Big Brother: Scandal over Telecoms Monitoring in Zimbabwe

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On 25 June 2021, the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported that President Mnangagwa’s office had been “rocked” by a major tender scandal involving the regulation of the telecommunications sector. The subject of the story is an US$18m tender for the monitoring of telecommunications traffic in Zimbabwe, which was awarded to a multi-national company called GVG, whose origins go back to Haiti, although it is also referred to as a Spanish company. According to the story, there was now a bid to wrestle the multi-million contract from GVG to award it to a Bosnian company called NSoft.

On the surface, this seems like a common story associated with tender processes in Zimbabwe that are generally mired in corruption. This is how it usually works: a company wins a tender before another one pitches in unofficially with a bid to sideline the winner and take over the contract. If the second company has the right political connections, it will usually have its way. This is what happened in 2016 when an APR, American multinational company won a tender to build and operate the Dema Diesel Power Plant on the outskirts of Chitungwiza. Soon afterward, the contract was cancelled while a new one was awarded to Sakunda Holdings, which was owned by Kuda Tagwirei, a major politically exposed person (PEP). But Sakunda had no experience in such projects, so it subcontracted Aggreko, a British multinational company that, ironically, had lost out to APR in the initial bidding process. Sakunda had the right political connections, which is why it managed to corruptly supplant APR which had lawfully secured the tender.

It is therefore often the case that a small caste of greedy political elites is at the centre of these tender disputes. Even if the initial winner would have won the tender legitimately, one set of elites might develop an interest in the matter and decide to push their preferred candidate. It may also be the case that the initial winner would have won the tender because of favours exchanged with one set of political elites before a rival group set joins in to promote their candidate. The content and tone of the story in the Zimbabwe Independent do suggest that there is a clash of political elites, one favouring GVG and another that is partial to NSoft. The story could have had more balance. It has acres of space for the people from GVG but there was virtually no comment from their rivals at NSoft.

The Big Issue

Nevertheless, the issue of who is entitled to the multi-million-dollar contract pales when compared to the real problem at the heart of this saga, and it is a pity that it gets scant attention in the story. These are two foreign companies that are fighting over the spoils of war, all local, and that constituency barely gets a mention. The big issue concerns the governance and human rights implications of the subject matter of the contract. Most Zimbabweans are blissfully unaware of what is going on and this is also partly to the lack of critical reporting and the almost total absence of scrutiny by Zimbabwe’s civil society sector. The telecommunications companies have also been conspicuously silent over this matter. Many people might not even be aware that there is a decree that was issued not long ago, SI94 of 2021 which is entitled Postal and Telecommunications (Telecommunications Traffic Monitorng System) Regulations 2021. So what then is the issue?

The issue is the monitoring and surveillance of telephone calls. When the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) issued a call for consultations back in June 2020 it claimed that it, “intends to establish a non-intrusive electronic system that would enable the Authority to independently monitor and account for national and international telecommunications traffic and revenues therefrom, combat network fraud, enforce billing integrity and enhance revenue assurance for regulatory and tax purposes”. The call was later extended due to delays caused by the pandemic.

Few people took notice of this call. A tweet by POTRAZ on 12 November 2020 “calling for input from all stakeholders and the public at large on Proposed Postal and Telecommunications (Telecommunications Traffic Monitoring and Revenue Assurance) (TTMS) Regulations, 2020. Deadline for input is 20 November 2020. http://potraz.gov.zw/?p=1358” was retweeted just once and liked 4 times and there was virtually no comment as of 28 June 2021. SI94/2021 providing for the monitoring of telecommunications traffic was therefore issued without serious public discussion, commentary, or legal challenge. At the heart of the controversy are two competing demands from the government and the citizens: one based on economic rationale, and another based on fundamental rights and freedoms and also national security.

Regulation and Revenue

The government says that the telecommunications traffic monitoring system is a necessary regulatory tool in the governance of telecommunications. It argues that revenue leakages are arising from a grey area of telecommunications where fraudulent lines and SIM boxes are allegedly used to circumvent the formal system. According to this view, there is a black market of telecommunications that deprives the regulator and the government of revenues. Companies like GVG have successfully sold their business model on the promise that they will identify and plug the loopholes, helping regulators and government to collect revenues that they would otherwise have lost.

