7 African male icons that shaped history

One of the challenges, and also opportunities with writing an opinion blog like mine is having to take a stand on the range of topics you write about. Whether it’s feminism, women’s libidoes, pornography or natural hair, when you take a firm stand on something you can appear to be unable to relate with the opposing side. This is untrue especially because before you can take a well thought-out stand on anything you need to understand not only the issue at hand but also the other end of the spectrum. And when you understand the other side of the spectrum, you are less likely to militantly shun it.

For example as an African feminist I do not hate men, in fact I don’t really hate anything because I’m what the massmedia would like to make you believe doesn’t exist, a happy feminist, and I’m in good company. Or, because I wrote about how African men should observe violence towards African women doesn’t mean that I think men of other ethnicities do better. Women in every single part of the world are subject to gender based violence. However, I believe that in Africa it’s a very pressing issue in the sense that it’s negatively affecting also already strained economies.

So, as I don’t hate men and not even African ones in particular, here’s a list of seven amazing men that have made a huge impression on me for how they shaped the history of Africa, and of the world. Enjoy!

Albert John Luthuli

1. Albert John Luthuli – The First Nobel Laureate

At the Nobel Award ceremony in 1960, where Luthuli was the first African to be awarded a Nobel prize (for peace), Luthuli resolutely read from his acceptance speech:

“…I accept it also as an honour not only to South Africa, but for the whole continent of Africa. Quite long ago my forefathers extended a hand of friendship to people of Europe when they came to that continent. What has happened to the extension of that hand only history can say, and it is not time to speak about that here, but I would like to say, as I receive this prize of peace, that the hand of Africa was extended. It was a hand of friendship, if you read history…”


Seven years later, whilst out walking near his home, Luthuli was hit by a train and died. The official cause that he was crossing the line at the time was an explanation dismissed by many of his followers who believed more sinister forces were at work.

Leopold Senghor

2. Leopold Senghor – The Poetic President

It is quite impossible to separate the politics of Leopold Senghor from the poetry of Leopold Senghor.

Had he not been involved in politics, his poetry might have lacked the dimension of influential experience. Had he not been a poet, the politician in him might have lost his sense of direction and become crippled by everyday pressure.

Even though his love affair with Africa was ignited as a young poet and writer in Paris, it was his political consciousness, which led to the concept of Negritude, a movement created by Senghor and defined by African socialism and intellectual identity, and seen as Africa’s contribution to the coming universal civilization.

Both as a poet and as a president, Senghor was an African man with a single purpose: to create a new world, a new philosophy, a new literature, and ultimately, a new society. This was a task worthy of a great heart.


Painting of Osei Tutu

3. Osei Tutu – The First Asante Warrior

The founder and first ruler of the Asante empire in present-day Ghana, Osei Tutu was the most noted ruler of the Asante. In about 1685 Osei Tutu succeeded his uncle as ruler of Kumasi, and through wars of expansion he brought several Asante territories together against common enemies. This military union provided the framework of Asante unity. Osei Tutu made Kumasi the capital of a growing Asante kingdom.

His legacies still endures today. For example he founded the Golden Stool, the supreme shrine of the Asante people and a symbol of their spiritual and political identity. He also founded Odwira, an annual festival. Osei Tutu also established a set of laws that the Asante regard as the basis of their nation.

There is a luxury label named after him.


Thomas Sankara

4. Thomas Sankara – The Radical Revolutionary

Thomas  Sankara seized power in 1983 in a Pan-African  coup in what was Upper Volta. He changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso meaning ‘land of honest men’. Sankara’s vision was to create economic and political change which would work in the interest of Burkina Faso’s people rather than Western interests and before his assassination he implemented  notable reforms in agriculture, education and women’s issues, for example he banned FGM (female genital mutilation). He said:

‘There is no true social revolution without the liberation of women”

When asked why he had let it be known that he did not want his portrait hung in public places, Sankara said ‘There are seven million Thomas Sankaras’.


Patrice Lumumba

5. Patrice Lumumba – The Legendary Martyr

If there’s truth to the belief that the ultimate test of charismatic leadership is a certain capacity to create legend, then Lumumba deserves his place in history as the African icon who left behind him the most inspiring legacy of past African leaders.

