Refugees Who Became Presidents

Mar 20, 2017

These men were once refugees but went on to become Presidents of Namibia, Ghana and South Africa. Their contributions to the independence of their countries and to politics in Africa remain to this day.


One of 10 children brought up by farmers, Sam Nujoma fought for the independence of his country from South Africa and was elected the first president of the new nation, Namibia, in 1990. Born in a village in what was then known as South-West Africa, Nujoma eventually left for the capital, Windhoek, where he started working for South African Railways.

His political career began with the mobilisation of workers in towns in the area. In 1959, he was elected leader of the Owamboland People’s Organisation, which subsequently became the South West Africa People’s Organisation.

During this time, he petitioned the United Nations to free Namibia from South African rule. At that time, South-West Africa was controlled by the white minority apartheid government of South Africa, which refused to give up its mandate over South-West Africa and instead extended its repressive policies over the territory.

As Nujoma’s political activities gained him international recognition, he was forced to go into exile on March 1, 1960. In 1962, having fled to Tanzania, he took control of the new South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). In 1966, his UN-recognised liberation force began attacking South-West Africa. After more than 20 years of fighting and diplomatic negotiations, Nujoma was able to return from exile and to a hero’s welcome. He led his country to independence in 1990 and was subsequently elected president.

Nujoma has been praised for establishing good race relations and respect for the rule of law in Namibia. “While in exile, whether in Africa or beyond, I always dreamed about Namibian independence, which finally came true,” he says. “But independence is not an end in itself. We have had to develop our country, restore democratic rule, create jobs and redistribute the nation’s wealth, held by a tiny minority, all the while taking care to further national reconciliation.” Nujoma was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1994. He and his party SWAPO went on to win a landslide victory in the 1999 elections, with Nujoma taking 77 percent of the presidential vote.


Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah guided Ghana to independence. He was the first president of Ghana and, as the father of Pan-Africanism, has influenced the politics of a whole continent. In Ghana itself, no political figurehead would win an election without incorporating “Nkrumahism” into his manifesto.

Nkrumah was born into the family of a goldsmith in the town of Nkroful in south-western Ghana. There is some doubt as to the exact date of his birth; it was never officially recorded, as was the practice in those days.

He attended a local Roman Catholic mission school, where he excelled. In his teens, he worked as an untrained elementary school teacher, qualifying with a teacher’s certificate in 1930 after studying at Achimota College in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. After graduating, he taught at several Catholic elementary schools.

In 1935, he sailed to the United States, where he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology. He later obtained a theology degree from the Lincoln Theological Seminary in 1942 and received a master’s degree in education and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1943. In his autobiography, he remembers that in his application to the Dean for admission to Lincoln University, he quoted from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”:

“So many worlds, so much to do, So little done, such things to be” “Those years in America and England were years of sorrow and loneliness, poverty and hard work,” he went on, “but I have never regretted them because the background that they provided has helped me to formulate my philosophy of life and politics.” Nkrumah was attracted by the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He formed an African students’ organisation and became a popular speaker, demanding the liberation of Africa from the yoke of colonialism. He advocated Pan-Africanism, a movement that campaigned for an independent and united Africa.

In 1945, Nkrumah went to London to study law and economics, and in the same year, helped to organise the fifth Pan-African congress in Manchester. During the rally, he met prominent black activists including W.E.B. Du Bois, future Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and others.

He abandoned his studies in 1946 to become Secretary General of the West African National Secretariat, which was formed to co-ordinate efforts to bring about West African independence. In the same year, he became Vice President of the West African Students’ Union, a pro-independence youth organisation of militant African students in Britain.

The following year, Nkrumah returned to Ghana to serve as Secretary General of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a nationalist party. In 1948, he led a boycott of foreign products in anti-colonial protests that led to riots in Accra. He was arrested alongside other UGCC leaders and imprisoned by the British colonial authorities. He then left the UGCC and founded the Convention People’s Party (CPP).

After pro-independence strikes, Nkrumah was again arrested and imprisoned on charges of subversion. In 1951, the British authorities organised legislative council elections. The CPP won most seats and Nkrumah, still in prison, won the seat for Accra. He was released and appointed leader of the government. He later became Prime Minister and guided Ghana to independence in 1957. In 1960, he won the first presidential elections.

After most Sub-Saharan countries won their independence, Nkrumah rallied African leaders and preached for a united Africa. This never materialised, but his vision soldiered on to become the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union.

While visiting China in 1966, Nkrumah’s government was overthrown in a military coup. He spent his exile years in Guinea’s Conakry, where President Sékou Touré appointed him honorary co-President of Guinea.

Beside his political achievements, Nkrumah established himself as a prolific writer. He published “Autobiography” (1957), “Towards Colonial Freedom” (1962), “Neo-colonialism: The Last Stages of Imperialism” (1965), and “Dark Days in Ghana” (1968).

In “The Conakry Years: Letters and Documents”, Nkrumah wrote: “The black man is not mad. He is a human being like any other human being. It is the world historical situation and the environment which have made him what he is. When Africa is free and united with one government for the whole continent the black man, wherever he may be, either in Africa, West Indies or USA, will discover his personality, his dignity and his honour.”

Nkrumah died in a Romanian hospital in 1972.


Veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Thabo Mbeki spent years abroad working for the African National Congress (ANC) before presiding over South Africa’s transition to majority rule and following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela to become President of South Africa.

Both of Mbeki’s parents were teachers and activists. His father, Govan Mbeki, was a prominent member of the ANC leadership and was imprisoned on Robben Island along with Mandela in 1964.

Mbeki joined the ANC Youth League in 1956 while still a student. When the school he attended at Lovedale closed down as a result of a school strike, Mbeki, determined to complete his schooling, continued his studies at home. He followed a correspondence course in economics with London University. (Some years later, while in exile, he received a Masters Degree in Economics from Sussex University.) He moved to Johannesburg, where he came into contact with leading ANC figures such as Walter Sisulu and Duma Nokwe. After the banning of ANC, Mbeki continued to work underground in Pretoria and Witwatersrand.

Mbeki left the country in 1962 on the orders of ANC. A child of the liberation struggle, he remained active in student politics. He played an important role in building youths and student sections of ANC in exile. In 1970, he was sent to the Soviet Union for military training and was appointed that same year as Assistant Secretary of the ANC Revolutionary Council. He co-ordinated the movement’s propaganda in London (1967-70) and helped build up the underground movement in Lusaka (1971), Botswana (1973-74) and Swaziland (1975).

Mbeki became Political Secretary in the Office of the then President of ANC, Oliver Tambo, in Lusaka in 1978. From 1984-89, he was Director of the Department of Information and Publicity. In 1989, Mbeki became head of ANC’s International Affairs Department, where he began developing the strategy that would result in the first cross-border contacts with South Africans who were anxious to end apartheid.

Returning to South Africa in 1990, he was elected as the first Deputy President of the New Government of National Unity in preparation for South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994. In 1997, he was elected as the new President of ANC and was inaugurated as President of South Africa in June 1999.

Mbeki is known to have coined the African Renaissance culture, which embraces both modernisation and African heritage. For him, to be an African is to be, among others, Khoi, San, European, Malayan, Indian, Chinese: “We refuse to accept that our Africaness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins. It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black or white.” – Global Black History

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