By Faith Abiodun
Just as the 30th African Union (AU) Summit was wrapping up in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia last week, news broke via some thorough investigative work by Le Monde, that China’s gift to the AU six years ago was serving more purposes than initially assumed. China, the darling of the continent, has tremendously grown in influence across Africa over the past two decades, and there is no bigger symbol of that than the sprawling complex which houses the pinnacle of the continent’s aspirations – the AU’s headquarters.
It has been alleged that in gifting the AU headquarters to Africa in 2012, China had cleverly left a “backdoor” into the computer network in the building, allowing it to access the AU’s data at will. This had been undetected since 2012, until it was discovered recently that there seemed to be a peak in data usage between midnight and 2am when no one was in the office, but daylight had broken in Shanghai. Of course, China denies that it had anything to do with this strange discovery, but the AU has moved quickly to install its own servers and carry out a clean sweep of its headquarters with technical expertise from Algeria.
Firstly, there should be no surprise here, though we are justified to be alarmed. He who pays the piper dictates the tune. The mere existence of the AU headquarters – the continent’s unifying symbol – as a “gift” from China has always been a puzzle; what was in it for China? The building is still maintained by Chinese workers to this day, and even its elevator symbols are written in Chinese. This is bothersome. The overt Chinese presence on the continent in construction and business has been attributed to the availability of generous loans with affordable interest rates, as well as willing partnership for development. After all, a bird in hand is worth 10 in the bush, since the West had started to play hard ball with African leaders. But to have an entire spy operation underway from within the AU’s internet infrastructure is another level of audacity.
So, where do we go from here? I believe that this is time to re-assess Africa’s relationship with China, and capitalize on this breach of trust to re-write the modus operandi. China must be made to come clean with its intentions, and not explain this away with a slap on the wrist. This is major espionage! When the US government was caught red-handed spying on Germany and Brazil, a full apology was demanded; the US government (grudgingly by Donald Trump) has equally employed a special counsel to investigate alleged Russian interference in its last elections; Africa (an entire continent) cannot be seen to be dealing with this quietly. But do we really have the gut to call China out on its game? The same country that effortlessly exports ivory out of the continent in spite of numerous anti-poaching campaigns globally will likely get away easily with this major security breach. This is the biggest shame of all.
Until the day comes when we are truly independent of foreign interests, it appears that we will remain nothing more than a pawn in this global game of chess. We need to look inwards and think deeply.
PS: Who else found it curious that this investigative work was carried out by Le Monde (a French publication) and not an African media agency? Sigh!
Faith Abiodun is Executive Director of Future Africa