Africa has, in recent years, become the new frontier where China and the United States, the world’s two biggest economic superpowers, are competing for influence in a major industry: telecommunications.
This week, Ethiopia celebrated the launch of a 5G network operated by China’s telecom giant Huawei in Addis Ababa.
Just earlier, on a visit to the continent last week, US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited the offices of American mobile company Africell in Angola, where the firm has amassed nearly 2 million users since it launched just a month ago. .
“Today in Luanda, I visited @AfricellAo, an innovative, state-of-the-art American company that expands 5G access in Angola with reliable technology components,” she wrote in a tweet.
Asked at a later press briefing whether the tweet was not a dig at Huawei – which already has a big digital foothold in Africa but which was approved in the US in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump – Sherman was clear .
“This is not about throwing shade at Huawei (being important). We have been very straight. We believe that when countries choose Huawei, they are potentially giving up their sovereignty,” she said. They’re turning their data over to another country. They could be bringing themselves into a surveillance capability they didn’t even know was there.”
Washington has long expressed concern that Beijing is trying to monopolize the networks and possibly use them for espionage, while Huawei has repeatedly denied the allegations.
“Therefore, we have been very public about our concerns about Huawei, and therefore we are delighted that Africell can provide the people of Angola with a safe, capable tool to reach the world,” Sherman said.
The deputy secretary’s comments sparked outrage in Beijing, where she faced strong rebuke from Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“Chinese companies, including Huawei, have mutually beneficial cooperation with many countries in Africa and the world, contributing to the improvement and development of the countries’ communication infrastructure, providing advanced, quality, secure and affordable services for local people. and has won great support,” he said on Chinese state media.
“There is not a single case of cyber security mishap, surveillance or wiretapping during the course of cooperation,” he said, accusing the US of being responsible for such espionage activities for a long time.
Zhao said it is up to African governments to decide with whom to cooperate.
In Angola, the company already has a significant presence, with mobile operator Unitel linked to Huawei, which is also building two technical training centers worth $60 million in the country to develop the digital economy.
And with Huawei being widely available in South Africa, only one of the five people VOA spoke to at a local shopping center knew about the brand’s controversy.
Cherise Furie, a sales consultant at a cellphone shop in Cape Town’s Blue Route Mall, said Huawei handsets are no longer as popular, not because of concerns over any nefarious activities by the company, but because Google services are no longer on devices. Google is no longer available due to the US Huawei ban.
David DeVilliers, who sat in a cafe in the mall using his Samsung phone, told VOA he had never heard of the possibility that Huawei was involved in surveillance. He said that he would not buy Huawei phones after hearing this.
“I will not go there at all, not even for a second. I will not buy a Chinese phone,” he said.
One shopper, Steve Elliott-Jones, said he “wouldn’t trust anything coming out of China,” but thought other countries could also use mobile networks to spy.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if technology companies in the States or anywhere else for that matter… I really wouldn’t call anyone innocent. I think they’re all probably ready to sell information and make money if and when it comes to the fore.” If so, deny it.”