Hacking claims put Kenya at the centre of US-China cold war

BackdoorDiplomacy, a Chinese state-linked hacking team, allegedly targeted the ministries of defence, information, health, land and interior. [iStockphoto]

On February 3, 2012, Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and National Administration advertised a tender for a project to supply, install and commission a National Surveillance Communication Command system at the National Police Service.

This set off a chain of events with lasting consequences for the country and key bilateral partners.  

The funding of the Sh12 billion project was provided through a concessionary loan from the government of the People’s Republic of China and the tender was restricted to Chinese firms. 

Avic International Holdings, ALIT, China Xinshidai Company, ZTE Corporation and Huawei Technologies Africa were invited to submit their bids.

A few months later, two firms, ZTE Corporation and Huawei Technologies filed separate motions challenging the procurement process.  

ZTE had just beaten Huawei to a Sh6.4 billion deal to build Telkom Kenya’s 3G network the previous year, and the firm argued it was the only one that passed the technical evaluation stage to install the National Surveillance System.  

Huawei, on the other hand, moved to court to challenge the procurement process, arguing that the tendering committee conducted a financial evaluation on only ZTE’s bid, returning the rest unopened. A few months after the 2013 General Election, Huawei withdrew its case soon after the government announced that Safaricom would undertake the project to build the National Surveillance System for Sh14.9 billion. 

Around the same time, two ZTE directors - Zou Lingying and Yang Yong - were arrested at their residence off Nairobi’s Ngong Road and held at the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) inland depot for 12 hours before being deported. 

Amid China’s growing economic influence in the region, the incident cast a spotlight on the high-stakes competition between Chinese firms in the scramble for multi-billion-shilling infrastructure tenders in Kenya.     

This scramble for long-term infrastructure deals ratchets up during a political transition and last year’s General Election was no exception. A report by news agency Reuters earlier this week claimed that a Chinese-sponsored hacking group infiltrated and spied on Kenyan government systems, including the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Office of the President.  

The report claimed that BackdoorDiplomacy, a Chinese state-linked hacking team, also targeted the ministries of defence, information, health, land and interior in a covert espionage campaign dating back to 2019.  China and Kenya responded quickly to the report, with the latter casting doubts that Beijing could outsource hackers to infiltrate systems that it helped to set up. 

“The deliberate stoking of panic and mistrust with an established vendor of sensitive infrastructure hints at geopolitical and global rivalries for markets for niche equipment and attendant services and leverages,” said Interior Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo in a statement.

“The article should be viewed as sponsored propaganda. The wide circulation and the alacrity for its attribution by other foreign media with well-known inclinations further hint at a choreographed and concerted attack against Kenya’s sovereignty,” he said. China equally responded strongly to the allegations, terming them “groundless and sheer nonsense”  as it hit out at unnamed foreign players. 

“Tracking the source of cyber attacks is a complex technical issue. Moreover, it is a highly sensitive political issue to pin the label of cyber attack on a certain government without solid evidence. China endeavours to strengthen solidarity and cooperation with Kenya and work together with Kenya to strive for new progress in the China-Kenya comprehensive strategic partnership,” said a Chinese Embassy spokesperson.  Earlier this week, the US and international cybersecurity agencies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom issued an international advisory accusing China of conducting State-sponsored attacks in the West. 

The report also came months after Huawei and the Communications Authority of Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding on, among other things, growing Kenya’s 5G infrastructure, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. 

The deal is the latest in advances by Beijing to bolster its foothold in the country as it comes out of a political transition, with the Kenya Kwanza administration lining up tens of billions of shillings in mega projects across several sectors. Some of the mega projects that China will be bankrolling in the near term include the construction of the Nairobi Western bypass for Sh5.2 billion, the Konza Data Center at Sh3.6 billion and power generation and transmission projects valued at more than Sh24 billion. 

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