Remembering Thomas Sankara on the 30th anniversary of his assassinationTributes 

Top Ten Leaders In Post Independent Africa



#1. Thomas Sankara, born on Dec 21st 1949, killed on Oct 15th 1987, was a charismatic left-wing leader and president of Upper Volta, which he renamed Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people”) during his period of office between 1983 and 1987. As a professing Pan Africanist he fought for a united Africa. He is frequently referred to as the “Che of Black Africa” for his resemblance to Ernesto Guevara with regards to personality and political ideas. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, Sankara is widely considered as an example for the possibility of revolution in one of the poorest countries of the world.

During his military training Thomas Sankara befriended Capitaine Blaise Compaoré. In 1983 they organized a coup d’état, after Sankara had been held in custody for his political attitude which conflicted with the conservative rulers. During his presidency he carried out a number of partly very successful reforms for the socialist development of the country, which included nationalization, reforestation projects and numerous social programs and aimed at the struggle against corruption and poverty and at the improvement of education and health care. Among these measures one can mention vaccination programs, the radical abolition of the privileges of the public servants (cheap cars) and a land reform, whose resounding success made Burkina Faso independent of food imports within very few years. Furthermore, he committed himself to strengthening the role of women in the society of Burkina Faso by for example prohibiting female circumcision and speaking out against polygamy. His government has the highest percentage of women in the whole of Africa. Sankara’s popularity extended beyond the borders of his country and turned him into a globally known public figure.

#2. Julius Nyerere  Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born on April 13, 1922 in Butiama, on the eastern shore of lake Victoria in north west Tanganyika. His father was the chief of the small Zanaki tribe. He was 12 before he started school (he had to walk 26 miles to Musoma to do so). Later, he transferred for his secondary education to the Tabora Government Secondary School. His intelligence was quickly recognized by the Roman Catholic fathers who taught him. He went on, with their help, to train as a teacher at Makerere University in Kampala (Uganda). On gaining his Certificate, he taught for three years and then went on a government scholarship to study history and political economy for his Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh (he was the first Tanzanian to study at a British university and only the second to gain a university degree outside Africa. In Edinburgh, partly through his encounter with Fabian thinking, Nyerere began to develop his particular vision of connecting socialism with African communal living.On his return to Tanganyika, Nyerere was forced by the colonial authorities to make a choice between his political activities and his teaching.

He was reported as saying that he was a schoolmaster by choice and a politician by accident. Working to bring a number of different nationalist factions into one grouping he achieved this in 1954 with the formation of TANU (the Tanganyika African National Union). He became President of the Union (a post he held until 1977), entered the Legislative Council in 1958 and became chief minister in 1960. A year later Tanganyika was granted internal self-government and Nyerere became premier. Full independence came in December 1961 and he was elected President in 1962. Nyerere’s integrity, ability as a political orator and organizer, and readiness to work with different groupings was a significant factor in independence being achieved without bloodshed. In this he was helped by the co-operative attitude of the last British governor — Sir Richard Turnbull. In 1964, following a coup in Zanzibar (and an attempted coup in Tanganyika itself) Nyerere negotiated with the new leaders in Zanzibar and agreed to absorb them into the union government. The result was the creation of the Republic of Tanzania.

