Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

Sonni ՙAlī’s ascent to power in Songhai signaled the decline of Mali and the subsequent hegemony of a small tributary state that dominated trans-Saharan trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The dominance of the Songhai Empire contributed to the spread of Islam in the western Sudan, as well as the expansion of educational centers in Gao, Djenné, and Timbuktu.

Summary of Event

Questions still linger among historians as to the exact chronological origins of the Songhai state, which have been attributed to both the Sorko fishermen and the Songhai people. It is clear, however, that by the thirteenth century, Songhai was already a constituted state, albeit tiny, and a tributary to Mali, which had also absorbed the kingdom of Ghana. Moreover, the location of this small state along the middle of the Niger River in West Africa provided it with important resources that gave it the potential to become a viable and important kingdom in its own right. These resources included fertile land, irrigation, fishing, development of a sizable fleet, difficult accessibility to enemies, and a flourishing trans-Saharan trade between West and North Africa, consisting mainly of gold, kola nuts, horses, slaves, cotton, and dried fish. Songhai Empire
Sonni ՙAlī
Mohammed I Askia
Sonni Baru
Mohammed I Askia
Askia Mūsā

The Songhai state first developed at settlements at Kukiya, its first capital, and Gao, which by the fifteenth century had become an important commercial entrepôt. The earliest recorded dynasty to install itself in Songhai was the Dia (Dya) family Dia Dynasty , about which very little is now known. It is known, however, that the Dia became tributary to Ghana early in their history. When Ghana was absorbed by Mali, Songhai began to pay tribute to Mali instead.

The Dia rulers did not pay this tribute gladly, however, and the rebellious nature and advanced economic standing of Songhai caught the attention of Mali emperor Mansa Mūsā the Great (r. 1307-1337). Mūsā, on his return from Mecca in 1325, passed through Gao and took as hostages two princely brothers, Ali Kolon and Sulayman Nar, to ensure that Songhai would not break away from the empire. The princes remained in Mali for more than a decade, but they were treated with honor, and Ali Kolon was even entrusted with military expeditions. When Mūsā died in 1337, the brothers escaped and returned to Songhai. They were never recaptured. They found, however, that the Dia Dynasty had been replaced by the Sonni Dynasty Sonni Dynasty in their absence.

The Dia Dynasty had also been responsible for the introduction of Islam Islam;Songhai Empire and into Songhai. Relatively early in Songhai history (1009), Dia king Kossi of Songhai had accepted Islam as his new religion. While he did not force his subjects to convert, King Kossi did take it on himself to defend Islam within his kingdom. In the face of constant incursions by the Tuareg and Fulani nomads, he split his time between Kukiya and Gao, seeking to make each more secure.

When Mansa Mūsā of Mali conquered Gao in 1325, the prospects for Songhai independence grew grimmer. However, around 1464, following the death of Sonni Sulayman, a new king ascended to the throne of Songhai: Sonni ՙAlī. Sonni ՙAlī transformed Songhai into an empire, first asserting the kingdom’s independence from Mali, and subsequently seizing control of much of the western Sudan, including portions of its former “colonizer’” territories.

One historian has noted that, because of his successful military campaigns, Sonni ՙAlī was as famous in West Africa as Charlemagne had been in Western Europe. He successfully pushed back the Mossi in the south as well as the Fulani and Dogon elsewhere, expanding Songhai’s territory and establishing stable borders. In 1468, he captured Timbuktu, which had been under the Tuaregs since 1433. The campaign in Timbuktu was particularly bloody, however, and once he controlled the largely Muslim city, Sonni ՙAlī massacred many of its inhabitants. His actions in Timbuktu caused the nascent emperor to be loathed by Muslims of the region. Around 1466, he began an extended siege of Djenné, 300 miles southwest of Timbuktu. The rich city, which had already become a major educational and trading center, finally succumbed to Sonni ՙAlī in 1473.

Through military persistence, Sonni ՙAlī expanded the empire from the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert in the north to the Mossi states in the south. Moreover, his control of Djenné and Timbuktu, as well as Gao, enabled him to control the trade routes and the “grain-producing region of Niger’s inland delta.” Throughout Sonni ՙAlī’s reign, the military played a prominent role in the empire. Military leaders served as governors in areas deemed susceptible to revolt, although many vassal states and towns were allowed to retain their traditional leaders, so long as they continued to pay tribute and taxes.

