Being a leader comes with great power. As history has proven, those who obtain great power can use it for evil. This form of leadership has resulted in large parts of Africa falling victim to horrible conditions such as slavery, disease, hunger, lack of access to clean water, and poverty.
However, those with great power can also use it to bring good into the world. Some have been jailed in the process, while others have even died trying to make lives better for African citizens. That is what makes a leader a great leader. With their ability to communicate, delegate, and bring the spirit necessary to facilitate change in Africa, the following 10 men and women have made an understatedly positive impact on the continent.
Here are the 10 Greatest African Leaders of All-Time:
10. Jomo Kenyatta
The first person to make the list is the first President of Kenya. He was born of Kikuyu descent in Kiambu, British East Africa, which shares some of the same area as modern-day Kenya. This future leader began his political career in 1929. As a representative of the Kikuyu Central Association, Jomo Kenyatta travelled to London, England as a lobbyist for protection of the tribal land.
Kenyatta furthered honed his political skills as he attended school in Moscow, Russia. He studied politics at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. From there, he moved his education to London where he studied phonetics at University College London, as well as anthropology at the London School of Economics.
When Kenyatta returned home to British East Africa, he oversaw the school. He maintained his political aspirations by becoming elected President of the Kenya African Union. His main platform was to gain independence for Kenya from British rule. In 1952, this great leader was arrested for facilitating the Mau Mau Uprising, which saw Kikuyu-dominant militia rebel against the British.
Jomo was convicted and exiled to Lodwar until 1961.
When Kenyatta was granted his release, he won the election to become Prime Minister of the newly independent republic of the Kenya Colony. Under his eye, Kenya saw economic growth in a large part due to capitalism. Kenyatta died while in office.
9. Kenneth Kaunda
Kaunda was born in a territory of the Bemba ethnic group, located in northern Zambia. Upon completion of local secondary school, Kaunda immediately took to teaching. He moved to Tanganyika in the mid-1940’s to continue his teachings. Upon returning to Zambia in 1949, Kaunda served as an interpreter and adviser for African affairs to Sir Stewart Gore-Browne. Gore-Browne was a white settler with a liberal viewpoint. Under his tutelage, Kaunda became well-versed in colonial government and gained invaluable political experience.
Shortly after, the future leader would join the African National Congress (ANC), quickly becoming a Chief Organizing Officer. As conflicts arose in the ANC, a new branch called the Zambia African National Congress emerged. Kaunda became the President of the organization.The new organization used military policy against the British, who planned for federalization of three African colonies. Kaunda organized nonviolent action to get the British to back down. In 1960, Kaunda was elected President of the United National Independence Party, just as Zambia was getting their independence. The first official election of Zambia saw Kaunda become their President.
Under his reign, agriculture took a backseat. However, the copper and mining industry was booming. Over time, the industry fell and the people of Zambia remained hungry. He remained in and out of office until 1991.
8. Samora Machel
This influential leader was born the son of cotton farmers in Mozambique. Throughout his childhood, Samroa Machel bared witness to his parents being forced by the Portuguese to tend the cotton fields. In the 1950s, they were uprooted from their homes to make room for more Portuguese settlers.
Samora was educated throughout mission schools. Upon finishing his schooling, the future leader declined a higher education and decided to become a nurse in the capital of Mozambique, Maputo.
During his ten years of nursing, he became radicalized. He jointed the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and was sent to Algeria to receive military training. Quickly rising through the ranks, Machel became the official leader in 1970, following the assassination of the incumbent, Eduardo Mondlane.
Once Mozambique became independent in 1975, Machel was their first leader. He brought some economic success to the area by refusing to sign the Nkomati Accord with South Africa. This allowed Mozambique to keep an economic relationship with the white minority government who was being pushed out by the African National Congress.
One of the main countries opposing the white domination was Zimbabwe, who ironically enough, Samora supported. Upon returning from a trip to Zimbabwe in 1986, his plane mysteriously crashed in South Africa. The cause is still unknown, but many point a finger at the South African government.
7. Thomas Sankara
This leader was born in Upper Volta (later known as Burkina Faso) to Roman Catholic parents who aspired for him to become a priest. However at the age of 20, Thomas Sankara opted to join the military. Sent to Madagascar for training in 1970, Sankara witnessed students and workers uprising against the government first-hand. Seeing this happening in Madagascar would have a huge impact on the future of Thomas Sankara.
In the early 1980’s, Sankara moved to back to the now Burkina Faso. The country was being torn about by labor strikes and military coups. With his experience in both, Sankara became a popular political activist. He became the Prime Minister of the Council for the Salvation of the People. He quickly became involved in international politics, even meeting with leaders such as Fidel Castro as well as Samora Machel.
Sankara was arrested many times for opposing the leadership of the President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, and eventually was removed as Prime Minister in May of 1983 during one final arrest. However, the President became overthrown on August 4, 1983. A close friend of Sankara, Blaise Compaoré led a group that oversaw the uprising and freed Sankara in the process. The group formed the National Council of the Revolution with Sankara as President.
Under Sankara’s leadership, the country saw women obtain government jobs, literacy rates increase, and 10 million trees planted. Unfortunately, Sankara was assassinated on October 15, 1978 by his one-time friend Compaoré in another military coup.
6. Patrice Lumumba
Upon return from a visit to Belgium, Lumumba was arrested under suspicions for embezzlement of the Post Office. After a year imprisoned, Lumumba was released and got even more into politics. He launched and resided over the Congolese National Movemenet (or Mouvement National Congolais, MNC). With the rise of pan-African ideals, the Belgian government announced their intentions of independence for the Congo. They offered to host local elections in December 1959. However, MNC rioted. They felt the Belgians were placing puppets into power. This uprising led to yet another arrest for Lumumba.
