Cherif Moumina Sy was known for years as a fearless writer and a champion of media freedom across Africa. But when Burkina Faso was in crisis, through his outstanding leadership qualities, he led his nation against a military coup, writes Nick Cowley
Cherif Moumina Sy is not a familiar name anywhere in Anglophone Africa; most of the articles on him are in French.
That is a pity, because the Burkinabe politician is a role model for anyone interested in good governance in Africa or in the media’s potential for influencing politics.
The pen is not always mightier than the sword in politics.
The small West African state of Burkina Faso is one place where the pen, or its digital equivalent, prevailed over military force.
Cherif Sy was the man chiefly responsible.
When military strongman Blaise Compaoré was forced from office in 2014, Sy was at the centre of the movement that ousted him. It relied heavily on the youth, who backed the highly respected pro-democracy journalist.
Sy is a former chair of the African Editors Forum who founded the Pan-African Festival of Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom, held annually in Burkina Faso.
Supporters wanted him to be the interim president. He not only declined the position, accepting only that of speaker of the transitional parliament, but spearheaded legislation that barred any member of the interim government from holding office in a subsequent elected administration.
Clearly Sy had little political ambition, or even desire to remain in politics in the long term, but events would dictate another major political act on his part.
In September 2015, feared Burkinabé general, strongman and spy-master Gilbert Dendiéré, dubbed the J Edgar Hoover of West Africa, overthrew the interim government with the help of Burkina Faso’s Presidential Guard.
Sy acted immediately and fearlessly to reverse the coup.
Citing provisions that allowed him, as the third-ranking legitimate official, to take power if the two above him were “incapacitated”, in this case arrested by Dendiéré, he declared himself head of state.
Sy mobilised much of Burkina Faso’s population by means of a concerted campaign on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, won over a large part of the army and the Presidential Guard, and asked for support from the regional bloc, Economic Community of West African States. The combined effect was enough to outface Dendiéré, who backed off and admitted he had made a “mistake”.
Dendiéré was arrested, along with his fellow coup plotters, and they are now in jail, awaiting their day in court. The interim government was reinstated and elections followed in November.
Sy might well have been a shoo-in for president, had he elected to stand, but again he declined and bowed gracefully out of politics.
Did this in Sy seem ambitious? I adapt a line from Mark Antony’s great eulogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, although Sy could not be more different from the ruthless Roman general turned dictator.
That, in brief outline, is Cherif Sy’s story. Compare him now with many other African politicians.
Our continent has had many democratic success stories but, sadly, it has also had many coups more successful than Dendiéré’s and far too many “Big Men”.
This is the name, used – in francophone Africa Les Grands Hommes – for those rulers who extend their rule for two, three or even four decades, ignoring all legal and constitutional term limits and, in some cases, even pass on the mantle to their sons as if it were their dynastic right.
Sy, compared to them, is exemplary in his devotion to democracy and good governance. He sought and held office only as his country’s good dictated and excluded himself from future power.
And as a journalist first, politician second, he led the only Arab Spring-style social media campaign in sub-Saharan Africa that has managed to oust an unpopular government.
The man merits more recognition – although he would never seek it.
One reward came at the Highway Africa conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, this year, in the form of a journalism award presented by Mathatha Tsedu – one of the few South African media figures aware of Sy.
He deserves more. Sy is ineligible, by his own choice, for the Mo Ibrahim Award for African heads of state who have left office peacefully. Some African politicians have won what most of us would regard as the highest award for such values the Nobel Peace Prize, such as Nelson Mandela, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Anwar Sadat.
Is it too much to think Sy should be considered for the Nobel?
* This article was first published on www.sabc.co.za/news