Mali's army dumps another government, this one led by ex-NASA scientist

Cheikh Modibo Diarra, an astrophysicist who has worked for NASA, abruptly resigned today as Mali’s interim prime minister following his arrest last night by the country’s powerful army.

By , Correspondent

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    In this still frame made from video, Mali's Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra resigns during a broadcast on state television from Bamako, Mali, Tuesday, Dec. 11, following his arrest last night by the country’s powerful army.
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It seems not even a rocket scientist can prevail amid the crisis that currently grips Mali.

Just ask Cheikh Modibo Diarra, a trained astrophysicist who has worked for NASA and Microsoft, and who abruptly resigned today as Mali’s interim prime minister following his arrest last night by the country’s powerful army.

Mr. Diarra appears to have fallen victim to a power struggle in Mali fueled by uncertainty over possible foreign-backed intervention to reclaim the country’s north, seized last spring by Islamist gunmen.

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But the real loser could be Mali itself, with political turmoil likely to alienate foreign partners whose help is crucial to reuniting the country and boosting its economy.

“Diarra’s resignation under military duress underlines the army’s continued influence in politics, and will strike a further blow to the international community's willingness to support a speedy intervention in the north,” says Roddy Barclay, an Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm.

In addition, crucial foreign development aid frozen after the March coup will remain so until democracy is restored, Mr. Barclay says. “As long as the crisis lasts, the more prolonged the hardships and suffering of ordinary Malians will be.”

Roots of overthrow

The crisis began last winter when Tuareg rebels overran the north. The government’s failure to contain them prompted frustrated Army officers to oust the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, last March.

Islamist militants allied with the Tuareg in a marriage of convenience seized the chance to sideline them. Today, leaders fear Mali might become another Afghanistan – a semi-failed state and regional base for armed groups.

Support has grown since last summer for armed intervention to retake the north, with West African countries pledging troops and Western countries offering logistical support while also voicing hopes for a peaceful solution.

In Bamako, an interim government was installed in August. But diplomats and analysts say coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo has continued to wield power behind the scenes.

Internal squabble

In recent weeks disagreements among Mali’s top echelons have taken center-stage, analysts say. While Mr. Diarra has backed foreign intervention, military leaders have opposed it and accused him of seeking to entrench himself in politics.

Meanwhile, a public perception of inaction on the north has left Diarra vulnerable to criticism, says Oualid Khelifi, a Mali expert and writer for African Energy magazine in the UK.

Last night Diarra’s foes seemingly pounced. He was arrested at his house in Bamako by soldiers loyal to Captain Sanogo as he prepared to travel to France for what he said were medical reasons, reported The Associated Press.

Early this morning Diarra appeared on Malian TV to announce his immediate resignation along with that of his entire cabinet, without stating specific reasons.

Army spokesman Bakary Mariko accused Diarra of having balked at a recent discussion program among key leaders on moving Mali forward, and of planning to sow trouble from abroad, the AP reported.

“It’s the reason why Mali’s army has taken things into their own hands and told Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign for the good of Mali,” Mr. Mariko said, quoted by the AP.

For now, however, the future remains unclear, with interim president Dioncounda Traoré apparently the sole remaining civilian leader.

“I hope this isn’t the start of an institutional crisis,” says Moussa Mara, an accountant and mayor of Bamako’s Commune IV district, and public advocate for a swift return to democracy. For now, he says, “it’s imperative that the president take steps to put a new government in place as quickly as possible.”

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