Global Insight: Africa’s Big 50

Anver Versi

Heads of State

Ali Bongo Ondima, President, Gabon

Born: 9 February 1959

Ali Bongo Ondima abandoned a musical career to win an election in 2009 and succeed his father, who died after ruling Gabon for 41 years as president. Ondima has strived to diversify Gabon’s oil and timber based economy and raise its pan-African and international profile.

Goodluck Jonathan, President, Nigeria

Born: 20 November 1957

Goodluck Jonathan audaciously secured the presidency after his predecessor died. With his iconic fedora hat and gown, Jonathan established a rare rapport with the public and, if he delivers the power and refined fuel Nigeria urgently needs, is poised for lasting political greatness.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, President, Republic of South Africa

Born: 12 April 1942

Despite his early raging bull reputation, which left him dogged by controversy, Zuma remains popular – helped by his championing of African cultural norms, including polygamy. He is shrewd, very capable and is overseeing one of the emerging world’s most ambitious infrastructure and energy makeovers.

Salva Kiir, President, Republic of South Sudan

Born: 13 September 1951

Sharp-suited and cowboy-hatted, Salva Kiir – like his ex-guerrilla leader father John Garang – is the glue holding the world’s newest nation together, after its war with the north. Relations remain dire and a misguided decision to cut off the oil to ‘punish’ the north cost South Sudan billions of dollars.

Hailemariam Desalegu, Prime Minister, Ethiopia

Born: 19 July 1965

Desalegu, a southern, academically inclined Protestant, looks an unlikely successor to the charismatic Meles Zenawi. But he has pledged to continue the economic push that – under Zenawi’s authoritarian model – drove one of Africa’s most spectacular growths.

John Dramani Mahama, President, Ghana

Born: 29 November 1958

John Mahama’s twin priorities as president – following John Atta Mills’ death – are to transform Ghana into an oil-producing nation while avoiding the ‘resource curse’ that, by stifling other growth, wrecked so many economies, and ensuring that the economic benefits reach the grassroots.

Mohamed Morsi, President, Egypt

Born: 20 August 1951

Mohamed Morsi, the people’s choice after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, is alienating many Egyptians. Opponents accuse him of seeking sweeping powers. He has turned up the rhetorical heat against Israel and upset the US by casting doubt on events surrounding 9/11. Watch this space.

Joyce Banda, President, Malawi

Born: 12 April 1950

Joyce Banda, Africa’s second female head of state, inherited a dire economic legacy from President Bingu Wa Mutharika. Her austerity measures, including devaluation and selling the presidential jet, upset voters, but success hinges on winning back external donors driven off by Mutharika policies.

Paul Kagame, President, Rwanda

Born: 23 October 1957

Controversy stalks the tall, lean and ascetic soldier who took charge of a broken Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. Kagame’s sweeping reforms, including promotion of English as second language after Kiswahili, have turned East Africa’s most backward state into perhaps its most competitive.

Macky Sall, President, Senegal

Born: 11 December 1961

Macky Sall was premier under Abdoulaye Wade, one of Africa’s longest-serving heads of state, until falling out and founding his own party. He defeated his old boss in 2012 elections, abruptly ending the dynastic succession. His challenge is to find his place out of Wade’s vast shadow.

Alassane Dramane Ouattara, President, Cote d’Ivoire

Born: 1 January 1942

Alassane Dramane Ouattara was kept out of contention for the presidency, first by an ugly and destructive civil war, and then by his ‘Burkinabe’ ethnicity. But once this bar was removed in 2010 he won power and aims to restore Cote d’Ivoire as one of West Africa’s most prosperous economies.

Uhuru Kenyatta, President, Kenya

Born: 26 October 1961

Son of Kenya’s iconic first president, Uhuru Kenyatta displays some of his father’s public charisma and is a powerful and lucid speaker. He is from the new breed of internationally educated African leaders with a keen strategic grasp, but history will judge whether he can fulfil high expectations.


Helen Zille, Mayor of Cape Town and leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa

Born: 9 March 1951

Ex-journalist Zille, a fluent Xhosa speaker and one-time stalwart of the Black Sash white women’s movement, has broadened the Democratic Alliance image from a platform for mostly white interests to a more racially-integrated party. She remains a thorn in the side of the ruling ANC.


Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chair, African Union Commission

Born: 27 January 1949

Former wife of Jacob Zuma, Nkosazana was a seasoned politician – at Health, Foreign and Home Ministries – before controversially breaking the unwritten rule that the AUC role should go to smaller states. Her task is to inject new vitality into the AUC and engage with the African public.

Donald Kaberuka, President AfDB

Born: 5 October 1951

Articulate and energetic, Donald Kaberuka made the AfDB one of the world’s most significant development banks. He has become one of Africa’s most influential spokesmen, placing holistic development of the continent at the heart of AfDB activities and setting up more research facilities.


Kofi Annan

Born: 8 April 1938

Probably the most iconic UN Secretary-General of modern times, Ghanaian Kofi Annan, is never far away when there is a crisis to be resolved. His charm, tact, wisdom, experience and steely determination make him a rare human being who has never been afraid of speaking truth to power.

