Africa Brief

From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

Pegasus Lands in Africa

From Morocco to Rwanda, governments and their intelligence services have allegedly used spyware to target everyone including opponents, monarchs, and foreign leaders.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A woman displays her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO Group in Herzliya, Israel, on Aug. 28, 2016.
A woman displays her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO Group in Herzliya, Israel, on Aug. 28, 2016. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

This week’s highlights: The African spooks and their high-profile targets exposed in the Pegasus spyware revelations, the political fallout of Tunisia’s COVID-19 crisis, and Somalia delays its elections—again.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Tuesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

This week’s highlights: The African spooks and their high-profile targets exposed in the Pegasus spyware revelations, the political fallout of Tunisia’s COVID-19 crisis, and Somalia delays its elections—again.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Tuesday, please sign up here.


The Pegasus Project: The Africans on the List

It took the collaborative effort of over 80 journalists and 17 media organizations around the world to comb through more than 50,000 phone numbers from 50 countries. The result was the Pegasus Project, an investigative reporting project that included the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde, and others, coordinated by journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories.

Amnesty International also contributed to the investigation, adding a detailed forensic exploration of how the spyware works. The resulting stories reveal how the nearly undetectable Pegasus software was used to spy on people around the world.

The victims included heads of state, activists, dissidents, and journalists. The leaked list of phone numbers suggests that the people on this list were selected for surveillance by various clients of the NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm. While journalists could find no direct proof, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project explained, the leak itself shows the extent of digital surveillance. What’s more, it shows that at least two African governments are part of this new era of spying.

Morocco’s wide net. Morocco seems to have been a regular NSO client, with dozens of numbers on the list attributed to suspected surveillance by Moroccan intelligence agencies. Chief among them are the names of dozens of French government officials, including President Emmanuel Macron. “If this is proven, it is clearly very serious,” the Élysée told the Guardian. Macron seems to have been added as a person of interest in 2019, along with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Morocco also seems to have looked into Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister and current president of the European Council, as well as the high-ranking U.S. diplomat Robert Malley. Moroccan spies apparently looked inward too, targeting current Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani for possible surveillance. Shockingly, the security forces even appear to have selected their own King Mohammed VI as a person of interest.

Rabat has dismissed the reports as “baseless allegations,” launching an investigation into the accusation themselves. The government has also filed a defamation lawsuit against France-based Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. The damage, however, has already been done. Morocco is also accused of spying on officials in neighboring Algeria, which has in turn launched an investigation.

Rwanda’s surprise spy target. It was no surprise to discover Rwandan President Paul Kagame, already known as a securocrat, had allegedly made use of the Pegasus software to spy on dissidents, including Carine Kanimba, the daughter of Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina, who is currently on trial in Kigali on charges related to terrorism.

“I had suspicions because … sometimes some will tell me that the Rwandan government approached them after I had sent them an email or had a phone call with them … so I had this instinct that I was being followed or surveilled,” Kanimba told CNN.

Rwanda may have also caused a diplomatic scandal when the Pegasus Project investigation revealed that Kigali had listed South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as a possible candidate for surveillance. Rwanda appears to have listed Ramaphosa in 2019, after the two countries began patching up their frosty diplomatic relations. Kigali denied the allegation, while Pretoria refused to comment.

The often tense relationship between South Africa and Rwanda can be traced to the Kagame government’s alleged extrajudicial killings—Rwanda’s former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was killed in 2013 under mysterious circumstances while living in exile in South Africa. Relations between the two countries began to thaw this year with a bilateral meeting of foreign ministers, but if the leaks are found to be true, that progress could come to an end.

Persons of interest. The NSO Group told the BBC that blaming it for the multinational hacks was like “criticizing a car manufacturer when a drunk driver crashes.”

The group said it could not take responsibility for the choices of its clients, and it questioned the veracity of the leak, particularly the mammoth list of targets. The company said it has an average of 100 targets a year and has not yet accumulated 50,000 targets since its inception. The list had allegedly been hacked from servers in Cyprus, where NSO says it does not have servers.

Just because a phone number is on the leaked list does not mean the person was the subject of a successful hack, the NSO Group told the Guardian, insisting that Macron, Mohammed VI, and Tedros “are not, and never have been, targets or selected as targets of NSO Group customers.”

The Pegasus Project will likely be an ongoing investigation as more revelations surface, but it has already shaken the world of international diplomacy.


The Week Ahead

Wednesday, July 28: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta meets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London.

Wednesday, July 28: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets to discuss trade and investment in Africa.

Wednesday, July 28 to Thursday, July 29: The U.K. and Kenya co-host a high-level summit on global education, which will be attended by several African leaders in a hybrid affair of virtual and in-person meetings.


What We’re Watching

Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied chant slogans denouncing Assembly Speaker and Islamist Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi in front of the Tunisian parliament in Tunis on July 26.

