I came of age in troubled 1980s Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, right after a generation attempting to bring about social change inspired by Marxism was thinned out. Few in my generation had any appetite for political activism. Even if some of us managed to shed misgivings about the risks of Africa's politics, we had hardly any genuine leaders to look up to. Fewer could identify with the plethora of official leaders paraded on national TV, our only window to the world outside.
The Pan-African leaders of prior decades, pioneers in the struggle for independence from European colonialism — figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Leopold Sedar Senghor — were long forgotten, their performances in office falling woefully short of their lofty ideals. The only leaders that social activists of my generation could remotely identify with were in remote hideouts commanding shadowy rebel troops pitted against the armies of the self-proclaimed Big Men of Africa, whose oversize photos clogged billboards and TV screens.
Other leaders — such as Tadesse Birru, the Ethiopian colonel who inducted Nelson Mandela into armed struggle and a man who would later become a founding member of a movement to emancipate his own people, the Oromo of Ethiopia — were either dead or rotting in some derelict prison without ever being charged or granted their day in court. Few looked up to these leaders anyway. For some, their communist ideologies belonged to a bygone era with its cherished ideals long discredited and abandoned. For many others, these figures had failed to make an impression, largely because of the strictly enforced news blackout.
By the end of the 1980s, a handful of former young revolutionaries long imprisoned for their dissident views won their freedom, only to lose it again in the oblivion of protest politics from which they failed to wean themselves. In the early 1990s, a few wily-eyed rebel leaders emerged victorious from their mountain hideouts sporting bushy beards and trendy coats — men such as Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. As quickly as they came, these former freedom fighters went out of favor, proving themselves replicas of the Big Men they helped topple from power.
The image of one man towered above all others: Mandela. Whereas the fame of other leaders rose and fell with the African seasons, Mandela’s endured and transcended generations. Like a good long-term investment, Mandela's standing appreciated while that of his contemporary African leaders declined or crashed.