How governments are ‘weaponising’ surveillance

Surveillance technology: used and abused

African states have been deploying surveillance capabilities to spy on and intimidate youth movements and activists

Egyptian army officers monitor local and
international TV stations and websites at the
military press office department in Cairo in
June 2012. Egyptians were voting in a run-off
presidential election, pitting an Islamist against
Hosni Mubarak, amid political chaos, highlighted
by uncertainty over the future role of the army.

On 20 August, 2016, a group of mostly young social media activists gathered at a property in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, to discuss national political affairs. The political climate was tense in the central African country following brief, intense protests against the continued rule of long-time strongman Pierre Nkurunziza, politically motivated killings, repression of the media and an attempted coup the year before, in May 2015. As the gathering got under way, police swooped in and 46 of the activists, who had organised the meeting via the messaging app WhatsApp, were arrested. Eight of them were kept in jail for a while. “Police accused them of tarnishing the image of Burundi by spreading defamatory information against public authorities,” said a civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Before the arrest of those WhatsApp group members, the minister in charge of public security had issued a threatening statement against social media activists,” the activist told Africa in Fact.

“On 17 May, 2016, he said that those using social media tools to spread rumours should not feel safe; that security services have now acquired the capacity to monitor them, to locate them and arrest them.” The Burundian activist said that in the wake of the incident suspicions grew that the regime had acquired sophisticated digital surveillance capabilities to monitor and intercept the communications of citizens. As a result, with the traditional media sector, especially broadcasting, effectively captured or destroyed by the Nkurunziza regime, and with many journalists having fled the country and now operating from exile, a heavy culture of self-censorship enveloped the country, even on social media platforms. Since the youth-led uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring of 2011 that toppled authoritarian regimes across North Africa, indications are that many African governments have sharpened their communications and digital surveillance capabilities, especially seeking to clamp down on political expression on popular social media platforms that are primarily used by the youth.

In September 2019, the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Institute released its ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report, which found: “The continued surveillance of the public, with limited oversight, in addition to the increased surveillance capacity of governments, and the interception of communication, including that of critics and human rights activists, threatens internet freedom. These measures have been coupled with regulatory control of the internet, including now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.” The report mentions that while most of the repressive surveillance practices uncovered were primarily perpetrated by authoritarian regimes – of which there are apparently 23 among the 55 African governments – even those countries classified as “flawed democracies”, such as South Africa, engaged in highly questionable surveillance activities.

Since 2011, countries such as Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the list goes on, have “weaponised” the internet and social media platforms through surveillance and repressive computer misuse, social media tax, and cyber security and terrorism laws. This has been especially noticeable following similar youthful outspokenness online like that which preceded and fuelled the Arab Spring. And some states have even gone as far as deploying troll armies and state sponsored disinformation campaigns – what the Oxford Internet Institute calls “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – to counter narratives on social media platforms that are perceived to be anti-government. In its September 2019 report, ‘The Global Disinformation Order’, the institute identified 10 African governments involved in or running “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – specifically, Angola, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

The growing spectre of harm and alarm represented by such tactics, and the increasingly pervasive nature of state surveillance practices, along with the very real threat of surveillance overreach and abuse – as well as the ease with which surveillance and hacking technologies can be acquired internationally – have given rise to a global climate of widespread repression before expression. This was flagged as a burgeoning global human rights concern by United Nations special rapporteur David Kaye in June 2019. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a report submitted before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), stated: “We live in an age of readily available, easy to abuse and difficult to detect tools of digital surveillance. In his groundbreaking surveillance report in 2013, the previous mandate holder, Frank La Rue, noted that weak regulatory environments had provided fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.”

Many of the examples of abuse and infringements that Kaye was referring to undoubtedly emanated from the African continent, where some of the more repressive and authoritarian, as well as some seemingly democratic, states have been active over the past decade or so in global digital surveillance technology markets and have been caught out engaging in murky and unlawful surveillance activities. One such country is South Africa. “There’s plenty of evidence that South Africa’s security agencies have put resources into monitoring and interfering with democratic formations, particularly during the Zuma administration,” says Murray Hunter, a surveillance researcher who formerly headed the influential Right2Know (R2K) campaign’s state surveillance monitoring project. “This includes civil society groups, student protest movements, dissident unions, and media organisations. “A few years ago, there was also reporting on a leaked SSA [State Security Agency] document that revealed the agency’s official national security estimates, i.e. what it perceives to be the biggest genuine threats to state security,” Hunter explains.

