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July 21, 2022

TRANSCRIPT: The Russian War in Ukraine: An Interview with Samar Al-Bulushi

Anita Fuentes and Omar Dahi interview professor Samar Al-Bulushi on the possible ramifications of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the Global South, with a particular focus on the perspective from Africa.

For the Security in Context podcast episode associated with this interview, click here.

Anita Fuentes: Samar Al-Bulushi is an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Irvine. Her current work includes topics of surveillance, policing, and militarized urbanism in the context of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in East Africa. She has published in a variety of public outlets on topics ranging to the International Criminal Court to the militarization of US policy in Africa. Her book, War-Making as World-Making, explores Kenya’s entanglement in the ongoing war against the militant group Al-Shabaab. She has also worked for a number of international human rights organizations, including the Center for Economic and Social Rights, Parliamentarians for Global Action, and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Hi, Samar! Welcome and thanks for talking to us today. I'm Anita Fuentes, executive producer of the Security in Context podcast, and Omar Dahi, director of Security in Context, is here with us today as well. Hi, Omar!

Omar Dahi: Hi, Samar! Hi, Anita!

Samar Al-Bulushi: Hi to both of you! It's good to be here with you.

Anita Fuentes: So good to have you here. So Samar, I would like to start by asking you if you could tell us a little bit about your research and who you are, I guess. Introduce yourself.

Samar Al-Bulushi: Of course! So my name is Samar and I teach at UC Irvine in the department of anthropology, where my research is focused primarily on Kenya's relationship to the war on terror. Kenya emerged as a key partner of the United States, not only after 9/11 but actually as early as 1998. You may recall that's when Al-Qaeda attacked the US embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and so the security partnership predates 9/11. And what's important about Kenya's geopolitical location is that it shares a border with Somalia, where it has deployed troops to combat Al-Shabaab since October of 2011. It's been over ten years now. And, at the same time, Kenya has used military and financial assistance from the United States to set up specialized counter-terror police bodies that have become notorious for extrajudicial killings and disappearances. And I would say that, broadly speaking, what motivates my interest in Kenya is that I see it as an opportunity to theorize an empire from the global South, and to ask what a different vantage point might offer our analysis. I'm thinking here about the wide range of actors that sustain the US empire on the ground. Now, one dimension of this, of course, is the military labor; so the question of who does the fighting, who's on the front lines, knowing that the US is increasingly reluctant to deploy its own troops, both out of concern about liability for war crimes and to avoid the human cause that come with direct combat. And then the second dimension of this is more cultural and ideological in the sense that, you know, how do these partner states like Kenya cultivate popular support within their own citizenry for endless war, and for the role that their own security forces are playing in fighting this war? So I'm interested in what it means to take African states seriously as players on the global stage, rather than thinking of them in the more traditional sense as confined to the local.

Anita Fuentes: So could you tell us what you think are the main issues at stake or that are missing from the mainstream discussion or coverage about the fallout from the current Russian-Ukraine conflict and how this could relate to your research?

Samar Al-Bulushi: So, broadly speaking, I would say that what concerns me is the increasingly precarious position that African states and peoples are finding themselves in due to the shutdown of global supply chains. So much of the continent relies heavily on wheat that is exported from Russia and Ukraine, and of course these shipments have been disrupted since the onset of the conflict. In this context, the price of basic goods like oil and wheat has skyrocketed and millions of people in the continent are now facing severe food shortages, and in some cases famine. Now, we know that as part of the $40B aid package that was recently passed in congress for Ukraine, there was $5B set aside within it for global food aid, and I'm interested in the question of how that food is going to be distributed. And will, for example, global South states, especially small states, have to compete with the US or whatever entity has now been tasked with gathering that food to then distribute it (could be the World Food Programme, it could be the US Agency for International Development…)? Will small states have to compete with these massive entities themselves to gain access to the food that they need? And will states be forced to align themselves with US positions, whether it's with respect to Russia or other US interests in order to gain access to that food aid? And, finally, I think we have to recall that food aid itself has been used as the basis for military intervention in the past. That was the case in Somalia in the 1990s. So it has all kinds of geopolitical implications, and demands that will raise a set of questions about how this food will be distributed knowing how many people are going to be affected.

