As Africa is aged and wide, so is the number and diversity of leaders that have existed on the continent. With the inexhaustible “dark side” narrative the media is abuzz with, one could wonder if there are past African leaders who made transformational impact that others consider legendary. Yes! Africa has had leaders of great repute in good supply. While many have passed on, their indelible legacies not only live on but are still at their loudest pitch.
For some, their giant strides stem from their unwavering contribution towards African emancipation—they endured pains of humiliation, imprisonment, and/ or exile to ensure the continent’s redemption from the vestiges of colonial oppression. For some, it is for their uncommon business and diplomatic achievements. For some, it was for a combination of these rare traits. So, in this episode, we will take a glance at the biography and achievement of past African leaders who made great impacts. Without further ado, let’s zoom the historical lens.
Table of Contents
Past African leaders who made transformative Impacts
11 . Haile Selassie (Ethiopia)
Haile Selassie was an iconic figure in the twentieth century, a progressive monarch who ruled Ethiopia from 1916 to 1974. His life and reign are an important part of modern Ethiopian history. His initial name was Ras Tafari. He took the regal name, Haile Selassie I, when he was crowned emperor in 1930.
Haile Selassie brought modernization to Ethiopia by introducing democracy and infrastructure development, as well as improving education. He abolished slavery and established a school for recently freed slaves in the capital city of Addis Ababa; established the Bank of Ethiopia in 1931 and many social services in 1934. He worked on improving public health services and providing electricity throughout the country. Selassie opened the Ethiopian Railways during his reign. These actions paved Ethiopia’s way to becoming a member of The League of Nations. Additionally, he played an instrumental role in the formation of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in 1963. Some consider him to be a prophet of Rastafarianism, as his ideals heavily influenced the movement’s philosophy. He died in Addis Ababa on August 27, 1975.
Haile Selassie once said, “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”
Patrice Émery Lumumba (Congo)
Patrice Émery Lumumba (1925–1961) was a Congolese statesman who served as the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo from June until September 1960. He played a significant role in the transformation of the Congo from a colony of Belgium into an independent republic. Lumumba was the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) party and played an instrumental role in the struggle for independence. He was assassinated in 1961.
One of his quotes is “Without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence, there are no free men”.
Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya)
On December 12, 1963, Kenya gained independence from Great Britain with Jomo Kenyatta as its prime minister. In 1964, he became the country’s first president. Kenyatta continuously nurtured diplomatic relationship with world leaders to foster new alliances and encourage unity within his country. In 1952, he abolished racial segregation in social clubs and schools and worked hard to create a Kenyan national culture and identity by encouraging the celebration of indigenous festivals. He died on August 22, 1978.
He said, “Our children may learn about heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves architects of the future.”
Alpha Oumar Konare (Mali)
Any discussion centered on past African leaders who made great impacts hardly neglect Malia’s former leader, Konare. Alpha Oumar Konare (August 1938 – August 2019) was a Malian politician and academic who was President of Mali from 1992 to 2002. He was Chairperson of the African Union from 2003 to 2004.
As a historian, Konare was a specialist in oral tradition, and he published several books on the subject. He co-founded the Alliance for Democracy in Mali-African Party for Democracy and Socialism (ADEMA-PASJ), which won the first democratic elections of Mali in 1992 with an overwhelming majority, and he chaired it until he stepped down as party chairman in order to run as a candidate for President of Mali. After winning both rounds of the presidential election, Konare became President of Mali on 8 June 1992. He was reelected in 1997 for another five-year term.
While president, he created administrative reforms and revised Mali’s constitution to allow for multiparty politics. In 2003, he became the chairperson of the African Union. Konaré was an important figure in African politics and won several awards for his work promoting peace, democracy and human rights on the continent.
He admonished thus, “Without an African internal market, it is an illusion to believe that we can strive towards overseas markets.”
Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana)
Kwame Nkrumah was an immensely influential African leader, a political theorist, and a revolutionary who fervently believed in the power of Pan-Africanism. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a major figure in the African independence movement, and his political rhetoric influenced world affairs in the 20th century. He spearheaded the independence of many African countries and his home country Ghana. He became the president of the Republic of Ghana between 1960-1966. He passed on 27th April 1972.
He was the one who made the popular statement “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.”
Samora Machel (Mozambique)
Samora Machel was a politician and revolutionary from Mozambique. He served as the first President of Mozambique, from 1975 to 1986, after leading the country to independence from Portugal in 1975. Prior to this, he was a military commander in the struggle for independence. Machel was born in 1933, in what was then Portuguese East Africa and died in 1986 when his plane crashed into the Lebombo Mountains near Mbuzini.
Machel was one of the most influential African leaders of his time. He is remembered as an important figure that fought for Mozambique’s independence and championed African unity. Machel became president on June 25, 1975, after which he continued to fight for both economic and political liberation of Mozambique.
