NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Over just a few months, the seemingly calm and democratic country of Mali has been convulsed by rebellion and political crisis. Nomadic tribesmen in the north accelerated a struggle for independence. Army officers, angry with the government's conduct of the war, overthrew the president. And in the confusion that followed, the northern rebels seized three provincial capitals. Now, Mali's neighbors have imposed an economic embargo, and they're meeting to discuss military intervention to reverse the coup, while the leaders of the military junta in Mali say the real danger is the Islamist groups among the northern rebels, some of them linked to al-Qaida.
NPR foreign correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been in Mali for the past few days. If you have questions for her about what's happening there, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And NPR foreign correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from Mali and the capital city of Bamako. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings, greetings indeed from Bamako, a very hot Bamako.
CONAN: And what is the overall feeling in the country right now?
QUIST-ARCTON: It's - there's a lot of tension, a lot of tension in Mali. Here in the capital, the tension is not only about the rebellion in the north and the rights or wrongs of the military takeover two weeks ago but especially the effect of sanctions imposed by Mali's neighbors because Captain Amadou Aya Sanago, the coup leader, was meant to return the country to constitutional order. That is what the regional president said. On Saturday, what he did was reinstate the constitution and the institutions, but two days later, regional leaders clearly didn't think that was enough and imposed sanctions.
So people here in the capital are worried that fuel is going to run out, that food that's imported might run out because Mali is a landlocked nation. And so everything comes in from Ivory Coast, from Senegal, from Burkina Faso, its neighbors. So there's real fear and real tension.
CONAN: We'll get back to that in a minute. Let's go to the situation in the north, which seems to be at least a major part of this crisis. These are Tuareg tribesmen who are nomads throughout the Sahara region, the desert region there. And one of the places they've taken is the legendary city of Timbuktu.
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And just for people who don't know who Tuaregs are, they're the ones who wrap - it's called a cheich, and it's usually blue. So they're called the blue men. They wrap it around their heads and around their faces to keep out the desert dust. And, of course, fabled Timbuktu is one of the three strategic towns and areas that they've taken - Gao, a garrison town; Kidal, the regional capital; and Timbuktu over the weekend. Neal, one of the real problems, though, is that it's not just the Tuareg rebels who are demanding their own homeland.
They're demanding independence for their Sahara Desert area of Mali. They have been allied to Islamists from Ansar al-Din. And Ansar al-Din wants not so much independence - in fact, not independence. What it wants to do is impose strict Islamic law, Shariah, throughout Mali. And then questions are being asked, are they also assisted by the local al-Qaida franchise, which is called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. There's great confusion, of course, because journalists are not up in the north.
People are very worried. The mayor of Timbuktu says the black flag of Ansar al-Din, the Islamist group is the one flying over the town, but that the Tuareg rebels known as the MNLA and perhaps al-Qaida are also there. So there's huge confusion.
In Gao, another major town, we've heard reports that there may have been abuses, not only Ansar Dine breaking up anything that seems Western, bars serving alcohol, even humanitarian agencies, their stocks apparently have been looted. So people are trying to flee. The problem is, you know, have they got enough gas to be able to get into cars to go?
CONAN: Among those fleeing, at least according to reports I've read, I think from the mayor of Timbuktu, is the small Christian community of that city.
QUIST-ARCTON: Christians are a very small minority and, yes, they are also saying they'll leave - but it's not only Christians. You know, we think of the north and the Sahara Desert as being Tuareg country, but there are many, many other tribes who live there, the biggest being the Songhai, but there are also the Bella who used to be the slaves of the Tuaregs, and other smaller ethnic groups also live in the north. They held a meeting, those living in Bamako, the capital, yesterday to say, no. We are - we don't want independence. We are part of Mali. We want to remain part of Mali.
So it's not cut and dried, that because this Tuareg rebel movement - and not all Tuaregs in the north - because they want the Azawad, as they call their homeland, as an independent country. It's not the whole of the north that wants to secede by any means. So that is also part of the confusion. And much of this is being blamed on the ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure, who is in hiding, and who not only the coup leaders, but many other Malians are saying, mishandled the rebellion.
CONAN: In what way?
QUIST-ARCTON: They say that when Malian Tuaregs where heading back from Libya where they fought for Colonel Moammar Gadhafi they were not disarmed, and that they have come back to Mali. And we're talking about hundreds of rebels, come back to army - to Mali with sophisticated weapons, so sophisticated that the Malian army - which has been weakened over the past 20 years - the Malian army did not have the wherewithal, did not have the sort of weaponry that the rebels had. That's why the soldiers say they have to get rid of the government, because they were being killed. They were trying to fight the rebellion, but they simply didn't have the resources and sometimes, they say, even food, to be able to fight the rebels.
Now, many rebels are saying the Malian army is hopeless. How come they abandoned the post and abandoned the people, retreated and have been routed by the rebels - but the rebels are much better armed. There's also the issue of corruption in the higher echelons of the military and the higher - alleged corruption in the higher echelons of the government. That those who should have been concentrating and focusing on the rebellion, were too busy stuffing their pockets instead of dealing with the issues.
And it's not just the rebellion, this Sahara Desert area is poorly policed and is vast. And we're told that there's trafficking of all sorts going up there, hard drugs, people trafficking, smuggling of all sorts, and that this is being perpetuated by al-Qaida allies and so on. So Mali is in a big mess at the moment.
CONAN: And today, reports that Algerian diplomats were seized at the consulate in Gao, I think it was, the town that was involved there. But what about the outgoing president, Amadou Toumani Toure? He was about to step down. There was supposed to be an election.