Mo Ibrahim

Born: 3 May 1946

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and brilliant public speaker, Sudanese Mo Ibrahim is an iconic African. His telecom company, Celtel, sold for $3.4bn, allowing him to focus on his foundation to encourage better governance, including awards to former heads of state demonstrating outstanding leadership.

Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor, ICC

Born: 31 January 1961

The International Criminal Court’s most high profile cases involve former African heads of state, including sitting leaders Sudan’s Omar Bashir and Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta. Bensouda will need to inspire confidence in its decisions, particularly where Africa is concerned.

Art, Culture, Fashion and Sport

Charlize Theron, actress

Born: 7 August 1975

Charlize Theron, South Africa’s Hollywood star, won an Oscar, a Golden Globe award and other accolades in 2003 for her role as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the film Monster. Back home, the Charlize Theron Outreach Project battles against HIV/Aids and violence against women.

J. M. Coetzee, writer

Born: 9 February 1940

Born and raised in Cape Town, but based in Australia, J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 for a solid body of often disturbing novels charting South Africa’s rapidly changing political and social landscape. He won the Booker Prize for both Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace.

Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, writer

Born: 15 September 1977

Still in her 30s, Ngozi-Adichie is Nigeria’s most exciting literary talent. Her Purple Hibiscus won the Commonwealth Prize for First Novel. Her second novel, Half a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafra civil war, aroused strong emotions and won the 2007 Orange Prize for fiction.

Didier Drogba, soccer

Born: 11 March 1978

The extraordinary feats of Didier Drogba, the tall, charismatic Ivorian forward for the UK’s Chelsea football club, won him millions of fans. After joining in 2004 for a £24 million fee, he scored more goals for Chelsea than any other foreign player. He is now with Turkish champions Galatasaray.

David Rudisha, athletics

Born: 17 December 1988

Although the 2012 Olympics was one of the least successful campaigns for Kenya’s habitual champions, David Rudisha fulfilled expectations in the men’s 800 metres finals when he broke the world record and became the first to run the distance in under 1:41. He is also the current 800-metre world champion.

Precious Moloi-Motsepe, fashion

In a remarkable career switch, Precious Moloi-Motsepe, once a South African specialist in paediatrics, is now executive chairperson of Africa Fashion International (AFI) bringing together designers, retailers, the media and consumers in world-class shows promoting African fashionistas.

David Adjaye, architect

Born: September 1966

The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, David Adjaye’s outstanding designs include the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. His design for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is due to open in 2015.

Ozwald Boateng, fashion designer

Born: 22 February 1967

As a teenager, Ozwald Boateng, born in London of Ghanaian parents, designed and sewed suits for his fellow students. By 2002, he had moved into Savile Row. Now he has focused on plugging a $90 billion gap in Africa’s infrastructure development budget.

Ajuma Nasenyana, model

Born: 16 August 1984

Tall, classically featured with green eyes contrasting with black skin, Ajuma Nasenyana was discovered by Gala magazine in Kenya’s remote Turkana district. She became the first black woman to win a $50,000 modelling contract

Youssou N’dour, singer

Born: 1 October 1959

Velvet-voiced Senegalese singer, songwriter, actor and politician, N’dour is deeply embedded in West African’s music scene, using his fame to reach out to Africa’s youth. He has also been appointed Minister of Tourism and Culture.

Angelique Kidjo, singer

Born: 14 July 1960

Slim, highly charged Angelique Kidjo from Benin was one of the first West African singers to make it big in Europe in the 1990s. Time magazine called her ‘Africa’s premier diva.


Herman Chinery-Hesse, theSOFTtribe, Ghana

Larger-then-life Ghanaian entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse has been called the ‘Bill Gates of Africa’ for rolling out hugely successful software company theSOFTtribe. He thinks the $30 billion in remittances sent home by diaspora Africans can be used to fund the continent’s industrial growth.

Michael Joseph, Safaricom, Vodacom, Kenya

Michael Joseph founded the mobile money revolution sweeping the emerging world. In 2012, 31 percent of Kenya’s GDP was moved on mobile platforms. Total African mobile transfers will hit $200 billion in 2015. Joseph has moved to Vodacom to deliver mobile banking to South Africa, Ghana and Egypt.

Mike Adenuga, GLO and Conoil, Nigeria

Born: 29 April 1953

Rated by Forbes as Nigeria’s second richest person, publicity-shy Michael Adenuga’s interests include multinational telecoms giant Globacom (GLO), Nigeria’s largest national oil exploration firm, Equatorial Trust Bank and real estate and construction.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Shanduka Group, South Africa

Born: 17 November 1952

Anti-Apartheid icon Cyril Ramaphosa quit politics for business after failing to land a cabinet post. Now South Africa’s second richest black man, with a string of firms, he’s made a comeback – as likely vice-president if Jacob Zuma wins the next election.

Patrice Motsepe, ARM, South Africa

Born: 28 January 1962

Specialist mining and business lawyer Patrice Motsepe is South Africa’s richest black man. He is executive chairman of African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and the single biggest shareholder in Harmony, South Africa’s largest gold mining company.