As President, Nyerere had to steer a difficult course. By the late 1960s Tanzania was one of the world’s poorest countries. Like many others it was suffering from a severe foreign debt burden, a decrease in foreign aid, and a fall in the price of commodities. His solution, the collectivization of agriculture, villigization (see Ujamma below) and large-scale nationalization was a unique blend of socialism and communal life. The vision was set out in the Arusha Declaration of 1967 (reprinted in Nyerere 1968):”The objective of socialism in the United Republic of Tanzania is to build a society in which all members have equal rights and equal opportunities; in which all can live in peace with their neighbours without suffering or imposing injustice, being exploited, or exploiting; and in which all have a gradually increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury.” (Nyerere 1968: 340)The focus, given the nature of Tanzanian society, was on rural development. People were encouraged (sometimes forced) to live and work on a co-operative basis in organized villages or ujamaa (meaning ‘familyhood’ in Kishwahili). The idea was to extend traditional values and responsibilities around kinship to Tanzania as a whole.Within the Declaration there was a commitment to raising basic living standards (and an opposition to conspicuous consumption and large private wealth). The socialism he believed in was ‘people-centred’. Humanness in its fullest sense rather than wealth creation must come first. Societies become better places through the development of people rather than the gearing up of production. This was a matter that Nyerere took to be important both in political and private terms. Unlike many other politicians, he did not amass a large fortune through exploiting his position. The policy met with significant political resistance (especially when people were forced into rural communes) and little economic success. Nearly 10 million peasants were moved and many were effectively forced to give up their land.

The idea of collective farming was less than attractive to many peasants. A large number found themselves worse off. Productivity went down. However, the focus on human development and self-reliance did bring some success in other areas notably in health, education and in political identity.A committed pan-Africanist, Nyerere provided a home for a number of African liberation movements including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) of South Africa, Frelimo when seeking to overthrow Portuguese rule in Mozambique, Zanla (and Robert Mugabe) in their struggle to unseat the white regime in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He also opposed the brutal regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Following a border invasion by Amin in 1978, a 20,000-strong Tanzanian army along with rebel groups, invaded Uganda. It took the capital, Kampala, in 1979, restoring Uganda’s first President, Milton Obote, to power. The battle against Amin was expensive and placed a strain on government finances. There was considerable criticism within Tanzania that he had both overlooked domestic issues and had not paid proper attention to internal human rights abuses. Tanzania was a one party state — and while there was a strong democratic element in organization and a concern for consensus, this did not stop Nyerere using the Preventive Detention Act to imprison opponents. In part this may have been justified by the need to contain divisiveness, but there does appear to have been a disjuncture between his commitment to human rights on the world stage, and his actions at home.

#3. Nelson Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. He was the son of a local tribal leader of the Tembu tribe. As a youngster, Nelson took part in the activities and initiation ceremonies of his local tribe. However, unlike his father Nelson Mandela gained a full education, studying at the University College of Fort Hare and also the University of Witwatersrand. Nelson was a good student and qualified with a law degree in 1942.

During his time at University, Nelson Mandela became increasingly aware of the racial inequality and injustice faced by non-white people. In 1943, he decided to join the ANC and actively take part in the struggle against apartheid.
As one of the few qualified lawyers, Nelson Mandela was in great demand; also his commitment to the cause saw him promoted through the ranks of the ANC. In 1956, Nelson Mandela, along with several other members of the ANC were arrested and charged with treason. After a lengthy and protracted court case, the defendants were finally acquitted in 1961. However, with the ANC now banned, Nelson Mandela suggested an active armed resistance to the apartheid regime. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would act as a guerilla resistance movement. Receiving training in other African countries, the Umkhonto we Sizwe took part in active sabotage. In 1963, Mandela was again arrested and put on trial for treason. This time the State succeeded in convicting Mandela of plotting to overthrow the government. However, the case received considerable international attention and the apartheid regime of South Africa became under the glare of the international community. At the end of his trial, Nelson Mandela made a long speech, in which he was able to affirm his commitment to the ideals of democracy. “We believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white. We did not want an interracial war, and tried to avoid it to the last minute.” – Nelson Mandela, Supreme court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20, 1964


#4. Kwame Nkrumah, (born Sept. 1909, Nkroful, Gold Coast [now Ghana]—died April 27, 1972, Bucharest, Rom.), Ghanaian nationalist leader who led the Gold Coast’s drive for independence from Britain and presided over its emergence as the new nation of Ghana. He headed the country from independence in 1957 until he was overthrown by a coup in 1966.Kwame Nkrumah’s father was a goldsmith and his mother a retail trader. Baptized a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in nearby Half Assini. After graduation from Achimota College in 1930, he started his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic junior schools in Elmina and Axim and at a seminary.


