The course of life of many people of African origin has been shaped by the decisions and actions of great men and women from the continent, from either recent history to ancient times and even those from the biblical days. However, while some left legacies that are worthy of emulation, the reign of others were characterized with mayhem and absolute destruction. Let’s take you through the lives of 20 notable historical and biblical figures that left their imprints on Africa.
Noteworthy Historical and Biblical Figures in African History
1. Aaron – First High-Priest of Children of Israel
- Reign: 14th -13th Century BC (from Egypt to Meribah)
- Origin: Hebrew but born in Africa (Egypt)
According to the book of Exodus in the Bible, Aaron’s first function was as the assistant of Moses. This was so because Moses had complained to God that he was not fluent in speech. Hence, God appointed his elder brother Aaron to be his assistant. Together, they went to Pharoah to persuade him to let the children of Isreal leave Eygpt.
Aaron would subsequently fully assume the office of the first High Priest of Isreal as instructed by God and he was ordained by Moses. However, Aaron was among the multitude who never made it to the promised land as he died in the region of Meribah. Prior to his death, he was also stripped of his Priest Hood office by Moses who handed it over to Eliezer – Aaron’s son.
Although there is no explicit mention of Aaron having any ties to an African linage, his birth in Eygpt links him to African history. More so, he is not the only person who is African by birth as his mother Jochebed was also born and raised in Eygpt.
2. Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi – Imam and General of the Adal Sultanate
- Reign: Around 1527 to 1543
- Origin: Somali
Although the early history of the prominent Imam and General of the Adal Sultanate, Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, is not known, many believe that he is Somalian as he was born in the Somali Kingdom, Adal Sultanate.
Irrespective of the controversies about his origin, the fact that Imam Ahmed played a very pivotal role in the spread of Islam (by converting several Somali Christian faithful) and bringing an end to the oppression of Abyssinian emperors cannot be easily forgotten in African history. The Iman was able to achieve such great feats with the help of his great army that consisted of Afars and Ottoman Turks, Harla (Hararis), and Somalis.
However, many historians believed that he was able to exert a lot of influence on his troops because of their common faith as Muslims. Unfortunately, the revered Imam was killed at the invasion of Abyssinia in 1543. His troops were overpowered and he was spotted and beheaded by a junior Abyssinia commander, Azmach Calite, while fleeing the battlefield.
3. Alexander the Great – Conqueror; Founded Alexandria in Egypt
- Reign: 323 – 326 BC (King of Macedon), 336 BC (Hegemon of Hellenic League Strategos Autokrator of Greece), 332 – 323 BC (Pharoah of Egypt), 330-323 BC (King of Persia), 331-323 (Lord of Asia)
- Origin: Ancient Greek
Alexander III of Macedon became popularly known as Alexander the Great because, during his reign, he showed apt diplomatic and military skills in all the regions he ruled. More so, he was notable for spreading the Greek culture in Asia and Northeast Africa – Egypt. By the time he turned 30, Alexander was able to build one of the strongest empires of ancient times which stretched from Greece towards Northwest India. This earned him high repute as one of the most successful and powerful military commanders of the ancient ages.
Alexander is on the list of famous historical and biblical figures from Africa because of his legacy in Egypt and the popular city of Alexandria. According to historians, he made his entrance into Egypt in 332 BC after he had defeated the Persian ruler, Darius, who controlled Syria and Levant at the time. The commander had quite a warm reception from the Egyptians who saw him and his Greek army as Liberators. They would go on to pronounce Alexander as ‘the new master of the universe’. He was also perceived to have an ancestral link with the Egyptian god Amun which was why his coronation was done at the Oracle of Amun in Siwa Oasis.
However, Alexander did not remain in Egypt very long as he moved on in pursuit to conquer the entire Persian Empire until his death in 323 BC. Prior to his departure, he ensured that a Greek government was installed to continue his control over Egypt. He also named the city of Alexandria as the Greek capital and this was followed by several Greek veterans establishing settlements in various parts of Eygpt.
