Inside Report: SU professor watching events in Mali very closely

It seems like a long way off, especially for those of us who live in Baton Rouge, but for Southern University Professor Diola Bagayoko, the turmoil in his native Mali, in west Africa, is especially troubling.

As chairman of Southern’s Physics Department, a member of the Faculty Senate and a one-time prospect for chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus, Bagayoko is a well-known figure.

What’s less known are the overtures he’s been making through acquaintances in Mali, urging military leaders to uphold the country’s constitution.

In a letter to one military leader in May, Bagayoko acknowledged the temptation to do away with the constitution as a way to assert military rule over a country in times of turmoil, but he urged them to stay the course.

“A fundamental purpose of a constitution is to protect a country and its people against the evolving tendencies, interests, prejudices or other dispositions of some individuals or groups,” Bagayoko wrote in his letter. “As such, a constitution is not to be violated for the convenience of any groups, however vocal or threatening they may be — if a democracy is to exist.”

Recently, Bagayoko said he is optimistic the people of his native country eventually will prevail over the religious extremists trying to take control of the country.

Bagayoko said he has little choice but to hold out hope for a nation that has been hailed historically for its intellectualism, and in the more recent past, as a standard-bearer for democracy in the region.

But the past two decades of progress, particularly in regards to economic development for the country of 14.5 million, are at risk from the unrest.

It started in January 2012 with the insurgency of Islamist extremists in the northern part of the country. The country’s problems were later compounded when government soldiers, disillusioned with the government’s handling of the extremists, staged a military coup d’etat in the capital city of Bamako, sending then-President Amadou Toumani Touré into hiding.

All of this has been extremely unsettling to Bagayoko, who left Mali in 1975 for the United States, but has a number of friends and relatives still living there.

His cause for optimism, he explained, stems from France’s intervention last month as a French fighting force of several thousand was able to beat back the splintering rebel movements and restore a sense of order, if only temporarily.

Bagayoko said he’s “under no illusion that the fight is over,” as some extremists have fled while others have blended into the larger population and may reorganize.

But the “legitimacy” of the French troops, signs that the United Nations will begin to take an active role in the conflict and a pledge from other west African nations to send troops have given Bagayoko reason for hope, he said.

One comforting thought coming out of Mali, he said, was the news that a University of Timbuktu employee had the foresight to sneak a trove of historical documents out of the city before the rebels had a chance to destroy them.

For Bagayoko, Timbuktu and its legacy bear special importance. He started the highly regarded Timbuktu Academy at Southern 22 years ago to mentor young people in science, technology, engineering and math.

“From the 14th century to 1591, there was not another university on the planet superior to the University of Timbuktu,” he said, explaining that the school was the model for European universities and “played a colossal role in the expansion of human intellectual heritage in medicine, religion, psychology and architecture. It was the finest on the planet.”

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is kaddo@theadvocate.com.