Increasingly drawn to politics, Nkrumah decided to pursue further studies in the United States. He entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935 and, after graduating in 1939, obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the literature of socialism, notably Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin, and of nationalism, especially Marcus Garvey, the black American leader of the 1920s. Eventually, Nkrumah came to describe himself as a “nondenominational Christian and a Marxist socialist.” He also immersed himself in political work, reorganizing and becoming president of the African Students’ Organization of the United States and Canada. He left the United States in May 1945 and went to England, where he organized the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester. Meanwhile, in the Gold Coast, J.B. Danquah had formed the United Gold Coast Convention(UGCC) to work for self-government by constitutional means. Invited to serve as the UGCC’s general secretary, Nkrumah returned home in late 1947. As general secretary, he addressed meetings throughout the Gold Coast and began to create a mass base for the new movement. When extensive riots occurred in February 1948, the British briefly arrested Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC. When a split developed between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and the more radical supporters of Nkrumah, he formed in June 1949 the new Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP), a mass-based party that was committed to a program of immediate self-government. In January 1950, Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with the British colonial authorities.

#5. Patrice Lumumba was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, calling for national unity and overall African independence. He is quoted to have said, “We have known ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon and evening, because we are Negroes. Who will forget that to a black one said ‘tu,’ certainly not as to a friend, but because the more honorable ‘vous’ was reserved for whites alone?” Born on July 2, 1925, in Onalua, Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Patrice Lumumba was a writer and civic organizer before co-founding the Congolese National Movement. He became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo with the country’s independence; yet massive unrest followed with other leaders’ uprisings, along with U.S. and Belgian involvement. Lumumba was killed on January 17, 1961. Future Prime Minister Patrice Hémery Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925, in the Kasai province of Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the village of Onalua. He was able to hone his love for literature and learning while attending missionary school and borrowing books to read. After some travels within his country and acquiring different languages, Lumumba became a postal service clerk during the mid-1940s in what is now Kinshasa, later working as an accountant in another region. He also wrote poems and essays for publication, earning acclaim, and became increasingly involved in political movements, keeping in mind the oppression endured by Africans from the Belgian colonial system.

After having established himself as a leader in organizing unions, Lumumba co-established the Congolese National Movement in 1958. He called for countrywide unity, bringing together different ethnic backgrounds, and freedom from colonial atrocities, with major links to Pan-Africanist movements as well.




#6. Samora Machel was born in 1933 and was raised in the village of Chilembene. He was a member of the Shangana ethnic group and his parents were poor. Machel parents were forced to grow cotton by the Portuguese, rather than food such as corn which they could eat. In the 1950’s his parents’ farmland was taken and given to Portuguese settlers. In order to avoid starvation his relatives went to work in the South African mines under repressive and dangerous conditions. Soon after, his brother was killed in a mining accident. Machel attended Catholic school and when he was not in class he worked in the fields. He studied to become a nurse, one of the few professions open to Mozambican Blacks at that time. Machel was attracted to Marxist ideals and began his political activities in a hospital where he protested that the black nurses were paid less than whites, who were doing the same job. He later told a reporter how bad medical treatment was for Mozambique’s poor by saying, “the rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built.”

