A recent investigation conducted by Reuters reveals that Chinese hackers engaged in cyberattacks on various Kenyan ministries and state institutions, including the State House, from 2019 until last year. Their primary objective was to gain access to crucial information regarding the billions of dollars owed by Kenya to Beijing.
The cyberattacks, which lasted for several years, began when China started reducing credit to Kenya due to the country’s escalating debt burdens. The hackers successfully stole a significant volume of documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Treasury, allegedly with the intention of assisting China in assessing Kenya’s debt situation.
According to a Kenyan cybersecurity expert quoted by Reuters, the stolen documents were primarily sourced from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the finance department. The targeted cyberattacks seemed to be focused on obtaining information related to Kenya’s debt obligations.
The security breach commenced with a spearphishing attack in 2019 when a State employee unknowingly downloaded an infected document. The attacks continued until last year, as reported by Reuters, citing insights from three cybersecurity experts familiar with the incidents.
The targets of the cyberattacks encompassed the Presidency, eight key ministries (including foreign affairs and finance), and critical state departments involved in the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—China’s significant infrastructure project.
The breach also impacted the National Intelligence Service (NIS) as the attackers gained unauthorized access to the agency’s email servers. Reuters suggests that this breach may have aimed to gather information on Kenya’s debt management strategies.
China’s foreign ministry dismissed the allegations as “baseless,” while Kenyan officials acknowledged that the country has previously experienced similar attacks from European and American hackers.
As of March last year, Kenya’s debt to China amounted to $6.31 billion, the lowest since March 2019 when it stood at $6.01 billion. This reduction aligns with China’s cautious approach to lending in the post-Covid era, given concerns that several African economies face a multitude of debt challenges amid global economic turmoil.
President William Ruto’s administration has expressed its intention to reduce expensive foreign borrowing, including from countries like China. China’s loans to Kenya have primarily been channeled through Exim Bank, which became Kenya’s largest bilateral lender after securing a major deal to fund the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR line in May 2014.
The terms of China’s loan agreements with developing countries, including Kenya, often involve secrecy and prioritize repayment to Chinese state-owned banks over other creditors, as highlighted by AidData, a research lab at the College of William & Mary.
Kenya’s bilateral debt repayments for China-funded infrastructure projects have risen by nearly 50% to a record amount of KSh 107.42 billion this fiscal year. This increase is attributed to the clearance of principal sums after the grace period expired. Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u’s published expenditure data reveals that the repayment to Chinese lenders surpassed the previous fiscal year by 46.19%, amounting to KSh 73.48 billion.