Ex-Nasa man faces a daunting challenge


Click to follow
The Independent Online

A widespread and worsening hunger crisis, at least two competing rebellions, active Jihadists, a military coup and population displacement are some of the items dominating the in-tray of Mali's leaders.

If "rocket science" is popular shorthand for complexity then the situation in the West African nation demands a rocket scientist. Enter Cheick Modibo Diarra, Africa's first astrophysicist, formerly of Nasa and now the acting Prime Minister of Mali. Ostensibly his task is to take what one experienced diplomat called "the most complex crisis" he has ever seen and deliver elections and a return to civilian rule in just 40 days.

Born in a small farming community in central Mali in 1952, Mr Diarra became fascinated with space travel when, as a secondary school student, he saw pictures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon. He won a scholarship to study Maths and Physics in Paris, and then moved to Howard University in the US where he completed his Phd. He was teaching until a chance encounter with a Nasa recruiter who mistook him for a grad student. The pair hit it off and Mr Diarra was invited for a formal interview. Within a matter of months he was working on the Magellan mission to Venus. After a decade at Nasa, the Mars quest opened a new chapter in the scientist's life as he appeared on television screens as the face of the mission and prompted an invitation to come and lecture in Mali: "The fact the media broadcast the landing of that mission with my face as a member of that team has given so much hope to young people around the continent. I used to receive over 1,000 emails a day," he told CNN.

Leaving the space agency he became a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO and took on a stint as CEO at Africa's Virtual University based in Kenya. It was these leadership roles that caught the attention of Bill Gates who asked the Malian to become the chairman of Microsoft Africa in 2006.

Inside the tech giant the job was widely dubbed "Microsoft's ambassador to Africa" but colleagues credit the astrophysicist with turning that around to become Africa's ambassador to Microsoft.

A company whose main priority in Africa had been seen to be eradicating software piracy on the continent suddenly started to give it away to governments like South Africa and work with schools of government to try and catchup the emerging leadership with the ways in which technology was changing how things got done.

At the end of last year, Mr Diarra he left Microsoft to go back to Mali and run for president but most assumed that the chaos that has dogged the former French colony since the turn of the year would put those plans on hold. Instead it has promoted Mr Diarra much faster than many had expected.

Twelve years ago the farm boy turned stellar scientist published a tome called "Interplanetary Navigation". But he may find that devising a way out of the complex of crises besetting his homeland is beyond even him.