Success Stories from Africa: 13 Nobel Peace Laureates

By Heidi G. Frontani

This week I am reviewing Adekeye Adebajo’s book from 2014, Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent, published by Zed Books. Africa’s Peacemakers describes the lives and accomplishments of 10 Nobel Peace Laureates from Africa (Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Frederik Willem de Klerk from South Africa, Anwar Sadat and Mohamed El Baradei of Egypt, Kenyan Wangari Maathai, Ghanaian Kofi Annan, and Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee) as well as three African-American Nobel Peace Prize winners. It is divided into six parts. It begins with an introduction, followed by two sections on the African-Americans Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King Jr, and Barak Obama and concludes with four sections devoted to the African winners of the award. The book has 14 contributors including several renowned Africanists, and is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, who lived from 1918 through December 2013.

The book is the first to offer a comprehensive look at people of African descent that won the Nobel Peace Prize between 1950 and 2011. It highlights interactions among the prize winners, such as Bunche and King marching together for civil rights, Luthuli and Mandela working jointly to end apartheid, and Obama meeting and honoring Tutu. The individual chapters are largely laudatory of the Nobel Laureates, but the introduction includes some concerns with individual recipients including Sirleaf for her “ambiguous role in Liberia’s first civil war” (1989-1997), the fact that she was given her award “four days before a presidential election” that she won, and de Klerk having viewed apartheid as morally wrong only in a “qualified way” (pages 9, 30, and 22).

The authors also raise the issue of the politics behind the Nobel Prize, noting that Gandhi was nominated for the prize five times and shortlisted three times, but never won, due to British opposition to Gandhi and Britain’s close ties with Norway, the country that awards the prize. Of note is that although Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize, eight of the thirteen Nobel Laureates featured in African Peacemakers were inspired by him in their efforts for socio-economic justice, civil rights, and women’s rights.

In 1950, Ralph Bunche was the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He received it for his skillful mediation in arranging a ceasefire between the Israelis and Arabs following the creation of the state of Israel. Egyptian Anwar Sadat also won his Nobel Peace Prize (1978) for his success in making peace with Israel.

Albert Luthuli was the first of the African peace laureates. He was president of the African National Congress (1951-1967) and received the prize in 1961 for his role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It took another 43 years for the first African female, Dr. Wangari Maathai, to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Some may wonder, given the book’s title, why F.W. de Klerk, a white South African, has a chapter devoted to him. One contributor to the volume, Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui, offers two groups that qualify as people of African descent: “Africans of blood” who identify as African by ancestry and “Africans of the soil,” people who by birth or adoption identify as African (page 46).

African Peacemakers is quite comprehensive and well researched, but lacks a concluding chapter that brings together theoretical or conceptual concerns. As such the book falls short of its objective of drawing lessons from the 13 Nobel Peace Laureates lives “for peacemaking, civil rights, socio-economic justice, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament and women’s rights” (page 4). Nonetheless, this book should be read by all those interested in Nobel Peace Prize winners of African descent, for its own sake, or to better appreciate the anti-violence struggles against oppression, human rights violations and injustice the eminent people featured in African Peacemakers participated in or led.

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