Songhai Empire (1375-1591)

Songhai was a West African empire that emerged from the empire of Mali. There was a political entity that existed as early as the 7th century that was located near the northward area of the Niger River. The Songahi people began to revolt against the Malian Empire in 1335. They began to amass a large fighting force. When they conquered areas that were the source of wealth they eventually gained control. The Saharan trade was the life force of numerous West African empires and it became powerful through the trade of gold and salt. The trade was focused around the cities of Gao, Djenne, and Timbuktu. Cities are critical to the development of civilization. Like most civilizations around the world Songhai developed an enriched culture and advanced political system. Songhai had skilled emperors and warriors that kept the vast land unified. Unlike its predecessors it was dismantled by foreign invasion.

          The empire saw expansion under the leadership under Sunni Ali .The warrior king was skillful enough to bring the Songhai Empire to a point of prominence. His political and military career begin in 1464. He fought under Mansa Musa, but would later depose him. Sunni then went about expanding Songhai through methods of intermarriage between the people of Mali and Songhai. Also, he increased his political power by having more control of education within the empire. The University of Sankore  came under more direct control of the monarchy. Scholars from Arabia and various parts of Africa came to study there. It was a major cultural center and pivotal to the function of the empire. Sunni Ali was able to get the Fulbes, Humburi, the Mossi, the Teska, the Ghana, and the Bara to accept his rule and merge with  the empire. The Dias, the Housas, and Senhadatas were to follow after a series of military victories. Sunni Ali’s military successes were so notable his person became the source of legend. He captured  Jenne, Timbuktu, and captured the most well defended city of Chiddo in the region. Sunni Ali did face challenges from Muslim scholars and merchants. They were a threat to his rule and he even had Muslim scholars expelled from Timbuktu. Tuaregs also resisted, but were defeated in the North.

Sonni Ali
Sunni Ali ( ?-1492)

 Sunni Ali seems to be a mysterious figure. The exact date of his birth is unknown. Very little information has been discovered of his wife or family life. He did have a son who came to the throne after Ali’s death. Sunni Ali’s son did not have the finesse or charisma to maintain power and was deposed by Askia Muhammad.

           Askia Muhammad came to power in 1492. He was once part of the slave officer corps. Enslaved were  sometimes used as soldiers in armies of West African empires.

Askia Muhammud
Askia Muhammad ( 1494-1538)

He was a general by profession. Askia as emperor was following in the same tradition of warrior kings. However, his main concern was consolidating the empire and managing its vast wealth. Askia did continue conquests and his notable victory in Taghaza  for which he acquired the saltworks. The Hausa states in the eastern region was unable to be conquered. The government became more centralized and developed a bureaucracy to handle finance, taxation, and education. Most administrators were also relatives of the royal family, who also had the responsibility of leading various provinces through out the empire. Askia was more tolerant of the Muslim scholars and made Islam the official religion of the empire. The reason for this could be for the sake of unity. Islam was a unifying force in the Middle East and it was something that could be replicated in Africa. A vast empire of different peoples required a common belief system. This also helped in terms of foreign policy. Timbuktu, Walata, and Jenne-jeno became centers for Islamic learning and science. North African and Middle Eastern scholars developed long lasting contact with the Songhai Empire.  Askia Muhammad appears to have become a true believer in Islam, so much so that he conducted a large pilgrimage to Mecca.


   He set out in 1497 and in the same manner as Mansa Musa distributed gold as alms for the poor. This was not just for charity, but to ensure Songhai’s lasting economic security. Having positive relations with other Muslim leaders would benefit the empire in the long term. One political benefit was that the Egyptian caliph declared him the caliph of the lands of Takrur. This distinction brought Askia Muhammad more prestige.  Timbuktu under went renovation to accommodate merchant fleets that transported goods through the Niger River. The commodities that were sold included salt, gold, woods, and hides. His rule did see a golden age, but at some point the political atmosphere changed. It is not entirely certain if Askia was deposed or abdicated, but one of his son’s took control of the throne.

       There are some disadvantages of having vast territories. Administration and control of them was a delicate process. Various people intended to beak away. Songhai managed to keep itself together through a combination of military force and diplomacy. Skilled and contemplative emperors were able to govern thorough those methods and their personal talents. When powerful leaders die, their empires also die with them. Askia’s death resulted in gradual decline in the Songhai Empire.  The Saharan trade came under threat from rival groups who thought Songhai dominated too much of it. The Moroccans became a serious danger. Around 1585 they became strong enough to attack  salt mining areas such as Teghaza  and Taodeni. The Battle of Tondeni  resulted in Songhai’s worst defeat by any power. The final blow came in 1591 when the Moroccans unleashed a full scale invasion. King Ahmed al-Mansur  unleashed his troops, which brought an end to Songhai. He did not just want to add territory; Mansur wanted to stop Europeans from getting access to gold he though he should have. A force of 4000 mercenaries were sent and some died during the march across the Sahara. There were also disputes over taxation in regards to salt mines between  the Kingdom Morocco and  the Songhai Empire. Songhai’s legacy can be seen in various structures that still remain in Mali, Niger,Senegal, and Guinea.


Edgar, Robert. Civilizations Past and Present. New York : Pearson Education Inc, 2008.

Addams, Russell. Great Negroes Past and Present. Chicago : Afro-Am Publishing Company,


 Appiah, Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates. “Songhai.” Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas, 1999. 1753.


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