Naushad Merali, Sameer Group, Kenya

Born: 1 February 1951

Naushad Merali, legendary founder of Kencell, Kenya’s first mobile service provider, now champions Kenyan economic expansion. He reputedly made $20m profit in hours by buying 60 percent of Kencell shares from co-founder Vivendi, and selling them to Mo Ibrahim’s Celtel.

Aliko Dangote, Dangote Group, Nigeria

Born: 10 April 1957

Aliko Dangote, a youthful, smiling 55-year-old, is believed to be Africa’s richest man, with a $16 billion fortune, founded on one of the continent’s biggest cement operations and a London listing. His secret: “I have never seen problems. I have only seen solutions, and therefore opportunities.”

Koos Bekker, Naspers, South Africa

Born: 14 December 1952

Naspers, Koos Bekker’s communications empire, includes newspapers, magazines, books, private education, the internet and pay-TV, with worldwide investments. Capitalisation has grown from $600 million in 1997 to $25 billion. Revenue for 2012 was reported to be around $4.5 billion.

Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi, Midrock, Ethiopia

Born: 21 July 1946

Ethiopian-born, but raised in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Al Amoudi is probably Africa’s second richest man after Aliko Dangote. With fortunes founded in construction and petroleum, Al-Amoudi has invested hugely in Ethiopia, including $88 million to help finance the Renaissance Dam project.

James Mwangi, Equity Bank, Kenya

Born: 7 April 1986

Inspired by his widowed mother who sold charcoal to see her seven children educated, James Mwangi transformed Equity, the near-bankrupt building society he was sent to wind up. Today, it has the largest customer base in East and Central Africa including half of all Kenyan accounts.

Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin, Commodity exchange, Ethiopia

Eleni Gabre-Madhin pioneered Ethiopia’s first commodity exchange. It cut out middlemen, introduced transparency, provided receipts to use as collateral that vastly improved farmer incomes and stabilised the coffee sector. She now intends to help other countries create their own commodity exchange.

Tidjane Thiam, Prudential, UK

Born: 29 July 1962

Tidjane Thiam made history in 2007 when he became chief executive of the fi nancial services giant Prudential. He had been a star consultant with Mckinsey & Co before returning to Cote d’Ivoire to become minister of planning and development, and later rejected the premiership to go back to international business.

Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, Governor, Katanga Province

Born: 28 December 1964

Moïse Katumbi, son of a Greek Jewish refugee, rose from selling fish to becoming one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. He was elected Katanga’s governor in 2007, transforming revenues, tripling school enrolment and vastly improving the road and rail network.

Tony Elumelu, Tony Elumelu Foundation, Nigeria

Born: 22 March 1963

As co-founder of UBA, one of Africa’s most successful banks, Tony Elumelu remains an iconic figure in Nigeria. Since quitting UBA, Elumelu has used his Foundation to promote ‘Africa capitalism’ where private sector capital and skills help drive Africa’s economic transformation.

Ahmed Heikal, Citadel Capital, Egypt

Born: 1962

Bullish about Sub Saharan prospects before it became a trend, Ahmed Heikal took over national railway lines in Kenya and Uganda, Rift Valley Railways, and is pumping $300 million into renovations.

Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi, Kenya

Born: 1971

Juliana Rotich’s iconic Ushahidi (witness in Kiswahili) – a website combining reportage, photos and videos from ordinary citizens to show Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 8 – took crowd-sourcing to new heights. The platform has since been used similarly in at least 132 countries.

Special Mention

Desmond Tutu, politics, religion

Born: 7 October 1931

If Nelson Mandela is the face and heart of the new South Africa, Desmond Tutu must be the soul. The purple robed archbishop with the mischievous glint in his eye has been described as Africa’s gift to humanity. Although in his 80s, he continues to be a fearless speaker against injustice and incompetence, tempering his well-aimed barbs with heavy doses of humour.


Babatunde Fashola, Governor of Lagos State

Born: 28 June 1963

State governor Babatunde Fashola is out to tame the chaotic urban beast that is Lagos. He aims to re-site the existing densely commercial hub to the ambitious, ultra-modern Eko Atlantic project on reclaimed land off the Atlantic coast, with road and light railway networks to ease city gridlock.

Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala, Minister of finance, Nigeria

Born: 13 June 1954

World Bank boss-turned-Finance Minister Ikonjo-Iweala transformed Nigeria’s economy by securing an US$18 billion debt write-off. But being the brains behind iconic liberalisation policies didn’t stop her being forced out – until President Jonathan invited back into his financial ‘dream team’.

Lamido Sanusi, Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria

Born: 31 July 1961

Sanusi earned international acclaim for saving Nigeria’s banking sector by taking a sword to the thicket of growing corruption and mismanagement. He has become a revered commentator on African economic, political and social environments.

Pravin Gordhan, Finance Minister, South Africa

Born: 12 April 1949

Gordhan’s role has been described as juggling balls while riding a unicycle on a high wire. With South Africa’s growth at half the 5.6 percent continental average, his challenge is to produce cash from a squeezed budget for huge educational funding and infrastructure developments to aid jobs.

About the author:

Anver Versi is Editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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