Uganda, Zambia deny Huawei helped spy on political opponents

Ugandan pop star turned politician Bobi Wine: 'No foreign interventions can stop the wind of change in the country' (AFP Photo/JOEL SAGET)

Kampala (AFP) - Uganda and Zambia on Friday denied a report that employees of Chinese telecom giant Huawei had helped them spy on political opponents.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported this week that Huawei technicians helped the two African governments intercept communications and social media activity of their opponents, while also tracking their movements.

The article also reported that Huawei operated a video and cyber surveillance system in Algeria, which the company denied.

Algeria's foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment

In Uganda, WSJ reported that Huawei technicians helped Ugandan authorities use spyware to monitor pop star turned opposition icon Bobi Wine.

Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, became a lawmaker in 2017 and is preparing to challenge President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda's 2021 presidential election.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Huawei's assistance enabled Ugandan authorities to disrupt Wine's plans for concerts they feared would turn into political rallies.

"It is totally false to claim Huawei helped African governments among them Uganda spy on its political opponents," Ugandan presidential spokesman Don Wanyama told AFP. "Why spy on Bobi Wine?"

- Blacklisted by Trump -

Meanwhile Zambian government spokeswoman Dora Siliya on Twitter slammed the WSJ report, which said Huawei technicians helped authorities spy on opposition bloggers running a news site critical of President Edgar Lungu.

"The WSJ article on government spying on political opponents is malicious, we refute it with the contempt it deserves," wrote Siliya.

Huawei is the world's number two smartphone producer and is considered the global leader in fifth-generation or 5G equipment.

But it is facing pushback in some Western markets over suspicions that it provides a backdoor for Chinese intelligence services.

There are also concerns that Huawei's involvement in the development of foreign 5G networks could enable Beijing to gain access to critical infrastructure.

It has been blacklisted by US President Donald Trump purportedly because of espionage concerns.

- 'Wind of change' in Uganda -

The Wall Street Journal said its reporting "didn't turn up evidence of spying by or on behalf of Beijing in Africa".

But it described how an official with the Chinese Embassy in Kampala accompanied Ugandan officials to China where they visited Huawei's headquarters and received "details on the surveillance systems it has built around the world".

In a Twitter post Thursday, the embassy said the report was "PURE FAKE NEWS and TOTALLY GROUNDLESS!"

Wine, who has been detained multiple times since entering politics, told AFP Friday that the spying claims were "not surprising" but warned Museveni that underhanded efforts to stop his political rise would fail.

"Let him be reminded that Ugandans hold the key to their problems and no foreign interventions can stop the wind of change in the country," he said.

The WSJ article also said that a team of Ugandan security officials had visited the Algerian capital in 2017 to study a video surveillance system that included mass monitoring and cyber-surveillance centers.

One official told the newspaper that during their visit they had discussed "hacking individuals in the opposition who can threaten national security".

Huawei in a statement rejected the "unfounded and false allegations about its commercial operations in Algeria, Uganda and Zambia."

The statement said that Huawei's professional code of conduct prevents any activity that compromises the data or private life of its clients.

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