“As this report shows, the state was frankly and seriously anticipating an Arab-spring style uprising in the lead up to the 2014 elections. In other words, the state had reframed what many would consider to be legitimate and unrelated social protest as a potential existential threat.” South African civil society and the media have exposed such practices over the years and even taken the state to court. In September 2019, the investigative journalism initiative, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by R2K and others, won a high court judgment that effectively scrapped the primary law enabling communications surveillance and interception, the notorious Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) of 2002. With SSA expected to appeal the high court decision, and the South African Police Service (SAPS) already having lodged an appeal, it’s unclear how the case will eventually end. But the decision reverberated around the world and has emboldened international calls for reform of state surveillance practices globally.

One country in particular need of reform is Zimbabwe, just north of South Africa, which has a long history of repression of legitimate dissent and political expression. While invasive state surveillance was already an uncomfortable fact of life for political activists and journalists up until then, since 2016 the situation has become much worse, according to political activist Henry Munangatire. He was one of the core organisers and strategists of the July 2016 #thisflag pro-democracy protest movement – run primarily via various social media platforms on mobile phones – spearheaded by young Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who attracted a large youth following and international attention, as well as state harassment, intimidation and repression. Munangatire said that at the height of the #thisflag movement, which called on people to stay home in protest at the state of the country, state security operatives used the state’s communications surveillance capabilities to hunt down and imprison youth movement leaders, many of whom managed to evade capture and had to be smuggled out of the country.

“All of a sudden you had young people using this hashtag to talk about their economic and social situations, which at that point were a result of 36 years of corruption and mismanagement of the country by Zanu-PF,” he says. “The success of this movement culminated in building social media activism and on-the- ground activism, which, of course, led to the creation of other hashtags, such as #Mugabemustgo, which were created online and led to civil disobedience and people expressing discontent at the system. “So it was at that point that the Zanu-PF government realised it didn’t know what to do with the internet and they started crafting a cyber security Bill. And that Bill basically sought to criminalise the use of social media in politics and social activism, even if it is peaceful activism,” Munangatire says. He added that while the cyber security Bill had moved onto the back-burner since the 2017 military coup that removed long-time Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe from office, it has since been revived by the Mnangagwa regime, which has pushed for its urgent enactment into law.

The Zimbabwe Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill was approved by the Mnangagwa cabinet at the beginning of October 2019 and has been sent to parliament for enactment into law. The Bill has already attracted criticism for its provisions that enable a clampdown on social media. The 34-year-old Munangatire said he lives under constant and invasive state surveillance and has been arrested twice for his political activities over the years. His experiences are unfortunately not isolated ones on the African continent. The warning signs for Africa are clear and everywhere, as articulated in the CIPESA ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report: “While digital authoritarianism has been in existence for decades, it is clear that its use by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations is a tool of state control over their rights. If left unchecked, democracy and internet freedom will continue to regress.”

However, according to Hunter, the situation was not all doom and gloom. “While pervasive surveillance may be a fact, we should not assume that it’s an inevitable fact,” he says. “As societies, we need to raise the political and social cost of security-statist thinking. That means helping raise public awareness of the issues and the threats and the costs of surveillance. We can march for privacy, and vote for privacy, and debate and discuss for privacy, and pay for privacy and donate for privacy and design for privacy and litigate for privacy and legislate for privacy – and we should.”

Frederico Links is a Namibian journalist, editor, researcher, trainer and activist. Research associate of Namibia’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He is primarily concerned with democracy and governance, particularly corruption and maladministration. He is chairperson of the Access to Information in Namibia (ACTION) Coalition of civil society, media and social activists.

A rapidly changing landscape of ever increasing threats

Cyber crime: It’s a war

Cyber crime knows no boundaries and the perpetrators are constantly improving their capabilities

According to Ivory Coast’s police department in charge of cyber crime (PLCC) nearly 100 internet criminals were arrested in the country in
2018. The country is known for its Web scammers. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP

Cyber crime cost Africa an estimated $3.5 billion in 2017 alone, according to pan-African IT business advisory company Serianu, but most countries don’t have the right legislation to defend themselves from – let alone prosecute – this new form of crime. The brutal war in Yemen provides a timely example of how what might appear to be a traditional regional conflict of the type far too common in Africa and the Middle East is also one being fought in a uniquely modern way using cyber warfare and drone attacks. The conflict between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition backed by the United States, United Kingdom and France is brutally old fashioned, fought with guns, mortars and tanks, killing about 91,600 people since 2015 and displacing more than two million others, according to recent reports by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and the United Nations. But in two ways it is a very modern war; two Houthi drone strikes in September 2019 on Saudi oil facilities threatened 10% of the world’s supply, while cyber warfare is also a key part of this conflict.

