Is Ghana’s government using Israeli kit to spy on activists and dissidents?

By Suraya Dadoo
Posted on Thursday, 21 July 2022 15:53

The word Pegasus and binary code are displayed on a smartphone which is placed on a keyboard in this illustration taken May 4, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Under both parties, Ghanaian officials have cut deals with Israel to get technology that can eavesdrop and intercept calls and data.

As protests mount against worsening economic conditions, police brutality and what many activists see as rising authoritarianism, civic activists are vowing to push back against the state’s illegal use of surveillance technology like Israel’s Pegasus, first bought by John Mahama’s National Democratic Congress government in 2016.

Bernard Mornah, a leading member of ‘Arise Ghana’, which mobilised street demonstrations in Accra last month, confirmed his group will be seeking a Parliamentary enquiry into the use of Pegasus in Ghana from 2017.

Another prominent activist, Oliver Barker-Vormawor, says the #FixtheCountry movement intends to file a right to information request regarding the use of Pegasus by successive Ghanaian governments and is prepared to press the demand all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Barker-Vormawor says the issue of digital privacy wasn’t a priority when ‘Fix the Country’ kicked off, but it has become a matter of direct interest for the group.

Africans Rising, a pan-African movement working for peace, justice, and dignity, welcomes the campaigns. “We have not directly lobbied any governments using Pegasus as our work is mostly in supporting movements directly. Nonetheless, we call on Africans to rise up in solidarity,” says Ghana-based Hardi Yakubu of Africans Rising.

Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator at Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), shares these concerns about spyware surveillance. “There is a glaring need for increased transparency and accountability surrounding the sale of Pegasus spyware … to target journalists,” she says.

Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now, an international NGO fighting for digital civil rights, says: “Litigation remains an important tool in the fight against spyware abuses. Spyware companies like NSO Group […] state that [those using] their technologies should know: you will be held accountable.”

Is Pegasus still operational in Ghana?

Questions still remain about whether Pegasus equipment, bought by Mahama’s government in 2016, is still being used in Ghana. Several activists and journalists think it is: Barker-Vormawor and Mornah believe that activists from #FixtheCountry and ‘Arise Ghana’ are targets for illicit surveillance.

I would not be surprised if the software is in use in Ghana.

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, a human rights activist and former parliamentarian, also believes that Pegasus is still operational. He cites the increasing repression of media and critical voices in Ghana through intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrests. “I believe that Pegasus was acquired to spy on critical voices, anti-graft activists and political opponents,” says Amenga-Etego. “Ghanaian media have been cowed into self-censorship.”

Some journalists in Ghana are reluctant to cover the story in case officials start targeting them too.

“I would not be surprised if the software is in use in Ghana,” says Teye Kitcher, a veteran journalist and academic. He is concerned about the spyware’s potential to be abused by the intelligence agencies.

Amenga-Etego and Dogbevi argue that the government’s re-registration of mobile SIM cards in Ghana could point to the use of Pegasus-powered surveillance systems in the country.

Vow of silence in Ghana

Some journalists have taken what Pavan Kulkarni calls  a “vow of silence” on the story.

Kulkarni reached out to Ghana’s Pegasus targets, NCA officials, lawyers and bureaucrats involved in the criminal investigation. All of them refused to comment.

At the time of writing, the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), had still not responded to questions from The Africa Report. Efforts to reach the ministry of national security were also unsuccessful.

There seems to be a conspiracy of silence among political leaders on the matter. The NDC, now in opposition, was the ruling party when Pegasus was bought illegally in 2016. The current ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) is now accused of using the spyware against its critics. “Both are now in the same boat. Rocking it is not in the interest of either,” says Kulkarni.

Israelis demand criminal probe

The political trail may have run cold in Ghana, but some Israeli rights activists are campaigning to bring transparency and accountability to their country’s surveillance industry.

In May, over 50 Israeli academics and activists, including a former speaker of Israel’s parliament – requested that Israel’s attorney-general investigate NSO’s sale of Pegasus to Ghana and the complicity of Israel’s Ministries of Defence (MoD) and Foreign Affairs (MFA).

This case is important because Ghana is a democracy; it is not a dictatorship and Pegasus is dangerous to Ghana.

“This case is important because Ghana is a democracy; it is not a dictatorship and Pegasus is dangerous to Ghana,” says Eitay Mack, an advocate who is representing the Israeli activists.

“This case is important to raise public awareness inside Israel because it is an Israeli company that works with licensing from Israeli government officials, so it’s an Israeli story that needs to be dealt with by the Israeli public – not only in the courts in Accra,” says Mack.

A year ago, Barker-Vormawor alleged that the country’s national security ministry was unlawfully monitoring the phone of a leading member of the citizen protest movement.

According to him, calls to the device were diverted to an unknown number soon after members of the group had met with national security officials in May 2021. Ghanaian officials called Barker-Vormawor’s allegations “false and baseless”, downplaying claims of illegal surveillance.

Six months later, Forbidden Stories – an investigative journalist group – revealed that the phones of Ghanaian citizens were under illegal surveillance.

Ghana was one of 26 countries where the military-grade cyber-surveillance system, Pegasus  – developed by the Israeli surveillance technology company, NSO Group – had been used to spy on the private communications of individuals.