Whether as a martyr symbol of Pan Africanism, a prophet of African nationalism, or as the champion of left-wing intellectuals, Lumumba serves as a larger-than-life character around whom people can weave their hopes of a proud and visionary African leader.

Critics say Lumumba failed to implement many positive results during his term in office. They believe that he was a more effective Africa nationalist in death than he was in life.

Despite this, his legacy as the Messiah of radical African nationalism is indisputable, he was a leader who sacrificed his own life for the independence of his country.


Statue of Behanzin in Benin

6. Behanzin – The Fearless King

Behanzin was Dahomey’s last independent ruler before colonialism and ruled from 1889 to 1894. He strongly resisted European intervention into his country and it is believed that his army included a division of thousands of female warriors.
When the French envoys arrived at his palace with presents, it is reported he brushed the presents aside, saying contemptuously, “We have cases full of that in Dahomey.” When told of the workings of the system of government in France, it is said that he took his pipe from his mouth and laughed loud and long, saying that he much preferred his own, which was quicker and more original. “Dahomey, has never ceded Cotonou to France, and if the French do not get out at once, I will drive them out myself.” War began. In the first few engagements Behanzin was victorious. France, realizing they had a difficult enemy to cope with, selected their best colonial fighter, Colonel A. A. Dodds, a Senegalese/French, and sent him against Behanzin. Behanzin defeated Dodds although later during the same war the latter claimed the ultimate victory thanks to heavier artillery.

This picture of Behanzin and his two wives is fascinating!


Fela Kuti

7. Fela – The Multi Instrumentalist

Outlaw musician, spiritualist, polygamist and activist Fela Kuti’s legacy is one that breathes throughout Africa.

Philip Sweeney discusses in his obituary to Fela that the artists pronouncements in the 80s became ‘colourful’. He writes about one of his theories on mystical studies:

“A much-aired recent theory, characteristically unsupported by anything as mundane as evidence, concerned the presence in Windsor Castle of a Yoruba ritual pot purloined by the explorer Mungo Park, the vibrations from which were fomenting global misfortunes.”

In this radio interview from 1986, Fela doesn’t seem fully able to exhibit the great intelligence, clarity and wit that most of us admire him for. The last years of Fela’s life might remain a slight mystery to his fans, but the music and message he delivered at the height of his activism eludes the understanding of no-one who listens.

(update: in 1986 when the interview was conducted, Fela had just been released from prison and seemed in many ways a changed man. Having seen/heard more of that Fela and researched/written more about him, I believe those changes made him an even more enigmatic and honest leader than he was before even if he comes across as less sassy.)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/La-DJ-Petite-Petite-Deejay-playing-Afro-South-African-House/119241804793288 Tendai

    Nice read… Thanks for the insight!!
    Why is Nelson Mandela not listed here? Winnie has been noted as top 7 for women…
    Thanks x

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed and thanks for dropping a line

      There are so many more I would add if I wasn’t limiting the list to seven….

  • http://www.mwanabaafrika.blogspot.com/ MBA

    Interesting to see the 7 male and female icons you picked when compared to the 50 the BBC picked here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/focusonafricamagazine/news/story/2010/09/100930_iconsforum.shtml

    I like your picks better because they not only think about people from the 20th Century onwards but those who came before. They remind us of our history even before colonialism. Sometimes it feels like people think that Africa only existed from the time it was colonised!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the link, was good. You are right about the post-colonial thing though, and you know I wasn’t even thinking about picking anyone from pre-colonial times intentionally, it just would have been strange to ignore that they existed. smh

  • Amaka

    Nice selection chica!

  • Renee

    I love that list – things I learnt at school, in the Ivory Coast. Now, they don’t teach children here about these great men (and women), do they? In fact, as I was speaking last time to someone about this tension in my beautiful country, they replied “well, you Africans are always fighting”. It makes me angry, on one hand, and on the other hand, makes me always keep my country and my continent on the whole at the forefront of my mind. After all, who will contribute to the development of Africa if not us?

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