Rebels also took control of Yemen’s internet service provider (ISP), Yemen Net, when they took over the capital, Sana’a, in 2015 – opening up “another front”, Allan Liska, a threat intelligence analyst at internet technology company RecordedFuture, said in an interview with Cyberscoop, an online media outlet for technology decision makers. But cyber war is not just part of an active conflict like Yemen; it is growing in Africa, too. “Cyber crime today knows no borders, and its technical capabilities are improving fast,” says Riaan Badenhorst, general manager at IT security consultants Kaspersky Africa. Moreover, cybercrime in Africa is increasing at an “exponential rate”, says Nozipho Mngomezulu, a specialist telecoms and internet partner at Johannesburg law firm Webber Wentzel. Quoting Serianu’s 2017 cyber security report, Mngomezulu says that in Africa cyber attacks hit Nigeria the hardest, with losses of $649 million, followed by Kenya with $210 million and Tanzania with $99 million.

Meanwhile, during that time, more than 95% of public and private organisations across the continent spent less than $1,500 a year on cyber-security measures, with SMEs in particular failing to invest. Mngomezulu noted that the Institute for Security Studies had found that South Africa was the target of 13,842 cyber attacks every day. “Cyber criminals currently see Africa as a safe haven, where they can conduct their operations without the fear of being held accountable,” she told Africa in Fact. “Cyber criminals view Africans as easy targets that can be easily manipulated. And most African countries are yet to catch up with the rest of the world insofar as cyber security is concerned.” Several African countries have also effectively shut down their own internet during times of crisis – including Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Chad – making it possible for repressive regimes to keep citizens from protesting, literally by cutting off their means to communicate. Social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, which are key channels for spreading information, are the most frequent targets.

In the past year WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook with over a billion users, has been “turned off” in several countries. Social media are also the most important avenues for the spread of disinformation. In September 2019 Google’s security team revealed that Apple phones had been hacked, apparently by the Chinese, to spy on the oppressed Muslim Uyghur population in that country. Not long afterwards, WhatsApp sued Israeli security firm NSO Group for attacks on about 100 users, mostly human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Yemen has also seen a spike in malicious software, known as malware, although it is unclear whether cyber criminals intend them for espionage or criminal purposes. But “the intent for criminals to take advantage of people in a war zone, as well as nation states to do espionage … is there,” said Winnona DeSombre, a threat intelligence researcher at RecordedFuture in an interview with Cyberscoop.

One fearsome form of cyber crime with clear criminal intent is ransomware, in which hackers take control of computer systems and demand a payment to return control to their owners. In August 2019, Johannesburg’s city power utility was hacked with ransomware, while the city of Johannesburg itself was hit in October. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attacks, which targeted several African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Mozambique, Tanzania, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia, are thought to have hit 200,000 computers in 150 countries, and the total damage was estimated at between hundreds of millions and billions of dollars. A 2016 African Union Commission and Symantec report analysing cyber-security trends and governments’ response to them, found 34 out of the continent’s 55 countries lacked specific legal provisions to combat cyber crime, says Mngomezulu, citing also “weak infrastructure security, a lack of skilled human capital and a lack of awareness of the sector’s dynamics”.

“There is little sense of a cohesive strategy to fend off cyber attacks, little knowledge sharing, and certainly no cyber-defence capacity as part of national defences,” says Arthur Goldstuck, the managing director of South African-based researchers World Wide Worx. Meanwhile, the threat of ransomware remains as powerful as ever, while it also evolves in sophistication, says Badenhorst. Attacks on urban infrastructure, such as the recent ones on Johannesburg, are often worryingly successful, he added. They have a far-reaching impact on essential systems and processes and affect local businesses and citizens as well as the municipal or government authority itself. Kaspersky’s detection data shows that larger organisations, such as city authorities and enterprises, are the fastest growing target. The company monitored 194,803 ransomware attacks in South Africa alone in 2018. That was a 64% increase over 2017, according to the company. Meanwhile, attacks on the employees of large organisations surged 17.9% in the 12 months to May 2019.

“Phishing and malware continue to be relentless threats, leveraged by cyber criminals,” warns IBM’s Sheldon Hand, business unit leader at IBM Security, told Africa in Fact. Organisations must understand the need to educate employees about attempts to trick log-in details and other information out of them. “Unpatched vulnerabilities will continue to be exploited by attackers,” Hand adds, pointing to the need to continually update business cyber-security measures. Most African countries are “one ransomware attack away” from waking up to the need for defensive capabilities against these attacks, says Goldstuck. “The most commonly used tactic is to pray that nothing happens. However, prayer does not have a great track record in cyber security.” Meanwhile, the threat landscape is changing rapidly, with new cyber threats emerging every year. “Many organisations across all industries face unmanageable levels of threat, the risk of exposure, and an ever-growing attack surface,” says IBM’s Hand.

