Every other day, one business contact or the other tells me that they don’t use WhatsApp for sensitive discussions anymore, so to continue the conversation I need to move to Signal. Since I don’t have a big problem with such requests, I haven’t bothered to reflect too much on the trend. Until this afternoon, when another request triggered me a bit, and I thought, heck, let me just write a little piece on the subject.

It is easy for folks to confuse privacy, data protection, and secrecy/anonymity when it comes to modern digital technology. All these concepts are made all the more complicated by having multiple layers of legal and technical complexity.

One simple way to get a handle on the intricacies is to be clear about the “enemy” one is seeking said privacy, protection or secrecy from or against. Is it 1) friends and neighbors, 2) the general public, 3) the government, 4) the technology developer or 5) everyone?

I will tell you upfront: privacy from everyone is simply not a realistic option if one also intends to use digital technology. These is always someone else in the mix. Even apps like Threema that try to up the privacy stakes by emphasizing anonymity cannot be completely invisible to the telecom and datacenter networks through which users access them. So, let’s discard the “everyone” case without further probing. That leaves us with four main classes of “others” against whom one may reasonably seek to assert one’s wish for privacy or secrecy.

In the messaging context, however, there is a presumed openness to friends and others with whom one is engaged in conversation. We can take that category off the list too.

The filtration done so far leaves the following “enemies” on the privacy list: the general public, the government and the technology developer.

All three apps – WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal – are sufficiently well built and maintained enough to do a reasonably good job of making sure your chats go to only the people who they were meant for. Any unintended disclosure is more likely to be due to factors, such as human carelessness, rather than the quality of the specific app. The General Public criterion is thus also easily dismissed as a serious basis of comparison.

So, finally, we get to the meat of the matter. On the few times I have tried to understand the basis of the shift from WhatsApp to Signal or Telegram, a relatively small number of respondents have cited concerns about WhatsApp’s privacy policy and the fact that Facebook’s servers are used for the transport and storage of the data. That is to say, the main concern of this class of users is the conduct of the technology developer.

Facebook’s unpalatable reputation for commercial exploitation of data without due regard to user sensitivities clearly worries some African business folk in my circles. Signal, being a privacy-obsessed non-profit, clearly wins on that score against both WhatsApp and Telegram on the Technology Provider dimension.

The vast majority of my Africa-resident business friends who ask that we shift conversations to Signal are, however, concerned primarily about government intrusion. Especially also because once the government is at the tail-end of the surveillance chain, the risks on all other dimensions multiply. For instance, a Google vendor, Mitto, was found spying for governments without the knowledge of even senior employees, a growing theme in this murky world.

Businesspeople in Africa feel under siege from shadow states, plain extortion, ruling party paranoia about their funding the opposition, and competitors with links to the intelligence services. I find the anxiety about government eavesdropping strongest in East and Southern Africa, though some pretty hairy stories have been heard in Nigeria too. Interestingly, it is precisely in the context of privacy and secrecy where government is concerned that public misconceptions abound.

For instance, there is barely any logic in moving from WhatsApp to Telegram on privacy grounds linked to malicious government or organized hacker activities. Telegram uses an opt-in (non-default) encryption model for message traffic that it refuses to disclose for independent security analysis. Determined security researchers have shown nevertheless that its cybersecurity standards are somewhat looser.

Regarding WhatsApp versus Signal, the analysis is more nuanced and also more interesting. Some users may not even be aware that both apps actually use the same open-source encryption system: the Signal Protocol, which enables end-to-end encryption and perfect forward secrecy, and thus disguises the message from non-senders and non-recipients. The two companies are located less than 30 minutes from each other in the San Francisco Bay in Northern California.

In short, both Signal and WhatsApp are within the legal jurisdiction of the American government and have similar technology philosophies. In fact, the main early financier and co-Founder of WhatsApp is the current co-leader of Signal’s owner entity, and its interim CEO.

Some claims are usually made for Signal’s approach to end-to-end encryption and its implementation of the Signal Protocol for metadata protection (hiding not just the message content but also its critical characteristics like origin, destination and timing). Some argue that as a non-profit it is somewhat less amenable to American government pressure to insert backdoors or to deliberately weaken encryption in the name of national security or law enforcement.