Supporters of Tunisian President Kais Saied chant slogans denouncing Assembly Speaker and Islamist Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi in front of the Tunisian parliament in Tunis on July 26.FETHI BELAID / AFP

Fallout over Tunisia’s COVID-19 response. In the face of growing public anger over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—among other things—Tunisian President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on July 26, putting himself in charge of the government based on an emergency provision of the constitution that allows for this extraordinary measure if there appears to be “imminent danger threatening the nation.”

The provision also requires that Saied notify the prime minister, whom he sacked, and the speaker, who was barred from entering the parliament building. Instead, Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who is also leader of the majority Ennahdha party, led a sit-in on the steps of parliament, decrying Saied’s actions as a “coup d’état.”

Saied and Mechichi have a long-standing political rivalry that has frustrated governance in Tunisia.

On Monday, Saied also fired Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartagi and acting Justice Minister Hasna Ben Slimane, driving the country further into political chaos. Last week, Mechichi fired Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi, blaming him for a haphazard vaccine rollout. The health minister is also a close ally of the president.

The sackings come after a weekend of protests in several cities across the country, in which demonstrators demanded a clear response to the spike in COVID-19 infections and the resulting economic downturn. Tunisia’s economy has struggled since the 2011 revolution, and jobless protesters clashed with police and demanded that Mechichi step down. Tunisia has the second highest number of overall active COVID-19 cases on the continent.

An assassination attempt in Mali. Mali’s interim leader Assimi Goita survived an assassination attempt. A knife-wielding attacker charged at Goita in the crowded Bamako Grand Mosque during Eid prayers on July 20. The military leader-turned-interim president survived to publicly shrug the attack off as the work of an “an ill-intentioned individual.”

“That’s part of being a leader, there are always malcontents,” said Goita, who has led two coups within a year. Days later, the accused attacker was found dead in police custody, the government said Sunday.

Madagascar’s foiled assassinations. Two French nationals have been arrested for their alleged role in a recent plot to assassinate Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina. A Franco-Malagasy dual citizen and a French citizen, both of whom were trained as French cadet officers, were arrested on July 20. One of the men, Paul Rafanoharana, had been touted as a possible candidate for prime minister.

Malagasy police also arrested several other people they believe to be involved in a broader plot to assassinate several members of the island nation’s political elite. During Independence Day celebrations on June 26, Madagascar’s gendarmerie announced it had foiled another plot against the country’s security chief, a key Rajoelina ally.

Somalia delays already delayed election. Somalia was supposed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections on July 25, but the polls were postponed to Oct. 10. Officials gave no reason for the delay, but an electoral commission member told the news agency AFP that the federal regions could not submit candidate lists in time or form the local committees to cast their ballots in the indirect election.

The political context was further complicated by a threat from the militant group al-Shabab, warning politicians against participating in the election. Somalia was initially meant to hold elections in February, but the country was plunged into a constitutional crisis after leaders could not agree on the ground rules.


Chart of the Week

The cost of vaccine rollouts. While African governments are still lobbying for access to vaccine doses, the cost of the national rollout campaigns may be just as burdensome for some countries.

At an average cost of $35 to vaccinate one person—calculated as a two-shot course, according to the price per dose, and the average cost of distribution through the COVAX program—data from the vaccine alliance Gavi, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF shows this may be too much for low-income countries with an average annual per capita health expenditure of just $41. The organizations have urged donors to increase their funding in order to narrow the vaccination gap.


This Week in Tech

Facebook finds Egypt’s missing children. The Facebook group Missing Children has over 1.9 million followers who have helped track down over 2,800 missing Egyptians, many of them kidnapped children.

Founded in 2015, the group has become a successful “mix of social media advocacy, digital casework, and vigilante justice,” the tech news site Rest of World reports. Founded by a couple, tech CEO Rami el-Gebali and Marwa Maged, the page allows Facebook users to submit a missing person’s details, which are vetted by the co-founders before being posted.

The group’s success has not come without difficulties. The page turned its attention to abandoned infants and tried to enlist the help of orphanages. What they found were testimonies of abuse from the children in these facilities, and stories of exploitation and neglect within the orphanages. Some were shut down, but the couple was sued for defamation.

The group’s growth is a testament to something bleaker—a failure of Egypt’s policing system. Groups like this have also sprung up in other countries, including South Africa and Kenya, where police departments are under-resourced and overwhelmed.


African Voices

Ethiopia’s internal colonialism. In Foreign Policy, Teferi Mergo offers a scathing critique of Robert Kaplan’s essay “Ethiopia’s Problems Aren’t Postcolonial,” arguing that it ignores crucial episodes in modern Ethiopian history that entrenched northern dominance over the south while dismissing the notion that Ethiopia won’t fracture as “magical thinking.” Mergo contends that the country could go the way of Yugoslavia if federalists’ grievances aren’t taken seriously.

The “Gangsta Physicist.” Now teaching in South Africa, African American Hakeem Oluseyi, who is the sole Black astrophysicist at NASA’s science mission directorate, interrogates his own identity in the Mail and Guardian. Once stereotypically dubbed “the Gangsta Physicist,” Oluseyi explores how racial stereotypes informed not only his career path but also his students’ access to science and technology.

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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