Retailers, particularly those with a growing online presence, continue to be vulnerable, while the finance and insurance industries are the most targeted, he says. Transportation services – including airline, bus, rail, and water forms of transport – are an increasingly attractive target for malicious actors, Hands points out, because of the industry’s reliance on information technology to facilitate operations, its ubiquitous need for integration of third party vendors, and its vast supply chain. All around Africa, at a continental level, “the lack of political urgency in enacting adequate cyber-security legislation is particularly worrying,” says Mngomezulu. Given the increasing sophistication of cyber crime and cyber warfare, and the general lack of sophistication around these problems in government and business circles, as well as among individuals, we all should be worried.

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff and a contributor to Forbes. His TED talk on innovation in Africa has over 1.4 million views, and he has been featured in the New York Times.

A legacy of bloodshed and corruption

The arms industry: fuelling conflict

The world’s biggest arms fair, which turned 20 in 2019, is lauded as a ‘fantastic showcase’ by its British hosts, but critics strongly disagree

A vendor uses an Armtrac 20T robot to squash a 2015 Rugby World Cup branded rugby ball as
he demonstrates its capabilities during the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition in London in September, 2015.

The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which boasts of being the world’s largest arms fair, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The biennial event, held in London, aims to bring together the global arms industry under one roof, showcasing more than 1,700 exhibitors and 36,000 attendants from more than 50 countries. It is supported by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence and Department for International Trade, as well as BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer. Political insiders defend the country’s role as an arms exporter and the DSEI’s role in generating arms sales as sources of high-tech research and jobs. “The UK defence industry is looking to recruit more engineers, scientists and developers into 200,000 jobs and up to 10,000 apprentices within UK defence companies,” according to James Gray MP, a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, quoted in a DSEI statement. “DSEI is a fantastic showcase for defence companies where international buyers, sellers, developers, thinkers, educators and the trainers can all get together.”

Yet critics of Britain’s role in the global arms trade, and the industry as a whole, see DSEI less as a “fantastic showcase” and more as the shiny centrepiece of a globally destructive sector unrivalled by any other. The exhibition is met with protests and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called for it to end. Arms exports are estimated to contribute as much as £12 billion to the UK economy. Andrew Feinstein, a former South African MP for the ANC and author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is one such critic. “In the 20 years of its existence DSEI has, probably more than any other trade show of any sort anywhere in the world, contributed to the death and suffering of Africans,” Feinstein told Africa in Fact. “Its legacy is one of bloodshed, corruption and Britain being at the forefront of undermining good governance across the African continent.” Countries with a recent history of conflict or military suppression sent delegations to DSEI 2019, officially invited by the UK government. From Africa, they included Algeria and Nigeria, while Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara did not preclude it from an official delegation invitation.

Algeria found itself on the UK government’s list of core markets for defence and security opportunities, along with Tunisia, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Angola. Egypt was also among them – and remains a core market for UK arms exports. A delegation was officially invited by the UK government to attend DSEI last year despite appearing in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 2018 “human rights priority countries” report. According to the UK government’s report, “the human rights situation in Egypt continued to give cause for concern”. It cited new restrictions on media and online freedoms, and a government campaign against civil society, cases of torture, enforced disappearances and extended pre-trial detention. At least 250 cases of enforced disappearances were documented by lawyers, with thousands of individuals estimated to be in pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement for extended periods.” Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the NGO Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), explains the apparent contradiction within UK policy. “There’s always been a total hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy and UK arms exports,” he told Africa in Fact.

“The FCO might deem some of these countries a concern, but the government as a whole can still deem them very close allies.” Feinstein agrees. “By any measure, Britian sells arms to whoever it wants to. The bottom line is the UK puts sales of weapons way ahead of any consideration of human rights. It puts profits ahead of people,” he says. But the DSEI does not see this as a true characterisation of its exhibition or of how it and the UK government operate. “The presence of a delegate or visitor from any country should not be taken as a presumption that the export of equipment to that country would be permitted,” a spokesman for DSEI said. “That is a matter for the UK government and their export licensing process, which operates to the highest regulatory standards.” Feinstein dismisses these assertions: “Their [DSEI] first assumption is profoundly wrong. The second, that the UK has an ethical system that guides export arms policy, is frankly a nonsense,” he argues. That Egypt and South Africa, the respective powerhouses of north and southern Africa, have been identified as core markets is no surprise due to the relative size of their economies and the different roles they fulfil.

