by Tavonga Jacqueline Manyonga

African Leaders

Pioneering Africa’s rise


With several negative preconceptions surrounding African leadership, it was only fitting that, in light of celebrating Africa Month in April, we honour five exemplary and extraordinary African leaders

These leaders had an astounding influence on the policies that positively shaped Africa, breaking down their domestic barriers to secure equality, harmony and democracy through years of struggle to create the Africa we are proud to be part of today.

Nelson Mandela

In his autobiography, former South African President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela wrote, “I was not born with a hunger to be free; I was born free.” This deeply-rooted belief coupled with his refusal to accept the evil doctrines of Apartheid motivated him to fight for a nation where one did not suffer oppression at the hands of another. This South African revolutionary and global icon was an exceptional political leader because of his humility and an ability to forgive those who captured and imprisoned him.

Mandela’s freedom was first taken in 1962. This came years after the ANC’s first plight for equality in 1955, which resulted in him and other ANC leaders being charged with treason for mobilising people across races to approve the Freedom Charter. His first sentence was four years in prison for leaving the country illegally.

The next time he would leave his cell would be when he returned to court for the Rivonia Trial. After the ANC had been found with incriminating evidence against him and several other leaders, they faced the death penalty if found guilty. Instead, his conviction earned him a life sentence, which he started serving in 1964 at Robben Island Prison. When Mandela entered prison, he was 45 years old and he was only released at age 71. Evidently, greatness is not born overnight but it is forged over years of hard lessons and resilience.

This defiant but persistent spirit helped him endure the difficult conditions in prison. He was confronted with great adversity but remained focused on his vision of renewing South Africa and building it to be a just, equal, harmonious society for all.

It would be years before this dream would become a reality but upon his release from prison, Mandela ran under the ANC, taking part in the first democratic elections in South Africa on 27 April 1994. He was elected as the first black President of South Africa. His legacy continues to shine bright because of the biggest lesson he taught all of humanity, which is echoed in his speech: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination, I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

During his lifetime, Mandela received more than 695 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. More than 25 schools and educational institutions have been named after him and several statues and sculptures have been designed in his honour and dedicated to him.

Jomo Kenyatta

Born Kamau Ngengi, he is known to the world as Jomo Kenyatta. With a father who was a leader in a small Kikuyu agricultural settlement, it is safe to say leadership was in his DNA.

Kenyatta joined the first African political movement in Kenya, which was against a white-settler-dominated government. This movement began in 1921 and was referred to as the East African Association (EAA). Initially led by an educated Kikuyu by the name of Harry Thuku, the organisation’s main objective was to retrieve Kikuyu lands that were lost when Kenya became a British colony. Colonialism crippled Africa and left Africans dispossessed as ridiculous amounts of land were restricted to white settlers, which made the EAA crucial to facilitate the necessary change.

However, government pressures managed to disband the EAA in 1925. However, despite all this, its members remained focused and regrouped, forming the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), of which Kenyatta later became the General Secretary. In May 1928, Kenyatta launched a monthly Kikuyu newspaper called Mwigithania, which, loosely translated, means ‘He who brings together’. But his battle was far from over.

In March 1930, Kenyatta wrote a well-thought-out letter in London’s The Times newspaper. In this letter he, set out five key issues championed by the KCA: the security of land tenure and the return of lands allotted to European settlers, improved educational opportunities for black Africans, the repeal of hut taxes on women, which forced some to earn money by prostitution, more African representation in the Legislative Council, and noninterference with traditional customs.

He concluded this letter by saying that the lack of these measures “must inevitably result in a dangerous explosion—the one thing all sane men wish to avoid”. It is here that Kenyatta’s daring and fearless spirit shone brightly. At the 1932 hearings of the Carter Land Commission, he testified on behalf of the Kikuyu land claims.

He then joined the Communist Party in 1930. Various black nationalists and writers congregated and organised protests against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. While doing what he could using the available platforms, he maintained his job in England until 1946. He then returned home to Kenya and took up the leadership of the newly-formed Kenya African Union.

Then, in 1952, the Mau Mau Uprising erupted and on 21 October 21 1952, Kenyatta was arrested on charges of having directed the rebellion. Despite government efforts to portray Kenyatta’s trial as a criminal case, it received worldwide publicity as a political proceeding. In April 1953, Kenyatta was sentenced to a seven-year imprisonment for “managing the Mau Mau terrorist organisation”. He denied the charge, maintaining that the Kenya African Union’s political activities were not directly associated with the Mau Mau violence.

