In the past few months, China’s tech giant, Huawei, has come under intense pressure from the US opposition of its fifth-Generation (5G ) technology. The Trump administration has also been lobbying countries around the world to keep Huawei Technologies out of their telecommunications networks. So far the US’s efforts have seen some success, as the UK has recently decided to ban Huawei gear from its new 5G network and ordered the removal of all existing equipment made by the company before 2027. However, there is a growing narrative that African countries will not succumb to America’s campaign.
As Washington is leaving no stone unturned to crackdown on Huawei, some African countries have already advanced plans to roll-out Huawei’s 5G technology. According to the South China Morning Post “South Africa’s data-only mobile network, Rain, introduced its first commercial stand-alone 5G network, which teamed with the Chinese company. Huawei has also joined with local telecoms firm MTN Group to launch 5G in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.” Lesotho, Egypt, Nigeria, Uganda, Senegal, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon are at various stages of rollout of 5G. Kenya’s largest Telco, Safaricom, has also reportedly conducted pilot tests for Huawei’s new mobile internet technology.
Huawei’s status is a major relay for China’s Belt and Road in Africa. Some analysts suggest it is the main reason why it will solidify its presence in the continent even further. The East Asian tech giant “is powering major BRI projects in Africa, including the building of the communication system for the US$4.7 billion Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, which runs from the coastal port city of Mombasa to capital Nairobi and then to Naivasha, a town in Central Rift Valley, financed and managed by China and part of the BRI.”
Affordability and African countries’ dependence on Huawei technological equipment is another reason scholars believe America’s messaging will not be convincing in Africa. On affordability, the Managing editor of the China Africa Project Eric Olander has posited that “not only is Huawei equipment typically more affordable than its South Korean and European competitors, but it also comes with generous (often government-backed) concessional financing.” Arthur Goldstuck, head of South Africa-based research firm World Wide Worx has also stated that roughly 70% of 4G base stations in Africa are made by Huawei, and pivoting away from the company in the transition to 5G is unrealistic. Huawei serves more than half of the African continent with 4G and has built a presence in 40 of the 54 nations since it first arrived in Africa in 1998.
But is it okay for African countries to turn death ears to Washington’s concerns and warnings over Chinese espionage and national security threats that could arise from the usage of Huawei’s 5G? In 2018, French newspaper Le Monde reported that Huawei had bugged the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, even though the allegations were rejected. Do African countries risk trading off their national security for Chinese investments and opportunities that come with staying confident with Huawei Technology?