Despite allowing self-rule, however, the emperor aroused the ire of his Muslim population, especially the imams and scholars at the Senkore Mosque in Timbuktu. Sonni ՙAlī was called a “tyrant,” “ruthless,” and “an impious ’Muslim’ ruler.” The Muslim community simply refused to accept his rule. The emperor was forced to rely on support from his subjects who followed traditional West African religions, and to rule over a religiously divided empire.

Sonni ՙAlī met his death allegedly after falling off a horse and drowning in a stream in 1492, as he returned from a campaign against the Mossi. His son, Sonni Baru, also only nominally a Muslim, succeeded him two months later and faced the same opposition from the Muslim population. He was, for example, accused of not praying five times a day and of carrying on “pagan” practices at court.

There was also a constitutional dispute as to which succession tradition the empire should follow. Muslim tradition dictated that the oldest firstborn son of the deceased emperor should succeed, while traditional Songhai society assigned the task of selecting a new ruler to the Council of Elders, who were free to choose one of the emperor’s sons or another worthy candidate as they saw fit. The empire’s Muslim subjects also demanded that the empire’s barter system give way to a money economy. In the end, the Muslim leadership conspired against the emperor and caused his top general, a converted Muslim, to overthrow him and wrestle power from the Sonni Dynasty. This is how Mohammed Ture came to power as Mohammed I Askia (the “usurper”) in 1493.

Mohammed I Askia consolidated royal control of the state, continued the campaigns against the Mossi Mossi;Songhai Empire and (1498-1499), and conquered Air to the east and Diara and Baghana to the west, increasing the Songhai Empire to its largest size. He made Songhai the trading, commercial, religious, and educational center of the western Sudan. He ruled until 1528 when, old and blind, he was overthrown by his son, Askia Mūsā. The empire continued for more than sixty years, enjoying intermittent periods of domestic tranquillity, until the sultan of Morocco Morocco;Songhai Empire and took advantage of a period of decline to attack Songhai. At the Battle of Tondibi Tondibi, Battle of (1591) in March, 1591, Moroccan forces, using firearms, defeated a much larger Songhai army that was equipped only with spears, poisoned arrows, and swords. A state of total anarchy reigned in Songhai thereafter, as the Moroccan sultan was unable to keep the country together. Until the 1780’, various Moroccan military adventurers would call themselves rulers of portions of the empire, but for all practical purposes, Songhai disintegrated after 1591, never again to recover as a political entity.


Sonni ՙAlī’s reign inaugurated the ascendancy of the Songhai Empire and its dominance of the western Sudan. Until the end of the sixteenth century, the Songhai Empire remained the most visible symbol of political power in West Africa. It stood as a model of careful empire building, of successful absorption of ethnic and religious diversity, and of the long-term maintenance of peace and prosperity. Songhai created and enhanced urban centers of commerce such as Timbuktu and Gao, and it supported scholarship, as exemplified by the universities of Senkore at Timbuktu and Djenné. Songhai revolutionized West Africa economically, educationally, and militarily. None of this could have been achieved without the tenacity and political astuteness of Sonni ՙAlī. It was his imperial ambition and practical consolidation of power that made possible the later reign of Mohammed I Askia, at the apex of Songhai’s power.

Further Reading

  • Batuta, Ibn. Travels in Asia and Africa. New York: R. M. McBride, 1928. Reprint. London: Darf, 1983. Another firsthand, primary source written by an Arab scholar that sheds light on the greatness and impact of Songhai.
  • Falola, Toyn. “Kingdoms of West Africa: Ghana, Mali, Songhay, 1000-1600.” In Key Events in African History. Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. A thorough discussion of the origins, rise, and demise of the three sister kingdoms. Sonni ՙAlī’s life is well covered.
  • Hunwick, John. “Songhay, Borno and Hausaland in the Sixteenth Century.” In History of West Africa, edited by J. F. Ajayi and Michael Crowder. 2d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Succinct historical account of the rise, hegemonic rule, and fall of Songhai as well as the role played by Sonni ՙAlī and Mohammed I Askia in West Africa and beyond.
  • Leo Africanus. History and Description of Africa. 3 vols. London: Hakluyt Society, 1897. Reprint. New York: B. Franklin, [1975?]. Written by an Arab scholar in the early sixteenth century, this is one of the classic primary sources on the western Sudan. It includes insightful observations on the history of Songhai and its society, as well as four fold-out maps of the region.
  • Ogot, B. A., ed. Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 5. Paris: UNESCO, 1992. Comprehensive but succinct coverage of Songhai, placing the empire within the context of the western Sudan.
  • Stoller, Paul. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Notwithstanding its title, this is a scholarly treatise on Songhai’s history, religion, and social conditions.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

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

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire