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Africa's Greatest Leaders

Africa's Greatest Leaders
Video Caption: 1 Diplo’s 2019 VMAs, Themed Suit

These ten Africans transformed and are transforming Africa. So can you!

Ranking Africa's greatest leaders is a delicate dance, fraught with historical nuance and diverse perspectives. Respecting the inherent subjectivity, here's a mosaic of ten revolutionary figures who left (and continue to leave) an indelible mark on the continent:

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Amilcar Cabral

10. Amilcar Cabral

A fierce anti-colonial strategist and advocate for cultural liberation, Cabral challenged Western dominance and inspired liberation movements across Africa. His emphasis on education and self-reliance continues to resonate.

Amílcar Cabral, born in 1924 in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, was a revolutionary leader who ignited the flame of hope for freedom across colonized Africa. A passionate intellectual and unwavering anti-colonialist, Cabral dedicated his life to liberating his homeland and empowering its people. He founded the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1956, mobilizing grassroots resistance through a potent blend of political awareness, guerrilla warfare, and cultural affirmation.

Tragically, Cabral's journey towards liberation was cut short in 1973 when he was assassinated by dissidents within his own party. His death resonated as a profound loss, not just for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, but for the entire continent wrestling against colonial oppression.

Yet, Cabral's legacy extends far beyond his physical life. He was more than just a political leader; he was a visionary architect of liberation. His unwavering commitment to armed struggle alongside cultural liberation challenged the dominant colonial mentality and paved the way for the independence of Guinea-Bissau in 1974 and Cape Verde in 1975.

Cabral's impact transcends national borders. His concept of "unity and struggle" resonated across Africa, inspiring and influencing resistance movements throughout the continent. His writings, emphasizing cultural identity and the importance of rural mobilization, remain essential reading for those studying history, postcolonialism, and liberation struggles.

Amílcar Cabral, the poet-warrior, the teacher-revolutionary, lives on in the hearts and minds of those who fight for freedom and justice. His unwavering spirit serves as a beacon of hope, reminding us that even in the darkest of nights, the flame of liberation can never truly be extinguished.

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Gamal Abdel Nasser

9. Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader who steered his nation through a tumultuous era, left an indelible mark on the Arab world and beyond. Born in 1918 in Alexandria, Nasser's life was intertwined with Egypt's struggle for independence and its emergence as a major player on the global stage.

A graduate of the Egyptian Military Academy, Nasser's nationalist fervor was ignited by witnessing the British occupation of his homeland. In 1952, he led a group of young officers in a bloodless coup that toppled the monarchy, setting Egypt on the path to self-determination.

Nasser's transformative leadership left a legacy of concrete achievements. He nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, reclaiming control of this vital waterway for Egypt and challenging Western dominance. He championed Arab unity, playing a pivotal role in the formation of the United Arab Republic and forging alliances with other Arab nations. He spearheaded ambitious social and economic reforms, investing in education, healthcare, and infrastructure, laying the foundation for a more equitable society.

His commitment to Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism and anti-colonialism inspired generations of activists and leaders. He stood by Patrice Lumumba and even hosted his family after Lumumba’s tragic assassination.

He fiercely opposed colonial rule in Africa, supporting independence movements across the continent and condemning racial injustice. Most notably, his nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, defying Western powers, became a watershed moment in asserting African self-determination.

Under Nasser's leadership, Egypt championed Pan-Africanism. He was a co-founder of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union, a pivotal step in forging continental unity. He hosted the first All-African People's Conference in Cairo, bringing together liberation movements and aspiring leaders from across the continent.

Nasser's life tragically ended in 1970 at the age of 52, officially attributed to a heart attack. However, his legacy continues to be debated and revered. He was a complex figure, lauded as a visionary leader and criticized for his authoritarian tendencies. Yet, his undeniable impact on Egypt, the Arab world and Africa cannot be overstated. Gamal Abdel Nasser remains a towering figure in the annals of history.

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Bobi Wine

8. Bobi Wine

He is among a youthful generation of African leaders whose courage and vision is inspiring millions. When he becomes President, we will hold him accountable to ensure that he is nobody’s puppet.

From Ugandan ghetto rhythms to the Nobel halls, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, embodies the transformative power of defiance. Born in 1982, amidst the grit and resilience of Kamwokya, Uganda, his music became a weapon against injustice. Through electrifying reggae and dancehall infused with social commentary, he gave voice to the voiceless, mobilizing Uganda's youth – a demographic yearning for change.

But Bobi wasn't just a lyricist; he became a living protest song. Defying government censorship and imprisonment, he rose to Parliament in 2017, his platform built on anti-corruption and human rights advocacy. His 2020 presidential campaign, a beacon of youthful hope, sparked a mass movement, shaking the foundations of established power. Though marred by violence and suppression, it cemented Bobi as a symbol of Uganda's unyielding fight for democracy.

His unwavering commitment isn't limited to politics. The Ghetto Child Foundation, established in 2006, builds schools and hospitals in marginalized communities, offering education and healthcare where there was only neglect. He champions environmental conservation, urging sustainable practices across the continent.

Today, Bobi Wine exemplifies the power of art to ignite revolution, the audacity of youth to demand change, and the unwavering belief that progress, like his music, can rise from the most unexpected corners. The rhythm of his defiance continues to reverberate, a melody of hope for a continent yearning for a brighter dawn.

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Wangari Maathai

7. Wangari Maathai

A warrior for environmental justice and democratic Governance, she showed the world what courage and consistency can achieve. Her unwavering dedication to sustainable development earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wangari Maathai, the ‘mother of trees,’ wasn't born into a revolution, she planted one. From her 1940 birth in Nyeri, Kenya, to her passing in 2011, she wove a legacy from the very soil of her beloved Africa. She defied the suffocating drought of colonialism and poverty, not with weapons, but with the quiet power of her grit and intellectual acumen.

Maathai was a scientist, a scholar, a woman who dared to dream under skies choked by dust. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a simple call to action: plant a tree, empower a woman, heal the land. From this unassuming seed blossomed a revolution. Millions of trees took root across Africa, each one a testament of her resilience, a shield against environmental degradation.

But Maathai's impact wasn't limited to the rustling leaves. She challenged political apathy, spoke truth to power, and endured police brutality for her unwavering belief in environmental justice and democracy. Her voice, clear and unwavering, resonated from Kenyan villages to the halls of the Nobel committee, where, in 2004, she received the Peace Prize, the first African woman to be thus honored.

Wangari Maathai's legacy is not etched in bronze, but in the living tapestry of a continent reborn. She is not a martyr, felled by violence, but a victor, her life a testament to the transformative power of a single idea, nurtured with courage and nurtured with compassion. The trees she planted stand as sentinels, whispering her story in the wind: a woman who dared to dream, and in doing so, changed the world, one branch, one leaf, one hopeful heart at a time.

She achieved so many ground-breaking things during the 71 years of her life. She was the first woman to earn a PHD in East and Central Africa. She started the Green Belt Movement and spoke out about the central role of environment in the society when barely anyone in the world was doing so. But even back then in the seventies, she understood that you cannot separate the earth that we depend on from the world that we live in. Hence she championed both environmental and democratic initiatives.

In 2004, the world at last caught up with her when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, the world formally acknowledged what she had known all along – that the earth and the world are intertwined. That environmental sustainability must walk hand in hand with social and economic progress. That the environment is a key pillar of peace.

At 10PM on September 25th, Wangari Maathai’s green and life-changing journey came to an end. The world is a better place because of this journey. We must follow her footsteps and practice what we preach. Our own lives must continue changing our world not just through talk, but through action.

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Samora Machel

6. Samora Machel

Born in 1933 in rural Mozambique, Samora Machel witnessed firsthand the brutalities of Portuguese colonialism. This ignited a passion for justice that would define his life. He co-founded the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in 1964, leading a 10-year guerilla war that ultimately secured Mozambique's independence in 1975.

As Mozambique's first president, Machel tackled the daunting task of rebuilding a country ravaged by war. He prioritized education and healthcare, establishing a national literacy campaign and expanding access to basic medical services.

Machel understood that Mozambique's liberation was intricately linked to the continent's broader struggle against colonialism. He became a staunch advocate for Pan-Africanism, forging alliances with other liberation movements and supporting the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

He embraced socialist ideals, nationalizing key industries and land. However, he remained pragmatic, recognizing the need for private investment and agricultural development. This allowed Mozambique to achieve relative economic stability during his presidency.

Machel's defiance of apartheid South Africa made him a target. In 1986, his plane crashed under suspicious circumstances near the South African border, raising allegations of foul play. His death remains a point of contention and a reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice in Africa.

Though Machel's life was tragically cut short, his legacy endures. He remains a revered figure in Mozambique and across Africa, remembered for his unwavering commitment to liberation, social justice, and Pan-African unity. His story serves as a powerful reminder that even in the face of adversity, individuals can ignite transformative change and leave an indelible mark on the world.

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Julius Nyerere

5. Julius Nyerere

A champion of socialism, self-reliance and national unity, Nyerere's ‘Ujamaa’ philosophy entrenched the Ubuntu principle into Governance.

Born in 1922, Nyerere rose from humble beginnings in Tanzania to become a champion of Pan-Africanism and socialist ideals. His life, tragically cut short in 1993 from natural causes, was a testament to unwavering commitment to social justice and economic development.

Nyerere's leadership was instrumental in Tanzania's path to independence in 1961. He championed Ujamaa, a Swahili term meaning ‘familyhood,’ advocating for communal living and self-reliance. This philosophy aimed to redistribute land and wealth, empower rural communities, and foster a sense of national unity. While challenged by implementation difficulties, Ujamaa's core values of cooperation and social welfare continue to inspire communities across Africa.

Beyond Tanzania's borders, Nyerere's voice resonated throughout the continent. He tirelessly advocated for regional cooperation, co-founding the East African Community and playing a pivotal role in the fight against colonialism and apartheid. His unwavering belief in Pan-Africanism served as a beacon of unity and solidarity, inspiring generations of leaders to work towards a more just and prosperous Africa.

Nyerere's legacy transcends political ideologies. He was a staunch advocate for education, establishing a free primary education system in Tanzania that significantly improved literacy rates. He championed women's rights and environmental conservation, leaving a lasting impact on Tanzania's social fabric and ecological landscape.

Julius Nyerere's life may have ended in 1993, but his spirit of transformative leadership continues to guide Tanzania and inspire generations of Africans.

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Nelson Mandela

4. Nelson Mandela

A beacon of resilience and reconciliation, Mandela’s fight against apartheid redefined forgiveness and helped South Africa to take the first steps towards equity.

Born in 1918, Nelson Mandela's life became a testament to the undying power of perseverance. A South African icon, he spent 27 years imprisoned for fighting apartheid, a brutal system of racial segregation. This harsh confinement, far from silencing him, became a crucible where his courage and unwavering commitment to equality were forged.

Released in 1990, Mandela emerged not as a vengeful figure, but as a unifier. He co-founded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, prioritizing healing and forgiveness over retribution. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa, dismantling the racist apparatus and ushering in a new era of democracy.

His achievements were monumental. He dismantled apartheid's legal framework, championed education and healthcare, and fostered cross-racial reconciliation. He used his global platform to fight HIV/AIDS and promote peace across Africa. Though he stepped down in 1999, his legacy continues to inspire, reminding us that hope and human dignity can triumph over even the most entrenched forms of oppression.

He died in 2013. He showed us that true leadership lies not in domination, but in the courage to forgive, the humility to share power, and the unwavering belief in a future where all can thrive. His name remains etched in history as a beacon of hope for a just and equitable world.

