The accusations were explosive: For five years, the Chinese government spied on communications in the African Union. Every night, data broadcast from computers at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to unknown locations controlled by China, anonymous sources in the AU, told reporters in the Financial Times and Le Monde, a French newspaper.
The violation was "what seems to be one of the longest thefts of confidential government data we know of," wrote Daniel Cave, senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Policy of Australia in July last year.
The center of controversy was Huawei, a Chinese tech giant with close ties with the Communist Party that supplies the equipment, configured servers and trained staff in the African Union.
Now, AU leaders have decided to strengthen ties with the Chinese technology company at a time of intensification of international criticism.
When accusations of Chinese espionage occurred in early 2018, Musa Faky, chairman of the AC Commission, and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Heilemariam Delalegno, categorically deny accusations, as well as Chinese officials.
Huawei called the claims "completely unfounded" and said they "strongly reject" all allegations of inadequacy.
Just what information was compromised, and why the Chinese government considers it valuable, remains unclear.
But the charges fit into a wider model of criticism against Huawei.
In 2012, the US House Intelligence Committee marked Huawei as a threat to national security and warned that it had stolen intellectual property and could spy on Americans through "back doors" that allowed unauthorized access to sensitive data.
Pressure on the company intensified last month when the US Commerce Department put Huawei on its "Entity List", limiting trade with US partners after President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order to effectively block a company from operating in the United States.
The new agreement
With worldwide acclaim, Huawei stepped down last week when it signed a deal with the African Union to expand partnerships on a range of technologies, from broadband and cloud computing to 5G and artificial intelligence.
Thomas Quasi Quarty, vice chairman of the AU commission, and Philip Wang, vice president of Huawei for North Africa, signed the memorandum of understanding at the AU headquarters last week – the very gift from China to Africa – in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The deal is a show of solidarity at a critical time in the history of Huawei – and a potential wedge between Africa and the United States at the time of rising antagonism among the world's largest economies.
It also extends the founding of Huawei to the market with significant potential for growth in the coming years, only 36% of Africans had reliable internet access since March.
Huawei first entered Africa in the late 1990s, when it helped build mobile networks in dozens of countries. Experts estimate that Huawei is constructing much of Africa's mobile infrastructure, affecting multiple sectors of the road, from education and banking to health and government.
Huawei's communications networks, usually with Chinese-funded loans, are not as visible as large infrastructure projects such as bridges and railways. But their influence is at least as far-reaching.
"On the technological front, China is incomparable in Africa," said Antoaneta Rusi, an East African journalist, recently in Nature magazine. "The Huawei TV giant built half of the 4G networks on the continent and most of the 2G and 3G."
The company also took the lead in developing the 5G capabilities of the continent, ranging from Johannesburg, South Africa, where Huawei helped launch the next generating network in February. With a data transfer rate of at least 100 times greater than 4G, the 5G technology greatly improves on existing mobile systems.
Huawei can not offer superior technology, but is ready to engage with African countries when Western companies do not have, W. Gyude Moore, a guest at the Global Development Center and former Minister of Public Works in Liberia, recently wrote.
And they did it at steep prices. The Chinese government has a subsidized IT infrastructure across Africa, making it more accessible and affordable.
Over the years, ties between Africa and Huawei have only strengthened.
In 2012, Huawei built a desktop "cloud" project for the African Union to help the organization communicate and conduct its business more efficiently (()).
In 2015, AU leaders and Huawei executives signed a memorandum of understanding to deepen and expand their partnership.
This year's renewal marks the most ambitious agreement to date.
But competitive and political landscapes have become more complex.
US technology giants Google and Microsoft have launched new research and development initiatives across Africa to recruit local talent and build state-of-the-art technologies.
Meanwhile, rising tensions between China and the United States could help African nations fight with whom they co-operate, even when the interest in African investment is increasing and more strategic partnerships are presented.
And security concerns are unlikely to disappear, with growing concerns that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning could become tools for repression in the hands of authoritarian regimes, concerns raised by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Endowment for International peace.