Rebellion against Portugal was not new to Samora Machel. His grandparents and great grandparents had fought against the Portuguese in the 19th century. In 1962 Machel joined the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique or FRELIMO, as it was called by most. FRELIMO was dedicated to creating an independent Mozambique. In 1963 Samora Machel left Mozambique and traveled to several other African nations where he received military training. In 1964 he returned to Mozambique and led FRELIMO’s first guerilla attack against the Portuguese in northern Mozambique. Machel spent most of his time in the field with his men, leading them in combat and sharing their dangers and hardships. By 1970 Samora Machel became commander and chief of the Frelimo army. He believed in guerilla war and Frelimo’s army established itself among the poor in Mozambique’s. He was a revolutionary who was not only dedicated to throwing the Portuguese out of Mozambique but also radically changing the society. He said, “of all the things we have done, the most important – the one that history will record as the principal contribution of our generation – is that we understand how to turn the armed struggle into a Revolution; that we realized that it was essential to create a new mentality to build a new society.” Machel’s goals were to be realized. The revolutionary army weakened Portugal, and after the country’s coup in 1974 the Portuguese were forced to leave Mozambique. The new revolutianry government, led by Machel, took over on June 25, 1975. Machel became independent Mozambique’s first president and was affectionately referred to as “President Samora.” Machel put his revolutionary principles into practice. As a Marxist he called for the “nationalization” (government ownership) of the Portuguese plantations and property. He moved quickly to have the Frelimo government establish public schools and health clinics for the poor. He called for Frelimo to organize itself into a Leninist Party.

Samora Machel supported and allowed revolutionaries fighting white minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa to operate within Mozambique. Soon after Mozambique’s independence both of these countries attacked Mozambique with an anti-Frelimo organization called RENAMO. RENAMO’s activities included: the killing of peasants, the destruction of schools and hospitals built by Frelimo,and the blowing up of railway lines and hydroelectric facilities. The Mozambique economy was strangled by these depredations, and began to depend on overseas aid – in particular from the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Machel remained popular throughout his presidency. Samora Machel was awarded Lenin Peace Prize in 1975-1976. On October 19, 1986 Samora Machel was on his way back from an international meeting in Zambia in the presidential Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft when the plane crashed in the Lebombo Mountains, near Mbuzini. There were nine survivors but President Machel and twenty-four others died, including ministers and officials of the Mozambique government.. Although, several years before the airplane went down Machel had signed a non-agression pact with the South Africa, there was widespread suspicion that the apartheid regime was implicated in the crash.

On October 6, 1986, just two weeks before the crash, South African soldiers (SADF) were injured by land mines near the spot where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland converge. This site was very close to where the Tupolev Tu-134 went down. Time magazine noted that this “really seemed too much a coincidence”. Throughout southern Africa angry people mourned the loss of Samora Machel. In South Africa protestors blamed their government for Machel’s death. In Zimbabwe thousands of youths stormed through downtown Harare. The crash remains a mystery: with some blaming it simply on bad weather and others still believing in South Africa’s guilt. No conclusive evidence to either effect has yet emerged.



Emperor Haile Salassie /

#7. Haile Selassie was an emperor of Ethiopia whose influence as an African leader far surpassed the boundaries of his country. Although his popularity declined near the end of his sixty-year reign, Selassie remains a key figure in turning Ethiopia into a modern civilization. Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892, the son of Ras Makonnen, a cousin and close friend of Emperor Menilek II. Baptized Lij Tafari, he is believed to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, two ancient rulers from the tenth century B.C.E. Raised as a Christian, Tafari was educated by private European tutors.

Haile Selassie spent his youth at the imperial court (court of the emperor) of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Surrounded by constant political plots, he learned much about the wielding of power. Menilek no doubt recognized Tafari’s capacity for hard work, his excellent memory, and his mastery of detail. The emperor rewarded the youth’s intellectual and personal capabilities by appointing him, at the age of fourteen, the governor of Gara Muleta in the province of Harar. When he was twenty, the emperor appointed him dejazmatch (commander) of the extensive province of Sidamo.