QUIST-ARCTON: Neal, it's funny. I was here 21 years ago when ATT - he's known by his initials, Amadou Toumani Toure - when he came to power, himself, as a lieutenant colonel. He was a paratrooper in the parachute commando regiment. He came to power in a coup d'etat 21 years ago. He handed that power to an elected civilian government the next year, and he was lauded, hailed, by not only Africa, but the whole world as being a soldier democrat. He was then elected 10 years later, and as you say, he was meant to be stepping down during elections at the end of the month. But for those who are pro-ATT, they say he did a good job, and that's mainly people from outside: The White House, France, the former colonial power, many people who were holding Mali up as an example of a stable democracy in Africa.
When you speak to many Malians - and I agree I'm only in the capital, Bamako - they say that, you know, this was a false democracy. People like to have a five-star pupil, you know, the best of the bunch. That was how Mali was being portrayed, but the rot had already set in, despite the 20 years of democracy. So he's in hiding now. He says he's well. He's not insisting on coming back to power, even for a transition, and that's very important. He says the important thing now is for Mali to come out of this crisis. But the coup leaders have said that he may be tried if he's found, for, A, high treason and B, misappropriation of funds.
CONAN: And the irony, of course, is that the army rebelled because they protested the conduct of the war by the government, and, of course, the war has gone much worse since the coup. I understand you recently interviewed the coup leader, Captain Amadou.
QUIST-ARCTON: And I asked him just that, why, how come?
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
CAPT. AMADOU HAYA SANOGO: What this army couldn't do in 10 years, I can't do in 10 days. That's - I'll tell you what, I'm here for that and I said it again, it's my priority, and I will put every effort. I will ask everyone. I will ask for, you know, anything or contribution to make this better, and I will. That's my promise.
CONAN: It's his promise and, of course, the junta has been trying to focus the attention on the - what they say, is the real crisis, and that's in the north. Well, ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States says, well, we got a crisis - political crisis in Bamako to deal with first.
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And did you detect a little American accent there?
CONAN: I did, yes.
QUIST-ARCTON: Captain Sanogo has had training, he says, in Texas, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Oberlin, Kansas, and he has done all sorts, from military intelligence to English teaching. So he's very, very familiar with the United States.
Now, there's a lot of criticism of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, here in Bamako. People say it was much too hasty to impose these sanctions. And they're also saying, you know, why is ECOWAS talking about any sort of military intervention? These people have said that they want their own homeland, you know, that Tuaregs are spread right across the Sahel, right across the Sahara Desert. Let everybody get together and talk to find a solution. That if there's any sort of military intervention, this may inflame passions, and Tuaregs from other countries may decide that they are going to join in to defend their brothers and sisters in Mali. So many Malians are saying what they want is dialogue now.
The embargo and financial, diplomatic, economic sanctions aren't - the people who it's going to hurt are ordinary Malians, not the junta, not the soldiers. And the U.S. has also imposed visa restrictions, a visa ban on the junta and anyone who's going to promote these coup leaders. Malians are saying, we've got to reunite and ensure that peace is the way forward and the regional leaders have got to help us. But right now, they feel they're being besieged by West Africa in general.
CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from Bamako, the capital of Mali. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Brian(ph) on the line. Brian is calling us from Scio in Oregon.
BRIAN: Hi. I just want to say in defense of the Tuareg people, and Tuareg is actually a name that was foisted upon them. They call themselves, I believe it's pronounced Tamasheq peoples. They're a matriarchal society.
BRIAN: They have been tremendously marginalized and even had genocide committed against them by many of the African countries. And they have been forced acculturation to - forced to take on the Islamic religion. They've - they are just a great, ancient culture that has managed to barely hold on to its own survival. And the fact that they are taking a stand and able to try and grasp for themselves a homeland and an identity, they have been - in Libya, Mali, all those other - Morocco - they have been extremely oppressed and killed and marginalized. And it's wonderful that they are taking a stand and making for themselves a place and a name and a homeland. That's what I have to say.
CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, is that a fair characterization of the situation?
QUIST-ARCTON: You know, the Songhai, who also live in northern Mali, are also an ancient tribe. They came from the kingdom of Mali, the kingdom of Ghana in this part of West Africa. Yes, the north - not just the Tuaregs - the north has been marginalized. But people say that under the leadership of ATT, the ousted president, that things have been improved.
But how can you have those who are questioning this quest for a homeland, Azawad - how can you have a homeland in an area where you're not alone, that it's not just Tuaregs? There are so many other ethnic groups. How can you declare a homeland when it's not just you? And I think that is the argument that those who are saying the Tuaregs - and not all Tuaregs, as I say, are demanding independence. How can you say that you are going to have a homeland when it's not just you? That is the argument against.
CONAN: Finally, Ofeibea, the - there is a - if there's going to be outside intervention other than ECOWAS, it would come from France, the former colonial power - of course, we remember Cote d'Ivoire not so long ago - but the French said today they would provide logistical support for ECOWAS and strongly signaled that they would not be involved in any military action.
QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. That's what the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe said today. Now, France is in very bad odor, very bad odor here. The Malians are saying, you know, we are fed up of interference from France in its former colonies. We've been independent since 1960. France, stop dictating to us. We also want to get around the table, but it's not up to you to tell us to do that. It's up to Malians to get together, and Malians to find a solution to our problems. What they want help from, what the Malians - where the Malians want help from, is the region. They say West Africa and Mali must deal with this and not the U.S., not France, not those who come from outside and try to impose their will, that this has got to be a solution found locally, so that it will endure.
CONAN: It sounds like a difficult situation. It's not going to work out itself anytime soon. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you so much for your time.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.
CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from Bamako, the capital of Mali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.