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Kwame Nkrumah

3. Kwame Nkrumah

He ignited the Pan-African flame, championing independence and unity across Africa. His vision transcended borders, inspiring generations of liberation movements.

The man draped in kente, the poet-turned-president, was born 1909 in Nkroful, Gold Coast.

He, the son of a cocoa farmer, devoured knowledge in America, sharpening his words against Jim Crow's ugliness. Back home, he led with ink, igniting hearts with calls for independence. When words bled into action, he stood resolute, weathering imprisonment, exile, even an assassination attempt. But the dream wouldn't die. In 1957, Ghana was free, the first domino toppling in a colonial game rigged against Africans.

His Pan-African dream, vast and vibrant, wasn't content with one domino. He rallied, cajoled, dreamt aloud of a united Africa, a chorus of voices rising above the cacophony of exploitation. The Organization of African Unity, his brainchild, stood as a testament to that ambition. But the whispers of dissent, the gnawing hunger for power, they cast long shadows. In 1966, a coup d'état swallowed him whole, exiling him to Guinea, where, in 1972, death, not a gun, but an illness, claimed him at 63.

Yet, Nkrumah's legacy refuses to be buried. The dams, the schools, the factories, testaments to his dedication to development, hum with life. His words, penned and spoken, still pulse with a revolutionary rhythm. He may be gone, but the dream, that audacious, beautiful dream, echoes down the corridors of time, urging us, his children, to keep building, keep fighting, keep singing Africa's song until the continent dances in the sun, bathed in the golden light of freedom.

And in that chorus, Nkrumah's voice, though silenced, will forever lead the way.

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Patrice Lumumba

2. Patrice Lumumba

He dared to roar against Belgian colonial thunder, igniting independence flames that still light the African sky. His assassination plunged Congo into turmoil that it has never recovered from. But his spirit continues to inspire change across the world.

Born in 1925, his voice rang out from the heart of Congo, a land bled dry by Belgian greed. A titan sculpted from Lumumba's soil, he dared to dream of his motherland upright, free from the suffocating grip of colonialism.

Independence arrived in 1960, a bittersweet dawn with Lumumba at its helm, Prime Minister of a nation finally his own.

He spoke in tongues of fire, words that ricocheted across the continent, waking a sleeping giant. "Africa will write its own history," he roared, and the jungle whispered agreement. He dreamt of Pan-African unity, and worked towards it with all his heart and brilliant mind.  

In 1961, a puppet coup, a betrayal as cold as a Congolese night, snatched him away.

He died in 1961, assassinated by an unholy alliance between the West and corrupt Congolese ruling elite.

Patrice Lumumba, dead at 36, yet a thousand years old in the annals of our struggle. He lived a life the color of lightning, brief but blinding, forever etched in the granite of Africa's soul. Let his name be a drumbeat in our hearts, a reminder that the fire he lit still burns, warming the path to a bright future woven from his dreams.

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Thomas Sankara

1. Thomas Sankara

A charismatic revolutionary, Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance, sheer brilliance, unstoppable passion and commitment to real African independence continue to change Africa and the world.

On December 21 1949, Marguerite Sankara, a young lady from the then Upper Volta gave birth to a calm baby boy. She named him Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara. For several years every day, he arose early in the morning and attended primary school in Gaoua, Southern Burkina Fasso. Upon completing, he proceeded to high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second city. Less than fifteen years later in 1983 when he was only 34, Thomas Sankara became the president of République de Haute-Volta (Upper Volta Republic).

One of the first things that he did was to change the country’s name to Burkina Faso. Roughly translated from the country’s Mossi and Dioula languages, Burkina Faso means, ‘land of the honest/upright/incorruptible people.’ In changing his country’s name, Thomas Sankara made it clear that there would be zero corruption under his watch.

If only Africa’s current 54 Heads of State would follow suit, Africa wouldn’t have to keep scurrying to China and the West with a begging bowl in her hands.