There's another element that I want to highlight here that is a recent development that hasn't garnered that much attention yet but has drastic, drastic geopolitical implications, and that is the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act. This emerged in congress at the end of March, and it passed overwhelmingly in the House. I think over 400 people voted yes and, at most, 9 voted against it, so it has widespread support. And the act says that it will monitor Russian political engagement on the continent with the goal of “protecting” African states from political interference, effectively by Russia. Now, they highlight, for example, the role of Russian mercenary groups as something of particular concern, and the way in which the US states that it's going to be combating this Russian influence is through the promotion of “democracy and the rule of law.” Now, we've heard that line many times before, and I think this particular bill is incredibly alarming for what it represents in the form of making Africa this potential center of great power competition, because at the end of the day this is not simply about Russia, this has implications for China as well, and it's fundamentally about the US ensuring that it can remain competitive on the continent.

Omar Dahi: I'm just going to jump in very quickly to follow up on that particular point because I think that's something I'm particularly interested in terms of moving forward, but also in the recent past. As you mentioned, there's a lot of attention to China's role in Africa, and now obviously increasingly Russia as well. Do you see evidence, let's say in the past years, where African states are being forced to choose or being put in a position of “you're either with us or against us” in this sort of great power competition battle? I’m thinking not just politically, but in terms of development finance, in terms of sort of economic linkages and so on. Do you see any evidence of that or has that been in the backburner and something we might see more of now and moving forward?

Samar Al-Bulushi: Yeah, I would say that this, the emergence of this act in Congress, is an indication that effectively this is how the US is going to be operating going forward. I am not aware of specific incidents in the past where that has been at play, but now we have it just presented to us so clearly. And some have been saying that this development represents a response and a form of punishment for the African states that did not vote to condemn Russia at the time of the invasion. I think that's kind of a short-term way to look at things, right? It has much longer-term consequences. And the more you read, both within the content of the act and with accompanying analysis, there are two things: one is the explicit demonization of Russia and the characterization of Russian activities, much like they've been doing with China, as somehow exceptional and representing something fundamentally distinct from the kinds of activities that the US is engaging in on the continent and the motivations for those engagements, right? So the assumption is that the Russians and the Chinese have nefarious intentions, whereas the US is purely benign. And I do think that we are going to see the potential threat of financial consequences and the kind of “you're either with us or against us” approach.

Anita Fuentes: The countries of Africa had a mixed response when the United Nations General Assembly voted for the expulsion of Russia from the Human Rights Council. Out of the 24 “No” votes, 9 were African countries, and then 24 African countries abstained, and 10 voted for Russia's expulsion. And, at the same time, there's a question of economic sanctions, which most of the global South has abstained from pursuing. So could you elaborate more on the official reaction of African countries, and the countries you study in particular? What are the drivers behind their response?

Samar Al-Bulushi: Absolutely. So I think that a global South-oriented analysis of what transpired at the UN, both with the vote about removing Russia from the Human Rights Council and the vote to condemn at the time of the invasion would necessitate that we simply sit down and think about what it means to occupy a particular position of the world that is not the dominant one, right? And to account for the fact that many of these states have developed relationships that are multi-oriented, multifaceted, and that are explicitly and deliberately so in the sense that they have to look out for their own interests. So the first and foremost thing that I would foreground is the degree to which these actors are motivated by their own geopolitical strategies and concerns. Now, I would say that rather than these votes representing an explicit articulation of support for Russia, the votes represent simply an articulation that, “Look, we have all kinds of interests that are at stake here and we have to take them into account.” And so I think the US has been overemphasizing and overstating the degree to which African states are collaborating, or have been kind of pressured into unfair relationships with Russia. And I think we also have to account for the degree to which Libya and the removal of Gaddafi has had quite a significant impact on geopolitical relationships in Africa in the degree to which leaders are willing to more publicly take on and challenge the West, for example. So even though many of those states abstained, very few actually spoke out publicly one way or another in favor of one entity or another, the US or Russia. We did see the South African president saying that the invasion itself was an unfortunate outcome of a failure on behalf of NATO not to listen to the concerns expressed by Putin, right? And that NATO hadn't heeded the cautions not to expand eastwards. We saw President Museveni of Uganda calling out the hypocrisy of the West and highlighting specifically NATO’s intervention in Libya as a concrete example of intervention. And, I think, for Africans the disregard for the African Union's position on the intervention in Libya has left a strong memory. They're not going to forget the fact that their position was not taken seriously, nor are they going to forget this kind of selective participation in the rule of law.

