Fall of the Songhai Empire

Despite having reached its cultural apex, the Songhai Empire experienced political infighting and divisions within its society that set the stage for its downfall. Songhai was invaded by Morocco, ending the last empire of the Sahel region.

Summary of Event

By the mid-sixteenth century, the Songhai Empire had reached the zenith of its political and cultural development, especially under king Askia Daud (r. 1549-1582). Askia Daud had briefly restored the empire to the position it had held under its greatest ruler, Mohammed I Askia (r. 1493-1528). The Songhai government and society balanced both native Sudanese and Islamic influences and structures, and the Askia Dynasty Askia Dynasty ruled over a varied group of peoples in relative peace and security. Songhai controlled natural salt supplies to the north and some of the region’s gold sources to the south, as well as the upper Niger River routes down which much of the gold and salt flowed. It also controlled the southern end of the trans-Saharan Trade;trans-Saharan[transSaharan] caravan routes, which ran northward from Timbuktu and Walata through Teghazza and Zagora to Tlemcen and other major cities of the southwestern Mediterranean littoral. In addition to salt and gold, slaves captured in battles or raids traveled northward to the Moroccan and Algerian ports and bazaars. Songhai Empire
Askia Ishak II
Aḥmad al-Manṣūr
Djūdar Pasha
Mahmūd ibn Zarqun Pasha
Askia Daud
Mohammed I Askia
Muhammad I al-Shaykh
Askia Ishak I
Aḥmad al-Manṣūr
May Idrīs Alaōma
Muhammad IV Bano
Djūdar Pasha
Askia Ishak II
Mahmūd ibn Zarqun Pasha
Askia Nuh
Manṣūr ibn ՙAbd al-Raḥmān Pasha

In the 1540’, Moroccan Morocco sultan Muhammad I al-Shaykh claimed the salt mines around Teghazzi, which lay at the northern tip of Songhai territory. In return, Songhai Askia Ishak I (r. 1539-1549) sent a detachment of Sudanese cavalry on a raid into the Dar’a Valley in southern Morocco. Near the end of his own long reign, Askia Daud negotiated an agreement with the new Moroccan caliph, Aḥmad al-Manṣūr, which made many trade concessions to the Moroccans but left the salt mines in Songhai hands. Al-Manṣūr had gained the Saՙdī throne of Morocco after winning the Battle of Wādī al-Makhāzin Ksar el-Kebir, Battle of (1578) (also known as the Battle of Ksar el-Kebir) against the Spanish and Portuguese (August, 1578). The former ruler, his brother, died during the battle.

Once he became Morocco’s ruler, al-Manṣūr fought unsuccessfully to force the Portuguese out of the North African ports of Ceuta, El Jadida (formerly Mazagan), and Tangier. He saw himself as the hero of western Islam Islam;Africa and mixed general political expansionism with a fiery compulsion to destroy Islam’s enemies and unite her peoples under his rule as caliph. He saw the Muslim Songhai Empire as threatened on two fronts: the Turkish movements through the Maghreb to the east and the potential Portuguese expansion inland from the Atlantic coast. Both threatened to siphon off the lucrative trade that otherwise trundled northward through Teghazza. Morocco, al-Manṣūr thought, would be better able to defend the region from these threats to its trade. Moroccan control of Timbuktu would also mean Moroccan control of the upper Niger River and much of the trade that sailed down its reaches.

Under the guise of keeping the peace, Moroccan troops occupied oases of Tūwāt and Gurāra, which al-Manṣūr expected to use as jumping-off and supply points for an invasion force. In 1583, he intervened along the Songhai border to aid the king of Borno Borno , May Idrīs Alaōma, who feared Turkish encroachment southwestward through the Fezzān. The Borno king’s fears allowed al-Manṣūr to maintain reinforced garrisons right at the Songhai throat. In 1585, he boldly seized the salt mines of Teghazza. The native Tuareg people who worked the mines refused to work for the invaders, however, and migrated south to Teghazza al-Ghizlān (Taoudeni). This left Teghazza terribly undermanned and created a rival source of salt in the region. The Moroccan caliph considered mounting his invasion in 1586, but he had too many critics at home: It would, after all, be an assault on another Islamic state, and it was risky. In 1586, however, there was a change in Songhai rulership that would eventually reduce Moroccan risks considerably, and al-Manṣūr knew that biding his time meant further preparation for war.

It was generally the eldest son of the preceding ruler that succeeded to the Songhai throne. He was acclaimed by the court and placed on the traditional throne in the capital of their homeland, Kûkya. However, the selection of Muhammad IV Bano (r. 1586-1588) was disputed by several of his brothers, the leader among whom was the chief administrator of the major western province of Kurmina. Their disaffection led to a brief civil war in 1588 that polarized much of the Songhai society, alienating many from the government at Gao, the Empire’s official capital.

