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Africa's Ongoing Militant Conflicts And Ethnic Feuds


Seventeen people were killed and dozens wounded after attacks on two churches in the Kenya-Somalia border area yesterday. Local officials suspect al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked militant group based in Somalia. And in Mali, Islamic militants destroyed ancient tombs in Timbuktu. We're about to mark the first anniversary of South Sudan's independence. The connection between all those stories is NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who's reported from Kenya, Mali and South Sudan in recent months. We're taking advantage of her trip to headquarters here in Washington to speak with her in person.

If you have a question for Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about the stories she's been covering, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Normally based in Dakar, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to Washington.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Thank you. Lovely to be in the TALK OF THE NATION studio again.

CONAN: Let's begin with Timbuktu where historic tombs are being destroyed by a group called Ansar Dine. These are, as I understand it, the shrines of Islamic saints being destroyed by an Islamic group.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's right, Sufi saints. And what Ansar Dine - and Ansar Dine is one of the Islamist movements that has taken over the north. As you - as I'm sure you know, there has been a rebellion there since January, and the Islamists were actually allied to the Tuareg, the nomadic Tuareg rebels who have declared independence in the desert north of Mali. But now, there's fighting between the Islamists and the Tuaregs, and the Islamists seemed to be gaining ground and consolidating their control. And Timbuktu is just one of the towns where they are imposing Islamic law, Shariah, and they say that these tombs, these mausoleums of Muslim saints are idolatrous.

CONAN: The United Nations recently declared those shrines in Timbuktu as areas of great concern for historic preservation, and indeed, there's some speculation the destruction of the tombs is in response to the United Nations.

QUIST-ARCTON: Who knows what it is? All we know is that these tombs and these historic sites in Timbuktu go back to the 15th century, Neal. So this is not only Timbuktu's history, it's Africa's history. This is the seat of learning that goes back how many centuries, and this is part of it. We're told also that even the door of one of the ancient mosques has been attacked. They're being attacked with machetes, with shovels, and we're told with automatic rifles.

CONAN: It is reminiscent of the destruction of the great Buddhas in Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

QUIST-ARCTON: And that is why people are now calling Mali, the north of Mali the Afghanistan of Africa, because ancient sites such as this that may not - according to Ansar Dine - that's a haram, that's a forbidden, that's not according to Islamic law, that go against what they say is the religion, that they are literally destroying these icons.

CONAN: And the goal is, of course, to establish a separate state in northern Mali as the Tuaregs were trying to do to establish a Tuareg state. We're going to have to see how that works out. I wanted to ask you, though, about the state - the first new state in Africa in many, many years, and, of course, we're about to celebrate first year of independence of South Sudan on the other side of the continent.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, Neal, can we call it a celebration? They will be marking independence in South Sudan, but in the year since I was there I reported on the 9th of July on this historic event, not only Africa's newest nation but the world's newest nation. But in the year since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in the north, especially over recent months, there has just been trouble, trouble at the borders, trouble over oil because South Sudan now is home to most of the oil, three quarters of the oil that belonged to the entire Sudan when it was one nation. There are all sorts of unfinished business between the two countries over citizenship, identity, revenues, revenue-sharing, and oil seems to be the main one.

So many South Sudanese say they're very happy to be independent. They're very happy to be first-class citizens in their own country, but they realized that there is a lot going on that is not what they had hoped for in the past year. And there are troubles in Sudan up in the north, troubles at the border area, troubles in the Nuba Mountain - in fact, a lot of conflict and a lot of issues that many people are now saying should have been resolved before independence and before the referendum on the independence of these two separate states.

CONAN: South Sudan may have the bulk of the oil, but it is a landlocked country. The only way it has to export that oil is through Sudan and through Port Sudan. And the Sudanese are saying, well, we want our bite of that oil. And, of course, some fees are perfectly reasonable, but according to South Sudanese, they're asking for very much excessive fees.