And, I think, another element that's important here to give a more concrete dimension to these votes is that we've seen the growing role and influence of a whole range of actors, not just China and Russia in Africa, but also of India, Turkey, and the Gulf states. And so the number of players that, you know, each one of these states has to take into account in terms of the effects of these kinds of decisions at the UN are multiple, right? And you see the US continuing to act employing a patronizing tone with respect to African states. The ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas Greenfield, said that these states need to be taught and need to learn why the consequences of Russia's actions are so dire. And so just an explicit disregard for what it means for them to have to take into account their own needs and interests.

Omar Dahi: The last question is sort of open-ended, sort of asking you to reflect on, all things considered, in light of what you said, what are some of the things we should be paying attention to? What are some of the urgent issues, particularly that you raised about the food question, which is pressing in Africa and the Middle East? I mean, the number of countries that are going to be actually in need, in light of where we're heading now, disruption, and energy supplies, and all that, but also geopolitically and in terms of the impact on the ground that you see. What are some of the big things that should be in play and should be discussed that are not currently being discussed?

Samar Al-Bulushi: I think the question of food is one that is going to have very, very clear consequences going forward. And, to me, it is inevitable that the harder it is to access just basic goods and nutrition, the more likely it is that people will be taking to the streets. And we've already seen in the last 18 months four or five military coups on the African continent, and what's really important here is that, with the exception of Sudan, in many cases, those coups have been popularly celebrated. They have not been the topic of condemnation at the level of the street, right? At the diplomatic level, of course everyone is rallying and saying “this is wrong, we have to restore democratic order,” but on the street level… Amy Niang has written a piece that was first published in the Review of African Political Economy and then in Monthly Review, and her analysis of these coups and the reaction to them at the popular level is that we're starting to see a new form of politics emerge that is fundamentally a response to, and the product of, desperation. So I think that the masses, that the degree to which the masses are celebrating these coups, or at least accepting them, represents a response to the accumulated effects of decades of neoliberal policies that have only hurt you know the everyday person. And so Amy Niang's analysis is that this suggests that we're going to see a new form of politics. And I also think that it forces us to think critically about the supposed separation between the civilian and the military realms. And as more and more of the global powers are investing in militarism as the solution at the expense of social and economic needs and concerns, then it's not so surprising, we shouldn't be so shocked, when the people themselves similarly turn to a military solution.

Omar Dahi: And just to add, I mean I see that clearly in Tunisia. I mean, 10 years to me is clear evidence of what you just said, which is the country I'm familiar with the most. I'm not an expert on Tunisia but of African countries that you mentioned that experienced coups… I don't know if you count Tunisia as one of those countries, if you include Tunisia in those four to five countries…

Samar Al-Bulushi: I hadn't. No, I hadn't.

Omar Dahi: But there is some sort of democratic backsliding, or sort of the dissolution of Parliament… But you have this continuation of neoliberal policies. You have a transition to “democracy” that provided no economic justice to it, that was sort of empty in the social economic realm, that it's not surprising that you see the lack of condemnation to Kais Saied’s actions, or at least if not outright celebration for many. And I think that it's really interesting to think about this new form of politics emerging, so thank you for that.

Anita Fuentes: Samar Al-Bulushi. Thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a pleasure to have you as a guest in the Security and Context podcast, and hopefully we can invite you as a guest again in future episodes.

Samar Al-Bulushi: Thank you for having me.

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