The Biographies and Contributions of Africa’s Five Nationalist Leaders

Africa has produced arguably the most vibrant of nationalists from the pre-colonial period right up to post-colonialism. The list cannot be exhausted but the following are part of the crème de la crème of African nationalism. Being a leader is not being a government official, it is having the necessary political clout to start a meaningful movement and contribute to African development.

Kwame Nkrumah

March 6, 1957 – “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus, Ghana, your beloved country is free forever!” (263 Live News)

Nkrumah was a Ghanaian nationalist leader who led the country from 1957 to 1966. Nkrumah’s political journey started in 1935 when he entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935. He graduated in 1939 and obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania. At this point, Nkrumah had started his political journey having become the president of the African Students’ Organisation of the United States and Canada. He formed the Convention Peoples’ Party in June 1949. The party initiated a “positive action” campaign involving non-violent protests, strikes and non-cooperation with the British authorities in January 1950. Nkrumah was arrested and sentenced to one year imprisonment. In the Gold Coast’s February 1951 general election, he was elected to Parliament and released from prison to become leader of government business. He became Prime Minister of the Gold Coast in 1952 and when the Gold Coast became an independent state within the British Commonwealth, he became the new nation, Ghana’s first Prime Minister. His leadership was authoritarian but he improved the infrastructure of the country and his Africanisation policies created better career opportunities for Ghanaians. He was deposed in a coup in 1966.

Nyerere’s beliefs are best expressed in his quote, “No people without a government of their own can expect to be treated on the same level as people of independent sovereign states. It is far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else…”

Nelson Mandela

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.” (Wikipedia)

Nelson Mandela was the first black President of South Africa in 1994. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 when he helped to form the ANC Youth League. Through Nelson Mandela’s efforts, the ANC adopted a radical mass-based policy, the Programme of Action, in 1949.Mandela was arrested in a nationwide police operation on 5 December 1955. He was acquitted on 29 March 1961. On 21March 1960, police killed 69 people in a protest in Sharpeville and soon after, the government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. In 1961, he was called to lead the Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) which was launched on 16 December 1961. Using the alias, David Motsamayi, he travelled around Africa garnering support for the armed struggle. He returned to South Africa in July 1962. Mandela and his counterparts are best known for the Rivonia trial of 1963 which resulted in him being imprisoned for 27 years.

His famous “Speech from the Dock” quote is an immortal showpiece of nationalistic passion, “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.”

Julius Nyerere

“Without unity, there is no future for Africa.” (Britannica)

Julius Kambarage Nyerere, known as Mwalimu (teacher) was a shrewd politician, which is way more than can be said for most these days. Born to a chief in a small village, he had to walk 26 miles to get to school but he defied odds and excelled. He went to Tabora Government Secondary School and again, against every odd excelled. Nyerere became the first Tanzanian to study at a British university, the University of Edinburgh. At this point, he was already playing around with socialist ideas and on his return was made to choose between his teaching career and politics. His choice is clear, as he soon started working towards the unification of different nationalist factions. In 1954, TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) was formed and he became its President until 1977. He was elected President of the country in 1962. Tanzania was liberated without much bloodshed because of Nyerere’s willingness to work with different people. His skills helped the country deal with the Zanzibar coup in 1964 by incorporating the leaders into the union government. This incorporation spread out to community level with the formation of the organised villages to extend traditional values and responsibilities around kinship.


No quote captures what Mwalimu stood for better than this, “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 increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury.”

Robert Mugabe

“We of Africa protest that, in this day and age, we should continue to be treated as lesser human beings than other races.” (Britannica)

Robert Mugabe is the Zimbabwean premier and has led the Southern African nation since its liberation from colonial rule in 1980. His heroic stance against capitalism and neo-colonialism has earned him worldwide fame. The approach has not really changed, he is still a guerrilla fighter against the forces of imperialism at heart. Mugabe spent 11 years as a political prisoner under the Ian Smith regime and rose to lead the Zimbabwe African National Union in 1977. He was a major negotiator for ZANU in the Lancaster House Agreement which led to the liberation of Zimbabwe from minority rule. The Zimbabwean leader is also a man of great intelligence and was said to have taught inmates English and earned multiple degrees from the University of London while in prison. He was released from prison in 1977.

Mugabe has said many things over the years but his Africanist ideologies are best expressed here; “Africa must revert to what it was before the imperialists divided it. These are artificial divisions which we, in our pan-African concept will seek to remove.”

Patrice Lumumba

“Political independence has no meaning if it is not accompanied by rapid economic and social development.” (Wikipedia)

Patrice Emery Lumumba was born Elias Okit’Asombo on July 2, 1925 in the then Belgian Congo. Lumumba was mainly known for his poems and essays which opened doors for political involvement. Having been established as a leader in organising unions, he co-established the Congolese National Movement in 1958 and called for countrywide unity, blind to ethnicity and for freedom from colonialism. On June 30, the Democratic Republic of Congo took its independence from Belgium and 35 year old Lumumba became the Prime Minister. He however, faced numerous revolts as many other leaders were vying for power. Lumumba called for United Nations aid but got none and turned to the Soviet Union which did not go down well with the United States. It has emerged that a CIA operative was instructed to poison Lumumba but he chose not to. The country was taken over by Josephy Mobutu and Lumumba was captured and beaten to death in Katanga on the 17th of January 1961. Lumumba’s death is indeed a curious case.

“The colonialists care nothing for Africa for her own sake. They are attracted by African riches and their actions are guided by the desire to preserve their interests in Africa against the wishes of the African people. For the colonialists all means are good if they help them to possess these riches,” went his speech at the All-African Conference in Leopoldville, in August 1960.

Africa today was shaped by the African pride and hunger for African development of these and more great men. Books of their legacies have been and will be written but one thing is certain, their stories can be captured in one line; They are African heroes.


Original article appeared first on African Exponent


Written by PH

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