4. Cleopatra VII – Queen of Egypt
- Reign: 51-30 BC
- Origin: Greek
Cleopatra’s lineage can be traced to Ptolemies, a notable Macedonian Greek dynasty of the ancient ages. Her father Ptolemy XII Auletes had very close ancestral ties to Alexander the Great of Macedon who was regarded as the general Ptolemy I Soter and founder of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, as well as Seleucus I Nicator, notable as the Macedonian Greek who founded the Seleucid Empire of West Asia.
After her father’s demise, Cleopatra was made co-ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt in 58 BC and historians believe that she was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. More so, her reign in Egypt was quite a chaotic one as the ambitious Queen went to all lengths to ensure that she manned her territory in the best possible manner. This resulted in her having several heirs with top Roman officials, including Julius Caeser and Mark Anthony.
Sadly, it is believed she committed suicide shortly after her spouse Mark Anthony stabbed and killed himself after losing a battle. She was 39 years old as of then and after her demise, Egypt came under full control of the Roman Empire under the leadership of Octavian, now known as Augustus.
5. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Former President of Liberia and First Elected Black Female Head of State in the World
- Reign: 16 January 2006 – 22 January 2018
- Origin: Liberia
Liberia made history back in 2006 when the country elected a female president on January 16th, 2006. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected Black female Head of State in the world. This remarkable feat is worth being recognized and that is why she is mentioned on this list. More so, the former Liberian president is known to have gone through a lot of opposition before she finally emerged as the honorable leader of her country in 2006.
Notable among her political crisis is the fact that she had faced imprisonment, exile, and even execution in the hands of the military government of Samuel Doe but managed to escape. Nonetheless, Ellen Sirleaf did not give up her pursuit, and in the 2005 presidential election, she won and was sworn into office in January 2006. She also campaigned for a second term in 2011 which she won and remained the Liberian president until 2018 when she handed over to her successor George Weah.
6. F. W. de Klerk – State President of South Africa and Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Helping End Apartheid in South Africa
- Reign: 15 August 1989 – 10 May 1994
- Origin: South African
Frederik Willem de Klerk is a notable historical figure from Africa because he played a very strategic role in seeing that the apartheid system in South Africa came to an end. He served as the 7th State President of South Africa for 5 years (1989-1994) before stepping down to become the country’s Deputy President and served in that capacity from 1994 to 1996.
More so, it is worthy to note that under the leadership of de Klerk, South Africa was able to enforce its first elections that included both black South Africans and white South Africans in 1994. He is also known to have joined forces with Nelson Mandela to promote national unity until he retired from politics in 1997.
7. Haile Selassie I – Last Emperor of Ethiopia
- Reign: 1930 – 1974
- Origin: Ethiopia
Ras Tafari Makonnen, popularly known as Haile Selassie I, served as Ethiopia’s emperor for more than 4 decades. During his reign, he made several attempts to turn Ethiopia into a modern state and one of his milestones was making the country a member of the League of Nations as well as part of the United Nations. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, was later made the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (now known as the African Union) and Selassie served as the first Chairman of the union in 1963.
However, the emperor’s long reign in Ethiopia came to an end in 1974 when a Marxist- Leninist junta, the Derg, overthrew him in a 1974 military coup. Selassie was later killed in August 1975.
Apart from his political prominence, Haile Selassie is also a celebrated religious figure who is regarded among the Rastafari movement as “the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate”. However, there is no biblical support of this widespread belief and Haile did not acknowledge this as he is believed to have been a Christain who attended the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
8. Kofi Annan – Diplomat from Ghana and Secretary-General of the United Nations
- Reign: 1997 – 2006
- Origin: Ghana
Kofi Atta Annan is regarded as one of the rare gems of the Africa continent as he contributed his quota in the capacity of Secretary-General of the UN by reforming the organization’s bureaucracy to ensure that it focuses on combatting the HIV/AIDS virus which was ravaging many African countries. More so, he was the first black person to be elected as the UN Secretary-General, and his remarkable contributions to the world at large earned him a Noble Peace Prize together with the United Nations in 2001.
Prior to becoming the 7th UN Secretary-General, Annan had also held several positions in the UN as his early days can be traced to when he joined the World Health Organisation in 1962. In his country, he served as the chancellor for the University of Ghana for 10 years.
