Omnipresent in Africa, Chinese telecommunications companies are developing strategic partnerships with several countries on the continent. At the risk of getting their hands on the continent's data?
Chinese telecommunications companies have increased their presence on the African continent in recent years. According to a report by Megatrends Afrika, an offshoot of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the German Institute for Development and Sustainability (IDOS) and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW ), quoted by the Ecofin agency, this revolution in the telecoms landscape in Africa is not without risks. Issues of digital sovereignty, cybersecurity or governance… Has China got its hands on a war chest?
The report mentions in particular the roles of Huawei and ZTE, who “have developed strategic partnerships with major African telecom operators such as MTN, Sonatel, Algérie Télécom and Maroc Télécom”. On the surface, it is a question of extending Internet access to all African populations. In fact, the Chinese omnipresence poses a real security problem.
China also takes care of the financing
And the Chinese strategy is well oiled: according to Megatrends Afrika, Chinese companies conclude contracts “with loans at preferential rates” made by financial institutions such as China Exim Bank, China Development Bank and China-Africa Development Fund. At first glance, these are attractive opportunities for African states, which therefore do not have to pay their way. Between 2014 and 2018 alone, this funding from China, devoted to the development of telecommunications networks in Africa, reached up to 1 billion dollars per year.
Problem: "The rulers of the various countries who appeal to China do not measure the consequences of the agreements that bind them to Huawei or ZTE". Indeed, against the development of infrastructure and telecommunications services, African presidencies and governments agree to transfer their data to servers abroad. Apparently, everything is done to forget the Chinese stranglehold, with servers based in the United States or Europe.
But the main problem with these operations is the African data centers built by these Chinese telecommunications companies. South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal, but also Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon or Ghana... A study by the CSIS Reconnecting Asia Project describes Huawei's strategy: the Chinese operator "promises major commercial advantages to its potential customers and associates typically the provision of hard infrastructure to services, and leverages funding from Chinese political banks to sweeten deals.”
Africa, dependent on China?
Enough to close the loop: from financing to operations, Chinese operators are getting their hands on data. Because, as in the case of Huawei, nothing says what the Chinese operator does with the data. Data centers are thus presented as turnkey projects. But Huawei, once the centers are operational, can still have access to the data.
But why aren't governments doing more to prevent this phenomenon? For Megatrends Afrika, espionage contracts between Chinese companies and certain African countries prevent the latter from being too careful about the methods used: several African governments monitor the Internet and use monitoring tools against opponents through these Chinese operators.
Another concern: appealing to foreign companies is almost a necessity. "Until African countries are able to produce this type of technology themselves, they will be dependent on Chinese or American players," said Henry Tugendhat, senior political analyst at the American Institute for Peace.