provide audio, video and data information for use by the Nigeria Police Force and other security agencies.

“The contract for the installation of the CCTV cameras in Abuja and Lagos by the Ministry of Police Affairs was part of a larger project titled, ‘Nigerian National Public Security Communications System,’ facilitated by an EXIM Bank of China loan.

“Another project in the communications sector was Nigeria’s first communications satellite, NigComSat-1, which was designed and built by the China Great Wall Industry Corporation at a cost of $400m. The satellite which was put in the orbit in May 2007 was deorbited in November 2008 following the development of power fault. It was replaced in December 2011 with NigComSat-1R by the same company.”

Undoubtedly, the Chinese takeover goes on and on with even deeper penetrations into the fabrics of the Nigerian nation and by extension the African continent at large.

Thus, if Nigeria and indeed the continent stands any chance of salvaging whatever might be left of their security and sovereignty; Chinese surveillance of Nigeria cum Africa is only one part of a much larger challenge that an increasingly globally assertive China poses. Yet it contributes to the problem, and Africa must begin to take very serious measures and come up with a unified response mechanism. It can start by working to understand the nature of Chinese surveillance and how it contributes to Beijing’s influences and operations on the continent.

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