Often overlooked in the realms of geopolitics, the African continent has, nevertheless, played an important part of the political processes of the world during the 20th century. As a hub for colonial and decolonial practice, Africa has acted as an experiment table for many ideas, some of which have succeeded and some have which have failed dismally.
It has also been a battleground of ideologies since the end of World War II, and many proxy wars were fought over the continent as the United States and the Soviet Union tried to gain dominance.
Among all the turmoil, African leaders emerged who would shape their respective countries for good or for ill. Here are 5 of the most important African leaders of the 20th century.
1. Nelson Mandela
Perhaps the most well known of all the leaders to emerge from Africa, Nelson Mandela is an icon of struggle, emancipation, peace, and forgiveness.
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Born in 1918 in the Transkei region of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was educated at the University College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand where he studied to become a lawyer. In the 1940s, he joined the African National Congress and became involved in resistance against the apartheid policies of the South African white-minority government.
Nelson Mandela argued for the creation of an armed wing of the ANC, and uMkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation) was created. He spent time in and out of courts, but as a defendant rather than a lawyer. He was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life in prison.
While in prison, Nelson Mandela finished his studies through correspondence and changed his outlook on life. He was still committed to Black rule in South Africa, but he became a pacifist and saw that apartheid had turned whites into cruel people and as such, had robbed them of their humanity as it had robbed Black people of their dignity. Mandela argued for complete equality and suppression of the need for revenge.
By the late eighties, it became clear that apartheid was no longer viable, and the South African government under FW de Klerk realized that handing power over to Black people was the only way to avoid a civil war.
With assurances from Nelson Mandela that Black people would not seek revenge, Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and became president in 1994 after the first fully democratic election.
His tenure as president from 1994 to 1999 was marked by reconciliation. Huge efforts were put into bringing the racial groups together, and promoting South Africa as a diverse, yet inclusive country that guaranteed freedom and human rights for all people, regardless of race or circumstance. Nelson Mandela, along with FW de Klerk, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, and Nelson Mandela used this opportunity as a rallying cry for all South Africans. The competition was eventually won by South Africa, and for a brief moment, all of South Africa stood united.
After his presidency, Nelson Mandela largely retired from public life and died on December 5, 2012 at the age of 95.
2. Kwame Nkrumah
Born in 1909 and educated in the United States, Kwame Nwai Nkrumah campaigned tirelessly for the independence of the Gold Coast from Britain. He was inspired by Marx and Lenin, as well as the Black American leader, Marcus Garvey.
In 1947, he returned to the Gold Coast and became secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention. He became increasingly radicalized in terms of seeking independence from Britain, and formed the Convention Peoples’ Party which organized nonviolent protests and mass action, demanding immediate independence.
Nkrumah was imprisoned, but later released when it became clear the Convention People’s Party was capable of causing serious problems for the British. Nkrumah was elected prime minister of the Gold Coast in 1952. In 1957, the Gold Coast and British Togoland were fused as Ghana, and the country was given full independence. Nkrumah immediately authorized imprisonment without trial, and it was clear that Kwame Nkrumah would be an authoritarian leader. Nevertheless, his attention to building infrastructure won him much support.
In 1960, Ghana became a republic, and Nkrumah became its president. He campaigned tirelessly, envisioning a “United States of Africa” as the outcome of his struggles. He was more focused with Pan-Africanism than with running his own country, and Ghana became mired in economic woes stemming from ruinous projects. Nevertheless, Nkrumah designated himself president for life, and Ghana became a one-party state. The country became corrupt, with self-interested politicians running the country while Nkrumah retreated from public life after an assassination attempt in 1962. In 1966, while visiting China, Ghana was seized by the military, and Nkrumah went into exile, eventually dying of cancer in 1972.
Kwame Nkrumah’s anti-colonial stance and fight for independence won him much fame and support, and he is remembered today as an important African leader who was a voice of Pan-Africanism across the continent.
3. Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara is often seen as the Che Guevara of Africa. He was born in 1949 in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), and despite his parents’ wishes that he join the priesthood, he opted for a military career. Early in his career, he was exposed to popular uprisings, leftist ideology, and the brutality of war, fighting as a soldier in Mali.
Sankara was a charismatic man who was known for his integrity. He held posts hgh up in the government, but these attributes marked him as dangerous to his political opponents. President Ouédraogo had him arrested, but Sankara was broken out of jail and installed as president of Burkina Faso in 1983.