He said, “The state must be the first to be organized and totally committed to serving the interests of the people.”
Julius Nyerere (Tanzanian)
Julius Nyerere was born in 1922 and died in 1999. He was a Tanzanian politician and revolutionary who served as the first president of Tanzania.
During his presidency, Nyerere helped to create significant social change by leading the nation toward independence and inspiring strong anti-colonial feelings in his country. He is known for working to improve the lives of all citizens, regardless of race or class, which eventually led to Tanzania’s socialist government.
Nyerere also worked to improve the quality of life for Tanzanians by focusing on education and public health as well as creating more jobs. He was also a leading advocate for pan-Africanism and called for African countries to work together in order to achieve political independence from colonial forces.
His famous quotes include: “Without unity, there is no future for Africa”
Kenneth David Kaunda (Zambia)
Kenneth David Kaunda was the first president of Zambia, as well as a founding member of the Pan Africanist Congress. In his early years, he worked as a teacher before moving into politics. After Zambia’s independence from Britain in 1964, he became its inaugural leader. In his time in office, he earned international praise for his economic management and support for human rights. Some of his most notable achievements include nationalizing the country’s copper industry and participating in the Lancaster House talks to end the Rhodesian Bush War. He has also won many awards for his work on racial equality, including the Soviet Lenin Peace Prize.
Following his retirement from politics in 1991, Kaunda continued to work for peace and reconciliation in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe. He passed away on 7 June 2021, at the age of 97.
His famous quotes include “The inability of those in power to still the voices of their own consciences is a great force leading to change.”
Kofi Annan (Ghana)
Kofi Annan was born on April 8, 1938 in Kumasi, Ghana. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, followed by a master’s degree from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1961, he began working at the World Health Organization (WHO), where he first worked as an economist and then as director of its budget department. In 1987, he became deputy secretary-general of WHO; two years later he became Executive Director of UNDP (United Nations Development Program). In 1992 he was appointed Under-Secretary-General of UN Peacekeeping Operations and Emergency Relief Coordinator for former Yugoslavia; this position led him to become widely known for his work with refugees during that conflict. In 1999 he was named Secretary-General of UNDP; two years later he became UN Secretary-General after receiving support from all five permanent members of the Security Council. In 2001, he founded the Kofi Annan Foundation which aims to promote sustainable development and good governance by facilitating collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society groups around the world. He passed away after a short illness in a hospital in Bern, Switzerland, on August 18, 2018. He is known for his work in Africa and around the world.
In one of his many dictums, he said, “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance.”
Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta)
Another revered personality on our list of past African leaders who made great impacts is Thomas Sankara. He came to power in a bloodless coup in 1983 and, at the age of 33, established a reputation as an effective anti-corruption campaigner and one of Africa’s most dedicated leaders.
Shortly after taking office, he launched an ambitious campaign for social and economic change. He changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso and made many reforms: he refused foreign aid, got rid of debts, nationalized all land and mineral wealth, prevented famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reforms, prioritized education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoted public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, and many other legendary policies and initiatives. Within four years of administration, his new economic programs and national development efforts sparked an era of unprecedented growth and progress.
On 15 October 1987, Sankara was killed in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré, a tragedy that has continued to spark a lot of outcry from Africans of good fate. In April 2022, Blaise Compaoré was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Ouagadougou military court for complicity in the murder of Sankara.
In one of his thought-provoking quotes, Sankara said, “Our country produces enough to feed us all. Alas, for lack of organization, we are forced to beg for food aid. It’s this aid that instills in our spirits the attitude of beggars”
Nelson Mandela (South Africa)
The global leadership icon, Nelson Mandela, is definitely worth the top rank of past African leaders who made great impacts. He was a South African political leader and philanthropist. He served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and before that as a political prisoner for 27 years.
Mandela was born in 1918 on the Eastern Cape in Transkei, South Africa. He attended Fort Hare University School of Education but dropped out after one year to become a law clerk for a Johannesburg firm. He met Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who were both members of the South African Communist Party, and joined them in their fight against apartheid.
In 1952, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. In 1962 he was convicted again for sabotage accusations and sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island Prison; he was released in 1990 due to international pressure on the apartheid government of South Africa.
Following his release from prison, Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) in negotiations with the apartheid government that resulted in an end to apartheid rule and majority rule elections in 1994. He became President of South Africa in 1994 while also serving as Chairman of the ANC until 1999; he retired from politics after stepping down as president but remained active as a public figure until his death in 2013 at age of 95. His quotes are well-known but this frequents the mind: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
This feature is just an infinitesimal random pick. There are host of other past African leaders who made great impacts. The consortium of Masa Musa, Shaka zulu, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Marcus Garvey, Mamoun Beheiry, Don Mattera, Robert Mugabe, Nnamdi Azikwe, Dora Akunyili, , Anwar Sadat…and many more, are all quintessential examples