El Geneina: Students of the Faculty of Technology Science of the University of El Geneina, West Darfur, work at the computer lab sponsored by UNAMID as a Quick Impact Project in 2011.

El Geneina: Students of the Faculty of Technology Science of the University of El Geneina, West Darfur, work at the computer lab sponsored by UNAMID as a Quick Impact Project in 2011. Photo by Albert González Farran - UNAMID

African States Hop on the Network Surveillance Bandwagon

Governments in Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia are the latest to deploy sophisticated network eavesdropping tools against their citizens.

Uganda has been using a surveillance program, codenamed Fungua Macho, or “open eyes” in Swahili, to spy on opposition politicians and anyone “deemed dangerous to state security,” according to an investigation by Privacy International and BBC Newsnight. Policy documents dating back to 2012 detail the use of the security software called Finfisher and 70 intelligence officers to collect data on potential threats, although Ugandan authorities deny the operation’s existence.

Uganda isn’t alone. African countries are entering the world’s newest arms race, for cyber weapons and surveillance, at a rapid clip. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, an estimated 29 countries around the world now have formal or military units dedicated to cyber warfare, and 63 countries have used cyber surveillance on their own citizens or abroad. Of those, four were in sub-Saharan Africa.


Ethiopian authorities are suspected of using off-the shelf hacking software to spy on journalists and members of the Ethiopian diaspora living in the United States and Europe. An American citizen who was born in Ethiopia filed a lawsuit against the government claiming hisSkype calls, web searches, and emails (pdf) have been monitored and recorded by Ethiopian authorities.

CitizenLab, a watchdog group that is part of Canada’s Munk School of Global Affairs, believes at least some of the attacks were done by theEthiopian Information Network Security Agency. Hacking Team, the Italian provider of “offensive security technology” that sold software to Ethiopia, says they stopped providing their service last year.

Within Ethiopia, the government’s control over the telecom sector means that it has easy access to the phone records of citizens, according to Human Rights Watch. A former opposition party membertold the organization last year, “They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother. They arrested me because we talked about politics on the phone. It was the first phone I ever owned, and I thought I could finally talk freely.”


News reports last year claimed the government had completed a $40 million contract with an Israeli company for a surveillance system. Citizen Lab also found evidence of US and UK-developed monitoring software in Nigeria in 2013. Privacy advocates say that Nigeria has alack of detailed privacy laws and that its citizens are thus vulnerable to monitoring by their government as well as foreign ones.

South Africa

Policy documents dated 2006 revealed procedures for electronic, as well as physical, surveillance of individuals in the country were made public earlier this year. Authorities said last year that “South Africa requires the protection of its cyber-domain, through…a comprehensiveinformation warfare capability” (pdf, p. 27.) Critics say South Africa’ssecretive National Communication Centre is at the center of the country’s surveillance programs and operates above the law.


In 2011, Sudan established the Cyber Jihadist Unit, using equipment developed in Italy, to monitor political opposition figures and journalists, according to Citizen Lab. Last year, the head of the National Assembly’s communications committee said that surveillance of phone calls would stop but critics say it has continued.