100 Most Influential Africans (2012): Politics

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100 Most Influential Africans (2012): Politics

Putting together a list of 100 people from a continent of 54 countries will always get a newsroom into heated debate, especially in Africa where you have more inspirational figures than the continent is generally credited for. New African have carefully selected the movers and shakers on the continent, people with an increasing global influence, those whose actions and words can move markets and sway decisions. Influence can be positive or negative. But we feel there are many more positive trends on the continent than negative, and as such the majority of those on the list we call “Proudly African”.

Ali Bongo Ondimba, Gabon

It’s no longer business as usual in Gabon. Ali Bongo Ondimba assumed the country’s premier political office after winning the 2009 presidential elections following the death of his father Omar Bongo. ABO, as he is known, has embarked on a number of key reforms aimed at improving the country’s economic standing by driving an industrial renaissance. He is also a leading champion of environmental issues on the continent. He was invited to the White House, where a gushing press secretary praised Gabon’s “increasingly important role… as a regional and global leader”.

“We are working to promote economic growth whilst optimising environmental integrity. We have decided that we can no longer rely on our oil and forest resources if we are to offer the Gabonese people a prosperous, sustainable future.”


Paul Kagame, Rwanda

This head of state is as much revered as he is maligned and as such is never far away from the headlines. Undoubtedly under President Kagame’s stewardship, Rwanda remains on an upward trajectory, with GDP growth of 7.5% in 2011. What the country has achieved in the last 18 years should not be underestimated. It is a non-oil producing African states that has posted exceptional growth rates, and like his country, Kagame has rightly drawn acclaim from both international and domestic admirers alike. Whilst critics have often complained of his authoritarian manner, no one can question the way he has managed to heal a nation with deep and painful wounds. Development first, democracy later?

“Africa today has the opportunity to play its rightful role in the global arena.”


Babatunde Fashola, Nigeria

Unlike many of his political peers, Lagos State’s executive governor enjoys considerable support from his constituents, and for good reason: thanks to the no-nonsense former lawyer, Nigeria’s commercial capital is experiencing a resurgence of sorts and is embarking on a number of groundbreaking projects including the city’s new financial and commercial centre, Eko Atlantic, which is located on almost four square miles of land reclaimed from the Atlantic. Though Fashola belongs to an opposition party, his ability to govern, despite a sometimes hostile federal government, has enhanced his reputation and nationwide popularity. Many see him as a potential future federal president.

“There is a zero-tolerance for lawlessness. There is zero-tolerance for breach of our regulations and we are going to do more of this.”


Macky Sall, Senegal

Senegal welcomed its new president in 12 years after Macky Sall won a hotly contested election in April this year. The former prime minister gained the support of opposition parties during the second-round poll to win over 65% of the vote. His first day on the job involved the appointment of the highly respected technocrat, Abdoul Mbaye, as the country’s new prime minister and in a move sure to appeal to the continent’s growing democratic sensibilities, he promised to reverse his predecessor’s seven-year term and return to a five-year term for office holders. He represents a new breed of leader and his success is vital in promoting a modern Africa throughout the world.

“Living costs are very, very high in Senegal while wages are low, and there are no jobs. We have to make sure public money is better spent.”


Helen Zille, South Africa

Not only is the former journalist-turned-political-heavyweight premier of the Western Cape, she is also leader of the Democratic Alliance, which remains the only real credible opposition to South Africa’s ruling party, ANC. The 61-year-old, mother of two, rose to prominence following her exposé into the death of the Black Consciousness Movement’s leader Steve Biko. More recently she attempted to confront President Zuma at his newly refurbished $15m private residence in Nkandla, only to be turned away by the president’s loyal supporters. Her combative approach, whilst sometimes self-harming, is also causing the odd sleepless night in Zumaville.

“Nkandla, a village on the hill, will become a monument to how corrupt a government became in a short time.”


Fatou Bensouda, Gambia

The new chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has the unenviable task of transforming the much-maligned “global” institution into the custodian of international justice it was once hoped to be; however, having spent eight years in the Hague as the court’s deputy prosecutor, it will be interesting to see if Bensouda is able – and willing – to make a significant departure from the often curious and sometimes dubious decisions of her controversial predecessor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

“As Africans we know that impunity is not an academic or abstract notion. This African commitment to ending impunity is a reality, and we have to find a way to focus our attention on it.”