9. Léopold Sédar Senghor – Poet and First President of Senegal
- Reign: 6th September 1960 – 31st December 1980
- Origin: Senegal
Mr. Senghor is notable as the first president of Senegal who took the reins of power when the country gained its independence in 1960. Prior to that, he had served in many capacities in France and was even a former Minister in France. He eventually ruled Senegal for 5 terms before handing over power in the 5th term.
However, asides from his political prowess, Léopold was also a poet and a writer whose literary philosophies have maintained their relevance through the decades. He is regarded as the first black person to become a member of the Académie Française and through his literary works, he gave new depths to the concept of ‘Negritude’. Senghor’s intellectual contributions also earned him the International Nonino Prize in 1985 and to date, he is deemed as one of the most powerful intellectuals in Africa.
10. Miriam – Sister of Moses
- Reign: 14th -13th Century BC
- Origin: Hebrew but born in Africa (Egypt)
Moses’s elder sister, Miriam, made her initial appearance in the bible when it was mentioned that Moses was being watched upon by his sister as he was floating in the Nile after his mother had placed him in a small basket to keep him safe and dry. It was Miriam who saw Pharoah’s daughter pick little Moses up and when she inquired for a nurse to attend to the child, Miriam came out of hiding to suggest that she could bring someone but that person was actually their mother.
During the course of the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt, Miriam was once again at the forefront of the whole liberation process. She is also the first woman to be referred to as a Prophetess.
11. Moses – Prophet Who Received the Ten Commandments
- Reign: 14th -13th Century BC
- Origin: Hebrew but born in Africa (Egypt)
Moses is regarded as one of the most important prophets and leaders of his time as he delivered the Israelites from being slaves in Egypt. More so, throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, Moses exhibited unique qualities as he was the main person God spoke to concerning how to lead the Israelites. He was also the one who received the sacred 10 commandments and the authorship of the first 5 books of the Holy Bible is attributed to him.
Apart from Christianity, several other religions, including Islam, Judaism, the Baháʼí Faith, and other Abrahamic religions, hold Moses in high esteem. His great teachings did not only shape the lives of the Israelites then but it continues to resound throughout history as tenets of quite a handful of religions.
12. Muhammad Ahmad (“The Mahdi”) – Sudanese Rebel Leader and Messianic Islamic Reformer
- Reign: 1881 -1885 (Ruler of Sudan)
- Origin: Sudan
Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn al-Sayyid ʿAbd Allāh is a historic figure in Africa as he played a pivotal role in the creation of a powerful Islamic colony which stretches from the Red Sea down to Central Africa. More so, he is notable for the creation of the Islamic movement aimed at the purification of Islam and the authorities which had contaminated it. This would eventually lead to the siege of Khartoum on January 26th, 1885.
The followers of the Mahdi continued to grow over the years and this led to the widespread of their teachings, doctrines, and political theories. However, Mohammed Ahmad met his sudden demise in June 1885 and his assistant, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, became the leader of the Mahdist state.
13. Nefertiti – Queen of Egypt
- Reign: 1353 – 1336 BC or 1351 -1334 BC
- Origin: Eygpt
Nefertiti is popular in African History as one of the powerful Queens of Egypt and the wife of King Akhenaton. During their reign, the pair were able to end the Egyptian polytheistic religion of worshipping several gods as they introduced monotheistic worship in which only Aton the Sun god was worshipped.
Some historians also believe that Nefertiti had at some point ascended as the co-ruler of Egypt and not just functioning as King Akhenaton’s wife. However, that still remains a highly debatable topic.
14. Nelson Mandela – Political Leader in South Africa
- Reign: 1994 -1999 (President of South Africa)
- Origin: South Africa
Nelson Mandela will forever be remembered as one of the greatest African leaders to have ever lived. Madiba, as he was fondly called, had a burning desire to liberate South Africa from apartheid rule and for this, he was sent to Robben Island Prison from 1964 to 1982.
After a lifetime of fighting for his nation, Mandela would eventually emerge as South Africa’s first President during the post-apartheid regime. For his priceless contributions to ending apartheid, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace alongside former South African president F.W. de Klerk in 1993.
15. Ramesses II – Ancient Egypt’s Greatest, Most Celebrated, and Most Powerful Pharaoh
- Reign: 1279 – 1213 BC (19th Dynasty Pharoah of Egypt)
- Origin: Egypt
Ramesses II is popularly referred to as Ramesses the Great, and he was the 3rd pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt. He is also referred to as one of the most successful and powerful pharaohs of Ancient Egypt because of his many victories on the battlefield.
