In African history, emblematic leaders have never been in short supply. During the pre and post-independence era, several leaders emerged to champion the cause of their people. Some lived old enough to see the fruits of their sacrifice while others were not so fortunate.
In the same vein, while some died of natural causes, others were gruesomely butchered or assassinated, cutting them in their primes and denying them a befitting burial or final honour from their people.
For instance, while Nelson Mandela paid the price of being incarcerated for 27 years for fighting apartheid and societal injustice in South Africa, he was later elected as President in post-apartheid South Africa. When he died some years after office, he was accorded, deservedly so, a heroic funeral by the South African government, people and the international community.
But Patrice Lumumba, who fought vigorously for Congo’s independence, was brutally killed just some months after he became the country’s first leader and his remains dissolved with acid.
In the same vein, the following iconic leaders were not as lucky as Nelson Mandela as they died very sad and lonely deaths. Their deaths and burial is still a matter of emotional debates whenever their names are mentioned. Some were not even lucky to be buried in their fatherland while the causes of the deaths of some of these leaders remain unresolved till today.
Their contributions cannot, however, be forgotten and perhaps would remain alive in the hearts of their followers as the conscience of African struggles and political emancipation.
Kwame Nkrumah was the first president of Ghana. He was widely known for his relentless fight for Africa’s unity and independence earning him the title of “Father of Pan-Africanism”. Perhaps, more than any other leader in Africa, he promoted African Unity and Freedom. His contribution to Ghana’s independence was second to none. After Ghana achieved independence in 1957, liberation movement was hastened all over Africa. He convened the First Conference of Independent African States in 1958 and was a leading figure in the Casablanca Group of African leaders as well as one of the leaders who founded the Organisation of African Unity. In spite of his contribution to his native Ghana, however, he was bitterly overthrown in a coup in 1966 and fled the country to the Guinean capital of Conakry as President Sekou Toure’s guest. Following an incurable illness, he died in far away Bucharest, Romania on April 27, 1972. He died a lonely man, far away from the people he loved and the controversy surrounding his funeral was highly unfortunate.
Amilcar Cabral was one of the greatest intellectual, revolutionary theoretician and political leaders Africa produced in the 20th century. He was the principal architect of the struggle to liberate Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism. From virtually nothing, he built the most vibrant guerrilla movement in Africa and fought the colonialists to a standstill. His close relations with the Soviet Union and China and his ideological beliefs in the doctrines of Marx and Lenin made him, perhaps, the most brilliant political demagogue of that era. At the University of Lisbon where he met people like Agostinho Neto and Eduardo Mondlane, his extraordinary academic ability shone brilliantly. He worked for some years as an agronomist and later became a founding member of Angola’s Movimento Popular Libertacao de Angola (MPLA) and later the African Party of Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC). He advocated for the freedom of his people and fought tenaciously to deliver them from the yoke of colonial vestiges. But he didn’t live long enough to see the independent Guinea he fought so hard for. In 1973, he was assassinated allegedly by Portuguese secret police working in conjunction with disgruntled members of PAIGC outside his home in Conakry, where his party had its headquarters.
The story of Patrice Lumumba is one that evokes sad tales whenever it’s being told. Patrice Lumumba’s determination to achieve independence for his people and to control their God-given resources brought him anger, hostility, detention, death and humiliation from some of his opponents, Belgium – the colonial master and its allies. Lumumba championed the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity. He fought to rid Congo of rural economic exploitation and political subjugation. He became the first legally elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo on 17 January 1961 but some months after, his government was ransacked. He was chased and later arrested before he reached his support base in Kisangani. He was tortured for days and in one of the most organised killings of an African hero, he was brutally assassinated and his body dissolved with acid all in a bid to remove his memory from history.
Felix Moumie was a Cameroonian independence leader, popularly referred to as the Lumumba of Cameroun for his spectacular role in the fight for Cameroun independence from the French. He became the leader of the Union des Populations du Cameroun, a left-wing political party that started in 1947. He was particularly celebrated for his nationalistic outlook and his contributions to rid the country of colonial vestiges. In 1960, he was poisoned in Geneva, far away from his beloved country and his body was buried controversially in Guinea, embalmed and placed in a sarcophagus.
Ben Barka, like Amical Cabral, was a charismatic Moroccan opposition leader, born in January 1920 in Rabat. He was privileged to attend the French school in Morocco and was the first Moroccan to receive a degree in Mathematics in an official French School in 1950. He later got involved in politics and became an MP for the working class suburbs of the Moroccan capital, Rabat. He was part of the people that worked for the independence of Morocco and was a strong member of the National Istiqlal Party. From 1956 to 1959, he was the president of the consultative assembly of Morocco and later founded National Union of Popular Forces (UNPF). He fled Morocco after several attempts on his life. Even in his absence, he was sentenced to death. Ben Barka travelled the world to Cuba, Rome, Geneva, Algeria, etc. to propagate his revolutionary ideas and put pressure on the French colonial rule as well as the indigenous allies aiding and abetting the colonial rule. He was part of the organisers of the first Tricontinental Conference scheduled to take place in Cuba when he suddenly disappeared in the middle of Paris, never to be seen again.
Eduardo Mondlane, the leader of FRELIMO and the indisputable hero of Mozambican independence was a History and Sociology professor at Syracuse University, United States. He was one of the most educated African leaders having studied at Oberlin, Northwestern and Harvard Universities all in the United States. He worked at the United Nations as well and later got engaged in the movement for national liberation in Mozambique. His nationalistic views led to the formation of FRELIMO, an organisation made up of Mozambican nationalists. With the support of the Soviet Union and many African countries, FRELIMO launched a guerrilla war in 1964 against the colonial Portuguese government. In 1975, FRELIMO gained control of the government and the country gained independence but before then, Mondlane in 1969 was killed by a bomb, disguised as a book, sent to him by unknown assassins.
The story of Thomas Sankara will remain evergreen in the history of Burkina Faso as one of the greatest leaders who lived for the downtrodden and whose character was impeccable. Born in 1949, Sankara became an epochal military officer and propagator of Pan-Africanism. He developed this nationalistic outlook from Madagascar and France where he attended a parachute academy and became exposed to left-wing political ideologies. He was a decent military officer which endeared him to all in Burkina Faso. He was useful in several official positions in government but his hard stance against corruption got him in trouble with the powers that be. He became the President of Upper Volta now Burkina Faso through a military coup led by his friend and ally Blaise Compaore. As President, he initiated people-oriented programs and became so popular into a globally known public figure. Internal conflict in the country led to his assassination in 1987 in a coup led also by his friend and ally Blaise Compaore.