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Askia the Great, ruler of the Songhai Empire 1493 to 1528.

How Did the Songhai Empire Dominate West Africa?

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The Songhai Empire dominated West Africa between the 15th and 16th centuries. This empire was a successor state of the powerful, centuries-long Mali Empire . The weakening of Mali rule allowed the Songhai to rebel and form their own empire and it became the largest state in West Africa. But internal problems and external invasions eventually brought the Songhai Empire down too.

The Songhai Empire was centered around the city of Gao, where they had already established themselves since around the 9th century. The city, however, only became the capital of the Songhai in 1010. This rise in status, along with its strategic location on the Niger River, soon turned the city into an important trade center . It is also in 1010 that the Songhai embraced Islam, thanks to Dia Kossoi, the first recorded king of the Songhai.

Trade routes of the Western Sahara 1000-1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading. (Public Domain)

Trade routes of the Western Sahara 1000-1500. Goldfields are indicated by light brown shading. ( Public Domain )

The Expansion of the Songhai Empire

In the centuries that followed, the Songhai expanded their power. The prosperity of Gao, however, did not go unnoticed and a series of military campaigns were launched by Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire against the Songhai. The Malians emerged victorious and became the masters of the Songhai in 1325. However in 1375 the Mali Empire had weakened and the Songhai seized the opportunity to gain their independence.

As the Mali Empire continued to decline, the Songhai were able to retain their independence and even managed to expand their power. Nevertheless, it remained a small kingdom, and it was only around a century after their independence that the Songhai Empire came into being. The ruler responsible for the establishment of the Songhai Empire was Sunni Ali, who inherited the throne around 1464.

The Songhai Empire’s Military Prowess

Sunni Ali, known also as Ali Ber, was a leader whose military prowess made a strong contribution to the Songhai Empire. By defeating enemies who made incursions into the empire, the Tuaregs in the north and the Mossi in the south, Sunni Ali was able to secure the borders of the Songhai Empire. In addition, Sunni Ali conquered other important trade cities, including Timbuktu and Djenné, which brought even greater wealth to his empire.

Timbuktu was an important trade city for the Songhai Empire. ( Public Domain )

The End of the Sunni Dynasty

Sunni Ali died in 1492 and was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baru. A year later, the Sunni dynasty came to an end when Sunni Baru was overthrown by a rebel by the name of Abu Bakr Ture, known also as Askia the Great. At that time, Songhai society was divided between the pastoralists, who were pagans, and the urbanites, who were Muslim. While Sunni Ali succeeded in appeasing both groups, his successor was less successful. Sunni Baru sided with the pagan pastoralists, leading to accusations that he was a bad Muslim, and the rebellion by Askia the Great.

The rebellion was successful in overthrowing Sunni Baru and the Askia dynasty was established. Like Sunni Ali, Askia the Great sought to expand the Songhai Empire through military means. Additionally, he also carried out reforms to the administration of the empire. For instance, a complex bureaucracy for the government of the empire was set up, and a political system based on the strict interpretation of Islamic law was introduced, a move which was aimed at appeasing his Muslim supporters.

Sunni Ali, Askia the Great expanded the Songhai Empire through military means and implemented reforms. Source: Ronu Creative / YouTube Screenshot.

Sunni Ali, Askia the Great expanded the Songhai Empire through military means and implemented reforms. Source: Ronu Creative / YouTube Screenshot .

The Songhai Empire Weakens

Askia the Great’s reign ended in 1528 when he was deposed by his son and successor, Askia Musa. The Songhai Empire continued to prosper under the Askia dynasty, though dynastic squabbles were weakening the empire. Apart from these internal problems, the Songhai Empire had to deal with external threats as well, as the wealth of the empire was coveted by its neighbors.

In 1582, Askia Dawud died after a long reign of 33 years and succession became an issue once again. The disunity of the royal family weakened the Songhai Empire and Ahmad I al-Mansur, the sultan of Morocco, saw it as an opportunity to invade.

1591 marks the end of the end of the Songhai Empire. In that year, the Moroccans invaded the Songhai Empire, routed the Songhai army at the Battle of Tondibi, and sacked Goa, Timbuktu, and Djenné, effectively crippling the power of the Songhai Empire.

West Africa after the Moroccan invasion of the Songhai Empire. (Omar-Toons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

West Africa after the Moroccan invasion of the Songhai Empire. (Omar-Toons / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Moroccans, however, realized that they would not be able to hold on to their prize, due to the long distance between these cities and their capital, and therefore decided to abandon the region. The final blow to the Songhai Empire was delivered by the smaller kingdoms and tributary states that they once controlled. These states rose against the Songhai Empire, resulting in its fragmentation and demise.

Top image: Askia the Great, ruler of the Songhai Empire 1493 to 1528. (Ronu Creative / YouTube Screenshot )

By Wu Mingren

References

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. The Empires of the Western Sudan: Songhai Empire. [Online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sghi/hd_sghi.htm
New World Encyclopedia. 2015. Songhai Empire. [Online] Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Songhai_Empire
South African History Online. 2017. Songhai, African Empire, 15-16th Century. [Online] Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/songhai-african-empire-15-16th-century
Tesfu, J. 2008. Songhai Empire (ca. 1375-1591). [Online] Available at: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/songhai-empire-ca-1375-1591/
The BBC. 2019. Songhay. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/4chapter4.shtml
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. Songhai empire. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Songhai-empire

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