Greatest African Leaders of all Time

What does it take to go down as a great leader on the African continent? Perhaps it requires perseverance and dedication. What about responsibility? Surely, with enormous power comes great responsibility. The personalities we are about to explore had more to them than the above character traits. These African men and women had the highest sense of responsibility mixed with heavy doses of altruism.

Heroes and heroine of their times, these leaders were willing to put everything on the line to encounter the unknown and articulate change in Africa. Join us as we take a journey down memory lane to explore the 10 greatest African leaders of the contemporary era.

NELSON MANDELA

Great Leaders

Nelson Mandela was one of Africa’s finest citizens and statesmen. He was a South African president (1994-1999) who fought against the apartheid political system in the country. As South Africa’s first black president, his government tackled key racial systems that segregated and tore apart the country’s diverse races.  Mandela was a revolutionary who got imprisoned on several occasions for his activism. When he was released, after 27 years behind bars, his African National Congress (ANC) party won the 1994 general election. Mandela forgave all his enemies and created reconciliation commissions (chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to probe past human rights violations. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his peace-loving life and the various projects and works he advocated for to end the brutal decades of Apartheid in South Africa.

HAILE SELASSIE

Greatest African leaders of all time

Haile Selassie, also known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, was an Ethiopian ruler and emperor from 1916 to 1974. Undoubtedly, Selassie was one of the biggest sons of Africa whose name can never be erased from history. Even at a young age, Selassie showed promising intellectual capacity. His intelligence quickly earned him political appointments from the Ethiopian emperor. Selassie eventually became emperor of Ethiopia upon the death of his father-in-law. During his reign, several schools were constructed, social injustice fell, and the security forces of the state were strengthened. Selassie used his immense influence on the continent to push for a more united Africa. He went on to build an extensive network of ties with African communities in the diaspora as well as other Caribbean islands. Up to this day, some circles within those communities (particularly the Rastafari community) often regard him as the reincarnated messiah.

KWAME NKRUMAH

Greatest African leaders of all time

Kwame Nkrumah is a highly revered Ghanaian politician who led the country in 1957 (formerly Gold Coast) to gain independence from the country’s colonial masters (Britain). One can conclude that he was the founder of Ghana, without being too wrong. Nkrumah was the first president and Prime Minister of Ghana. He was a Pan-Africanist who co-founded the Africa Union (A.U) (formerly the Organization of African Union). Nkrumah returned to Gold Coast after studying abroad for 12 years. He became a revolutionary who got arrested for causing political riots. His tenure as president saw massive developmental projects across the length and breadth of Ghana. Nkrumah’s legacy in Ghana, and even beyond, is unparalleled.

JULIUS NYERERE

Greatest African leaders

Julius Nyerere is another unforgettable hero of the African continent. He was the first president and Prime Minister of Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika). His rule as a statesman lasted from 1961 to 1985. As an intellectual who had masters degrees in economics and history, Nyerere was an African nationalist and a socialist. In 1953, Julius Nyerere co-founded the TANU (Tanganyika African National Union). As president of TANU, Nyerere piled a lot of pressure on Britain for self-rule and governance. His efforts finally paid off on 9th December 1961, as Tanzania gained independence.

PATRICE LUMUMBA

Great African leaders

Lumumba was a revolutionary Congo politician who helped the country to gain independence. He was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo (now called D.R. Congo) from July to September of 1960. He acquired Belgian citizenship and worked as the president of a Congolese trade union. When he came back to Congo, Patrice Lumumba founded the Congolese National Movement (MNC). Lumumba used Pan-African ideologies to push for independence for his country. Congo gained its independence from Belgium on June 30, 1961 largely due to Lumumba’s struggle. He garnered a lot of public support for his excellent personality and good communication skills. Sadly, Lumumba was ousted from office by Colonel Mobutu and later assassinated in January, 1961. The Congolese nationalist and Father of Congolese Independence Movement was just 35 at the time of his brutal execution.

KOFI ANNAN

Great African leaders

Kofi Annan’s name cannot be skipped in any important list of African leaders. Even though he wasn’t a mainstream politician, he was a world leader from Africa. Kofi Annan was a Ghanaian diplomat who led the United Nations (UN) as its 7th Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006.  When he was in charge of the UN, Annan tackled the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. He worked to resolve a lot of conflicts in the world. He and the UN were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. His post-UN Secretary-General years were also very successful. He served as special envoys and headed several organizations in countries such as Syria and Myanmar. The Kofi Annan Foundation, a charitable and global policy think-tank, is just one of the numerous legacy works that owe its existence to Annan.  In the early hours of 18 August 2018, news of Annan’s death broke out. The distinguished diplomat passed away at the age of 80. Annan will be forever be etched into our memories as a great leader who tirelessly fought for global peace and hunger eradication.