Africa Report put it rather neatly a decade ago when the telephone traffic monitoring technology was in its infancy: “Enter the new players on the scene. These are companies that offer to monitor incoming calls on behalf of Africa’s telecoms regulators and stamp out abuse. These companies, which are negotiating deals with several African governments, are challenging the profit-taking of the big Western-based telephone companies. Their promise to African governments is that they will cut fraud and boost revenues from the telecom sector,” wrote Gemma Ware in August 2010.

GVG has gone on to win contracts in several African countries, including Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana, Guinea, Lesotho, and now, Zimbabwe, although this has not been without controversy. GVG’s success on the continent has prompted Eric Priezkalns, editor of communications publication CommsRisk to observe, “GVG has an extraordinary track record when it comes to selling to African governments. Their record is so effective that you have to question if the governments are first deciding what they need and then looking for the best supplier to provide it, or if they convince themselves, they need a GVG system and then design the tender process to ensure they buy one.” Implicit in this rhetorical question is who is really in control: the multinational company or the African government? It is a sign of the uneven power dynamics in an area in which African governments are severely ill-equipped.

Besides the current controversy in Zimbabwe, there is also an ongoing crisis in Lesotho, where it was awarded a similar contract. The CEO of the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA), Mamarame Metela has alleged in court documents that the Minister of Communications Keketso Sello demanded a bribe of US$220,000 and sexual favours in return for awarding GVG the tender.

Never shy to blow its trumpet, GVG has boasted of its “achievements” in Tanzania, “Thanks to the TTMS, other clandestine telephony operations of similar importance have been dismantled over the last year, putting an end to fraudulent operations that severely affected the local operators’ turnover and the State’s revenues, not to mention its adverse impact on the quality of service due to the VoIP compression method used by the fraudsters.” However, this self-praise was just a year before the then President John Magufuli fired the head of Tanzania’s telecommunications regulator for allegedly failing to “monitor the industry and gather revenue for the state”. Magufuli believed the country could have earned US$180 million since the call monitoring system was installed in 2014 but independent estimates suggest that the figure would have been more modest at just US$9 million per year. While GVG was happy to claim the success of its work, the principal was not amused by the performance.

The view of most African governments regarding the telecommunications traffic monitoring technology is summed up by the then head of Tanzania’s telecommunications regulator, Dr. Ally Yahaya Simba who said in 2015, “The successful installation and implementation of … the Telecommunication Traffic Monitoring System is not only a revolution but also one of the greatest achievements to the country’s communication sector. … There is no doubt that the installation of the TTMS has brought a new regulatory tool to the Authority. This will bring more professionalism and efficiency in the communication sector.” The idea that telephone traffic monitoring technology is necessary to stop revenue leakages is just one side of the argument.

Surveillance and Privacy

The other side deals with the use of call monitoring as surveillance with the impact it has on the right to privacy. This technology allows a private foreign company and therefore, a non-state actor to have unfettered access to communications between citizens under the guise of exercising regulatory power. Surveillance is an important technology of governance, both at the local and global levels. It reflects the type of surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984 but also what Michel Foucault referred to as the Panopticon: citizens live in a prison-like environment and will constantly be watching themselves, censoring themselves even because they believe that someone is monitoring and listening to their calls. It does not matter that no one might be listening. The mere knowledge that the government possesses such technology and is using it in terms of the law is enough to create the Panopticon Effect.

This raises important questions about the role of non-state actors such as GVG and the impact they have on governance generally and fundamental rights and freedoms. It also raises questions about accountability: how can companies that wield so much power on citizens’ lives be held accountable? The traditional model of democracy has established methods by which citizens can bring elected representatives to account. Citizens can vote them out of office if they are not happy with them. They can take them to court for judicial review. They can exercise other political rights provided for in the Constitution. However, governance scholars have always cautioned against the rising power of non-state actors which tend to lie outside the traditional mechanisms of accountability.

