The Songhai Empire was the largest and last of the three major pre-colonial empires to emerge in West Africa, spanning over 1,400,000 square kilometers, and larger than Ghana and Mali empires combined. From its capital at Gao on the Niger River, Songhai expanded in all directions until it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to what is now Northwest Nigeria and western Niger. Gao, Songhai’s capital, which remains to this day a small Niger River trading center, was home to the famous Goa Mosque and the Tomb of Askia, the most important of the Songhai emperors. The cities of Timbuktu and Djenne were the other major cultural and commercial centers of the empire.
The Songhai people had long settled along the middle region of the Niger River, using the river for transport, fishing, hunting, and agriculture. By the ninth century this middle region of the Niger had been integrated into the state of Songhai with its capital at Kukiya. The Songhai people founded Gao around 800 A.D. and established it as their capital in the 11th century during the reign of Dia Kossoi. As the city and region grew in importance, the Malian empire incorporated it as it expanded across the West African savanna.
Mali’s power however was eventually weakened by palace intrigue that interrupted the orderly succession of emperors. Recognizing the weakness at the center of Mali, Gao rebelled in 1375. Songhai then began its own imperial expansion at the expense of Mali, conquering Mema in 1465 and three years later seizing Timbuktu, the largest city in the region, from the Taureg who had recently taken it from Mali.
Sunni (or Sunni) Ali Ber, the military commander responsible for these victories, is widely considered the first great ruler of the Songhai Empire. He continued to enlarge the empire, taking control of important Trans-Saharan trade routes as well as other cities and provinces of Mali.
Sunni Ali reigned from 1464 to 1492, after the death of Sulayman Dama. Like Songhai kings before him, Ali was a Muslim but not a very devout one. When it was expedient, he used his faith to justify Jihads, to conquer other areas. In the late 1460s, Sunni Ali had a daring plan to conquer Mali which involved using his navy to control the Niger River and using his army to conquer the trading cities of Jenne and Timbuktu. Sunni Ali asked for help from the governor of Timbuktu because he was angry for the high taxes they paid to Mali and the Arab nomads who controlled Timbuktu. The journey from Gao to Timbuktu’s outskirts was 100 miles. The Arab nomads guarding Timbuktu and Timbuktu’s abandoned Timbuktu for they were afraid they would lose to Sunni Ali’s large army and what would happen to them if they were captured. Since there was nobody left to fight Sunni Ali, he took over Timbuktu in 1468. Sunni Ali earned a reputation of being a harsh conqueror for his cruel massacre of Timbuktu citizens trying to leave the city.
Ali met stark resistance after setting his eyes on the wealthy and renowned trading town of Djenne (also known as Jenne). After a persistent seven-year siege, he was able to forcefully incorporate it into his vast empire in 1473, but only after having starved its citizens into surrender.
In oral tradition, Sunni Ali is often known as a powerful politician and great military commander. Whatever the case may have been, his legend consists of him being a fearless conqueror who united a great empire, sparking a legacy that is still intact today. Under his reign Djenne and Timbuktu became great centers of learning. At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade.
The administration of Songhai was more centralized than that of Mali. Traditional rulers were replaced by royal appointees who owed their positions directly to the king. The Songhai empire was divided into five large provinces, each with its own governor, Islamic courts, and professional fighting force to ensure that farmers of the province paid regular tribute to the king. The main sources of government income were thus tribute from the provinces, produce from the royal farms in the Niger flood plain and the Songhai heartland, and taxes on trade. Gold, kola nuts, and slaves were traded for salt, cloth, cowries, and horses. Cloth was woven from local Sudanese cotton and in towns like Djenne, Timbuktu, and Gao, woolen cloth and linen from north Africa were unraveled and re-woven to meet local tastes.
The second most famous ruler of the Songhai empire was known as Askia the Great, even though he had no real right to be the king. Not only was he not in the royal family blood line, he did not hold the sacred symbols which entitled one to become a ruler. Furthermore, he was most likely a descendant of Soninke lineage rather than Songhai, which means that by Songhai standards his family background would have not allowed him to be King. But Askia managed to bypass that law and take the throne.
Askia organized the territories that Sunni Ali had previously conquered and extended his power as far to the south and east. He was not as tactful as Ali in the means of the military, but he did find success in alliances. Because of these alliances he was able to capture and conquer more vastly. Unlike Ali, however, he was a devout Muslim. Askia opened religious schools, constructed mosques, and opened up his court to scholars and poets from throughout the Muslim world. He sent his children to an Islamic School and enforced Islamic practices. Yet he was tolerant of other religions and did not force Islam on his people.
Like Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire, Askia also completed one of the five Pillars of Islam by taking a hajj to Mecca, and, also like the former, went with an overwhelming amount of gold. He donated some to charity and used the rest for lavish gifts to impress the people of Mecca with the wealth of the Songhai. Islam was so important to him that, upon his return, he recruited Muslim scholars from Egypt and Morocco to teach at the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu as well as setting up many other learning centers throughout his empire. Among his great accomplishments was an interest in astronomical knowledge which led to a flourishing of astronomers and observatories in the capital.
While not as renowned as his predecessor for his military tactics, he initiated many campaigns, notably declaring Jihad against the neighboring Mossi. Even after subduing them he did not force them to convert to Islam. His army consisted of war canoes, expert cavalry, protective armor, iron tipped weapons, and an organized militia.
Not only was he a patron of Islam, he also was gifted in administration and encouraging trade. He centralized the administration of the empire and established an efficient bureaucracy which was responsible for, among other things, tax collection and the administration of justice. He also demanded that canals be built in order to enhance agriculture, which would eventually increase trade. More importantly than anything he did for trade was the introduction of weights and measures and the appointment of an inspector for each of Songhai’s important trading centers. During his reign Islam became more widely entrenched, trans-Saharan trade flourished, and the Saharan salt mines of Tanhaza were brought within the boundaries of the empire.
Unfortunately, as Askia the Great grew older, his power declined. In 1528 his sons revolted against him and declared Musa, one of Askia’s many sons, as king. Following Musa’s overthrow in 1531, Songhai’s empire went into decline. Following the death of Emperor Askia Daoud, a civil war of succession weakened the Empire, leading Morocco to dispatch an invasion force (years earlier, armies from Portugal had attacked Morocco, and failed miserably, but the Moroccan coffers were on the verge of economic depletion and bankruptcy, as they needed to pay for the defenses used to hold off the siege) under the eunuch Judar Pasha. Pasha was a Spaniard by birth, but had been captured as an infant and educated at the Saadi court. After a march across the Sahara desert, Judar’s forces captured, plundered, and razed the salt mines at Taghaza and moved on to Gao. When Judar arrived at Gao, despite vastly superior numbers, the Songhai warriors were routed by a cattle stampede triggered by the Saadi’s gunpowder weapons. Judar proceeded to sack Gao Timbuktu and Djenne, destroying the Songhai as a regional power.
Moorish soldiers occupied the Songhai cities, beginning a reign of terror that lasted well into the eighteenth century. The trade routes were no longer safe. Drought and disease also weakened the economy. Governing so vast an empire proved too much for the Moroccans however, and they soon relinquished control of the region, letting it splinter into dozens of smaller kingdoms. As the Moorish civilization in North Africa declined, the demand for gold and other trade goods declined and trade became less lucrative. The Sahara became more of a barrier between the Sudan and Europe. Meanwhile the Portuguese began arriving in the Gulf of Guinea in the mid-fifteenth century and began trading with coastal Africans, first in gold (thus diverting gold from the trans-Saharan trade routes) and then in slaves.