Egypt, due to its proximity to the Middle East, can serve as a political ally for the UK arms industry’s main market, Saudi Arabia, and the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has also called for the lifting of a UN arms embargo on neighbouring Libya. Under its former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was a key market for the UK government, especially after the former prime minister, Tony Blair, visited the country in 2004. Smith believes that the legitimacy conferred by the UK government is another driving factor behind the country’s large arms trade. “When a regime is buying weapons from the UK, they’re not just buying weapons; they’re also buying political support that goes with those weapons,” he argues. This applies equally to countries such as Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The UK gets money and the buying country gets both arms and tacit political support to maintain their position. Although both the UN and European Union (EU) can, and do, implement arms embargoes, these can ultimately prove ineffective due to previous deals, Smith explains.

In Egypt, for example, arms sold to former President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s were used against civilians during the Arab Spring, despite an embargo now in place. “After the coup [in Egypt], an arms embargo was brought in by Europe, but it was probably the single worst embargo in the history of arms embargoes, because it was [so] momentary [that] absolutely nobody followed it,” Smith says. Embargoes can prove ineffective because arms generally have a longer lifespan than the period of an embargo. Any arms deal signed the day before an embargo is put in place can still be completed. At the other end of the continent, South Africa is seen as the gateway to the African market, making it an attractive country to set up business in and to build links to the rest of Africa to sell arms. Feinstein outlines why the UK and Europe target this market particularly, and what advantages they have over the world’s largest arms exporter, the US. “South Africa has been involved in a number of very corrupt arms transactions so [it makes it attractive] for British and European arms companies who can’t compete with the Americans because the Americans have massive economies of scale over Europeans, or the Chinese who practically give away their weapons, so Europeans [are willing to] pay enormous bribes.”

Yet, after 20 years of DSEI few people, if any, celebrate the anniversary – other than global arms dealers and people in the corridors of a couple of UK government departments in Whitehall. “The best thing we can do, if we are truly concerned about the socio-economic development of Africa, would be to shut it [DSEI] down and to properly regulate our arms trade,” concludes Feinstein. For the moment, though, the UK and Europe will continue to sell weapons. DSEI will continue to bring together the global arms trade. And African citizens will continue to suffer the consequences. “Nobody is forced to sell weapons to anyone,” says Smith. “Not every country in Europe is a major arms dealer. But those that are, are doing tremendous damage around the world.”

Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He writes about the environment, energy and the green economy as well as politics and society for British publications, including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.

A revolution of the aspiring bourgeoisie

African communism: a pragmatic approach

Communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union

A high level of industrialisation is, according to Marx and Engels, the crucial trait of societies ripe for revolution. Since they first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, however, these authors have been repeatedly contradicted by reality. In later times, communism emerged victorious in circumstances very different from those its fathers envisioned. In fact, a communist revolution gained control of a state for the first time in Russia, a mainly rural and underdeveloped country. Other countries where it later took power were even further removed from the relations of production which Marx and Engels had predicted to be necessary for a proletarian takeover. Many of these countries were in Africa, where communism had a pivotal influence during the 20th century. As in Tsarist Russia, most parts of the continent lacked the masses of industrial workers that had been supposed to be the catalyst for the advent of a classless society.

Africa’s masses weren’t proletarians with “nothing to lose but their chains”, as Marx and Engels said of the workers they thought would want to free themselves of the capitalist yoke. Instead, communism gained prominence in Africa through state-directed action based on geopolitical interests. Until the beginning of the cold war, Africa’s exposure to Marx and Engels’ theory came through a tiny minority in countries with white European groups. “The first appearances of communist ideas in Africa were introduced by European workers in newly industrialising colonies with a significant concentration of settlers,” writes Edmond J Keller in a 2017 paper, “Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa”. In most African countries, it was of almost no consequence. In the metropoles, communism was outlawed or demonised by the authorities, who feared change at home and in the colonies.

Meanwhile, most European colonial societies were dominated by government officials, landowners and industrialists who were reluctant to consider the need for change – and who were certainly hostile to revolutionary change. Early Marxists in Africa often enlisted in the struggle secretly and at great personal cost. The four countries mentioned by Keller as having a significant communist presence were South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and the Sudan. This was particularly the case in South Africa. The British colony at the southern tip of the continent was arguably the most autonomous and dynamic colonial territory on the continent. Energised by diamond and gold rushes, its white society soon became a well-established, vibrant community with a sizeable working class employed in the mines and other industries. It was in this context that left-wing trade unions and ultimately the South African Communist Party (SACP) were born and achieved notable muscle.