Pegasus is capable of cracking the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone and transforming it into a powerful spying tool. The spyware can only be sold directly to governments and their agencies with the permission of the Israeli government.

Apple notified the three Ghanaians that their iPhones could be targets of state-sponsored attackers.

Pegasus’ history in Ghana

Pegasus has a long, sordid history in Ghana.

In December 2015, George Oppong, the head of a little-known Accra-based company called Infralocks Development Limited (IDL), signed a $5.5m contract with the NSO Group to purchase Pegasus. Oppong then struck a second deal worth $8m to resell Pegasus to Ghana’s telecommunications body, the National Communications Authority (NCA).

Neither the NSO Group, nor officials in the Israeli ministry of defence – which grants export licences for Pegasus – verified whether IDL was a recognised Pegasus reseller or authorised by the NCA to act on its behalf.

Israel’s Channel 13 then broadcast footage of NSO staff arriving in Ghana in June 2016 – just six months after the contracts were signed – to install Pegasus and train local officials on how to use the equipment.

The Channel 13 broadcast and Forbidden Stories confirmed what government officials for years have been denying: that Ghana indeed has obtained the [software]

Though the NCA was listed as the purchaser, it was Ghana’s national security ministry that wanted the equipment. The system was installed at the apartment of the then national security advisor, leading many to speculate the government wanted to use Pegasus to snoop on opposition figures ahead of elections in December 2016.

The NCA’s hush-hush purchase of Pegasus wouldn’t have come to light were it not for a legal fight over payment. The NSO Group says it received only half the money owed to it, so it removed the software that would have made the equipment operational. For years, both NSO and the Ghanaian authorities stuck with this explanation.

After a court case spanning several years, Accra’s High Court ruled in May 2020 that the purchase of Pegasus was corrupt, illegal and unauthorised. Two NCA officials, and the then National Security Coordinator, were convicted and imprisoned for corruption.

That should have been the end of the Pegasus debacle in Ghana but it wasn’t.

“The Forbidden Stories revelations was the first time that Ghana was named in any leak or report on the targets of the Pegasus software, effectively opening a can of worms on whether Ghana had the software or not,” says Emmanuel Dogbevi, editor of Ghana Business News. Dogbevi closely followed the court case for years and was the first journalist to report that Ghanaian authorities had purchased Pegasus.

“During the trial, which lasted a couple of years, officials insisted that they [hadn’t] acquired the hardware. The Channel 13 broadcast and Forbidden Stories confirmed what government officials for years have been denying: that Ghana indeed has obtained the [software].”

Beyond the missing millions

However, the Pegasus revelations have barely caused a ripple in Ghana. Media coverage of the case focused exclusively on charges of personal gain among the public servants involved.

Most Ghanaian journalists failed to report Pegasus’s role in ruthlessly surveilling and silencing hundreds of journalists and government critics in Togo, Morocco, Rwanda, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia amongst others.

READ MORE The Israel Connection

Few journalists asked why the Ghanaian authorities were so keen to obtain technology used by authoritarian regimes to ruthlessly suppress criticism. There were even fewer questions asked about individuals that Pegasus would be used to investigate or how such technology would harm transparency, accountability and freedom of expression in Ghana.

Dogbevi called these omissions “frightening”, leaving Ghanaian citizens oblivious of the “chilling reality” of Pegasus in their own country.

The conviction and prison sentences handed down to the officials involved led most Ghanaians to believe that the matter had been concluded.

Spyware as statecraft?

The silence among Ghanaian officials is being replicated in Israel.

“In Israel, there is almost 100% silence on the story of Pegasus and it’s coming from the side of the government and the ministries of defence and foreign affairs,” says Eitay Mack.

The NSO Group and its sale of Pegasus spyware isn’t just a case of an Israeli company doing business in Africa. Pegasus in Ghana must be located in a larger context of diplomacy, foreign relations and statecraft.

Spying technology companies like NSO and their surveillance products are an extension of the Israeli government’s foreign policy. The Israeli government uses this as a lever of influence because its ministry of defence grants spyware companies export licences.

Spyware is a diplomatic bargaining chip for Israel as the country seeks to fight a global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against its 50-year military occupation of Palestine that is increasingly being compared to apartheid South Africa.

An investigation by The New York Times found that Mexico and Panama started voting in Israel’s favour at the UN after receiving the spyware.

In Africa, Israel’s primary foreign policy objective for almost two decades has been to gain observer status at the African Union (AU). In July 2021, in a controversial move that split the AU, Israel achieved its goal and received accreditation from the commission’s chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Spyware as a bargaining chip

Diplomatic sources who were at February’s AU Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, where Mahamat’s decision was set to be reversed, confirmed to The Africa Report that Israeli diplomats promised military, surveillance and intelligence assistance to some African leaders to support the upholding of Israel’s accreditation. In a move that shocked many AU members, Israel’s observer status was upheld at the summit.

Ghana, under the current leadership of Nana Akufo-Addo, has been one of Israel’s most vocal supporters at the AU, lobbying hard for Israel to be granted observer status.

This raises the question of whether Israel used spyware as a bargaining chip with Ghana in its lobbying for AU accreditation status. It is a question of the highest diplomatic sensitivity, one to which security officials in Accra pointedly refuse to respond.

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