Pegasus spying scandal: Rwanda targeted South Africa's Ramaphosa

By Carien du Plessis, The Africa Report, 30 July 2021

South Africa has publicly expressed its displeasure about reports that President Cyril Ramaphosa's phone was placed on a list by Rwanda to be targeted by Israeli-manufactured Pegasus spyware. But privately, officials are baffled and somewhat less outspoken, as the revelations came at a time when the two countries have been trying to restore relations.

"I don't know whether to believe it or not," a senior government official working in foreign relations tells The Africa Report. Rwanda's foreign minister Vincent Biruta met with South Africa's foreign minister Naledi Pandor in Pretoria a month ago to set out a road map to strengthen relations and to cooperate on regional and international matters.

The visit came ahead of Rwanda's deployment of troops to Mozambique's troubled northern Cabo Delgado Province to assist with security, a move that South Africa and some of its neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were initially uncomfortable with.

Target list

The alleged targeting of Ramaphosa's phone was revealed in a report dated November 2019, almost two years after the newly appointed Ramaphosa was warmly received by Rwanda's President Paul Kagame during a visit to Kigali, where the two met on the sidelines of an African Union gathering in March 2018.

Ramaphosa's number was on a list of 50,000 phone numbers that were allegedly picked by Rwanda as targets of the spyware, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project on 18 July. The Rwandan government also listed the numbers of some dissidents, most of whom are living in exile.

Almost two dozen high-ranking government leaders were on the list, including France's President Emmanuel Macron, who was reported to have been placed on the list by Morocco, and Burundi's prime minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, who was also said to be on the Rwandan list.

The software, developed by the Israeli-based private company the NSO Group, can be installed from a distance and takes specialised expertise to detect. It enables the hacker to read messages, listen in and even record calls, as well as snap pictures at a distance.

Presidency "unhappy"

Acting minister in South Africa's presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said on Wednesday that the government did not know whether Ramaphosa's phone had actually been spied on.

But she added: "Of course, we will not be happy that we have been targeted because we believe that not only infringes on the privacy of the President but also infringes on the sovereignty of this country to make its own decisions without other countries trying to pre-empt those decisions, and influence them, and also try and undermine those decisions," she said.

Ntshavheni added that the country's intelligence services would have to investigate whether the targeting resulted in the President's phone actually being tampered with.

She said it was "a pity" that the report about the targeting of Ramaphosa's phone came at a time when relations were improving with Rwanda and within the SADC region. Rwanda is not part of SADC, but Ntshavheni was possibly hinting that the region has in recent days been viewing Rwanda's military involvement in Mozambique in a more favourable light.

"We are hoping we will work together with fellow SADC members to protect and respect the sovereignty of individual states, and we'll not use unacceptable means to find information," she said.

State security minister Ayanda Dlodlo did not react to a request for comment.

Dissidents also targeted

Rwandans living in exile were also reportedly targeted. In 2019, the Financial Times reported that Faustin Rukundo, a member of a Rwandan opposition group living in the United Kingdom in exile, was targeted by the spyware. The Washington Post also recently reported that government critic Jean Paul Turayishimye was on the list, even though NSO says that its Pegasus software cannot be used against those with phone numbers in the United States.

At least three dissidents living in South Africa were amongst the 3,500 phone numbers listed by the Rwandan government. These are Etienne Mutabazi, Kennedy Gihana and Frank Ntwali, whose brother-in-law Kayumba Nyamwasa, former chief of staff of the Rwandan army and former head of intelligence, escaped a murder attempt.

Mutabazi said he had been made aware some time ago already that he was the target of this kind of surveillance. Rwandan dissidents living in South Africa are a source of tension with Rwanda, as Kigali regards them as terrorists. The South African government, in turn, has not taken kindly to an assassination of one such a dissident, Patrick Karegeya, in which Rwandan diplomats have been implicated, and an alleged attempted assassination on another. Rwanda has thus far not honoured an extradition request for two men suspected of being involved in Karegeya's murder.

Rwandan denials

Rwanda's foreign minister Biruta has denied that the government has the technology to tap phones with Pegasus software. “Rwanda does not use this software system, as previously confirmed in November 2019, and does not possess this technical capability in any form," he said. "These false accusations are part of an ongoing campaign to cause tensions between Rwanda and other countries, and to sow disinformation about Rwanda domestically and internationally. This is libel, and enough is enough."

A Rwandan government spokesperson hinted at ulterior motives behind the revelations. When approached for comment, Yolande Makolo, a communications adviser to Kagame, pointed at tweets by Elad Ratson, an Israeli diplomat and digital diplomacy expert.

Ratson tweeted that Amnesty International, which was part of the collective of organisations that worked on the story, has been engaged in legal action against the Israeli ministry of defence to demand the revocation of NSO's export licence. Amnesty contended that NSO's spyware has been used in attacks against human-rights defenders.

Stand by and stand up

Amnesty said on Thursday that it stands by its findings in the Pegasus Project. "The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed," it said in a statement.

Australian-based itnews reported that it learnt from sources that Israel has set up a senior inter-ministerial team to assess the claims made by Amnesty and the various media outlets that worked on the story.