‘Spy computer’ standoff rocks Kenya, China diplomatic ties

Thursday, August 8th, 2019 00:00 | By
Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) boss George Kinoti. Photo/FILE

A diplomatic row is brewing between Kenya and China with reports that local intelligence officials had confiscated electronic gadgets imported as a donation to Parliament, raising fears of bugging.   

People Daily was informed that preliminary investigations by Kenyan security agents had indicated that the equipment could have been bugged for monitoring local legislators and parliamentary staff, prompting the security agents to intercept them. 

Reports indicated that National Intelligence Service (NIS) investigators and their counterparts from a middle eastern country were behind the seizure of the equipment, which had initially been thought to have been stolen while on transit. 

Sensitive matter

Contacted yesterday, Foreign Affairs Cabinet secretary Monica Juma said she could not comment on the matter. “I am out of the country and cannot comment on the matter that is a bit delicate and sensitive,” she said on phone from Jamaica where she is accompanying President Uhuru Kenyatta on a state visit. 

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) boss George Kinoti last evening said his team was briefed of the matter and would give details after investigations are completed.

“The matter is under our jurisdiction to get to the bottom of everything and once we are through, we shall give out full details. We are up to the task to get to the bottom of it,” Kinoti said.

Kenyan intelligence chiefs believe the equipment may have been intended to monitor MPs’ debates and discussions on the divisive China-Kenya relations issue, especially on the mega projects financed by Beijing.

“We are looking at a possibility that some people in China may have become worried by the concerns being raised by some politicians about some of the mega projects they are undertaking in Kenya and thus saw the need to monitor such talk through eavesdropping. This would enable them to determine how to counter such concerns,” a highly placed source in the security circles said.

Of particular concern among the intelligence agents, is a machine that had specifically been earmarked for installation in the office of the Speaker of the National Assembly Justin Muturi.  Foreign Affairs ministry officials, the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi and security chiefs have been reluctant to discuss the matter openly because of its sensitivity.

The donations included 46 laptops, five projectors and four cameras. It is alleged that the gadgets had been bugged to enable outsiders monitor what was happening in Parliament and especially in the Speaker’s office. 

Bugging claims

Detectives are said to have been on the lookout, especially after claims last year that China had bugged the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which they had helped  build. Both the AU and China dismissed the reports.

In the AU saga, China denied reports that it had spied on the servers at its Chinese-built headquarters for more than five years, gaining access to confidential information.

In an investigation published by French newspaper Le Monde, China, which also paid and built the computer network at the AU, allegedly inserted a backdoor (in French) that allowed it to transfer data. The hack wasn’t detected until January 2017 when technicians noticed that between midnight and 2am every night, there was a peak in data usage even though the building was empty.

Confidential data

After investigating, it was found that the continental organisation’s confidential data was being copied on to servers in Shanghai, China. 

 Kenyan security agents have in the past raised concerns over Chinese imports after reports indicated that some of the foreigners were facilitating the purchase and importation of goods worth millions of shillings for local businessmen. 

“The nature of conducting such businesses point to money laundering and the matter is being investigated. The businessmen are told not to make any payments at all until the goods are delivered,” said a government official. 

There have also been concerns that big Kenyan contractors were feeling the heat of competition from deep-pocketed Chinese rivals whose superior machinery and lower bids for lucrative State tenders had driven local firms out of business.

There have also been claims, which have never been confirmed, particularly in Western media, that some Chinese firms could be using bribery to win themselves mega contracts in Africa. 

In the current saga, DCI detectives had launched investigations into the missing cargo even though it had earlier been suggested that Chinese officials would investigate the matter.

A multi-agency team had resolved to let the Chinese embassy use its diplomatic channels since it was believed that the consignment could have disappeared from the point of origin. 

The Chinese Embassy spokesperson Huang Heqing yesterday said  the DCI was probing the matter, adding that she could not comment since she had not been briefed about the alleged confiscation.  “The issue is still under investigation by the DCI. I do not have any further comment,” she said.

Missing equipment

After the matter of the missing equipment was first reported, a meeting was held at Parliament that was attended by detectives from Parliament, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) Kenya Bureau of Standards and the DCI officials. 

The team has held several meetings and it is increasingly becoming clear that the consignment actually arrived in the country.

However, officials from the Chinese Embassy and the contracted clearing agents Bollore Logistics did not attend the meeting.

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