WhatsApp and Signal head-to-head on security. Source: Mehak (2021)

Signal enthusiasts would normally frame such distinctions as done in the above table. How each of those supposed strong suits provide protection against determined US government intrusion is highly debatable. And there is already a growing citizen movement against encryption because of things like child trafficking that are changing the terms of the debate. Even as the US Government surreptitiously buys up and hold stakes in the encryption companies themselves.

But we need not dwell too much on the details here since few Africans in the category I am discussing are worried about US government surveillance or law enforcement overreach particularly. The overwhelming majority care more about surveillance by their own governments in Africa.

There is no evidence to show that WhatsApp will be more submissive to an African government’s request for backdoors than Signal. WhatsApp has put up a fairly valiant resistance in India to government demands. The economic case for capitulation is obviously stronger in India than in Africa. The case may nevertheless be made that Signal’s small size and lack of a Facebook-like global footprint should make it more impervious. But a counterpoint can work in Facebook’s favour: its vast resources can help it implement more complex legal and political shields in places like Africa.

At any rate, an African government interested in surveillance is less likely to proceed like the US government, India or China by seeking to enter into elaborate arrangements with tech giants for backdoor design and implementation. Most African governments simply lack the technical capacity to design those kinds of regimes. They are more likely to invest in cyber-offence tools and contractors, as some of them have done already. Tellingly, Bulgaria-based Circles, a spyware vendor steadily overtaking NSO in notoriety, has a third of its government clients based in Africa.

Advanced professional hacking tools and services from the likes of Israel’s NSO and the Anglo-German Gamma Group have also been traced to African surveillance operations. In fact, it is widely believed that Uganda’s attempts to hack the Apple phones of US diplomats in Kampala using NSO’s Pegasus are what caused the abrupt switch of US posture towards NSO from tolerance to hostility.

When it comes to tools such as Pegasus, the target is the phone’s actual operating system. Any malware that takes sufficient control over the operating system of a device could also steal the private keys downloaded from the platform and render any encryption vulnerable.

We know from the Jarett Crisler case that Signal message content and metadata can be extracted by US law enforcement agencies most likely through exfiltration of encryption keys by exploiting both phone operating system and hardware vulnerabilities. Indeed, at least one Israeli company openly boasts about giving law enforcement agencies the tools to bypass Signal’s encryption. With these vendors willing to do business with any government that will pay, the risks to privacy have metastasized from the policies and conflicts of the technology provider or its privacy commitment to pure commercial jungle warfare.

In short, there are many reasons why an African businessperson may wish to switch among the big messaging apps. Keeping the government’s long nose out of one’s business affairs is, unfortunately however, increasingly less tenable as a basis for choosing among the options available.

I have received a letter from the Office of the Senior Presidential Advisor of Ghana (formerly, “Office of the Senior Minister”) purporting to be a response or rejoinder to two tweets about Ghana’s stagnant public sector reforms effort I sent out on 21st and 25th February, 2022.

For clarity, I reproduce the tweets here.

It is heartening to note that the Office of the Senior Presidential Advisor (OSPA) shares with many of us the belief that public sector reforms in Ghana remain a pressing and crucial issue, and thus require careful scrutiny.

The OSPA’s 5-page response/rejoinder to my claims of the their obsessive focus on procuring expensive cars to the neglect of other, perhaps more critical, matters is thus the least one could expect in these circumstances.

Unfortunately, the response falls short of the requisite thoroughness, accuracy and candour required to address the concerns analysts continue to have about the results to date of Ghana’s longstanding quest to reform its public sector to improve its effectiveness and contribution to total development. Before we delve into these shortcomings, it is essential, given the sheer depth of this topic, to recount the full history of Ghana’s attempt to comprehensively reform its public sector institutions from the center. Below, a compilation of the reforms and their chronology by a team led by the World Bank’s Nick Manning in 2012 is reproduced verbatim.

Non-Structural Reforms

Structural Reforms

A simpler overview that covers more recent attempts is provided below.