For many in the west, when the time came, government from Morocco was considered preferable to government from Gao. In addition, there were economic problems: Civil war had stopped the flow of booty from raiding in surrounding ethnic homelands, and the loss of Teghazza meant the loss of salt revenues. Portuguese coastal trade was draining the flow of goods away from the interior state. Socially, the Songhai minority ruled over a patchwork of ethnic territories, and there was a growing split between the urbanized Islamic leadership, with its Moroccan-trained, Arabic-speaking clerics and judges, and the people of the villages, who retained much of their traditional systems of belief and ritual. The polity worked in large part because the Songhai central government allowed the tribal territories to maintain their own local administration under a broad umbrella.

On October 30, 1590, a Moroccan army led by Djūdar Pasha filed out of Marrakech. It moved south, traversing the Atlas Mountains and meeting the great Sahara at Ktawa. Two months later, the men began a forced march that lasted an additional two months; they reached the banks of the Niger River on March 1, 1591. By March 12, they had reached Tondibi, only 35 miles (56 kilometers) from Gao itself. Their advance had been largely unopposed to that point, but at Tondibi, Emperor Askia Ishak II would stand and fight. Much of Djūdar’s infantry was armed with early muskets called harquebuses, while the thirty thousand freemen and captives who fought as infantry for Songhai carried spears and shot only arrows. Their leather or copper shields were no match for the Moroccans’ projectiles. Askia Ishak’s ten thousand cavalrymen were the country’s noble elite, and their iron breastplates afforded them rather better protection; the Moroccan Berber cavalry, however, was second to none in all of Africa. Ishak’s force was the largest in the western Sudan but proved unable to withstand the withering fire of the northerners. The battle was long but decisive: Ishak’s army was shattered.

Djūdar Pasha quickly seized the deserted Gao and halted. Ishak wanted a formal truce and offered himself as a hostage. Djūdar was tempted, since his army needed rest badly, but al-Manṣūr wanted conquest, not peace, and replaced him with Morocco’s second general, Mahmūd ibn Zarqun Pasha. Zarqun took over the campaign and conquered the Songhai homeland, driving Ishak out and trapping and killing his appointed successor, Askia Muhammad-Gao. From 1592 to 1594, Zarqun campaigned in Dendi, chasing down the remaining Songhai guerrillas. He slaughtered or exiled the political, cultural, and religious leadership of the empire and the intelligentsia in Timbuktu. The resistance led by Askia Nuh (r. 1592-1599) managed to kill Zarqun at Bandiagara in 1594, and al-Manṣūr replaced him with Manṣūr ibn ՙAbd al-Raḥmān Pasha. Al-Raḥmān completed the pacification of Dendi and installed several loyal governments among the people. Elsewhere, the reappointed Djūdar struggled against very tough opposition by the Bambora, Fulbe, and Manden peoples.


Once administrations that gave allegiance to Moroccan pashas had replaced all Songhai institutions, the Moroccans left matters largely as they had been. They purposefully controlled Timbuktu but left the patchwork of ethnic, tribal, clan, and even town administrations to their own devices. In many of these, the traditional warrior ethic and religious animism replaced Islamic social structures, if only for a time. The area was also opened up to new immigration: The Moroccans sent Guish, Haha, Ma’kil and Djusham peoples—some of whom had proven troublesome to the Saՙdīs—to the south, while the lack of a strong, effective central authority opened up border regions to encroachments from neighboring Tuareg and Fulbe people. Under Moroccan rule, the region became an economic backwater stripped of its cultural base.

For a while, the road from the Dar’a Valley to Teghazza became a major internal trade route for the Moroccans, but as major international routes shifted to the east and west, it lost its importance. The seventeenth century saw ecological and economic disasters reduce what had been an empire to a depressed and depopulated Moroccan colony. Moroccan and European slavers plied their trade with no regulation or compunction, as one ethnic enclave blithely turned on its neighbors. By dividing and conquering its enemies and stripping away the area’s cultural and religious leadership, Morocco had severely retarded any type of progress in the western Sudan. It was an unmitigated disaster that further weakened central Africa, eventually leaving it helpless in the face of European imperialism.

Further Reading

  • Hunwick, John O. Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. Boston: Brill, 1999. Discussion of the city under the later Songhai rulers and the impact of the conquest can be found in chapters 20 to 25.
  • Ogot, B. A., ed. Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 5 in The UNESCO General History of Africa. Berkeley, Calif.: James Curry, 1999. Contains a very strong chapter on the fall of the Songhai.
  • Yahya, Dahiru. Morocco in the Sixteenth Century: Problems and Patterns in African Foreign Policy. New York: Longman, 1981. Chapter 7 on the Sudanese campaign and rule discusses the Songhai fall from the perspective of Moroccan expansionism.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

1493-1528: Reign of Mohammed I Askia

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco