Israel’s Spyware Diplomacy in Africa

Ghana has purchased Pegasus spyware from the Israeli group NS0 under dubious conditions. This acquisition by a country often considered a model in Africa confirms that the Israeli cyberweapons and surveillance industry is closely linked to Tel Aviv’s diplomacy and normalization program in Africa, from Togo to Morocco.

In May 2021, Oliver Barker-Vormawor, a founder of #FixtheCountry - a protest movement in Ghana demanding accountability, good governance, and better living conditions from the government of President Nana Akufo-Addo - alleged that the country’s National Security ministry was illegally monitoring the phone of a member of the social media powered citizen movement.

According to Barker-Vormawor, calls to the device began being diverted to an unknown number after #FixtheCountry leadership met with National Security officials in May 2021. Ghanaian government officials called Barker-Vormawor’s allegations “false and baseless” and downplayed claims of illegal surveillance.

One of Pegasus’ 26 known clients

Yet, just six months later, investigative journalist group, Forbidden Stories revealed that the phones of Ghanaian citizens were indeed being illegally monitored. Ghana was one of 26 countries where the military-grade cyber-surveillance system, Pegasus – developed by the Israeli surveillance technology company, NSO Group - had been used to spy on the private communications of individuals.

Pegasus capable of cracking encrypting communications of any smartphone, turning it into a spying tool. The spyware can only be sold with the permission of the Israeli government, and then only to governments and their agencies. Ghana’s Pegasus targets were notified by Apple that their devices were potential targets of state-sponsored attackers.

The revelation that Pegasus was being used by the Ghanaian government was particularly shocking since Ghana is often referenced as a model democracy in Africa. Located in west Africa, Ghana’s political stability, peaceful political transitions, robust political debate and democratic governance stands in stark contrast to many other nations in that region where political instability, authoritarianism and violent power struggles characterise political life.

The sordid history of Pegasus’s purchase and presence in Ghana, however, is antithetical to the country’s long-held democratic reputation and traditions.

In December 2015, Infralocks Development Limited (IDL) signed a $5.5 million contract with the NSO Group to purchase Pegasus. IDL was to then resell Pegasus to Ghana’s telecommunications regulator, the National Communications Authority (NCA), for $8 million.

Neither the NSO Group, nor officials in the Israeli Ministry of Defence - which grants export licenses for Pegasus - verified whether IDL was a recognised Pegasus reseller.

In Ghana, monitoring the opposition

Despite these serious oversights, NSO staff arrived in Ghana in June 2016 - just six months after the contracts were signed - to install Pegasus and train local officials on how to use the equipment.

Though the NCA was listed as the purchaser, the system was installed at the apartment of Ghana’s national security advisor. It was the National Security ministry that actually wanted the spying technology. This led to speculation that the government, then led by the National Democratic Congress (NDC), planned to use Pegasus to snoop on opposition figures ahead of elections in December 2016.

It was only due to financial corruption from the officials involved in the transaction that the secret purchase of Pegasus became public knowledge. NSO claimed it received only half the money owed to it, and removed the software that would have made the equipment operational. For years, both NSO and the Ghanaian authorities maintained this account of events.

In May 2020, Accra’s High Court ruled that the purchase of Pegasus was illegal and unauthorized. Two NCA officials and the then national security advisor were convicted of corruption.

Forbidden Stories was the first time that Ghana was named in any report on the use of Pegasus. “It effectively opened a can of worms on whether Ghana had the software or not,” says Emmanuel Dogbevi, editor of Ghana Business News. Dogbevi closely followed and reported on the court case for years.

Realising that Pegasus was used in Ghana was a “chilling” moment for Dogbevi because of the consistent assurances from Ghanaian authorities that the spyware hadn’t been operational.

Everyone involved in the criminal investigation has refused to speak to media about the issue. Questions sent to the NDC and the Ministry of National Security remain unanswered.

This silence among Ghana’s political leadership is due to the fact that the NDC – which was the governing party when Pegasus was bought illegally in 2016 – and the current ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) which is now accused of using the spyware – both have an interest in stifling interest in Pegasus’ use in Ghana. Neither wants to stir things up.

Israeli authorities, too, are also silent.

“In Israel, there is almost 100% silence on Pegasus and it’s coming from the government and the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs,” says Eitay Mack. Mack is an attorney representing fifty prominent Israeli academics and activists - including a former speaker of Israel’s parliament – who have requested that Israel’s Attorney-General investigate the sale of Pegasus to Ghana, and the complicity of Israel’s Ministries of Defence (MoD) and Foreign Affairs (MFA).

A bargaining chip within the African Union?

The NSO Group and its dubious sale of Pegasus spyware to Ghana isn’t an isolated case of an Israeli company making a dodgy deal in Africa. This is part of a larger story of Israel’s spyware diplomacy on the continent. Israel’s cyber-weapons and surveillance industry is closely tied to Tel Aviv’s diplomacy and normalisation agenda abroad.

Spyware is precious diplomatic currency for Israel as the country seeks to normalize relations and fight a global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against its occupation of Palestine which is consistently being compared to apartheid policies in South Africa.

Countries like Mexico and Panama have shifted their positions toward Israel in important votes at the United Nations after gaining access to Pegasus. The sale of Pegasus also played a critical role in sustaining Israel’s friendship with Saudi Arabia. Access to spyware was central to Israel securing the support of Arab nations during negotiations of the Abraham Accords.

Spyware may have also played a role in Israel securing its observer status at the African Union (AU) – a position it has coveted for almost two decades.

In July 2021, in a controversial move that split the AU, Israel achieved its goal and received accreditation from AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Sources who were at the AU Heads of State Summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in February, confirmed to this writer that Israeli diplomats offered military, surveillance and intelligence assistance to some African leaders in exchange for supporting Israel’s accreditation. Mahamat’s decision was widely expected to be reversed at the summit. Shockingly, Israel’s AU status was upheld.

Ghana, under the current leadership of Nana Akufo-Addo, has been one of Israel’s most vocal and consistent supporters at the AU, lobbying hard for Israel to be granted observer status.

Did Israel use spyware as a bargaining chip with Ghana in its lobbying for AU accreditation status?

Journalists and activists in Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Morocco, and Togo, along with Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Cameroon, Uganda and Ethiopia can also ask the same question. Israeli spyware has been used in all these countries. These are also countries that have supported Israel’s AU observer status bid.

Strengthening authoritarianism in Africa

Israel’s search for legitimacy in Africa has led to its powerful spying tools - developed out of its militarised and illegal occupation of Palestine and field-tested on the Palestinian population under its control - ending up in the hands of a new generation of authoritarian leaders in Africa.

Cyber-weapons like Pegasus are more deadly and destabilizing than conventional arms. For power-hungry African leaders looking to Israel as a blueprint for surveilling their own citizens, these technologies are ideal. They are relatively cheap, easily distributed and can be deployed with little consequences to their regimes.

The lack of accountability, transparency and regulation on the sale and provision of surveillance tools provides further protection to these repressive leaders, exacerbating authoritarianism in Africa – often with dangerous consequences for journalists, human rights activists and government critics.

Togolese journalist, Komlanvi Ketohou, fled Togo last year after he was arrested and detained. His device, along with those of several other journalists, was targeted for surveillance by Togolese authorities. Ketohu’s newspaper was reporting on nationwide protests opposing President Faure Gnassingbé’s rule. He was also a member of the Togolese League for Human Rights.

Morocco is one of the NSO Group’s biggest clients and has used Pegasus to target as many as 10,000 phone numbers, including Sahraoui human rights activist Aminatou Haidar and Moroccan journalist Omar Radi. Radi - a freelance investigative journalist who covers human rights issues, social movements and land rights in Morocco – was surveilled three times.

Rwandan authorities used Pegasus spyware to potentially target more than 3,500 activists, journalists and politicians - including Carine Kanimba, the daughter of celebrated human rights hero Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina is credited with saving more than 1,200 lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and is currently imprisoned in Rwanda on terrorism charges.

Intermediaries and secondary channels

The use of a dubious reseller in Ghana is illustrative of, what Israel in Africa author Yotam Gidron calls, Israel’s “middle-man” approach to diplomacy in Africa.

For decades, Israel has – officially - invested very little in its formal diplomacy on the continent. Instead, the Israeli state relies on various private businessmen and intermediaries who use their access to local power-brokers to serve Israel’s foreign policy interests, sustaining Israel’s relationships with African leaders. It’s a brand of “back-channel diplomacy” that is thriving on the continent – and thoroughly devoid of transparency, says Africa Report journalist, Vincent Duhem.

Israel’s Defence Ministry approves sales of Pegasus, and plays a crucial role in its spread and use. The Israeli government recognises the diplomatic benefits of spyware exports and refuses to ban its sale despite the well-documented, bloody history of spyware. In fact, the Israeli government has deliberately kept its arms export licensing process opaque and shrouded in secrecy to encourage spyware exports, says Gidron.

This is why some Ghanaians are adamant that the Israeli government must be bear responsibility for its complicity.

Emmanuel Dogbevi points to a current Israeli investigation over the use of spyware on Israeli citizens as “convincing evidence that the Israeli government itself should take some responsibility.”

“The buck stops with the Israeli government as regulator and policy formulator. The Israeli government is therefore culpable,” says Ghanaian human rights activist and former parliamentarian, Rudolf Amenga-Etego.

Israel’s unethical spyware diplomacy has far-reaching consequences for the international community. Governments, however, have been slow to address the issue.

Civil society organisations and digital rights defenders have acted more urgently. More than 150 human rights groups and independent experts have called on states to implement an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology until a human rights-compliant regulatory framework is in place.

Ghanaian civil society group is also fighting back against the unlawful surveillance of citizens. Bernard Mornah, a member of the citizen movement ‘Arise Ghana’, which recently mobilised street demonstrations in Accra, says his group will be seeking a Parliamentary enquiry into the use of Pegasus in Ghana since 2017.

Oliver Barker-Vormawor, says #FixtheCountry intends to file a right to information request regarding the use of Pegasus by successive Ghanaian governments and will litigate all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Angela Quintal, head of the Africa Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), welcomes these initiatives as well as Israeli activists seeking an investigation into the sale of Pegasus to Ghana. “Efforts to shine a light on this opaque industry are welcome,” says Quintal.

Spyware is central to Israel’s political ambitions in Africa and it has bought Tel Aviv acceptance on a continent where Israel was once shunned diplomatically. As Israel exports its expertise in surveillance in exchange for diplomatic gains in Africa, we can no longer stand by and watch as Israel deepens dictatorships and weakens democracy in Africa.