THOMAS SANKARA

Great African leaders

Thomas Sankara is widely regarded as one of Africa’s political heroes. He was a revolutionary who became Burkina Faso’s president from 1983-1987. Sankara was a strong Pan-Africanist and a supporter of Marxism. He is generally viewed as an icon of revolution or the Che Guevara of Africa. When he was 20, Sankara joined the army and got trained in Madagascar in 1970. That was where he observed how students revolted against the Madagascan government. This experience changed his life forever. Sankara returned to the Upper Volta in 1980. He went on to seize power in 1983 and changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. Sadly Sankara’s pursuit of growth, gender equality, and social justice came to an end in 1978. On October 15, 1978, Sankara was brutally assassinated at the age of 37 by his former friend (Campoare), in a military coup.

JOMO KENYATTA

African leaders

His name is one of the biggest in the history of African politics. Jomo Kenyatta was an anti-colonial activist who rose to become the first president of Kenya. He was also the first Prime minister of Kenya (1963-1964). Kenyatta played a big role in ensuring that Kenya freed itself from colonial rule. He was the front line politician in the Kenya National African Union (KANU). His ideologies are that of a nationalist and a conservative. Kenyatta also promoted peace between the country’s ethnic groups. He was the one who registered Kenya with the African Union.

 KENNETH KAUNDA

Greatest African leaders

Kenneth Kaunda is a Zambian retired politician who became the country’s first president from 1964-1991. As a teacher by profession, Kaunda gained a lot of political experiences when he served as a Foreign Affairs interpreter and adviser in 1949. He worked under Sir Stewart Browne who was a liberal white colonist. Kaunda later joined the African National Congress and took top positions. He used peaceful protests and negotiations to secure independence for Zambia.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF

African leaders

Africa’s first female head of state’s name cannot be omitted from this list. We still have some space to honor her and also to balance the political equation. Johnson-Sirleaf, commonly known as “Africa’s Iron Lady”, is a former Liberian president who was in office from 2006 to 2018. She is a Harvard graduate with an economics degree who fought hard from prisons and exile and became an inspiration to many young female politicians. By the way, she got a Nobel Peace Prize for laying a suitable foundation for women to establish their future.

The one thing that sets the above leaders apart was their unflinching pursuit of progress and peace on the continent. In spite of the enormous challenges that they faced, they always placed themselves at the forefront of developmental issues and prosperity in Africa.  The numerous  strides that Africa has made, in terms of gender equity and social justice, can firmly be attributed to the 10 great minds above.

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39 Responses

  1. Bisong James Otu says:

    I appreciate our great African Leaders for the Legacy Left, I ought every African to put first peace and peace alone will make Africa one United Nation.
    I am BISONG JAMES OTU
    Nigeria.

  2. seid says:

    All are from sub-Saharan Africa, what about leaders from Egypt and Lybia? Jemal abdul nasir of egypt and gadafi of libya? Best leader in their countries, they changed the living standard of people of in their respective countries.

    • C. Sahlezghi says:

      You are right. I disagree when leaders that don’t bow to western demands, for eg., Mugabe and M. Gaddafi are termed as bad and leaders such as Haile selassie that massacred 10s of thousands of innocent civilians in Eritrea and southern Ethiopia are referred as “great” leaders. What a shame!!!

  3. Robert L Smith says:

    Honorable mention is the current EFF leader in South Africa, Julius Malema.

  4. Negalign says:

    I have enormous appreciation for Nelson Mandela.But Mandela was trained by Hailesilasse . And Hailesilasse was the co-founder and leader of African Union. Also his state was un-colonized. Due to this reason why isn’t Hailesilsse the best of all African leaders???

    • World History Edu says:

      No doubt Haile Selassie was a monumental leader in Africa. Only a select few (dead or alive) on the African continent can match his record in championing pan Africanism. When we made the list, we had an extensive debate over who should occupy the first position. It was between Selassie and Mandiba (Mandela). The reason why Mandela tipped Selassie to the top position was because he did something that was quite rare in Africa at the time. He served one term and voluntarily stepped down. Mind you, this was after he had spent close to three decades behind bars under Apartheid regime.

      In terms of championing African unity, Emperor Haile Selassie was definitely the greatest in Africa. However, in terms of bringing diverse cultures and races together, Mandela ranks top. Due to the extremely delicate situation that existed South Africa, we simply had to give it to a leader who was able to bring together a nation torn apart by half a century of brutal racial and economic segregation. His message of reconciliation and tolerance for all races would likely never be matched by any leader.

      Thank you for your comment, Negalign. Be sure to check out our upcoming articles that shed enormous light on Africa and its diverse cultures.

  5. Thabiso Maolwane says:

    All those whom seek to upgrade the living standard of their citizens were brutally murdered by coups sponsored by external western forces, the likes of these golden bloods: Thomas Sankara and Muammar Gaddafi, may their spirits continue to inspire the upcoming african leaders.

