Leadership in Africa: The Legacy of African Great Leaders

Omolola Lipede
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Africa is the world’s second largest and second most densely inhabited continent in the world, after Asia. The continent consists of about 16% of the world’s human population. It contains 55 countries out of which 54 are fully recognized as sovereign states. The continent’s average population is the youngest amongst all the continents in the world; the median age in 2012 was 19.7 compared to the world median age of 30.4. Africa hosts a broad diversity of ethnicities, cultures and languages. In the late 19th century, European countries colonized almost all of Africa; most present states in Africa originated from a process of decolonization in the 20th century.

More so, the continent is said to have 90% of the world’s cobalt, 90% of its platinum, 50% of its gold, 98% of its chromium, 70% of tantalite, 64% of manganese and one-third of its uranium. However, despite the abundant natural resources of the continent, it remains the world’s poorest and most under-equipped continent. The continent total nominal GDP is remains behind countries like; United States, China, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, and France. Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and inadequate water supply and sanitation, poor health care services affect a large proportion of Africans.

The woes of the continent have been hinged on bad and poor leadership, however, the continent once enjoyed the ‘goody bags’ of great leadership. What legacy can the modern leaders get from the past great African leaders?


Thomas Sankara became the head of state of Burkina Faso in 1983 after a popularly supported coup. After coming to power, he immediately launched programs for social and economic change ever attempted in the continent. He also changed the country’s name from ‘Upper Volta’ to Burkina Faso meaning ‘Land of upright men’.

Also, immediately he took power he reduced the salaries of public servants, including his own and banned the use of chauffeur driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets. Thomas Sankara was the first leader to give credit to women in Africa; he was the first leader to appoint women to major cabinets’ positions and to recruit them actively for the military. He barred forced marriages and encouraged women to work outside the home. He was one of the first African environmentalists, planting over 10 million trees to retain soil and halt the growing desertification of the Sahel.

Furthermore, he promoted the local textile industry in his country by ensuring public servants, citizens wore clothes woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. He launched the nationwide public health campaign, vaccinating over 2.5million people in a week. Sankara is of course a charismatic army captain who ruled his people with determination to make the country self-reliance.

Also, he is a man that believes and fought for the self-reliance of Africa, according to him, foreign aid is counter-productive and he encouraged African leaders to keep producing more to feed the people. He exhibited a zealous attitude to ensure his country is truly independence, Sankara was a man driven by the desperation of his people and never compromised, consequently, opposition mounted. On October, 15 1987, a gang armed military assassinated Sankara, his body was dismembered and he was buried in a make-shift grave. His name was erased from the public.


Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese politician and independence leader, at age 34; he served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo from June still September,1960. He played a major role in transformation of the Congo from a colony of Belgium into an independent state. He is an African nationalist and a Pan Africanist.

In addition, he offered a basis for national identity grounded on the survival of colonial persecution dignity, humanness, strength and unity. Lumumba also advocated for African humanism such as: the values of egalitarianism, social justice, liberty, brotherhood and recognition of fundamental rights. He saw the state as a positive advocate for public welfare and its intervention in Congolese society necessary to ensure equality, justice, freedom and social harmony.

Lumumba’s political problems started almost immediately Congo became independent in 1960; a mutiny broke out in the army, marking the start of the country’s crisis. He appealed to the United States and United Nations for help to suppress the Belgium-supported Katangan secessionists, unfortunately, both refused. On this background, he was left with no choice than to turn to Soviet Union for help which led to more crisis in the country and Soviet Union was largely opposed by the United States and Belgium during the cold war.

Lumumba was arrested and executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authourities. After his assassination, he was widely seen as a martyr for Pan African movement.


Freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift, they claim it as their own and none can keep it from them. This is one of the quotes of the great revolutionist, Kwame Nkrumah. He was a Ghanaian president and the first Prime Minister of Ghana having led the country to independence from Britain in 1957.

In addition, Nkrumah is a visionary who believes so much in United States of Africa. He is a great and a passionate Pan Africanist that believes Africa can be united, his plans didn’t work out well but birthed the Africa Union which has so far been predicated on the unity of the continent. During Nkrumah’s rule, he funded national industrial and energy projects, developed a strong national educational system.

As a proponent of Pan-Africanism, he sought the liberation of the entire continent from colonial rule and offered generous assistance to other African nationalist. Sadly, in 1966, a coup was plotted during his absence and he had to find asylum in Guinea where he spent the remaining days of his life, he died of cancer in 1972.


What do we have in modern Africa leadership today? Dictatorship, authoritarian rule, poor economy, high rates of illiteracy, malnutrition, mortality and more disheartening events that can make anyone give up on being an African. The history of the past leaders have been reviewed and examined, the continent once had passionate, zealous and people-minded leaders that prioritises the welfare of the masses. Let’s refresh our minds about the sacrifices made by the likes of: Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Abdel Naser of Egypt, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and others who gave all it takes in building the ‘Africa we want’.

So, what went wrong? Where was the missing point? When did the leaders leave Africanism in pursuit of aiding neocolonialism? It is a crying shame that majority of the modern African leaders are merely heads of states or Prime Minister serving as sequels and agents of neocolonial projects at the expense of the continent. Africa still struggle for liberty despite the ‘certificates of independence’ have been signed, zeal and delivered. The continent’s progress has been held down by the evils of neocolonial projects carried out in it.

Have anyone ever wondered why those Pan Africanists and advocates of the Unites states of Africa didn’t stay long as ruling leaders? The idea of United Africa where; we eat what we produce, we wear whatever our textile industry produce and become self-reliance is a great threat to the Western countries. Is there any escape route? The continent can escape from the evils of neocolonialism and economy stagnation when it is ready to trade and not seek for aid.

More so, there is an sincere need for Africa to intensify efforts towards achieving its second freedom from the agents and masters of neocolonialism. The continent should start looking inward to be more self-reliance and gear towards inclusive growth that is unaided by foreigners. It is high time to start garnering resources to make the continent a better place for all to live in.

I drop my talking pen by concluding with one of Kwame Nkrumah’s quotes: We (Africa) face neither East nor West, we face forward! The time to build the ‘Africa we want’ is NOW.


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Omolola Lipede (The Talking Pen) is a contributor to The African Progressive Economist and the opinions expressed here are her own. She is currently an Economics post graduate student at the University of Ibadan.


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