A notable battle he engaged in during his reign is the renowned Battle of Kadesh. During this period, Ramses II was able to regain control of Asia which had been captured by the Hittites. For close to 2 decades, Egypt would continue to terrorize the territory until a peace treaty was signed by the 2 empires. This was also the first time in history for such a negotiation to be recorded.
16. Shaka – Legendary Leader of the Zulu Kingdom
- Reign: 1816 – 1828
- Origin: South Africa
The name Shaka Zulu will always resound in history as the fierce monarch of the Zulu Kingdom who won numerous battles. His reign brought about a drastic change in the Zulu military and the rigorous training he passed them through ended up making them undefeatable.
The popular Zulu King is known to have gathered his war tactics during his early years at his mother’s kingdom where he was initiated into the traditional fighting unit called ibutho lempi, led by chief Dingiswayo. However, Shaka was killed by his stepbrothers, Dingane and Mhlangana. Although there are varying views as to why he was assassinated, one common reason many gave was that he became very ruthless and went on a killing spree after his mother’s demise.
17. Tutankhamun (King Tut) – Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty
- Reign: 1334 – 1325 BC
- Origin: Ancient Egypt
Tutankhamun was a pharaoh in Ancient Egypt who reigned during the 14th century BCE. He is believed to have ascended the throne when he was about 8 years or 9 years of age. He went on to rule for about a decade before passing away.
Although Tutankhamun was not quite popular during his lifetime, he would eventually garner a lot of fame after his death because his tomb had been kept in good condition to date. The tomb attracted a lot of attention and made news headlines in the 1920s as several ancient artifacts were discovered in it.
More so, Tutankhaman’s nickname, King Tut, was used in songs by Tin Pan Alley and it became the names of several businesses, and products. The former U.S President, Herbert Hoover, is known to have named his pet dog after the Egyptian Pharaoh.
18. Martin Luther King, Jr. – African-American Religious Leader and Political Activist
- Reign: 10th January 1957 – 4th April 1968 (President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)
- Origin: African American
Martin Luther King Jr. is a remarkable figure in black history as he played an important role in removing the many limitations that had been placed on African Americans. His activist campaigns initially brought an end to the legal segregation imposed upon the Southern parts of America but would later spread all over the United States. His nonviolent tactics endeared him to the masses and a notable campaign he championed was the 1963 March on Washington. In recognition of his efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize (1964).
Unfortunately, 4 years later in 1968, the renowned activist was assassinated. However, to date, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains one of the greatest icons in black history, and his legendary I Have A Dream speech still maintains its relevance.
19. Wole Soyinka – Play Wright and First African Nobel Laureate
- Reign: N/A
- Origin: Nigeria
Wole Soyinka has not only excelled as a playwright but his works as a poet and novelist have also shaped the perception many have of Africa. He is one of the few intellectuals on the continent who is very vocal and does not fail to put pen to paper to express his opinions about oppression in Africa.
For his vast contributions to the world of arts, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, making him the first African to receive the award. Soyinka’s works have also garnered a lot of prominence in recent years and as of 2017, he received the Europe Theatre Prize for his contributions to bridging the gap between people of different cultures.
20. Mary Slessor – Missionary Who Ended The Killing of Twins in Nigeria
- Reign: N/A
- Origin: Scotland (Later moved to Nigeria where she lived and died)
Mary Mitchell Slessor is a renowned Scottish missionary who came to Nigeria back in the 1870s and was stationed in the South-South region of the country (Calabar). The young 28-year-old lady fell in love with the people of the region and would even go ahead to learn the Efik language. Over time, she established a strong bond with the locals and was able to exert a lot of influence on them.
One of Slessor’s achievements during her stay in the Calabar region that has made her a notable historical figure was her role in abolishing the killing of twins. More so, she was able to promote women’s rights as well as Western education. The noble missionary died sometime in 1915 at the age of 66. Her funeral was a grand one as a lot of dignitaries, including the then British Commissioner of the Cross River Region, was in attendance. Lord Lugard is also known to have sent his condolences in writing.