Akin Adesina, Nigeria

Akinwumi Adesina is the minister of agriculture and rural development of Nigeria and a renowned agricultural economist with over 20 years of experience in agricultural development policies and rural development. He has already started to leave his mark, tackling a number of vested interests and putting agriculture at the centre of Nigerian policy. He is determined to reduce the country’s dependency on food imports and if he manages to transform a dysfunctional sector that lies at the heart of the economy, he will provide a template for other countries.

“My task is to make sure that Nigeria can feed itself with pride and to make sure that Nigeria does not become a dumping ground for food; we should be a net exporter of food.”


Francis Deng, South  Sudan

Although having just completed his five-year term as UN Special Adviser to the secretary-general on the Prevention of Genocide, Deng has and will continue to play an important role in the fight for stability and peace on the continent. This seasoned diplomat has served as South Sudan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sweden, Canada and Norway as well as finding time to author and edit over 40 scholarly texts. The 72-year-old is a real Juba heavyweight. Expect to see more from him on the international circuit as his country comes to terms with its newly gained independence.

“When you have countries where there are deep cleavages, in most cases the state is a party to the conflicts, so that instead of protecting their people, they neglect and persecute them, and these people have to look somewhere else and that means to the outside world.”


Kofi Annan, Ghana

With one of the most instantly recognisable faces in Africa – in addition to being one of the best-connected men on the continent – Kofi Annan justifies the moniker, Mr. Africa. Sitting on a number of influential boards, as well as launching the ambitious Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa project, Annan’s ambitions have not dimmed since leaving the United Nations six years ago. Forever the diplomat, the 74-year-old remains a sought-after figure, becoming the “world’s fireman” called to intervene in various global conflicts and issues. At home in Ghana, Annan has maintained a neutral stance in local politics to the admiration of all.

“Sometimes you don’t have to pick a fight to get your way.”


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria

Despite operating in a political minefield, Ngozi has driven through reforms and is sanitising the country’s finances, nevertheless it has been a turbulent first year for Nigeria’s powerful coordinating minister. The controversial fuel subsidy debacle – her brainchild – brought the country to a grinding halt and forced the government into a humbling retreat, and she has been unable to curb the country’s long-standing intimacy with corruption. Her public defeat in this year’s World Bank presidency bid may, however, be a blessing in disguise for her country, as she now has the opportunity to use her undoubted administrative abilities to find a solution to widespread poverty in the country. She remains a key spokesperson for Nigeria in particular and Africa at large.

“When I became finance minister, they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or ‘Trouble Woman’.”


Mohamed Morsi, Egypt

If Tunisia is the laboratory for the transition to democracy and moderate Islam throughout the region, then Egypt remains the game changer for the Arab world. Former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Morsi must work hard to placate the various factions in Egypt’s post-Mubarak era – not least the Army generals still smarting at their recent devaluation. The US-educated academic’s tenure as Egyptian president will shape the region’s prospects for stability. Egypt’s influence has been highlighted following events within the Gaza Strip, and expect further fireworks next year over the ever-contentious Nile issue.

“Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”


Jacob Zuma, South Africa

As president of Africa’s largest economy, no list of Africa’s most influential people would be complete – or accurate – without the South African leader Jacob Zuma. Despite suffering a catalogue of crises, and a growing army of detractors, the 70-year-old remains one of Africa’s most powerful men. Very rarely intimidated by his battles, he has clocked up enough miles to know how to look after himself in a fight; however, with what is being billed as the most important ANC party conference in history coming up this month, the real question is whether or not he can hold of the wolves currently circling – and if he can, how bad will his injuries be?

“You go to old democracies in the world, there are strikes continuously… they [the strikes] are a feature of democracy, they are not instability.”


Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa 

Having fought an intense battle with its incumbent, Jean Ping, the South African’s recent ascent to chairperson of the African Union has brought much division to the continent; however, the former wife of the South African president, and long-time political activist turned serial cabinet minister, won’t be cowed by friend or foe. Having spent years in the often-treacherous political battlefields of Southern Africa, the journeywoman politician is comfortable with the hostile nature of African politics and will relish her new status as the first female to head the AU.

“No liberated mind can think their development agenda can be funded by donors. Over 97% of programmes in the AU are funded by donors. We should be more self-reliant.”


Ahmed Issack Hassan, Kenya

Much is riding on the shoulders of Ahmed Issack Hassan as Kenya prepares for elections next year. He is chairman of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and as such has the responsibility for the management of the polls scheduled for 4 March 2013. Hassan is seen as a safe pair of hands having served on the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission from 2000 to 2005, and as a legal consultant in the constitution making process in Somalia.

“The [new] Kenya constitution has laid a good framework, a good foundation… the way we conduct and manage the elections will also be very critical in how we make sure we have peaceful and credible elections.”