Source: Martin J. Williams and Liah Yecalo-Tecle (2019)

It is easy to deduce from the above that serious attempts at actual structural reforms of the Public Sector did not even begin until 1994, and this doomed attempt – the National Institutional Renewal Program (NIRP) and Civil Service Performance Improvement Project (CSPIP) – had by 2001 completely lost steam. Since then, a mix of different strategies have been pursued culminating in the current emphasis on “results” and “delivery”.

From this results and delivery emphasis, three key themes for the reform agenda emerge:

  • Increasing Personnel Productivity
  • Making Decentralisation Work and
  • Eliminating graft, corruption, poor governance & other unprofessional conduct

Even as individual initiatives, like computerisation of public finance administration and linkage of capacity building with demonstrable skills upgrades in the Civil Service, have repeatedly failed, a rinse-repeat-recycle process have kept these goals at the forefront of the reform agenda.

Here are some of the practical issues that we currently grapple with as a country because of persistent failure of public sector reforms:

  • The country spending more roughly 40% of total government revenues on paying public sector workers every year over the last decade, considerably higher than most of its peers. Yet, salary agitations remain rampant, suggesting poor distribution, high distortions and low productivity. A conclusion supported by the fact that Ghana actually employs fewer public sector workers in some crucial areas like health, education, security and agriculture than peer countries in Africa and that its public sector personnel are marginally less educated than on average.
Source: IFS (2019)
Ghana’s high wage bill as a share of government revenues compared to peers. Source: IFC (2019)
Ghana’s relative public sector compensation bill is enormous even by global standards. Source: World Bank
Source: IFS (2019)
  • Long delays in paying salaries of newly recruited staff due to poor payroll vetting procedures. Erratic pay has become so institutionalised that some rural banks are reported to be building products around it. It is not clear how an employer can maintain staff motivation when salary arrears can pile up for months on end.
  • Poor maintenance of amenities and delivery of social services in many peri-urban and rural areas as a result of the inability of local government bodies to raise local revenue.
  • Consistent poor financial and performance results at many state institutions according to perennial Audit Service indictments.
  • Continued extortion of citizens by public sector workers before delivering benefits to which citizens are entitled. Both Afrobarometer and Transparency International data shows zero improvement of citizen experience of corruption and extortion over the last decade.
Corruption Perception among the population. Source: Afrobarometer (2019)
Source: Yeboah-Assiamah et al (2016)

To do justice to the Office of the Senior Presidential Advisor’s (OSPA) rejoinder, the above context should shape our approach.

I made the following claims on Twitter:

  1. A summary of the 2020 Annual Report of the Office of the Head of Civil Service corroborates the position that the bulk of expenses made in pursuit of public sector reforms by the OSPA went to buy cars. That fact cannot be challenged as it is based on a verbatim extract from that report.
  2. A larger share of the World Bank resources given to the OSPA to spend on advancing public sector reforms in Ghana went into buying cars. The evidence for this is from the World Bank’s own reports on the project and will be presented in this essay.
  3. The largest single completed expenditure was for 7.4 million Ghana Cedis worth of cars in December 2019. The Senior Minister insists that the expense was 8.5 million GHS worth of cars and the spending year was 2020. I relied on World Bank reporting, which I will reproduce below. At any rate, this “clarification” makes no material difference to the core argument.

Before I produce the relevant extracts from the World Bank reports, it is important to remind readers to analyse the scope of activities listed by the OSPA in their “rejoinder” to determine if indeed their explanations measure up to the scope of the public sector reform challenge described thus far in this essay.

Are vehicles for personnel the most critical instruments for boosting fiscal decentralisation, eliminating corruption and extortion and boosting productivity? Is there any evidence to suggest so from any study? Can the OSPA cite any such studies? How has the public sector reform project fared as a result of this decision to focus on buying brand new cars for sixteen agencies?

Find below an overview of what the former Senior Minister committed to in exchange for funding from the public purse to transform the public sector.

Source: World Bank

Has the OSPA delivered?

  • Did 250 government agencies establish fully functional client service units by the end of last year?
  • Did Parliament of Ghana ratify the African Charter on Values & Principles and is it being applied to professionalise the public service?
  • Has the Subvented Agencies Reform Programme been successfully implemented and output measured in accordance with the targets?
  • Was there a positive improvement in macroeconomic indicators such as inflation, primary/cash deficit, exchange rate, debt sustainability etc.?

