Mali’s new prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, is an accomplished astrophysicist who worked on five Nasa missions and became a US citizen, but said he never forgot the Malian town of his birth.
He earned degrees from universities in France and the US, where he later taught mechanical and aerospace engineering before returning to Mali to found a political party ahead of an aborted presidential run.
He had planned on running in Mali’s 29 April election, but that vote was scrapped following a coup by junior army officers on 22 March.
On Thursday, he was named prime minister by interim president Dioncounda Traore, charged with heading a transitional government which aims to organise fresh elections and restore civilian rule in a country where Tuareg and Islamist rebels now control more than half the territory.
Before joining Malian politics, Diarra served as Microsoft’s Africa chairman.
Born in 1952 in the small central town of Segou, Diarra graduated from Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris in 1976 and in 1987 earned a PhD from Howard University in Washington DC, according to a biography on Microsoft’s company website.
He taught at Howard, then joined the US space agency Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and worked as an interplanetary navigator on the Magellan mission to Venus and the Ulysses mission to the poles of the sun, among others.
But, in his 2000 book, Interplanetary Navigator, Diarra wrote that long before his prestigious career began, he was shaped by the values of his ancestors in central Mali. “I am an heir to hard workers of the land, who instilled in me a work ethic and a love for the work of the countryside,” he wrote.
The married father of three said he was driven to run for the Malian presidency by his desire to better the lives of the country’s rural poor.
“I returned to my country to cultivate my land in Segou from 2003 to 2006. I cultivated the land of my fathers until 2007, before owning and cultivating my own land,” he wrote on his campaign website.
“My top concern today is the promotion of the rural world, the development of agriculture and livestock and fisheries,” the former Unesco goodwill ambassador further wrote.
While in Mali and working on his land, Diarra was approached by Bill Gates to serve as Microsoft’s Africa chairman, the Microsoft biography said.
When he launched his political party, the Rally for Development in Mali in the capital Bamako on March 2011, he said that “politics must not only be a matter for professionals.”
According to Mali’s constitution, a fresh election must be organised within 40 days.
But the West African bloc Ecowas, which brokered the 6 April deal that forced the junta to quit power, recognised that it could take longer to organise given Mali’s persisting political and military crises. — Sapa-AFP