Julius Malema, South Africa

South Africa’s influential firebrand orator is one-part enfant terrible, one-part caped crusader and one-part rabble-rouser. His star waning, Malema was thrust back into the limelight in the immediate aftermath of the Marikana tragedy with his stinging attack on the South African “establishment” resonating powerfully with a growing, disenfranchised sector of society. His opponents, quick to fight back, accused the former ANC youth leader of a string of damning allegations. However, there is no doubt that Malema is an important member of modern day South Africa: his is the voice of South Africa’s underbelly.

“The democratically elected government has turned on its people. The government did nothing for you, we are helping you. Government ministers are just here to pose for pictures.”


Joyce Banda, Malawi

Due to her outspoken views against corruption and bad governance in Africa as well as her defence of the protection of women’s rights, Joyce Banda’s ascent to the highest office in the land, in April, has been one of the most interesting, closely watched and scrutinised. She already carries the tag “gutsy leader” for taking some bold decisions that her predecessor and other African heads of state would never dare take. She famously cancelled an AU summit in Malawi, rather than allow Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to attend. When she made a decision to auction 60 expensive official cars and a presidential jet to curb excessive government expenditure, many lauded her as a leader who inspires hope.

“It is my view that there is an urgent need in our country to change the way we do things.”


Leymah Gbowee, Liberia

A Nobel Laureate, peace and women’s rights activist and author, Gbowee holds no political office. Yet her voice, story and work reverberates across the globe for her unflinching courage, strength, determination and leadership skills in mobilising Liberian women, whose daily peaceful protest during the country’s civil war forever changed the historical course of the nation. Gbowee’s work has consistently focused on the rights of women and girls, their participation in politics and bringing an end to the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls during conflict times. Controversially, she has recently left President Johnson-Sirleaf’s government, publicly criticising her fellow laureate.

“I believe in the power of African women. We should not wait for the (UN) resolutions to do anything for us…we have to make them work for us.”


Thuli Madonsela, South Africa

One word has increasingly been used to describe her: fearless. The respected South African blog Daily Maverick recently wrote about her: “It should really be no surprise that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has made many enemies during her term in office. She has gone knocking on the doors of many high-ranking people in government and is not scared off easily… she is no shrinking violet, and she knows exactly how to defend her title as South Africa’s anti-corruption super-heroine.” With some recent mudslinging around her starting to stick, how long this anti-corruption crusader will last, is yet to be seen. But what resonates is how she has fearlessly ruffled feathers and even succeeded in getting a senior figure quacking in their boots.

“The country needs both new values and ‘going back to basics’ to beat graft.”


Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda

While Uganda’s first-ever female speaker of Parliament is relatively new to her position as Uganda’s third top-ranking politician, she is, however, not new to politics in Uganda. Having cut her teeth for almost seven years as a Member of Parliament from the country’s Kamuli District – and then going on to serve as minister of state for various ministries including Regional Cooperation, Communication and Aviation – the 56-year-old brings to her role years of administrative experience. This lawyer-turned-politician exemplifies a new breed of female politicians on the continent and with recent polls putting her ahead of more established figures in Ugandan politics, many predict possible presidential ambitions for 2016.

“No one can compromise Rebecca Kadaga. And I repeat: no one can intimidate Rebecca Kadaga.”


Lindiwe Mazibuko, South Africa

The outspoken parliamentary leader for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and one of South Africa’s youngest MPs, Mazibuko, who was born in Swaziland, is one of the rising stars in South African politics. She first got involved with the DA when she choose party leader Helen Zille as the subject for her dissertation, and soon discovered that she had a lot in common with the once all white-dominated party’s ideologies and political vision for South Africa. Mazibuko is today one of the fiercest critics of President Jacob Zuma’s ANC-led government, and political pundits believe she is the DA’s main weapon in the battle to win young black voters.

“We have to spell out the hard truth about leadership. We have to decide what kind of country South Africa will be over the next decade”.


Obiageli Ezekwesili, Nigeria

One of Nigeria’s leading lights on economic governance, Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili strives for perfection. Not satisfied with five years of public service as vice-president for Africa at the World Bank, Ezekwesili joined forces with billionaire super-investor, George Soros, earlier this year. Their new venture, Africa Economic Policy Development Initiative, will see them consulting with both the private and public sectors on how best to grow economies in the region for the advancement of “the poor African majority”. Africa, listen up – her advice is usually worth its weight in gold.

“I am one of those Nigerians who are praying for Nigeria’s oil to dry up so that our government can quickly take immediate actions towards diversifying the nation’s source of revenue.”

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