After laying out a very clear integrity vision, Thomas Sankara refused to accept the ‘norm’ of African presidency being synonymous with riches. He continued living the same simple life he had lived before he became president and demanded the same from his cabinet ministers. He was not just being sentimental when he said severally that ‘I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.’

After all is said and done, after the campaign rhetoric has disappeared with the sunset, after your President’s motorcade has sped by you with sirens blaring, after your parliamentarians have hurled words at each other, after you have frothed at the mouth in passionate defense of your preferred political leaders, are you better of? Is there more food on your table? More jobs for the youth? If the answer is no, then your politicians are serving their bellies, not addressing your worries.

These are the issues that Thomas Sankara sought to address. Disgusted by the presidential opulence that he found in place, he sold most of the government fleet of high-end Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5, which was the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time, the official service car of the ministers. Come to think of it, why do ministers and other high ranking government officials have to drive in fuel guzzlers that are bought by the people who often can’t afford to buy even a bicycle?!

Thomas Sankara also converted the army's provisioning store in Ouagadougou into a state-owned supermarket that was open to everyone. This became Burkina Faso’s first ever supermarket. While State-run businesses rarely survive or flourish, the symbolism of this gesture was very powerful. A country’s resources should be accessible to all.

Throughout his presidency, he promoted women’s rights with passion. He liked to say that ‘I can hear the roar of women’s silence.’

Sankara's government included a large number of women. Improving women's status was one of his explicit goals, an unprecedented policy priority not just in West Africa but the world. His government banned female circumcision, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception use. The Burkinabé government was also the first African government to publicly recognize AIDS as a major threat to Africa.

Monsieur Sankara loved music. He could strum the guitar with the same poignant melody with which he spoke. When he wasn’t plucking the warm guitar strings or chatting with the masses, he could be found on his motor bike rambling along the streets of Ouagadougou.

Sankara refused to keep quiet in the midst of the injustice that was swarming around his country and continent. He loathed corruption with a passion, promoted reforestation and embraced policies that would enhance both education and health. Under his tenure, he oversaw the planting of ten million trees. This was long before Kenya’s Wangari Maathai popularized tree planting through the billion tree campaign and other similar initiatives.

There is a sentence in Burkina Faso’s anthem that fully captures a powerful tool that Africans can use to devastating effect on driving the continent forward.

Les engagés volontaires de la liberté et de la paix’.

This sentence is part of ‘Une seule Nuit’ the national anthem that was written by Thomas Sankara himself. It means, ‘the volunteers of liberty and peace.’

Volunteering entails taking the initiative and taking action. There are more than one billion people in Africa. If only 1% of these people initiate positive change across the continent, there will be an unstoppable wave of change. This wave will result in much more integrity, liberty, peace and prosperity.

On October 15, 1987 Thomas Sankara was killed with twelve other officials in a coup d'état that was organised by Blaise Compaoré, his former colleague. In April 2021, a military court in Burkina Faso’s capital indicted the now former President Blaise Compaore in connection to Sankara’s 1987 murder.

Most of the time, your biggest enemy is right there in your mirror. The person who stares at you when you look in the mirror can either build you or destroy you; pull you up or pull you down. This applies to African countries. They are often their own worst enemies. Even when external forces have been responsible for our downfall as Africans, it is often because they found collaborators right here in Africa. Take slavery for instance, it would never have thrived if a few greedy Africans had not been willing to sell of their fellow Africans. Even though slavery is largely annihilated, many of our African leaders continue to sell us off through pervasive corruption and incompetent governance.

One week before Thomas Sankara was killed, he said that, ‘while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.’ This words echoes the powerful message in the words of Victor Hugo, the nineteenth century French Poet, ‘No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.’

Here is one of the ideas whose time has come:

Real power belongs to the one billion Africans who stare back at Africa when she looks in the mirror. They have the power to vote for upright leaders; power to uproot war and plant peace; power to buy African products and build Africa’s economy; power to restore Africa’s degraded lands and ecosystems; power to be the change they want to see.

You, my fellow Africans, are so powerful. Use your power.

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