Regent and Emperor Upon the death of Menilek in 1913, his grandson, Lij Yasu, succeeded to (gained) the throne. Yasu’s apparent conversion to the religion of Islam alienated the national Christian church and gave its favor to the opposition movement led by Ras Tafari (as Haile Selassie was now named). The movement joined noblemen and high church officials in stripping Yasu of the throne in 1916. Zawditu, the daughter of Menilek, then became empress, with Ras Tafari appointed regent (acting ruler while the empress was away) and heir to the throne. Throughout the regency the empress, conservative in nature and more concerned with religion than politics, served as opposition to Ras Tafari’s rising interest in turning the country into a more modern nation. The result was an uneasy decade-long agreement between conservative and reforming forces (forces looking to make social improvements).

In 1926 Tafari took control of the army, an action that made him strong enough to assume the title of negus (king). Assuming this title was made possible, in part, by his success in international affairs, namely the admission of Ethiopia in 1923 to the League of Nations, a multinational organization aimed at world peace following World War I (1914–1918; a war fought mostly in Europe involving most countries on that continent and the United States). When Zawditu died in April 1930, Tafari demanded the title negasa negast (king of kings) and took complete control of the government with the throne name of Haile Selassie I (“Power of the Trinity”) By the 1960s the emperor was clearly recognized as a major force in the pan-African movement (a movement dedicated to a united Africa), demonstrating his remarkable capacity for adapting to changing circumstances. It was a great personal triumph for him when, in 1963, the newly founded Organization of African Unity established its headquarters in Addis Ababa. Unlike other African leaders, Haile Selassie, of course, had not had to struggle once in office to prove his legitimate authority to his people. Rather, his control of government for more than forty years had given him enough time to demonstrate his strength.

#8. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his family were well-to-do Moslem peasants who lived in Beni Morr near Asyût (Upper Egypt). His father was a post-office employee. Gamal was born on Jan. 15, 1918, in Alexandria. As early as his grammar school years, he participated in demonstrations against the English occupation of Egypt. In 1937 he entered the military academy at Cairo; he left the following year with the rank of second lieutenant. In 1943, after several years of service in Upper Egypt and the Sudan, he became an instructor at the military academy and then at the army staff college. During 1948-1949 he took part in the unsuccessful campaign against the new state of Israel. In this conflict he commanded a position from the “pocket of Faludja,” south-west of Jerusalem, where three Egyptian battalions were surrounded for more than 2 months by Israeli forces. Nasser resisted gallantly with his troops until the cease-fire was declared. This was the only comparatively successful Arab exploit of the war.

Overthrow of King Farouk For many years Nasser had been in contact with some of the army officers who were indignant over the corruption in the royal Egyptian government. These young radicals were strongly nationalistic, but they could not agree on an ideology or on an alliance with other forces. However, under the impact of the defeat by Israel in Palestine, the secret “movement of free officers” was organized (1949), with Nasser as one of the principal founders. This group overthrew King Farouk on July 23, 1952. Behind the new government, nominally headed by Gen. Mohamed Neguib, Nasser was chairman of the Revolution Command Council (which held the actual power), headed the new “Liberation Rally,” and then was deputy premier and minister of the interior. Meanwhile, Neguib had begun to alienate most of the officers by his involvement in efforts to reestablish parliamentary rule. Early in 1954 Nasser displaced Neguib, taking the title of prime minister in April (and in 1956 he was elected first president of the Egyptian republic).

The regime was at first pro-Western and respected the free-enterprise system. It obtained an agreement for the English to surrender control of the Suez Canal in July 1954. However, the Nasser government reacted strongly to the West’s attempting to organize Egypt into an anti-Soviet bloc and yet refusing to support Egypt against Israel (Israeli troops raided into Gaza in February 1955). Then, in the face of the West’s refusal to supply arms unless Egypt entered into a coalition under the direction of Turkey and Iraq (Baghdad Pact, February-April 1955), Nasser moved toward neutralism.