  6. Collins Oswago says:

    Tom Mboya of Kenya was also a great Pan-African. He devoted his youthful time to fight for the rights of workers. It is through leading the labor union that he was able to advocate for the rights of African workers by sharing ideologies that reverberated across the African continent. Before his assassination in 1939, he pioneered the African Airlift Students programme which saw several African students including Barack Obama Sr getting a chance to study in the United States. His memories will forever be etched in our hearts.

  7. Fidel says:

    I wish we could have leaders like Thomas Sanakara, Mandela.. To represent us currently.. As fidel kobe in kenya

  8. Samuel mens says:

    What i am missing in the list of these Pan Africans is the names of Qaddafi and Mugabe. These were men who took African affairs seriously. Their ideas did not agree with what colonialist and the powers above wanted. Lets not forget these 2 great men because of what mainstream media made them to be.

    • Ebenezer Manu (sociable) says:

      What u are saying is true, we shouldn’t forget them at all. They made and contributed a lot for Africa

  9. Godfrey says:

    Thank God there is no mention of any Nigerian leaders, dead or alive here otherwise I wouldn’t even give this list a second thought. (I am from Nigeria by the way.) I find this list very credible and thoughtful for this reason.

  10. Ogwang says:

    All the leaders you put here, they once belonged to a majority tribe in their countries.
    Think about Dr. Apolo Milton Obote ,from the smallest tribe in Uganda, he successfully led Uganda including helping S. Africa attain her independence.

  11. Ebenezer Manu (sociable) says:

    Indeed these are our forever greatest LEADERS. Their names will never be erase from our HEARTS. Thanks for peaceful works, may your souls Rest In Perfect Peace. Legendary forever in Africa

  12. George Y. Williams says:

    Where is Robert Mugabe, Charles G. Taylor and Mohammed Kadafi? These great leaders were pushing for the United States of Africa they shouldn’t have been forgotten.

  13. Chibuike says:

    You people should not always buy white men ideas Nelson Mandela is not the Greatest African because he betrayed his people and the white rewarded him by portraying as if he’s the greatest though he should make top 10 list but he shouldn’t be the 1st
    People like
    1 Nkrumah
    2 Haile Salinas
    3 Robert Mugabe
    4 Thomas sankara
    5 Mandela
    6 Muammar Gaddafi
    7 Julius Nyerere
    8 Patrice Lumumba
    9 Madibo Keyetta
    10 Kenneth Kaunda

  14. moges says:

    who trained haile silasse???minilik!!!!!! who is a waving flag for all black nations????minilik!!!!!!who mortify a devilish italian colony?????minilik!!!!why you mation minilik first by far???????go france and ask macron!!!!!

  15. Pranab Das says:

    List incomplete. No Egyptian politicians are mentioned in the List, though it is a prominent country of Africa.

  16. Francis Eneyo says:

    Worthy of mention on your list is Robert Mugabe. He so excellently stood up against the colonial establishment.

  17. Mohamed Koroma says:

    As far as I know Nelson Mandela to me is no hero. The white people made him hero. He betrayed his country with the pretext of being peaceful. Apartheid never ends in SA. Even in his time he allowed white supremacists in SA.

    • Siboniso Motha says:

      Hi Mohamed. Apartheid has ended in SA, even though racism still exists, not only in SA but all over the world. Nelson Mandela to me is a hero and deserves to be top of this list because he promoted Peace And Reconsiliation and prevented the start of what was about to be a civil war, this could cost us a lot, economically and a lot of lives would have continued to be lost.

  18. Hannibal Barca says:

    they are naming only “sub-saharan” african leaders on purpose because to them “north africa” isn’t part of the continent the invaders there want to split it from africa and join with the arabian peninsula but north africa is apart pf africa its a historical fact nothing will change this

  19. Nana Kwame says:

    Dr Kwame Nkrumah must be the most regarded leader of Africa and there is no doubt about that.He is indeed the gateway to Africa.

    • Vis says:

      Did he not eventyally ruin the country. One party state. Self proclaimed life long president. Was there peace or economic prosperity? I dont think so.
      Just asking. Im no authority on the subject.

  20. A.rahman says:

    There is no justice in this research the best African Muslim leaders were pushed behind
    Like: siad barre in Somalia, qadafi in Libya, jamal abdinasir in Egypt, no justice please tell truth from the history because history it can’t be hidden

  21. spencer hamadziripi says:

    What about a R G Mugabe?

  22. These people will always be remembered on the continent of Africa.

  23. Emeka A.Ogbonna says:

    Looking at these wonderful great leaders,and examining their environment,challenges,ideologies, humility, sacrifices,scarce resources and resounding achievements, l quickly come to terms with the fact that what we now have, and after them, are mainly selfish rulers and strange breeds of Africans.

  24. Nafi says:

    Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia was by far the greatest leader in the 2000s, may he rip

  25. muhammad shahid says:

    I like Kofi Annan. He was a great leader. He worked for the Africians nicely. I love him.

  26. Dr Kwame Nkrumah should be placed first, he started the campaign for the OAU (the Organisation of African Union). Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, regardless Nkrumah didn’t sit down, he fought for the total liberation of Africa

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