CHINA WATCHAfrica embraces Huawei technology despite security concerns

By David Ehl

Published 10 February 2022

Shunned in the Global North due to privacy and security issues, Huawei is a front-runner in Africa. But the Chinese giant’s data collection methods may also appeal to authoritarian regimes as a way to cling to power.

Chinese technology giant Huawei has been battling headwind in the Global North: Sanctioned by the United States , it also faces legal obstacles in the United Kingdom and European Union countries, meaning Huawei parts cannot be used in technical infrastructure like mobile networks. In Lithuania, the government even appealed to citizens to give up their Huawei smartphones.

But it’s a different story in Africa: Components from the Chinese multinational Huawei make up around 70% of 4G networks across the continent.

Many areas are upgrading to 5G technology, with Huawei firmly ahead in supply. In Nigeria’s economic capital Lagos, the first 5G masts are already set to enter service.

Gbenga Adebayo, the leader of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), points to the reasons for the popularity of Huawei’s devices.

Traditionally, they come with low prices. They come with terms that are very attractive to operators, and it’s easy for people to work with them,” Adebayo told DW.

All of Huawei’s transactions are handled directly by the Exim Bank, responsible for Chinese foreign investments. Adebayo points out another critical reason why Huawei is so popular on the continent. 

In terms of reliability, their systems tend to give some measure of performance guarantee,” he explained. 

So why do African consumers embrace Huawei so much more fully than their counterparts in the Global North?

When Infrastructure Is Not Neutral
This is partly because such nations seek to strengthen their own telecommunications systems, Arthur Gwagwa from the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University told DW.

But concerns surrounding Huawei and security are well placed, added Gwagwa, who has worked on multiple African cybersecurity projects and specialized in the topic as a lawyer in Zimbabwe.

Huawei can impact a country’s security, exposing military or other sensitive information to theft, Gwagwa said. But not only that — “It also has equipment that is manufactured, sometimes I think negligently, that allows vulnerabilities for cyberattacks for military and industrial espionage,” Gwagwa added. 

He describes some governments as being naive: “The issue of digital foreign interference is a new phenomenon that many Africans, especially the leadership, don’t really understand because the digital sphere is something that is not tangible.”