The government has described as “absurd and regrettable” global reports that Rwanda eavesdropped on the telephone communications of top Ugandan security and political officials.
Kigali, according to the global reporting investigations, the Pegasus Project, targeted Dr Ruhakana Rugunda and Mr Sam Kutesa who, until last month, were Uganda’s prime minister and Foreign Affairs minister, respectively.
Other espionage victims were the country’s external spymaster, Mr Joseph Ocwet, as well as Gen David Muhoozi, the immediate past chief of defence forces who last month was named State Internal Affairs minister.
Details published on Monday by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a partner in the global reporting project, showed that Rwanda spied on veteran journalist Andrew Mwenda and opposition politician Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu, a brother to former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine.
We have been unsuccessful over two days to speak with Rwandan officials, including Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation minister, Mr Vincent Biruta, for their response to the allegations that Kigali used the Israeli-made spyware programme, Pegasus, to target foreign officials.
However, Mr Biruta told OCCRP for the Monday article that the assertions of potential targeting of activists, politicians, lawyers, and others by Rwandan government are “false accusations.”
In a rejoinder, Uganda’s State minister for International Relations Henry Okello-Oryem said they did not expect such “wrong” action from an “otherwise brotherly” state.
“We have seen the reports all over, and one can say these are just claims. We have yet to get an official record of the claims and perhaps there is no ground for making a formal statement,” Mr Oryem said. “But if true, then it is absolutely wrong and unacceptable; a neighbouring country snooping on its neighbours in the region and in Africa,” he added.
Uganda and Rwanda share some ethnicities and geographical proximity, which has meant regular cross-border travels and business as well as common cultural engagements.
Despite a lot more binding, than dividing the two countries and its people, Rwanda in early 2019 shut its busiest Katuna/Gatuna border with Uganda, initially citing customs infrastructure modernisation before attributing the decision to alleged arrest and torture of its citizens in Uganda.
Uganda, which at the time accused Rwanda of infiltration of its security and intelligence agencies and espionage, denied any wrongdoing and said Rwandan nationals not involved in crime should not worry en-route to Kampala.
That diplomatic tiff subsists to-date, despite attempts by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolan leaders to mediate.
OCCRP reported on Monday that hacking of the phones of Uganda’s top officials coincided with Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s visit to Uganda, likely the February 21, 2020 trip for the fourth Quadripartite Heads of State Summit at Katuna border for the normalisation of relations between Uganda-Rwanda relations. Rwanda has not publicly responded to the Uganda-specific allegation.
OCCRP also reported that elsewhere, Kigali, using the Pegasus software manufactured by Israeli firm, NSO Group, hacked phones of ex- Burundian Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Once implanted on a device, the spyware effectively gives an attacker complete access to the target’s phone, OCCRP reported on Monday. It can read messages and passwords, access social media, use Global Positioning System to locate the target, listen to the target’s conversations, and even record them.
OCCRP was among 16 news organisations from Asia, America and Europe that collaborated on the Pegasus Project. The project unfolded with two partner organisations, Paris-based Forbidden Stories and London-based Amnesty International, getting a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that NSO clients selected for surveillance.
The phone records, the Washington Post reported yesterday, contained numbers of three presidents, including Mr Ramaphosa, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Iraq’s Barham Salih; 10 prime ministers, including Pakistan’s Imran Khan, Egypt’s Mostafa Madbouly and Morocco’s Saad-Eddine El Othmani; and a king, Morocco’s Mohammed VI.
Dr Rugunda was among the several ex-prime ministers spied on.
NSO — just one of several major players in this market — says it has 60 government agency clients in 40 countries. The company’s chief executive Shalev Hulio, in a phone interview with The Washington Post last Sunday, said his company has policies to guard against after an initial set of stories about the company appeared in news reports worldwide, under the heading of the Pegasus Project.
Yesterday, Reuters news agency reported that the Israeli government had set up a senior inter-ministerial team to look into growing allegations that its home-grown cyber company’s software has been abused on a global scale.