Israel uses spyware, weapons and agritech to buy influence in Africa

Last month, I addressed the inaugural conference of the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network (PAPSN) in Dakar, Senegal, where activists from 21 African countries gathered to build a continent-wide movement in support of the Palestinian liberation struggle against Israeli apartheid. 

I was honoured to be with many brave, young Africans who reaffirmed Africa’s historic position on Palestine and the unbreakable bond between Africans and Palestinians — both peoples who share a common struggle against occupation, colonialism and apartheid. I imagine that this feeling of comradeship is similar to what my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, would have experienced 60 years ago when he travelled to Dakar to mobilise African support for South Africa’s liberation struggle. 

PAPSN delegates had discussed the penetration of apartheid Israel into Africa through the supply of military and surveillance technology to several repressive governments, and how this had weakened both democracy and human rights in Africa as well as Palestinian solidarity on the continent. I agreed with this assessment when I spoke at the network’s public event on 12 March. 

I argued that Israel had spread its tentacles in Africa. Desperately seeking allies as an increasing number of highly-respected human rights organisations label it an apartheid state, Israel is using surveillance, military and agricultural technology as currency to buy legitimacy in Africa. In the process, Israel has wormed its way into African structures both overtly and covertly. 

These are not anti-Semitic tropes as some pro-Israel media in South Africa have hysterically reported. As the South African constitutional court recently ruled, criticising Israel is not attacking Judaism. There is a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism, and Jewish people and Israel’s apologists. 

Fanning the flames of war

The export of weapons — tested on Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories — to some of Africa’s most murderous regimes has been a central component of Israel’s diplomacy for decades, as it sought to rekindle ties with most of the African continent that had boycotted it after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Israel armed the South African apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the Israeli government violated the international arms embargo on Rwanda, and supplied both Hutu government forces and Paul Kagame’s rebel army with weapons as genocide was under way.

Israel, again, violated the international arms embargo by supplying South Sudan’s government-aligned militias and opposition forces in that country’s bloody civil war. Shamefully, Israeli weapons companies funnelled $150-million worth of lethal weapons under the cover of an agricultural project in South Sudan.

For years, Israel has been training and arming the military units guarding oppressive presidential regimes in Cameroon, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea and Togo . In the process it keeps dictators in power.

Strengthening dictatorships

Israel also supplies cyber-weapons, such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and its Circles software, to various African governments to crush dissent and crack down on journalists, political opponents and human rights activists, and even spy on other African leaders, including President Cyril Ramaphosa. The spyware can crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone.

Tel Aviv has been courting African rulers with spying technology in recent years, hoping to gain supportive votes at the United Nations and African Union. Helping rulers stay in power — even at the cost of African human rights — has been an effective way for the Israeli government to make friends on the continent.

Involvement in African elections

Israeli companies and individuals are also involved in election campaigns in almost every African country, undermining some of Africa’s most stable democracies.

There was heavy Israeli involvement before the 2014 elections in Botswana, as dozens of Israeli consultants with links to the Israeli Mossad spy agency set up a “war room” for the ruling party.

Pegasus was used to spy on journalists and other political figures ahead of elections in Ghana in 2016. In 2020, Ghana’s Herald newspaper revealed the involvement of Israeli intelligence figures who were trying to influence the outcome of the country’s national election that year.

Similar claims were made about the involvement of Israeli intelligence experts ahead of Malawi’s presidential elections in 2020. Previously, the population registration and election systems of Zimbabwe and Zambia were also in the hands of a Mossad-linked Israeli company.

Israeli groups have also run misinformation campaigns in Africa. 

In 2015, Israeli experts hacked the personal emails of the then-opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, ahead of elections in Nigeria. The information was used in WhatsApp and Facebook campaigns against Buhari. 

Four years later, the Archimedes Group — an Israeli political consultancy group that boasted on its website that it could “change reality according to our client’s wishes” and significantly affect presidential elections around the world — appeared to support Buhari when he won the 2019 elections. Facebook posts, run by Archimedes, praised Buhari and smeared his opponent, Atiku Abubakar.

Facebook later shut down hundreds of fake Instagram and Facebook accounts — all operated by Archimedes from Israel — that aimed to manipulate elections, not only in Nigeria, but also Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia.

The accounts shared election-related news and criticism of targeted politicians, while presenting themselves as local news outlets. 

These are not cases of private companies doing business in Africa. 

Reaping diplomatic profits

Israeli weapons and spying technology companies are required to obtain export licences from Israel’s ministry of defence. This provides the Israeli government with a key lever of influence and makes the companies an extension of the government’s foreign policy. 

“With our defence ministry sitting at the controls of how these systems move around, we will be able to exploit them and reap diplomatic profits,” said an aide to former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Israel relies heavily on various private Israeli firms, businesspeople, consultants and intermediaries that leverage their access to African corridors of power to serve the interests of the Israeli state. Israel’s “middle-man” approach to diplomacy in Africa is thriving.

Chequebook diplomacy in action

In the name of development and food security, Israel promises Africa agricultural and water technology. But Israel will only help fight the battle against poverty in Africa if it suits its political interests.

When Senegal sponsored UN Resolution 2334 in 2016 that reiterated the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel responded by cancelling all aid programmes in the country — even though the Israeli foreign ministry widely promoted them as part of Israel’s contribution to fighting poverty in Africa.

Israel’s assistance to African states — whether agricultural, military or surveillance technology — is not philanthropic. It requires diplomatic repayment at the UN and AU. This smacks of a patronising, transactional relationship. It is chequebook diplomacy in action. This is the reality of the Zionist project in Africa. 

This is how Africa — once a bastion of Palestinian solidarity — has been so blinded by Israel’s promises of weapons, spyware and agricultural aid to the extent that it has welcomed an apartheid state into the AU. 

We must reflect deeply on how apartheid Israel’s back-channel diplomacy has crept insipidly into the African psyche. We must reject Israel’s efforts to co-opt Africa. If we do not, then we will continue to be complicit in bloodshed — both in Africa and Palestine.

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Zwelivelile Mandela
Zwelivelile Mandela is a South African member of parliament, chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council and the grandson of Nelson Mandela.

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