Our investigations reveal serious underperformance on each and every bar the Office has set for itself in every one of these critical areas, not to talk of complete neglect in the OSPA’s strategy of very critical matters like public sector workforce rationalisation, state enterprises (still declaring record losses) and effective fiscal decentralisation.

Even within the narrow confines of the World Bank assisted component of the OSPA’s strategy – improving specific services delivered by sixteen selected agencies across the Ghanaian Public Sector – the performance of the OSPA has been woeful.

From mainstreaming gender priorities to modernising records administration, building systems to reduce vendor payment arrears accumulation in the Civil Service to reforming pension administration, and from transforming the speed with which institutions like CHRAJ manage complaints to overhauling performance contracting at Civil Service Director level, there has so far been little evidence in the Public Sector that the strategy is even beginning to take off, much less have impact. Below is an overview of the resources committed from the World Bank loan to driving the reforms exercise between inception and 2023.

Source: World Bank

Essentially, Ghana has gone to borrow $35 million to reform the Public Sector yet little progress is evident. Still, the OSPA keeps buying cars to distribute to bureaucrats. Meanwhile, little is being done to set the project on a serious course to results.

Worse, in some cases, the targets set simply conflict with other government policy. For example, the push to reduce vehicle registration to 1 hour is based on arbitrary standards. Currently, both roadworthy certification and environmental standards compliance (for emissions tracking among others) in the vehicle registration process fall far short of acceptable standards. No resources have been devoted to improving the equipment and skills needed to enhance these and similar aspects of the vehicle registration process. Indeed, in a study by Dr. Ayetor, Dr. Ampofo and their colleagues in 2021, only 25% of Ghanaian cars in the study sample passed vehicular tests based on national and global standards. Any artificial reduction in registration time would thus only go to damage the quality of certification and compliance even further. Which then raises the question: what difference would buying cars for DVLA make in this major area, for example?

In a similar vein, the poor coverage of birth and deaths in Ghana is due to poor coordination among local government institutions and the Birth & Deaths Registry. Poor public education through strong social institutions like religious bodies and traditional authorities has also been identified as a major weakness. Based on what research then was a decision made to prioritise the buying of cars for the Births & Deaths Registry?

NITA is expected to act as the primary IT Services Provider to all government agencies. As part of the reforms effort, NITA is expected to sign service level agreements with these agencies so that they can be assured of responsive service when they need it. NITA so far refuses to invest in building these helpdesks and operationalising them for the full range of agencies that need support. What has buying cars for NITA bosses to ride around town got to do with addressing this problem?

For every single one of the 16 agencies and the targets of improvement set for them, factors other than transportation/mobility matter far more. Yet, the OSPA decided, for reasons they fail to disclose in their “rejoinder”, that cars should be the most critical input in transforming the processes of these institutions.

Not surprising then that the rating of the project continues to be unsatisfactory.

Source: World Bank

More than 80% of project indicators by my reckoning are not on track.

As is customary in government business nowadays, public accountability, which was designed into the project, has been virtually zilch.

Source: World Bank

As I have already indicated, without any serious rebuttal from the OSPA, the bulk of spending (~80%), as at end 2020, has been on cars.

Source: World Bank

The only substantive push for stakeholder engagement was money disbursed to support Civil Service Week and a so-called Results Fair, which as many would recall consisted primarily in the government announcing projects that make it look good but unrelated to public sector reform.

In short, public sector reforms in Ghana is a big deal, but the Office of the Senior Presidential Advisor is misguidedly investing in cars rather than in critical inputs required to make a serious impact on productivity, professionalism and decentralisation.

As for whether the bulk of the cars were bought in 2019 or 2020, the discrepancy is purely one of accounting treatment. The contracts to buy the cars were signed in 2019. In standard accounting, expensing happens when expenses are incurred. The OSPA can choose to focus on when the cars were actually delivered. It makes no material difference.

Source: World Bank

In view of all the above, I humbly decline the invitation of the eminent and esteemed former Senior Minister to retract and apologise for my claims. On the contrary, I choose to double down and amplify them, as I have done in this essay. Thanks to the OSPA for initiating this dialogue.