Africa has fast become a prominent market for “big ears”, a euphemistic reference to the sinister realm of surveillance and spycraft. In Gabon, the Frenchman Jean-Charles Solon directs Silam, the listening center for the Gabonese presidency. A former soldier who went on to work for the DGSE, France’s intelligence agency, Solon is officially employed as a functionary of Gabon’s government but more or less maintains complete autonomy over his management of Silam. Hidden among inconspicuous buildings by the presidential palace, Silam intercepts WhatsApp messages, transcribes phone calls, monitors social media, and reads e-mail exchanges.
Solon’s presence in Gabon reflects a growing trend of former French and other national intelligence officials striking out in the private sector, providing businessmen, heads of state, and opposition figures with the technology and expertise needed to build their own surveillance networks. France alone is home to several private security services who contract out to African clients, including Ames, Nexa Technologies, Ercom, and Suneris Solutions. Ercom has staked its influence in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Mali and Senegal, providing encryption services for electronic and telephone communications. They also furnish decryption know-how. Ercom and Suneris Solutions are both based in Villacoublay, southwest of Paris, close to the French army’s Special Operations Command. They are veritable showcases of French espionage technologies.