During his short reign as president, he implemented many successful policies under a socialist framework. Focusing on equality, education, and ecological preservation, he improved healthcare, greatly reducing infant mortality. He empowered women, and increased access to education. To combat desertification, he planted 10 million trees.
Despite his overwhelming success, he drew criticism from the conservative sector of the country which did not like his progressive reforms and anti-imperialist stance.
In 1987, Thomas Sankara was assassinated in a plot involving France, the CIA, and the former president Blaise Compaoré, who took over the government and ruled until his resignation in 2014, whereupon he fled the country.
In 2021, a tribunal tried Compaoré in absentia along with his accomplices and found him guilty of murder, sentencing him to life imprisonment.
Thomas Sankara was one of the greatest African leaders, but like many revolutionaries, his life was cut short, killed at the age of 37.
4. Idi Amin
From 1971 to 1979, Idi Amin Dada Oumee ruled over Uganda, in what was a particularly brutal chapter in the country’s history.
Born in 1924 (or 1925), Idi Amin was a member of the Kakwa ethnic group, a small minority in Uganda’s north. At a young age, he joined the King’s African Rifles of the British colonial army and worked as a cook. He served the British colonial forces during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya from 1952 to 1956.
Idi Amin rose through the ranks, and by the time Uganda was granted independence in 1962, he was one of the few Africans to have achieved the rank of officer. Amin became friends with the new prime minister and president, Milton Obote, and the new African leader granted Amin the office of Chief of the Air Force as well as the army.
Over the next few years, however, the two men had a falling out, and Idi Amin led a military coup and seized power in 1971. For the next eight years, Idi Amin’s rule was marked by intense nationalism. He expelled Asians from his country, and persecuted certain tribes within Uganda. The death toll from his rule is thought to be in the region of 300,000 people.
In 1978, he invaded Tanzania, and the following year, his rule came to an end when the Tanzanians stormed the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Idi Amin fled the country and lived in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2003.
5. Robert Mugabe
Known by many as the man who led Zimbabwe to freedom and independence from the white minority government under Ian Smith, Robert Mugabe is also known for his brutal authoritarian style of governance which garnered much political attention from detractors of his regime.
Born in 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe studied at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare before moving to Ghana where he worked as a teacher. He returned to Rhodesia (the former Zimbabwe) in 1960 and, in the following years, established the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). From 1964 to 1974 he was imprisoned, and during this time he led a party coup and took full control of ZANU. From 1964 to 1979, Rhodesia was embroiled in a civil war as the white minority sought to hold on to its power against the Black majority which was waging a guerrilla war against their colonial rulers. Robert Mugabe was released from prison in 1974 and joined the fight. The war ended in 1979, and Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory at the head of the ZANU-PF party.
During the first years of his administration, he made great strides in reconciliation, forming coalitions between the Shona and Ndebele people, and importantly granting safety to the white farmers on whom the economy of Zimbabwe relied. These concessions and attempts at peace did not last.
By the end of the decade, amid an economic crisis, he had established Zimbabwe as a one-party state. Elections were held, but were frought with violence and intimidation. As the years wore on, opposition grew. The Zimbabwean economy continued to fall, and by 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change was created under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai. In the 2000 election, the MDC won about half the seats in parliament, but the ZANU-PF held on to power.
During this time, people calling themselves “war veterans” used violence to demand land reform. Many of them were far too young to have fought in the war, but nevertheless, their actions led to a mass exodus of white farmers from the country, plunging Zimbabwe into an economic crisis with severe food shortages. This was made worse by Mugabe passing reforms to allow for the confiscation of white-owned land. More than half the farmers left Zimbabwe.
The country continued its downward spiral, with inflation hitting 100,000%. Rigged elections kept Mugabe in power despite his failing health and mental state. Eventually in 2017, he was ousted in a military coup, and Emmerson Mnangagwa took the reins of the presidency. Robert Mugabe died in 2019 at the age of 95.
Of course, there are many more African leaders that deserve to be mentioned such as Patrice Lumumba, Haile Selassie, and Muammar Gaddafi, to name a few. Africa is a big continent, and the number of influential African leaders is legion. Many of them were brutal dictators, while many others were beneficial dictators. There were emperors and kings, capitalists and Marxists, white minority rulers, and revolutionaries. From the despised and reviled to the loved and revered, Africa has produced some incredibly interesting figures that have led their countries through the turmoils of a developing continent.