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Zambian President Admits to Spying on Fellow Officials

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, October 16 2013

President of Zambia Michael Sata (Commonwealth Secretariat/flickr)

During his 2011 election campaign, the current president of Zambia, Michael Sata rose to popularity by playing on anti-Chinese sentiment and the anger of laborers over poor standards at the many large Chinese-run mines in Zambia. Now it seems Sata is taking a cue from his key economic partner with what appears to be a worrying surveillance program of other Zambian officials. According to Global Voices, he tapped the phone of his foreign minister and also planted a bug underneath a chair in the office of the leader of Barotseland region, whose citizens want to secede from Zambia.

Before Sata took power in 2011 in a smooth and peaceful election, the country had been ruled by the same party for 20 years under then-president Rupia Banda. Under the old regime, Chinese mine managers often got away with violently suppressing workers and squalid labor conditions. Last year, when Chinese managers shot at Zambians protesting peacefully at a mine, injuring 13, charges were quietly dropped.

Sata took advantage of the anger against Banda’s favoritism towards the Chinese for his 2011 campaign, at one time calling the Chinese investors, “infestors,” according to the New Yorker.

Now, Sata seems to be allowing more Chinese influence than he owns up to, adopting unsavory surveillance practices to weed out ‘disloyal’ members of his cabinet and other leaders.

At a meeting, Sata attacked Chief Jumbe, a local leader in Muchinga province, for criticizing his policies:

Every 24 hours I know what happens everywhere you go, in your bedroom all the 24 hours of the day […] Why did you criticize my introducing Paramount Chief Mpezeni [one of the two senior most chiefs in Eastern Province]? What did you want me to do? I was introducing the chief to the people and you saw something wrong with that.

The independent news site Zambia Watchdog reported on Sata's surveillance of the foreign minister, Given Lubinda:

And the Watchdog understands that part of the evidence of Lubinda’s links with opposition parties was through wire-taps of his phones, raising concern on the personal security of individuals through the on-going SIM card registration.

Sources close to the disciplinary hearing said Lubinda’s phone conversations were part of the evidence that was used against him though the Kabwata parliamentarian also raised a number of pertinent in his defence of his contacts with some opposition parties.

Further, as TechPresident previously reported, there were claims that the current government tried to shut down independent media organizations like Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports in an effort to curb reports on corruption. The government is also planning to work with Chinese technicians on creating an Internet monitoring system. Finally, the government has proposed legislation to force SIM card registration, the dangers of which TechPresident wrote about last week.

The source of those electronic surveillance devices are reportedly from none other but China, as well as Russia. Zambia Reports, another independent media site, noted:

[s]ources indicate that it is an elaborate scheme using state of the art portable devices obtained from China and Russia enabling the president to listen to conversations in real time as opposed to being handed a recording as has been the case previously […] The gadgets vary in size with the one being used almost looking like an ordinary internet modem and is user friendly.

It is well known that China has a strong economic hold over Africa: there are over 2,000 enterprises in more than 50 African countries, 500 of which are in copper-rich Zambia.

As part of its growing influence over the region, China has also shown its desire to flex control quietly through other means.

Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, has invested about billions in Africa over the last two decades and not only provides equipment but operates the networks for the government as well as local communication service providers, which gives it control over major technological infrastructure. This is the case in Zambia and soon in Nigeria, where Huawei won a five-year contract to manage the country's networks.

While Huawei's dominance in Africa has not caused great concern among Africans, which has supplied it with affordable mobile phones and wi-fi routers among other things, the U.S. is certainly worried.

CIA Director Michael Hayden, also a former NSA director, told Foreign Policy, "Even if there aren't any backdoors, which is a large hypothesis, just the Chinese state having access to the architecture of your system is a tremendous advantage for the Chinese should they want to engage in any electronic surveillance, any electronic eavesdropping.” He should know.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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