The Pegasus Project: How the cyber-surveillance scandal affected Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2021. (Source: GovernmentZA/Flickr)

When the Washington Post and 16 other media outlets published the findings of their Pegasus Project investigation last week, the results were shocking: thousands of activists, journalists, lawyers and opposition political figures were targeted by authoritarian governments using spyware technology. The software, Pegasus, can be installed covertly on Apple and Android devices and is capable of extracting text messages, emails and photos, recording calls and activating microphones.

The spyware’s developer, an Israeli company called NSO Group, says its technology is intended only for tracking criminals and terrorists. Nonetheless, the Pegasus Project found a list of over 50,000 phone numbers identified as “people of interest” by NSO clients since 2016. Among these were the numbers of 14 world leaders, including six from Africa. Three African countries — Morocco, Togo and Rwanda — were also implicated as Pegasus clients.

African leaders targeted

The African leaders identified as targets of Pegasus spyware hail from six countries — Algeria, Burundi, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Uganda — and include presidents, prime ministers and kings. Rwanda and Morocco, which each had thousands of potential spying subjects on their lists, are believed to be behind most of these cases.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s phone number was listed in 2019 by the Rwandan government, the Pegasus Project found. Relations between South Africa and Rwanda have been strained since 2014, when Patrick Karegeya, a critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room. Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda of Uganda, which in recent years has also had frosty relations with Rwanda, also appeared on the Kagame government’s list of targets. Burundi’s prime minister, Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, was listed by Rwanda in 2018 before he took office.

Morocco’s prime minister, Saadeddine Othmani, and king, Mohammed VI, were selected as people of interest in 2018 and 2019 allegedly by intelligence forces in their own country. Morocco also targeted Prime Minister Nourredine Bedoui of Algeria, a longtime rival. Also in North Africa, Egypt’s prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, was selected for surveillance by Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Others targeted

Beyond the 14 heads of state and government, those identified on the leaked list of numbers include thousands of businesspeople, activists, journalists, diplomats and politicians — including opposition figures. Among those targeted by Pegasus clients include Hanan Elatr, the wife of murdered Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Carine Kanimba, the daughter of Rwandan dissident Paul Rusesabagina, whose actions during the Rwandan Genocide inspired the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.

So far, three African countries are suspected of employing Pegasus technology to spy on their citizens and foreign targets. In addition to Morocco and Rwanda, more than 300 numbers in Togo belonging to activists, journalists and political opponents of President Faure Gnassingbé appear on the list of potential Pegasus spyware subjects.

The Pegasus scandal is not the first time African governments have been exposed for their use of surveillance technology. Last year, seven African countries were found to be spying on their citizens using Circles, another NSO product. As Amnesty International head Agnes Callamard notes, Pegasus is only “one of many outlaws in the wild west of cyber-surveillance facilitating human rights violations.”

Broader implications

As Africa continues to experience its digital revolution, the spread of the internet, mobile phones and other technologies offer new opportunities for citizens and governments alike. But the continent’s digitization comes with risks as well as rewards. African governments are already experimenting with internet firewalls, social media bans and other forms of digital authoritarianism. As the Pegasus Project lays bare, repressive governments in Africa are now not only suppressing open digital spaces, but actively employing new technologies to clamp down on dissent and target opponents.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement