Africa’s Most Influential Historical Rulers

Africa’s Most Influential Historical Rulers

These African rulers were of great influence not just politically and militarily, but also in popular culture. Calling them the top 10 “greatest” rulers does not necessarily imply these were good people, but rather people who had a tremendous, in some cases terrible, influence on history.

Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. 1787 to c. 22 September 1828)

Shaka Zulu is one of the most recognisable rulers from South Africa. His efforts to unify the Zulu Kingdom marked him as one of the greatest Zulu kings. He is widely recognised as participating in a military revolution of sorts with regards to weapons and tactics used by Zulu warriors, particularly their effective use of special spears and shields during combat.

King Scorpion II (c. 3100 BCE)

The so-called Scorpion King ruled Upper Egypt prior to unification. Although a man, his name may be derived from that of the scorpion goddess, Serket. He was the likely father of Narmer, the first pharaoh of a unified Egypt and founder of Egypt’s First Dynasty.

Haile Selassie I (23 July 1892 to 27 August 1975)

Haile Selassie reigned as Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and Emperor of Ethiopia from 2 November 1930 to 12 September 1974, with a brief, but significant break in that long reign due to an Italian invasion that placed Italy’s king as Ethiopia’s emperor from 9 May 1936 to 5 May 1941. Although Hailie Selassie was ultimately deposed, he remains significant.

Nefertiti (c. 1370 BCE to c. 1330 BCE)

Nefertiti and her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten were among the most notable pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. She may have ruled in her own right after her husband’s death and before the rise of Tutankhamun (probably Egypt’s most famous pharaoh but whose historic significance stems from rejecting Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s monotheism in favour of a restoration of polytheism).

Askia the Great (c. 1443 – 1538)

Askia is one of only a handful of African rulers known as “the Great”. He reigned over Songhai as its emperor during the height of power and supported scholars working in Timbuktu (Mali). Songhai flourished as the political, military and culture super-state in Western Africa during his reign, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Niger River.

Rameses II the Great (c. 1303 BCE to July or August 1213 BCE)

As with Askia, Rameses is one of the few African-born rulers known as “the Great”. He reigned as Egypt’s pharaoh from 1279 BCE to 1213 BCE. During his time on the throne, he fought the epic Battle of Kadesh (c. 1274) against the Hittite Empire. Although both sides claimed victory, the battle is well-known from Rameses’s account of his campaign.

Thutmose III

This pharaoh reigned prior to Rameses from 1479 BCE to 1425 BCE. Known as “the Napoleon of Egypt”, Thutmose’s greatest claim to fame is significant to military history and eschatology (part of theology dealing with death and final destiny).

Hatshepsut (1508 BCE to 1458 BCE)

Her name means “Foremost of Noble Ladies” and she ranks alongside Nefertiti and Cleopatra as one of Egypt’s three most important queens. She reigned longer than any indigenous female ruler of Egypt and laid the foundations for the successful Egyptian state that her co-ruler and successor, Thutmose III, inherited.

Mansa Musa I (c. 1280 to c. 1337)

A century before Songhai claimed Timbuktu as its key city, Mali was the dominant empire. The most important leader of Mali was Mansa Musa, who ruled as King of Kings or Emperor of the Malian Empire, Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, and Conqueror of Ghanat. He was known for his great wealth, as especially seen during his pilgrimage to Mecca and his influence on Timbuktu. 

Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator the Great (Late 69 BCE to 12 August 30 BCE)

Cleopatra was the most notable African ruler to be named “the Great” and a major aspect of modern popular culture. Her life has been depicted in many plays and films produced in Europe and America despite her being an Egyptian pharaoh. Unlike the other women on this list, she descended from the Greco-Macedonian armies of Alexander the Great that captured Egypt from the Persian Empire nearly three centuries before her life. Her personality and ambition are legendary.