China’s ‘shiny gifts’ to Africa might also be a trojan horse

Over the years, the Chinese government has been known to build ‘shiny gifts’ for its African friends as a means of solidifying and strengthening China’s political and diplomatic relationships in Africa.

Most recent in China’s ploy to strengthen its influence in Africa is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in a bilateral meeting held at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission headquarters, Abuja, to fund the new headquarters for the political bloc, as confirmed by the group in a press statement on Wednesday.

“An ECOWAS designated authority and the China Development Bank Corporation will work together to verify records of account payments at regular intervals,” the statement further clarified.

The cost of building the project is estimated to be around $32 million for the construction of a facility that includes offices and conference complex building, road facilities, electrical equipment, parking lots and security posts.

Political bloc buildings are usually erected by countries to signify their independence and ability to take a self-sufficient decision where development is concerned. However, that sense of independence is often downplayed in Africa. African leaders seem to be comfortable with the order of things, as they’ve welcomed the Chinese approach of developing friendship with Africa from onset, as well as embraced investments from China till date.

Africa’s infrastructures are being built by Chinese firms at a staggering rate as China eyes Africa’s natural resources, in exchange for huge money investments in the continent’s infrastructures. Chinese financial aid to Africa was around $5-6 billion per year from 2006-2010, increasing to $10 billion each year in 2011-2012 and averaged $15 billion in 2013 and 2014.

As at 2011, trade between China and Africa increased more than six-fold during the past decade to $120bn (£76bn), meanwhile, the first quarter of 2017 alone witnessed a 16.8 percent increase to $38.8 billion in China’s total trade with Africa.

While other foreign nations impose conditions before aid is given, China’s relationship with African countries is strictly a business one. Human rights groups in the past have criticized China for undermining efforts by Western countries to link aid to improvements in governance.

African Union Headquarters Building
A general view shows the headquarters of the African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Asides funding the new ECOWAS headquarters, China recently inked deals to build and finance parliament buildings in Zimbabwe and Congo Republic as well as the entire Central Business District of Egypt’s new administrative capital. China is also rebuilding the burnt premises in Gabon. China’s finished projects in the continent include parliament buildings in Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, and Lesotho as well as a renovation of the parliament building of Sierra Leone. Though China ‘supposedly’ has a strong resolve to support African development, its intent towards Africa’s development needs to be checked.

In January 2018, a French newspaper Le Monde, quoted anonymous African Union sources that data from computers in the headquarters of the AU in Ethiopia, which had been constructed by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation had been transferred nightly to Chinese servers in Shanghai between 2012 and 2017.

After the massive hack was discovered a year ago, the building’s IT system including servers was changed, according to Le Monde. During a sweep for bugs after the discovery, microphones hidden in desks and the walls were also detected and removed.

However, Beijing fiercely denied the allegations, calling them preposterous and a malicious attempt to damage relations between the two partners. Not too far from China’s words, the African Union completely disregarded the report, noting that the regional bloc does not have any secret dossiers and has nothing to spy on.

The $200 million headquarters that was fully funded and built by China was opened in 2012 to symbolize Beijing’s thrust for influence in Africa and access to the continent’s natural resources. The AU has since put new cyber security measures in place and declined China’s offer to configure its brand new servers.

China would not be the first supposedly friendly superpower to spy on the African Union. In December 2016, a separate investigation conducted by Le Monde and The Intercept, revealed that African Union officials were targeted for surveillance by British intelligence.

China’s Decoy

China’s generosity and partnership agreements are often perceived as decoy to perform espionage on other nations. It is believed that Chinese espionage is aimed at the preservation of China’s national security through gaining commercial, technological, and military secrets. China is also believed to be engaged in industrial espionage aimed at gathering information to bolster its economy.

The United States believes the Chinese military has been developing network technology in recent years in order to perform espionage on other nations. Several cases of computer intrusions suspected of Chinese involvement have been found in various countries in continents that includes Asia (Hong Kong, India, Japan, The Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Vietnam), Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, United Kingdom), North America (Canada, United States), Oceania (Australia, New Zealand), South America (Peru) and Africa (Ethiopia).

China’s global spying operations are rapidly expanding and speculations from analysts and officials are that the communist-controlled People’s Republic of China runs the single largest intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world and its growing appetite for secrets has apparently become insatiable. Further argument is that the regime which is also gobbling up such key natural resources as farmland, energy, and minerals has an eye on dominating the world.

With its ‘shiny gifts’ positioned in several locations on the African continent, one can as well say China has Africa in its pocket. Perhaps Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who just took the reins as African Union chairman sees the perils of Africa’s dependence on China’s aids, as he told Reuters that his only concern was that the AU — not China — should have built its headquarters.

It is about time Africa gets its act together as it should be able to build its own building. Who is to guarantee that the newly signed ECOWAS headquarter project would not take a worse or similar turn like that of the AU’s and become the devil’s ticket to Africa’s bedroom? Yes! ‘bedroom’, because China is seated in its sitting room already.

Proof?

Deloitte’s Africa Construction Trends (2017) report showed that China finances “one in four projects in the East African region” and constructs “over half of all projects.”

According to a McKinsey report on Chinese investment in Africa published last year, Chinese companies have built much of the road and rail infrastructure across the continent and more than 10,000 Chinese companies are active in the region.

“There is no other country with such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa across the dimensions of trade, investment, infrastructure financing and aid,” the report stated. Despite the US placing restrictions on investment by Huawei and ZTE, this two companies have “built most of Africa’s telecoms infrastructure” the report revealed.

The truth is that African nations risk a lot by allowing Chinese technology companies to take such prominent roles in developing their telecoms backbones. If China bugged the AU headquarters, African countries should be worried.