Kenyatta was later released in 1961 and negotiated the constitutional terms leading to Kenya’s independence in 1962 at the London Conference. KANU won the pro-independence election in May 1963, forming a provisional government and Kenya celebrated its independence on 12 December 12 1963, with Kenyatta as the Prime Minister. A year later, Kenya became a one-party republic when the main opposition party went into voluntary liquidation. At the same time, Kenyatta became the first President of Kenya under a new constitutional amendment. Kenyatta made Kenya the most stable black African country and one of the most economically dynamic.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The first woman to be elected as the Head of a State in Africa and commonly referred to as ‘The Iron Lady”, Liberian-born Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the epitome of political change and reinventing the African narrative for women. She served as the Assistant Minister of Finance in the administration of the Liberian President, William Tolbert. She is known for her personal financial integrity and clashing with both Heads of State—Tolbert, who was President until 1980, and Samuel Doe, who succeeded him. Johnson Sirleaf was unafraid to voice her opinions, against all stigmas and discrimination female politicians faced. During Doe’s administration, she was imprisoned twice and narrowly avoided execution. In the 1985 general elections, she campaigned for a seat in the Senate and openly criticised the military government, which led to her arrest and a 10-year prison sentence. She was released after a short time and allowed to leave the country.

While in exile for 12 years, Liberia collapsed into a civil war. Meanwhile, Johnson Sirleaf became an influential economist for the World Bank, Citibank and other international financial institutions. From 1992 to 1997, she was the Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa of the United Nations Development Programme. In 1997, she ran for President under the Unity Party, but finished second. This forced her back into exile when the winning ruling party President, Charles Taylor, charged her with treason. By 1999, Liberia’s civil war had resumed. In 2003, Taylor went into exile and Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to chair the Commission on Good Governance, which oversaw preparations for the democratic elections. In 2005, she again ran for President, vowing to end civil strife and corruption, establish unity and rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure.

She was placed second in the first round of voting and on 8 November 2005, she won the runoff election, defeating football legend, George Weah. Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as the President of Liberia on 16 January 2006 and served from 2006 to 2018. The effect she had while serving as the Head of State was so phenomenal that, by late 2010, Liberia’s entire debt had been erased and Johnson Sirleaf had secured millions of dollars of foreign investment in the country. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s success did not stop there—she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for carving a better future for women.

Kwame Nkrumah

The First Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, stands out as one of the illustrious African sons as he greatly influenced the founding of the Pan Africanism movement.

During the continent’s crucial struggles with imperialism, he formed the new Convention People’s Party (CPP) in June 1949, a mass-based party that was committed to a programme of immediate self-governance.

The Ghanaian nationalist leader led the Gold Coast’s drive for independence from Britain and presided over its emergence as the new nation of Ghana. Nkrumah successfully headed the country from the time it gained its independence in 1957 until he was overthrown by a coup in 1966.

One of the aspects that stands out about his leadership philosophy was his great desire for a united Africa.

Africa as a whole was going to be successful and overcome imperialism by standing as one.

He empowered Ghana in such a way that it had the capacity to lead and assist other African countries in international relations during the decolonisation period.

Nkrumah advocated socialism and nationalism, undertaking several development projects that turned Ghana into one of the most influential states in Africa. His administration represented Ghana’s diverse cultural traditional and industrial enhancement. His government initiated a programme aimed at bridging the educational gap between the country’s Southern and Northern communities.

Interestingly, Nkrumah’s administration proved to be one of the least corrupt that Ghana has ever seen. His anti-corruption slogan ‘One man, one car’ left a lasting impact on his people. In 1963, he won the Lenin Peace Prize.

Miriam Makeba

Often, a woman gains recognition through their spouse, educational qualifications or being born into an outstanding background, but the same cannot be said about Miriam Makeba. The South African songstress, writer, actress, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and civil rights activist was forced into exile in 1960. Makeba used her stature to speak out against Apartheid—the institutionalised practice of political, economic and social oppression along racial lines. Such efforts earned her the title ‘Mama Africa’, as she became an enduring symbol in the fight for equality and one of the main advocates against the Apartheid and white minority government in South Africa. Makeba was one of the first women to address the United Nations. On two occasions, she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on the horrors of Apartheid, seeking help for this unjustified system. Her works were recognised by many and she was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize.

Starting off as a domestic worker, who was later married to fellow music icon, Hugh Masekela. Makeba came from humble beginnings, but that did not limit her desire and dedication to social change within her county. Her legacy lives on through her music and charitable organisation that she founded in 1995, which was designed to help protect the women and young girls in her homeland. 

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Issue 64


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