Nasser became friends with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India and President Tito of Yugoslavia, participated in the “Third World” Conference at Bandoeng in Java (April 1955), and purchased arms from Czechoslovakia. America’s unwillingness to finance the High Dam of Aswan, a project essential for the development of Egypt, led Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in July 1956. A combined Anglo-Franco-Israeli expedition (October-November 1956) tried to reestablish control over the canal, but it failed, thanks largely to American and Soviet pressures to withdraw.



Bantu Biko

#9. Steve Biko spearheaded the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. He died in 1977, from injuries sustained while in police custody. Born in South Africa in 1946, Steve Biko co-founded the South African Students’ Organization in 1968, subsequently spearheading the nation’s Black Consciousness Movement, and co-founded the Black People’s Convention in 1972. Biko was arrested many times for his anti-apartheid work and, on September 12, 1977, died from injuries that he’d sustained while in police custody. Bantu Stephen Biko was born on December 18, 1946, in King William’s Town, South Africa, in what is now the Eastern Cape province. Politically active at a young age, Biko was expelled from high school for his activism, and subsequently enrolled at St. Francis College in the Mariannhill area of KwaZulu-Natal. After graduating from St. Francis in 1966, Biko began attending the University of Natal Medical School, where he became active with the National Union of South African Students, a multiracial organization advocating for the improvement of black citizens’ rights.

Co-Founding SASO and the Black People’s Convention: In 1968, Biko co-founded the South African Students’ Organization, an all-black student organization focusing on the resistance of apartheid, and subsequently spearheaded the newly started Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Biko became SASO’s president in 1969. Three years later, in 1972, he was expelled from the University of Natal due to his political activism. That same year, Biko co-founded another black activist group, the Black People’s Convention, and became the group’s leader. This group would become the central organization for the BCM, which continued to gain traction throughout the nation during the 1970s. In 1973, Biko was banned by the apartheid regime; he was forbidden to write or speak publicly, to talk with media representatives or to speak to more than one person at a time, among other restrictions. As a result, the associations, movements and public statements of SASA members were halted. Working undercover thereafter, Biko created the Zimele Trust Fund to aid political prisoners and their families in the mid-’70s.

Arrests, Murder and Legacy: During the late ’70s, Biko was arrested four times and detained for several months at a time. In August 1977, he was arrested and held in Port Elizabeth, located at the southern tip of South Africa. The following month, on September 11, Biko was found naked and shackled several miles away, in Pretoria, South Africa. He died the following day, on September 12, 1977, from a brain hemorrhage—later determined to be the result of injuries he had sustained while in police custody. The news of Biko’s death caused national outrage and protests, and he became regarded as an international anti-apartheid icon in South Africa. The police officers who had held Biko were questioned thereafter, but none were charged with any official crimes. However, two decades after Biko’s death, in 1997, five former officers confessed killing Biko. The officers reportedly filed applications for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after investigations implicated them in Biko’s death, but amnesty was denied in 1999.



Garvey /www.karatreggae

#10. Marcus Garvey was born in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on 17 August 1887, the youngest of 11 children. He inherited a keen interest in books from his father, a mason and made full use of the extensive family library. At the age of 14 he left school and became a printer’s apprentice where he led a strike for higher wages. From 1910 to 1912, Garvey travelled in South and Central America and also visited London. He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In 1916, Garvey moved to Harlem in New York where UNIA thrived. By now a formidable public speaker, Garvey spoke across America. He urged African-Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa, their ancestral homeland and attracted thousands of supporters.

To facilitate the return to Africa that he advocated, in 1919 Garvey founded the Black Star Line, to provide transportation to Africa, and the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. Garvey also unsuccessfully tried to persuade the government of Liberia in west Africa to grant land on which black people from America could settle.

In 1922, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in the Black Star Line, which had now failed. Although there were irregularities connected to the business, the prosecution was probably politically motivated, as Garvey’s activities had attracted considerable government attention. Garvey was sent to prison and later deported to Jamaica. In 1935, he moved permanently to London where he died on 10 June 1940. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where he was declared the country’s first national hero.

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