BACKGROUND: Little is known about the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) amongst bacterial pathogens in sub-Saharan Africa (sSA), despite calls for continent-wide surveillance to inform empirical treatment guidelines. METHODS: We searched PubMed and additional databases for susceptibility data of key pathogens for surveillance, published between 1990 and 2013. Extracted data were standardized to a prevalence of resistance in populations of isolates and reported by clinical syndrome, microorganism, relevant antimicrobial drugs and region. RESULTS: We identified 2005 publications, of which 190 were analysed. Studies predominantly originated from east sSA (61%), were hospital based (60%), were from an urban setting (73%) and reported on isolates from patients with a febrile illness (42%). Quality procedures for susceptibility testing were described in textless50% of studies. Median prevalence (MP) of resistance to chloramphenicol in Enterobacteriaceae, isolated from patients with a febrile illness, ranged between 31.0% and 94.2%, whilst MP of resistance to third-generation cephalosporins ranged between 0.0% and 46.5%. MP of resistance to nalidixic acid in Salmonella enterica Typhi ranged between 15.4% and 43.2%. The limited number of studies providing prevalence data on AMR in Gram-positive pathogens or in pathogens isolated from patients with a respiratory tract infection, meningitis, urinary tract infection or hospital-acquired infection suggested high prevalence of resistance to chloramphenicol, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole and tetracycline and low prevalence to third-generation cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones. CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicate high prevalence of AMR in clinical bacterial isolates to antimicrobial drugs commonly used in sSA. Enhanced approaches for AMR surveillance are needed to support empirical therapy in sSA.