The circumstances under which Cheick Modibo Diarra quit as Mali’s prime minister on Monday are under a cloud, but there is not an iota of a doubt about his academic and professional brilliance.
Diarra is an accomplished astrophysicist who worked on five NASA missions and became a US citizen, but never forgot the country of his birth.
Diarra 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 April 29 election, but that vote was scrapped following a coup by junior army officers on March 22.
The coup leaders later named him prime minister to head a transitional civilian government.
Before joining Malian politics, Diarra was appointed the Africa and Middle East chairman for computer software giant Microsoft in 2006.
Diarra was also appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1998, a position he no longer holds.
Born in 1952 in the small central Malian town of Nioro du Sahel, 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 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,” Diarra further wrote.
During his time as UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador, Diarra implemented the Scientific and Technology Formation Centre in Africa/Mali project, which sought to transfer knowledge and skills to invent solutions appropriate to the African continent, UNESCO’s website said.
Diarra was awarded the African Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, the same prize that had been awarded to former South African President Nelson Mandela in 1997.
He was also voted by the African public as one of the 100 leading Africans of the 21st Century in Jeune Afrique magazine.
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.
He assumed that role in 2006, working to devise business models that would accelerate growth and industrialisation in Africa, Microsoft’s website said.
When Diarra 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”.