When Presidents Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were brought down within a few years of each other, Africa appeared to be getting rid of the old men that had dominated the political scene for decades.
Some of their text messages were not being delivered. They knew that it wasn’t a general issue with the network, because most of their messages were getting through. It was possible to contact your parents, your loved one and your boss … but as soon as you tried to send a message including the name of the main opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, the network failed.
This was something more sophisticated than the kinds of blanket Internet shutdowns that have done so much damage to democracy and the economy in countries such as Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Instead, Tanzanians were subject to a form of selective online censorship that was deliberately designed to undermine the campaign of the candidate most likely to defeat President John Magufuli.
It soon became clear how this was done.
Mobile phone companies had caved to a government demand to filter and block messages containing certain terms associated with the country’s main opposition party. One of those companies was Vodacom Tanzania, part of the Vodafone Group, a multinational company headquartered in Britain. Despite proudly proclaiming their commitment to promoting “inclusion for all”, “operating responsibly” and contributing to the “UN SDGs” on their website, a Western company aided an authoritarian leader to undermine freedom of speech.
The Vodafone case is just the tip of the iceberg. While Western governments are investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year in programmes designed to strengthen democracy in Africa, Western companies are involved in a range of activities that help to prop up abusive and poorly performing autocrats.
The best known examples of this are perhaps the Western arms companies that sell weapons to repressive regimes and the numerous Western businesses that benefit from the corrupt deals and money laundering that enables dictators to get rich quick while creating a slush fund for the ruling party.
Almost as notorious are the political advisors – most famously Cambridge Analytica – that use their expertise to help authoritarian presidents win flawed elections. The willingness of Western lobbyists to take hundreds of millions of dollars from unpopular leaders governing very poor countries has also received greater attention in recent years.
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What is perhaps less well known is that there is also a major problem when it comes to Internet and telecommunication companies like Vodafone, which often have good reputations based on their ability to connect people and expand access to information around the world.
Putting profits before people
Vodafone is only one example of what is a much broader problem. Hundreds of Western companies are directly involved in suppling authoritarian governments around the world with equipment that is used to filter the internet to block sites that are objectionable to them on social, political or security grounds.
According to the OpenNet Initiative, “Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia use the Western-built automated filtering solutions to block mass content, such as websites that provide skeptical views of Islam, secular and atheist discourse, sex, GLBT, dating services, and proxy and anonymity tools.”
Although a small number of companies such as Websense have officially stated that they do not want their software to be used for government censorship, the majority have no clearly articulated policy at all.
Many business leaders like to fall back on the excuse that they simply create software and should not be held accountable for what clients do with it after it has been purchased. But this does not stack up, as there is clear evidence of continued complicity in the way that these products are operated and maintained. As OpenNet put it, “These companies not only provide the technology infrastructure but also provide ongoing access to lists that categorize millions of URLs for the purposes of filtering.”
Others simply don’t care that their software is being used to strengthen the hand of authoritarian leaders and are brazen about how they operate. Netsweeper, a company headquartered in the Hague with offices in the UK, Canada, Australia and the United States, pro-actively advertises the fact that its products “block inappropriate content using [a] pre-established list of 90+ categories to meet government rules and regulations—based on social, religious or political ideals.”
Of course, this is not only a problem with Western companies. If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to companies based in the non-democratic states that are playing an increasingly important economic role on the continent.
The role of Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese multinational telecommunications company that is a major force in many African markets, is a particular cause for concern. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Huawei employees embedded within cybersecurity teams in countries such as Uganda and Zambia have been involved intercepting and decoding encrypted communications in support of government censorship efforts.
Worse still, Huawei has actually helped African governments to spy on and arrest their opponents.
In Uganda, for example, the government’s own cyber-surveillance unit spent days unsuccessfully attempting to use spyware to penetrate Bobi Wine’s WhatsApp and Skype communications – so they asked Huawei to do it for them. Over the course of two days, Huawei engineers were able to penetrate Wine’s political WhatsApp chat group, and on the basis of the information this generated the government “scuppered his plans to organize street rallies and arrested the politician and dozens of his supporters.”
No accountability, no shame
The question of who holds multinational companies accountable for such delinquent behaviour brings us back to Vodafone. Despite aiding and abetting an increasingly authoritarian government – one that compounded pre-electoral censorship and repression by arresting over 150 opposition supporters and leaders after the polls – neither Vodacom Tanzania nor its parent group Vodafone Plc, has been forced to explain its behaviour.
Perhaps even more tellingly, they have not even felt the need to apologise.
Instead, Vodacom Tanzania recently intensified its efforts to cosy up to the ruling party, appointing Thomas Mihayo –a known Magufuli ally, and a member of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) that just signed off on a flawed election – as its new Board Chairman.
Although multinational companies like to suggest that this kind of behaviour is a basic economic necessity, it is motivated by greed rather than a desire to stave of bankruptcy. In 2020, Vodafone recorded operating revenues of $53bn – more than the GDP of Tanzania.
Despite this, there has been no concerted effort to investigate the negative effect of Vodafone’s behaviour around the world on democracy and human rights.
The UK Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, the Labour Party’s Stephen Doughty, demanded that Vodafone “urgently respond” to the allegations and that UK companies should have “no part in” the “deeply worrying trend of regimes around the world blocking telecommunications and online services in an affront to democracy”.
While claiming to be a force for democracy around the world, the UK is increasingly focussing on “trade not aid”…
But although former Conservative Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, called on companies like Vodafone to “make it clear that this sort of unfair approach is not acceptable”, there was no similar statement from a current Minister or anyone close to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In turn, this demonstrates the inherent contradiction that now lies at the heart of the foreign policy of countries such as the UK and the United States. While claiming to be a force for democracy around the world, the UK is increasingly focussing on “trade not aid” while President Donald Trump has stated his determination to put “America first”.
By using their political influence to increase access to African markets for companies that have no commitment to democratic norms and values, Western governments are undermining precisely the civil liberties and political rights they claim to hold so dear.
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