QUIST-ARCTON: And that has been one of the main issues that has led to the conflict. The South Sudanese are saying the Sudanese are trying to rob them, that the fees that they are asking for are astronomical. But as you said, they have no option. There's lots of talk about a new pipeline passing through Kenya as an alternative. But if that happens, if - a big if - that's three to four years ahead. So you have South Sudan accusing Sudan of confiscating, of stealing its oil, Sudan telling South Sudan you're not paying market fees for using the pipeline to export your oil and trouble.

CONAN: And the trouble just across the border in what is now Southern Sudan - just across the border from South Sudan. There are a lot of people there who say they would like to be independent, as well, that they're being oppressed by the government. And, of course, the government in Khartoum says the South Sudanese are helping their old allies in the war of independence.

QUIST-ARCTON: So you have them trading accusations of each helping the others' rebels in inverted commerce. But that has caused a real problem up in two of the border states. So you have - in the Juba Mountains, you have those who supported the south, but feel there's southerners in inverted commerce, but who live in the north, fleeing across the border, saying they're being oppressed, that their areas are being bombed by Sudanese government war planes. And, yes, you have Sudan saying to the south: You are aiding the people who are fermenting crisis in the north. So it's a real mess.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the conversation. Our guest - of course you recognize her voice - Ofeibea-Quist-Arcton, our foreign correspondent, normally based in Dakar, in Senegal - I can't say at the way she does - is visiting Washington, D.C. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Caroline, and Caroline's on the line with us from Anchorage.

CAROLINE: Yes. Good afternoon. I wanted to first of all thank the - miss - I'm sorry. I've lost your name...

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea. Ofeibea, yeah.


CAROLINE: ...Ofeibea, for your reporting. It's always a breath of fresh air to find out what's really going on. My question has to do with whether or not the religious differences between the bulk of the population in the south versus the north - when I remember the fighting - does this have anything to do - does this impact not just the U.S., but the Western response to the conflict in the Sudan? My understanding was that the bulk of the south was Christian, and I remember they seemed to get more support than the people of the north that were being attacked by the Janjaweed, whatever the name was.

CONAN: In Darfur region.

QUIST-ARCTON: In Darfur. Now, there, we're talking about the west, and Darfur remains in Sudan proper. So that is another unresolved issue. It's true that there's much more media attention now on the troubles between Sudan proper and South Sudan. But, yes, there were issues also, and there are remaining issues in Darfur, which is a mixed community, because many Darfuris are Muslim. But, yes, most people in South Sudan are either animists, practice traditional African religions or Christianity. And most people in the north are Muslim.

But there's a mix of everybody everywhere else. So, yes, it's an issue, but it's not the only issue in the troubles in the two countries, because there are troubles within South Sudan between rival ethnic groups who are both South Sudanese. And in the north, you have troubles between, also, different ethnic groups who live in the north. So it's actually pretty complicated.

CAROLINE: Well, thank you for that. And my thought is that resource allocation many times trumps everything else.

CONAN: That's a big problem everywhere. Thank you very much for the phone call.

CAROLINE: That's correct. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it. There is also - but getting back to the issue of religious divisions, not just a problem in Sudan and South Sudan, but in West Africa, in Nigeria, where there are more and more problems between the Christians and Islam - extreme Islamists in the northern part of the country.

QUIST-ARCTON: Neal, you have a lot of people who will tell you this is not a religious issue, that it's true that Boko Haram, which means Western education, is sinful. This Islamist sect that has been attacking was initially government and security institutions, but increasingly churches, that this has much more to do with social issues, the fact that poverty and the young people who have no hope, no future, no prospects are getting involved with these groups. But, yes, Boko Haram has been increasingly - since Christmas Day last year - been attacking churches, which has put Christians under pressure. They feel that they're being directly targeted by this one religious group. But you have many, many.

I was in Kano in January and February with Grant Clark, our producer, and we had many Muslims saying to us: But these people who are committing these crimes are not true Muslims. Our religion is a religion of faith, and that it's a minority who are giving Islam a bad name in Nigeria. But the troubles are continuing. And there are many people who saying the government is not doing enough to, A, resolve this issue of security and violence, but also the root issues of social discontent.

