Mali and me: Man from Microsoft who returned to run the country

The farm boy who became a Nasa scientist faces his biggest challenge yet – as prime minister

Daniel Howden
Thursday 19 April 2012 21:52

A widespread and worsening hunger crisis, at least two competing rebellions that have cut the country in two, active Islamic jihadists, a military coup and massive population displacement are some of the items in the in-tray of Mali's leaders.

If "rocket science" has become the 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 only 40 days.

The situation pits one of the most successful Africans of his generation against a perfect storm of the various problems that have held back progress on the continent for more than half a century.

By rights Mr Diarra ought to be contemplating a comfortable retirement in the United States where he has lived and worked for much of his life. Instead he has entered a political melee in his homeland that could taint his reputation and ruin his stated ambition to "give something back" at the end of his career.

Born in a small farming community in central Mali in 1952, his life's journey from a village in the Sahel to working on Nasa's space programme is one of the more remarkable of the past century.

He 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 decided to pursue the dream of becoming a scientist, winning a scholarship to study Maths and Physics in Paris. After graduating, he moved to Howard University in the US where he completed his Phd and 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. Working in California at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he played an important role in five space missions, including heading the Mars Pathfinder quest.

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 that 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 more than 1,000 emails a day," he told CNN.

When he left the space agency, he became a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO and took on a stint as CEO at Africa's Virtual University 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 piracy suddenly started to give away software to governments like South Africa and to help emerging leadership to catch up with technology. Colleagues from Microsoft, like policy manager Rizwan Tufail, remember a man who was phenomenally well connected among the African elite – presidents would turn up to events he hosted – but someone who also spoke convincingly of his "moral obligation to his home country".

They were not surprised at the end of last year when he left Microsoft to return to Mali and run for president. Most other observers assumed the chaos that has dogged the former French colony since then would put those plans on hold.

Mali was supposedly rescued from military dictatorship two decades ago by the "soldier of democracy" Amadou Toumani Touré, a general who handed power back to civilians and was later rewarded with two election wins of his own. But ATT, as he is known at home, had long since failed to fulfil promises of a better life for impoverished Malians and there was little mourning when he was thrown out last month by mutinying soldiers.

The "accidental coup" that led 200 soldiers in the capital, Bamako, to overthrow a government without any real plan or apparent intention has placed a young army captain, Amadou Sanogo, in charge of a country where Tuareg rebels have proclaimed their own independent homeland in the desert north.

While the appointment of the former Nasa man to help restore democracy has been hailed in some quarters, others have dismissed him as inexperienced and out of his depth. The joke in Bamako is that Mr Diarra "has been to Mars but never been to northern Mali".

Faced with crippling sanctions, the coup leaders needed a civilian frontman, and who better than the man voted by the African public as one of the 100 leading Africans in a poll by Jeune Afrique magazine. It should not be forgotten that Mr Diarra is also the son-in-law of the former military dictator Moussa Traoré, and those family links are likely to have appealed to the current junta more than his astronomical CV.

The increasingly erratic Captain Sanogo has said that he is still in charge and sources in Bamako say the former speaker of the national assembly who the junta named as interim president is effectively under "hotel arrest". In the north, Islamic jihadists vie for power with at least two competing rebel factions and Mali's neighbours are pursuing different and conflicting ends of their own.

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

Arrests by junta are condemned

International organisations have condemned a wave of arrests by Mali's military rulers, which they say flout an agreement to restore constitutional order.

About 22 people, including many figures allied with ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré's administration, have been detained since Monday, even after the junta agreed to hand power to a civilian transitional president.

The United Nations said on Wednesday that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was concerned by the "renewed wave of arrests" and urged the junta to "refrain from any further actions that might undermine the effective restoration of constitutional rule". The African Union also condemned the arrests.

Those arrested include the former Prime Minister, Modibo Sidibe, and the ex-Defence Minister Sadio Gassama. Colonel Diamou Keita, head of the gendarmerie, said 11 civilians and 11 soldiers had been arrested and that arms stocks had been found in some of their houses. Reuters

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