Ethiopian President Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (R) makes a V-for-victory sign as he stands with Fidel Castro (C) and Raul Castro (L) during an official visit to Havana, Cuba, in April 1975. Mengistu took power in 1977 after a coup. Photo: PRENSA LATINA / AFP

This strength did not at that stage result in the advancement of black people’s rights. The 1922 Rand Rebellion saw the party and its allied trade unions protesting a relaxation of the colour bar on the mines, a measure which would have resulted in lower salaries for white workers. Nevertheless, communism was not a decisive force anywhere in Africa until the cold war made the continent a priority for the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to win the continent in the battle for global hegemony with the US-led capitalist bloc. At the time, some African countries had just become independent or were about to, and there was a strong need for a sense of direction and economic support. So Moscow stepped in. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah became a Moscow protégé. He put in place socialist inspired policies and aligned his country with other international actors hostile to the West.

More importantly, Nkrumah’s potent symbolism as Africa’s first black post-colonial leader was a tremendous asset for the Soviets in their contest with the Americans for worldwide cultural influence. Not without American resistance, the Kremlin repeated this approach with other freshly-installed black nationalist presidents. Moreover, the Soviet Union began arming, training and sponsoring insurgent movements fighting western colonial dominance and the capitalist white regime in South Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Soviets did not focus on the oppressed masses; rather, they wooed members of local elites who had been educated by missionaries or who had achieved so-called évolué status in French territories. It was this thin layer of the population that produced African activism for equal rights. Early forms of the struggle against discrimination and injustice around the continent were far from the revolutionary positions they would become from the 1960s.

Many liberation icons – among them Nelson Mandela and other major figures in South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) – were professionals who came late to the socialist discourse for which they are known today. Their struggle was not against capitalism as such; rather, they wanted to end discrimination and open the door to prosperity for masses of fellow Africans who had been deprived of their rights. In their early stages, many liberation movements shared this liberal, reformist approach to change. Their leaders were, after all, aspiring bourgeoisie. In retrospect, we can ask: why did they let themselves be seduced by an ideology that rejected everything they cherished and yearned for? According to Keller, African leaders at the time made alliances with their Soviet and Chinese backers “primarily because they offered material support to the movement or dominant party in a regime, rather than being based on a clear and consistent acceptance of the guiding ideology of either the western or communist partner”.

Supporters of the pro-communist Ethiopian
Workers’ Party wave in front of a huge portraits of the founders of “scientific socialism” on 13 September 1987 in Addis Ababa, on the 13th
anniversary of the Ethiopian revolution led by Haile Mariam Mengistu. From left: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Mengistu set out to create a socialist state in Ethiopia aligned with the communist bloc.

FRELIMO leader and future Mozambican president Samora Machel acknowledged this in the early 1970s, when he described the major communist powers as “the only ones who will really help us”, according to a 1973 report by Michael Calvert on “Counter- Insurgency in Mozambique” in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, too, alluded to what one could describe as the “minginess” of the support from liberal democracies for Africa’s quest for freedom. Shortly after his release, he gave short shrift to criticism from Miami of his visit to Cuba in 1991. Responding to attacks on his praise for a non-democratic leader, Fidel Castro, he said: “Who are they to call for the observance of human rights by Cuba? They kept quiet for 42 years when human rights were being attacked in South Africa.”

He noted that some countries had “suddenly” become keen on the ANC as its accession to power got closer. Arguably, many members of African liberation elites might have wanted to see their countries become capitalist, liberal societies. But some of the liberal democracies were former colonial powers that had denied Africans the freedoms their citizens enjoyed at home. Some communist powers, among them the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and Cuba, moved in to fill the void, offering a plausible vision of full citizenship and human dignity. And, as we know, the Americans worked to counteract their influence. The Soviet and American interventions in Africa occurred mostly behind the scenes. As the cold war heated up, proxy conflicts proliferated around the continent, of which the Congo crisis in the first half of the 1960s is a relevant example.

Perhaps the only direct involvement of any communist country in Africa was the Cuban intervention in Angola, where it deployed military forces between 1975 to 1990 to keep the Marxist regime in power and repel an anti-communist military campaign of the apartheid government. Its mission in Angola only ended when Namibia became independent. The presence of Cubans in the former Portuguese colony made an indelible impression on many Africans. The solidarity of that enterprise, which was widely perceived as selfless, is still hailed in the region today. Perhaps more extraordinarily, many who lived and worked with Cuban personnel – not only in Angola, but in other African countries to which Castro sent military and civilian missions – were inspired by the Cubans’ lack of racial prejudice and the naturalness of their interaction, at least by colonial Africa’s standards.