Finally in January 1960, independence was granted. An election was held and Lumumba was elected Prime Minister. However, many Belgians refused to leave. This caused Lumumba to appeal to the United Nations and the Soviet Union for intervention. This angered the President of the Congo, Joseph Kasavubu. Eventually, Lumumba was dismissed from his role and arrested.
5. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
This trailblazer became the first woman to be elected the head of a state in Africa. She was born in Liberia and attended the College of West Africa. In 1961, she moved to the United States to attend Harvard to study economics and business administration. Upon receiving her Master’s Degree in public administration, Johnson-Sirleaf immediately became a public servant in Liberia.
She started her career as an Assistant Minister of Finance from 1972 to 1973, before becoming a Finance Minister from 1980 to 1985, under the dictatorship of Samuel K. Doe’s military. The future leader was jailed twice and almost executed for speaking out. She was released and exiled for 12 years. During that time, she lived in Kenya and the United States. While she was gone, Liberia fell a part much in large to a civil war.
Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf became a high-ranking economist for Citibank. When she returned to Liberia in 1997, she ran for President, finishing second. She was immediately placed back into exile by her opponent, Charles Taylor, who accused her of treason. Johnson-Sirleaf returned from exile in 2003, and became the chair of the Commission on Good Governance. Finally, she ran for President again in 2005. “The Iron Lady” won the election on November 8, 2005. In 2011, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was award the Nobel Peace Prize for carving a better future for women.
4. Julius Nyerere
Julius Nyerere has made a lot of history in Africa, being the first Prime Minister of the independent Tanganyika, and then the first President of Tanzania. The future leader graduated from Makerere College in Uganda. As a converted Roman Catholic, he taught in Roman Catholic schools before accepting a job at Edinburgh University. He graduated with a M.A. in both history and economics, promptly returning to Tanganyika to teach.
In 1953, Nyerere became the President of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) to fight for independence from the British. The British nominated Nyerere to become a member of the Tanganyikan Legislative Council. However, the leader resigned in protest of the state’s slow process of achieving independence. With Nyerere’s hand, Tanganyika became independent on December 9, 1961.
Although he resigned to work on his writing, Nyerere jumped at the opportunity to become the first President of Tanzania when it became an official country. The leader pushed for a socialist way of life, and emphasized financial sustainability through Tanzania. He remained a public servant throughout the rest of his life.
3. Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame was raised a Roman Catholic who began his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic schools upon graduation from Achimota College in 1930. Soon after, he grew a liking toward politics, moving to the United States to study at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His primary studies included socialism, Marxism, and nationalism.
Quickly putting his education to use, Nkrumah became the President of the African Students’ Organization of the United States and Canada. From there, the aspiring politician moved to Manchester, England where he organized the 5th Pan-African Congress.
With newfound independence, the Gold Coast became the British commonwealth, Ghana. As Prime Minister, Nkrumah became an authoritarian, legalizing imprisonment without a trial. However, his efforts as Prime Minister were lauded for his implementation of improved road conditions, health care, and schools. Careers flourished for Ghanaians.
In 1960, Ghana became a Republic and Nkrumah became the first President. Things prospered under his rule. However, many attempts on his life were taken, and Nkrumah went into hiding for the remainder of his reign. After he left office, Ghana fell apart. In 1966, Nkrumah left the country to visit Beijing. In his absence, the army and police seized power of Ghana. Upon his return to his native land, Nkrumah was exiled. He sought asylum in Guinea, where he lived out the rest of his life.
2. Haile Selassie
The future Emperor of Ethiopia was born to rule, being the son of Ras (Prince) Makonnen, who served as the Chief Adviser for Emperor Menilek II.
At an early age, Haile (then known as Tafari Makonnen) was home-schooled by French missionaries. His intelligence impressed the Emporer, and he was quickly promoted to Governor of Sidamo and then the Governor of Harer.
In 1911, the rising politician married the daughter of Menilek II, Wayzaro Menen. Upon the Emperor’s death in 1917, his daughter became Empress, making Selassie heir apparent to the throne. With his progressive views, Tafari took the throne in 1930 and renamed himself Halie Selassie for “Might of the Trinity.” He created a new Constitution in 1931, limiting the powers of the British Parliament.
Under Slassie’s rule, police forces were expanded, schools were built, and feudal taxations were outlawed. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia and forced the Emperor into exile. In 1941, he rallied the British to join his fellow Ethiopians to reclaim their land. Slassie was reinstated as Emperor and had to implement all of his initial initiatives all over again.
1. Nelson Mandela
This leader may be the most famous in the history of Africa. Mandela studied law at the South African Native College. In 1944, he jointed the ANC, and became the leader of the group’s Youth League. Mandela established the first South African all-black law practice. He fought against South African pass laws, which required that anyone who wasn’t white to carry documents that authorized them to be in the area.
These attempts create racial harmony upset authorities. In December of 1956, Mandela and 100 other activists were arrested for treason. Upon the death of many unarmed South Africans who were black in 1960, as well as the banishment of the ANC, Mandela changed his tune on nonviolence. Advocating to take down the South African regime, he went to Algeria for guerilla warfare training. Upon his return to South Africa, Mandela was imprisoned yet again, this time sentenced for five years.
It was during this time that Mandela met with other inmates to come up with ways to sabotage the South African government. This led to the leader being given a life sentence. On February 11, 1990, Mandela was released under the orders of President de Klerk.
In April of 1994, Mandela won South African elections and became President. Under his rule, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looked into human rights violations. He also improved the living standards for the black population, introducing housing, economic, and educational developments.