Big Data and National Security

A related and important factor implications for the national security of African countries giving so much power to foreign entities. GVG, nSoft, and other major companies that dominate this sector are all foreign multinational companies. With the dominance that GVG has over the African continent, it has a vast cache of data that very few entities, both government or private, have on the continent and its citizens. With each country that comes under the big eye of GVG and similar multinationals, Africa is submitting itself to the power that comes with surveillance.

Therefore, while citizens complain that their government is playing Big Brother, the continent itself is oblivious of the fact that these few companies with an oligopolistic hold are playing Big Brother to the continent. But they have this power because African governments are willingly giving it to them. The fact that the government is increasingly becoming more dependent on them makes them weaker. In a world in which Big Data has gained an increasing role, GVG is sitting on a vast gold mine, voluntarily conceded by African governments. In terms of data wars, it means African governments have already lost before the war has even begun.

Role of Telecommunication Companies

The issue of privacy rights has already been raised in other countries where this technology has been adopted, but also critical is the role of telecommunication companies in this saga. They are impacted by these rules because they are the ones that must allow GVG to implement the traffic monitoring technology on their platforms. It is their fees that are used to pay the contractual fees of GVG. In Ghana, there was an attempt to challenge the telecommunications traffic monitoring system. The challengers, who were individuals and civil society watchdogs such as IMANI Africa and Citizen Ghana Movement, argued that the system would violate their fundamental right to privacy and secondly that it was not financially prudent. However, the challenge was eventually withdrawn. There was no clarity over the circumstances of the withdrawal with some reports vaguely suggesting that a settlement had been reached.

However, a temporary injunction that had been sought to suspend the implementation of the contract had been dismissed by a High Court judge in July 2018. The applicants had raised objections based on the right to privacy. The judge weighed in favour of the government’s interest to collect revenue. However, more importantly, the judge’s observation that the applicants’ fears lacked evidence as they were not backed by any complaints is important. In the judge’s view, the silence of the telecommunication companies on the matter suggested that the fears by private citizens were baseless. There are important lessons here for Zimbabwe’s telecommunications companies. If they are not happy with the new rules, they would have to work with or support citizens’ challenge to the rules’ invasion of privacy and dignity. If they remain silent, the courts will use their silence to claim that all is well with this surveillance technology.

Factionalism

It is not surprising that there is a tussle over the contract to supply this telephone traffic monitoring service in Zimbabwe. It is likely that this a difference between political factions – one faction preferring its candidate because whoever has control of this surveillance tool has immense power over the rest. It is partly about money with whoever has control of surveillance having leverage over others. In Zimbabwe’s deeply corrupt state, a bidder might have its way when it pays a faction that claims to have power, but no sooner has it started celebrations, another will also make a claim having paid another faction. Multinational companies are familiar with this corruption, which they euphemistically refer to as the “costs of doing business” in Africa. They oil the wheels of corruption by paying these bribes, even if they vehemently claim that they never do. Ultimately, the winner is usually the one that pays the most to the right faction, which essentially means the faction that has the Godfather on its side.

Conclusion

Most Zimbabweans are unaware of the new regulations that were issued earlier this year under Statutory Instrument 94 of 2021. They are presented as designed to enhance revenue collection but essentially, they are used to monitor telecommunications traffic in Zimbabwe. While the apparent purpose sounds benign, there are serious concerns over the use of surveillance technology both as a tool of governance and its impact on fundamental rights and freedoms. The rights and freedoms that immediately come to mind are privacy (section 62), expression (section 61) and dignity (section 51). From a governance perspective, the mere knowledge that there is surveillance has an impact on how citizens conduct themselves; they are forced to self-police and to even censor themselves when they should not be doing so.

Telecommunications are in a catch-22 situation: they might not be happy with this surveillance, but resistance might be interpreted to mean they have something to hide. Yet the far-reaching effects of this technology cannot be underestimated, both for the telecommunication businesses and the citizens. The state itself might be imagining it as a one-sided exercise of power over citizens and telecommunication companies. But it does not realise, like its counterparts across Africa, that it is conceding vast control over data, its companies, and citizens to a private foreign company whose agenda has nothing to do with the best interests of Zimbabwe.  It is yet another demonstration of the woefully inadequate appreciation of the dynamics of global governance among the African ruling elites.

WaMagaisa

wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

atm@kent.ac.uk