The Angolan writer Adriano Mixingue, who studied on the Caribbean island, described the Cubans he met at home as “hardworking, friendly, fair and fun” and being “popular and well-liked”. Apart from Moscow, the other great pole of communist power in the world was Beijing. Maoist China aimed at challenging Soviet hegemony in Africa and exerted its own influence through means similar to those employed by the Kremlin. Mao Zedong’s third-world nationalism and his own experience of non-conventional guerrilla warfare made him a popular example among members of several liberation movements. Mao’s quest for relevance in Africa was especially successful in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, “two countries where different aspects of the Maoist repertoire were applied with particular vigour through the late 1960s and 1970s,” writes Julia Lovell in her book Maoism: A Global History (2019).

Replicating Maoist practices such as rural collectivisation, nationalisation and the use of violence to support a leader’s absolute authority had disastrous results in Africa, as they had in China itself – among them famine in Tanzania and “one party-thuggery and economic calamity in Zimbabwe”, the author notes. Soviet-type policies brought a comparable authoritarianism to other African countries. A marked example was that of Ethiopia under dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. He is believed to have killed half a million people during the “red terror” campaign of 1977 and 1978. Combined with a persistent drought, Mengistu’s social engineering involved extensive nationalisation and the state seizure of all land, and it caused a famine that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the mid 1980s. As highlighted by academic William Gumede in a 2017 article, African liberation movements were often “structured along variations of Soviet Marxist-Leninist or Chinese communist party lines with a powerful leader at the head”.

African liberation movements “were organised in a top-down, secretive and military-like fashion” that concentrated “power in the hands of either the leader or a small group”, writes Gumede. It was a pattern they maintained after assuming government. The price of having undemocratic regimes as a model is still being paid on a continent that has a deficit of democratic culture.

Protesters try to topple a giant “socialist realist” statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on 23 May 1991 in Addis Ababa, two days after the departure of Ethiopian pro-communist strongman Mengistu Haile
Mariam into exile. Photo: JEROME DELAY / AFP

Marcel Gascón Barberá is a freelance journalist and writes for several Spanish and international publications. He has previously worked as a correspondent for EFE Spanish news agency in Romania, South Africa and Venezuela.

Will it ever?

Angola: out of stock

Sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest economy still does not have a stock exchange

Will Angola’s stock market ever float? © David Stanley

By Louise Redvers

Angola is Africa’s fifth largest economy, its second producer of crude oil, a magnet for foreign direct investment and the custodian of one of the continent’s biggest sovereign wealth funds. Yet, rather surprisingly, unlike many of its smaller and poorer peers, Angola does not have an equities exchange. Trading government bonds outside of the central bank began only in May. “Fund management as an industry doesn’t exist in Angola, which is crazy because basically you’ve got the third largest financial market in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Anthony Lopes Pinto, the managing director of Imara Securities Angola, the Angolan arm of Botswana listed asset management firm Imara Holdings Ltd. “Total assets in the banking sector are now more than $70 billion and the inefficient allocation of capital is directly inhibiting economic growth,” he said. At around 20% after costs and commissions have been included, the high cost of borrowing from banks was one of the reasons why “you never hear of many small to medium-sized companies becoming regional players,” he added.

Mario de Carvalho, an investment entrepreneur, told Africa in Fact that the country was crying out for an exchange. “Equities trading would be a very positive thing for Angola,” he said. “There is a big need for alternative financing options and it would help diversify our economy, which is very focused on oil and therefore highly vulnerable to price shocks.” So why does Angola not have an equities exchange? Will it ever? For more than a decade, global investors have salivated over media headlines heralding the inauguration of share trading in Luanda. But anticipated dates have come and gone, only for government officials to belatedly blame the “wrong economic conditions”. The country has had a capital markets commission, or regulator— known as the Comissão do Mercado de Capitais (CMC)—since 2005. In 2006 the Bolsa de Valores de Angola (BVDA) was set up to run the exchange. Newly trained BVDA and CMC staff took up a plush office building in downtown Luanda amid expectations that equities trading would begin after the September 2008 general election, the nation’s first in 16 years.

But this happened just as the global financial crash interrupted several years of heady post-war growth and sent oil prices into free fall. Angola, which depends on crude oil for more than 90% of its exports, was plunged into a liquidity crisis, forcing it to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a $1.4 billion loan. Plans for share trading appeared to fall off the agenda. Black plastic sheeting was taped over the silver signage on the front of the BVDA’s office and most of the staff were let go, frustrating asset management firms that had been working hard on their Angola entry strategies ahead of the exchange’s launch. In the following years various ministerial announcements proclaimed the exchange would “open next year”. But the BVDA was quietly wound up in June 2013 and liquidators were called in to return its assets to investors. With little fanfare and even less explanation, it was replaced by BODIVA, the Bolsa da Dívida e de Valores de Angola (Angola Debt and Securities Exchange), in July 2014 under the leadership of a former central bank governor, Antonio Furtado.