CONAN: Our guest is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR foreign correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go back to where we began, and that is on the border between Somalia and Kenya, where, again, Christian churches attacked, 17 people killed yesterday. But, again, people would say there's another cause for this, and that is the Kenyan intervention in Somalia, and this is revenge by al-Shabab - yes, an al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic group, but try - seeking to punish Kenya rather than necessarily just Christians.

QUIST-ARCTON: Which has become a really huge issue, because in - towards the end of last year, Kenyan military forces crossed into Somalia with the avowed intention of stopping this apparently al-Qaida-linked group, al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab said then - and they had been fighting the weak interim transition government in Somalia, which is Western-backed, U.S.-backed, Kenyan-backed, Africa-backed. But then al-Shabab turned its attention to Kenya, said if you are going to invade our territory, we're going to hit back.

And we have seen a series of grenade attacks and bombings against everything from bars where people have been watching soccer, Mombasa just 10 days ago on the coast in Kenya, to now Garissa, which is - Garissa is near the Somali-Kenyan border on the Somali side, two churches hit yesterday, Sunday. But...

CONAN: It's on the Kenyan side.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sorry, on the Kenyan side of the border, but not very far from the Dadaab, which is a huge refugee camp, apparently the biggest in the world, where many Somali refugees have crossed because of the drought and others.

So we have this intractable problems, because the Kenyans say they are going to stay in Somalia until they have managed to subdue al-Shabab, along with the African Union Forces and the Somali forces. And you have al-Shabab saying, if that's the case, we're going to make sure that you Kenyans and your people suffer.

CONAN: We must report on wars. We must report on political divisions and religious divisions, on ethnic divisions when it cause violence and dictate the futures of people, yet we continually hear reports of economic development in Africa. We continue to hear reports of Africa rising, of a new generation that is seeking new kinds of worlds that were unavailable to them ever before. That in the midst to all these problems, there is great promise in much of Africa.

QUIST-ARCTON: And mea maxima culpa, Neal. I don't spend enough time reporting about the positive developments that are happening in Africa. I mean, the creativity, invention, technology, and then you have countries like - which is next door to me, across the, you know, just across the water, Cape Verde, a country that has no natural resources. A lot of people will say, well, that's why it's blessed, because nobody's fighting to enrich themselves with its natural resources, but a country that is - doesn't have much, but is managing to push itself up through good governance and good leadership.

And I think that is probably one of our problems on the African continent, is that there's too much poor leadership. That means the people remain poor, and who remain poorly led. But then you have Botswana, a country which is awash with diamonds, which is managing to make the Batswana, the people of Botswana, have a better life. Mozambique, not so very far away, countries where with reasonable leadership as well as, of course, civil society working hard, they are doing pretty well. But, of course, what gets the headlines? It's the bad news stories. It's the countries that are in conflict and the countries that have problems.

CONAN: This email from Matt: Major news organizations, including NPR, have multiple correspondents for places like Europe and Asia, yet you are the sole correspondent for almost an entire continent. Why does Africa get so little attention? And does your wide area of responsibility make your job more difficult?

QUIST-ARCTON: Sir, that's just about ending. I've got a colleague, John Bennett, who is heading his way to - winding his way to Nairobi, Kenya. So there will be more of us covering the continent. We also have a correspondent in Cape Town, who covers mainly South and Southern Africa. Yeah, it's true. Africa is...

CONAN: And we'll include Egypt, too, but that's another story.

QUIST-ARCTON: I should have said Sub-Saharan Africa, south of the Sahara, because we - of course, we have correspondents in Egypt covering mainly North Africa and the Middle East. It's true that we cover Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, but - so that we're going to have double the amount of stories very, very soon, believe me.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, we can't wait to see you get back to your specialty in West African and back to your home in Dakar, but have a great time while you're visiting us here in Washington.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you. And it's as hot here as it is back at base in Dakar, unbelievably.

I'm terribly sorry about that.

But you got the storms, which are tough.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, joining us here in Studio 3A. She's on a visit to Washington, D.C. from her base in Dakar in Africa. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join guest host John Donvan a day early so we can give them July Fourth off to man the grill. Don't miss it. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.