The best books on African presidents and their history

The Books I Picked & Why

Wizard of the Crow

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Wizard of the Crow

Why this book?

The Wizard of the Crow tells the story of an African president who wants to be all-mighty, his body grows and grows and grows to the point that the president is on the verge of blowing up. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is not only one of the greatest Kenyan/African writers of the 20th century, he is also one of the few to have shown that extensive presidential powers can become a threat to the president himself. This idea very much influenced my book and I try to show that a powerful president must rely on alliances with his best and worst enemies. 


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In Idi Amin's Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda

By Alicia C. Decker

In Idi Amin's Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda

Why this book?

Idi Amin Dada is one of the “best known” African dictators. So many books, documentaries, and films have depicted him as a bloody, megalomaniac leader on the verge of craziness. He was even portrayed by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. Alicia Decker shows a different story, starting by asking what if we take Idi Amin’s seriously? What if we explore the way he turned his (brutal) “hyper-masculinity” into a political resource? To me, this book was eye-opening, there are so many ways to write about African presidents, their politics, their ideas, and their resources. And of course, there are many ways to “gender” their histories and look for the women who stand in the president’s shadow.


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Black, French, and African

By Janet G. Vaillant

Black, French, and African

Why this book?

This book stands as a reference when it comes to the early life of Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and it is one of the first biographies of an African president that I read. Beyond the extreme richness of this book, I have always been struck by how little the author wrote about Senghor’s political career as president (which remains quite controversial). For a long time, biographies of African presidents were grounded in an idea of greatness and exceptionality rather than unraveling political intricacies. 


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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Ohio Short Histories of Africa)

By Pamela Scully

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Ohio Short Histories of Africa)

Why this book?

When one hears “African president”, one tends to imagine a man in power. What about women in power? This is one of the rare biographies dedicated to an African female president, and one that is easily accessible to a broad readership. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of independent Liberia, is a fascinating figure. She is a shrewd politician who understands the gendered dynamics of African politics, but also of the international economic scene (she worked for the World Bank and the United Nations before becoming president). Still too little is known about African women in or around the Office of the President. 


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Waiting for Wild Beasts to Vote

By Ahmadou Kourouma

Waiting for Wild Beasts to Vote

Why this book?

There is one thing historians cannot always document: the rumors and supernatural beliefs that surround presidential politics. Though Ahmadou Kourouma’s book is inspired by real presidential figures, it transcends them to illustrate how the president’s political (and masculine) authority sometimes turns into a sacred aura. Just like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow, Kourouma depicts a violent presidential system built on fragile fundaments.


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