In May this year, BODIVA, housed in new premises in the capital, began trading government bonds, previously only available in-house at the central bank, the Banco Nacional de Angola. Although volumes are still small ($47m in May and $188m in June, according to BODIVA) relative to the size of Angola’s economy, investors and asset management firms have called the move an important first step. “We believe that securitised debt will be able to give depth and liquidity to capital markets, which, combined with the perception of sovereign risk, lead to a learning curve for the corporate debt segment, the stock market—and later the futures market,” Mr Furtado told investors at a business roundtable in Luanda in July. With the government debt market now in place and corporate bond sales due to follow next year, a new date of 2017 has been set for equity trading. A futures market may open in 2019. But after so many missed deadlines, it is difficult to take these dates too seriously. And questions remain about which companies would list on the new stock market.

“Who would be in a position to list and who would want to? That’s the challenge,” de Carvalho said. “After the banks and maybe the mobile phone company Unitel, there are very few Angolan corporates that are in a position to join an equities exchange.” The country’s large state-owned enterprises, such as oil company Sonangol and national air carrier TAAG (Transportes Aéreos Angolanos), would certainly elicit plenty of interest if they listed. But few believe that the government is willing to relinquish control of such critical national assets, or that it is ready to open up its books to full public scrutiny. Angola is notorious for its corporate opacity. Transparency International ranks it as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Many firms—and entities holding shares in corporate ventures—are registered as Sociedade Anônima (SA), which means their ownership is not publicly known. Banks now publish audited financial statements in the local press, a legal obligation, but this requirement does not apply to other firms.

Tracking down company reports and accounts can be a challenge at best and is often next to impossible. The problem is that a company cannot list on an equities exchange unless it can produce audited reports and make them public. But after three decades of war that ended in 2002, some firms do not have sufficient book-keeping skills to produce these documents. Analysts have often cited this absence of a reporting culture as a reason for the delays in setting up equity trading. According to this view, the government had wanted a big launch with a full exchange befitting the country’s economy, rather than one on which only a handful of companies traded—which could have been branded a low-value flop. But Mr Pinto rejects the narrative that Angolan companies are unable or unwilling to list. On the contrary, the option of raising capital on a local stock market would act as an incentive for more disclosure and adherence to best reporting practices, he said. The Angolan exchange is being held back because the country’s government and corporations have little knowledge about equity trading, he conceded.

The general lack of appropriate knowledge and skills has created high levels of caution and risk aversion among companies that might otherwise consider listing. “There are very few people who understand how capital markets work [and] on the back of that, there is an extremely high fear that the capital markets will crash,” Mr Pinto said. The poor performance of markets in former colonial power Portugal, still a major economic reference for many Angolans who do not speak English, has added to this sense of risk aversion in the public and private sector. Another potential barrier to the 2017 launch is Angola’s current economic climate. The country showed good signs of recovery following the 2008-09 crisis, though it never managed to repeat the double-digit growth of the years before. Now Angola’s outlook is grim because oil prices have collapsed. Government revenue between January and May this year is down 85% on the same period in 2014 and the kwanza, Angola’s national currency, has plunged from 98.5 to the dollar in September last year to 126 as of mid- August.

This has put enormous strain on liquidity, which in turn is forcing more currency devaluation. After several years of downward movement, inflation is creeping back up. In February, the government announced an austerity budget, slashing public spending by some 25%. The private sector has also put projects on hold and cut back staff. The mood in the country is doom and gloom. The economy’s vulnerability to oil price shocks is a loud reminder of the need to grow a strong and diversified private sector. A stock exchange could breathe new life into small and medium-sized companies outside the oil industry, which in turn would create badly needed jobs. Introducing capital markets when an economy is in a rut might even be a clever way to ensure a good appreciation of assets in the future. “The bond sales have likely moved forward because the government desperately needs to mobilise more financing for its debt,” noted Søren Kirk Jensen, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think-tank.

“Also, some of the people who were behind the exchange back in 2008 have recently returned to central positions in government and that could be another reason why things are finally progressing,” he added. Imara set up in Angola in 2009 hoping to be a first mover on the exchange. Mr Pinto agrees that the equities market may finally open. “I think the stock exchange is definitely back on the agenda and I think it is taking shape, albeit at an Angolan pace,” he said. “We are headed in the right direction and with a little patience we will soon have a formidable market.”

Louise Redvers is a freelance journalist who has reported from Angola, Swaziland and Zambia for the BBC, the Mail and Guardian, The Africa Report and other media. After five years in Africa, she recently relocated to the Middle East.