Everyday Life In An Early West African Empire

The 20 Greatest Rulers of the Songhai Kingdom and Empire

© Robin Walker 2014

1. Zuwa Alayaman (ruled 690 AD onwards)

Founder of the Songhai Kingdom

The first Songhai king, Alayaman, founded the Zuwa Dynasty. Earlier scholars called them the Dia or Za Dynasty. This was the first of three ruling houses to govern Songhai. Most writers date the beginning of Alayaman’s kingship to 690 AD. He ruled from Kukiya, the first Songhai capital, located on an island on the Niger. Kukiya was very ancient and it was from there that members of the top Songhai caste claimed their origins. Al-Sadi, a Songhai scholar of the seventeenth century, reported the following tradition: ‘It existed in the time of the Pharaohs, and it is said that one of them, during his dispute with Moses, sent thither for the magician whom he opposed to the Prophet [Moses].’ Louis Desplanges, a modern archaeologist, found vestiges of Kukiya in modern-day Mali.

However, many writers have noted the similarity between the name of this founder king ‘Alayaman’ and the word ‘Yemen’. Many West Africans believed then and believe now that the name of this king actually means ‘he came from Yemen.’ While this seems highly unlikely, many people continue to believe this. However, Professor Diop cautions that with the rise Islam in West and Central Africa, later African chroniclers began to alter the genealogies of African dynasties and create legends to tie them to an Arabian or Yemenite origin. The important point was to connect the dynasty to the lineage of the Prophet Mahomet by any means. They did this to boost the prestige of the dynasty since being descended from the Prophet raises one’s status among Muslims. We therefore believe that the name of the founder king resembling the word Yemen is just a coincidence and nothing more.


2. Zuwa Kusoy (fl. 1000-1010)

Unifier of the kingdoms of Gao and Kukiya

Zuwa Kusoy was the fifteenth ruler of the Zuwa Dynasty and ruled from the ancient city of Kukiya. In the early 1000’s, he moved his capital to Gao, joining the two Songhai kingdoms. We have no idea how he achieved this. Was it a voluntary union? Did he conquer Gao? Perhaps future writers can answer this perplexing question. Whichever be the case, in 1009 or 1010, Kusoy converted and became Kukya’s first Islamic king, and he appointed Muslims to governmental positions. Al-Sadi adds ‘He was called in their language Muslim Dam, meaning “he has islamized voluntarily without compulsion”.’

According to Al Bakri, a Spanish geographer from the period, the insignia of the rulers from this era, all taking the titled ‘Kanda’, consisted of a sword, a seal and a Koran – all sent from the Umayyad Dynasty ruling in Spain.

3. Zuwa Yasiboy (fl. 1325)

The Songhai ruler defeated by Mansa Musa I of Mali

Zuwa Yasiboy was the twenty seventh ruling Zuwa. However, Mansa Musa I of the Empire of Mali invaded his territory and captured the Songhai capital of Gao in 1325. The invading Malians took two of his young sons hostage, Ali Kulun (also called Golom) and Silman Nari (also called Sulayman Nar), and had them educated at his court – a customary method of dealing with vassal princes. If Zuwa Yasiboy attempted to rebel against the Mali Empire, Mansa Musa I would have put the Songhai princes held hostage to death. The two young princes were brothers born of Yasiboy’s wives who were both sisters, Fati and Umma.


4 & 5. Sunni Ali Kulun and Sunni Silman Nari (fourteenth century)

Heroic figures who won Songhai independence from the Mali Empire

Ali Kulun and Silman Nari were sons of the twenty seventh Zuwa, Yasiboy. When Mali conquered Songhai in 1325, they were both taken as royal hostages and educated at the Malian court. However, Mansa Musa I recognised and trusted Ali Kulun’s talents as a soldier and leader. He used Ali to lead the military expeditions of the Mali Empire. Secretly, however, Ali Kulun and his brother were planning to escape back to Gao, the old capital of their people. Ali’s military experience gave him good knowledge of the roads to the east and he deposited arms and provisions along the way. He also set up safe houses to facilitate the planned escape.

In 1335 Ali Kulun and Silman Nari boldly escaped. They headed to Gao on horseback pursued by the Malian cavalry. With many hairbreadth escapes, the two princes ultimately eluded their pursuers. However, in their absence, their father, Zuwa Yasiboy had died and there had been four other successors. Professor Hunwick speculates that these other successors ruled from Kukiya, a town of no strategic importance to Mali. Whichever be the case, Ali Kulun claimed the Songhai throne. He founded its Second Dynasty whose kings took the dynastic title ‘Si’, ‘Shi’ or the term that occurs most commonly in the literature ‘Sunni’. Various scholars have theorised on the meaning of this title. Professor DeGraft-Johnson wrote:

Maghan, ruler of the Mali Empire, gave his next exhibition of weakness by granting undue freedom to the two Songhai princes, Ali Kolen and Sulayman Nar ... The two brothers eventually made good their escape to Gao, where Ali Kolen was proclaimed king in 1335 with the title “Sonni,” meaning “Liberator.”

Dr Farmo Moumouni, himself a Songhai from Niger, has a very different idea. According to him:

The link established between the ancient Egyptian and the Songhai languages, allow me to look for the origin of [Sunni] in the Negro-Egyptian. The term comes from the Ancient Egyptian Sé (man) which gave Soni (man) in Coptic. Therefore Ali Kolon was the first Soni.

If Dr Moumouni is correct, Sunni means ‘man’ in the sense of a person who displays the masculine qualities of courage and honour. Consequently, Ali Kulun was a ‘man’ because he stood up to the Malians. ‘Sunni’ then, as a dynastic title, began with a king who was a real man in his ability to defy the rule of a powerful oppressor and to inspire and challenge all later kings of the dynasty to show the same courage and honour.

Whichever be the case, by 1355, the Songhai Kingdom gained its independence from Mali. Mali was unable to recapture the Songhai Kingdom so they settled for peace. After Ali Kulun died, his dutiful brother, Silman Nari, followed him onto the throne. However, some historians, such as Chancellor Williams and Basil Davidson, date the period of Songhai independence to 1375 instead, i.e. during the time of Silman Nari and not Ali Kulun.

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6. Sunni Sulayman (up to 1464)

Founder of the Second Songhai Empire

Sunni Sulayman was the seventeenth ruling Sunni. During his time, the Songhai Kingdom expanded into the Second Songhai Empire. Among other territories, Sulayman seized the province of Mina in Masina. Professor Molefi Asante calling this same individual Sulayman Dandi, wrote:

The Sonni dynasty, centered on the martial arts of its horsemen and its agile war canoes, used its special knowledge of the river and its adjacent land areas to overwhelm its opponents. Under the reign of Sonni Sulayman Dandi, the Songhay extended their control of the upper reaches of the Niger River and eventually controlled all of the tribute going in and out of the territory. Few fighting kings had ever been so effective in putting fear into the hearts of enemies as Sonni Sulayman Dandi. He was known for the speed of his successes in battle. It is said that his troops were so quick that they stole the day from the enemies while they were still asleep and kept them in perpetual darkness. His horsemen attacked towns from the land while his sailors attacked from the river. This trap method, where the opponent was squeezed from the land and the water, became a feature of many of Sonni Sulayman Dandi’s victories.


7. Sunni Ali Ber (1464 - November 1492)

The most brilliant and controversial of the Songhai rulers

In 1464-5 Sunni Ali, the eighteenth Sunni, became ruler of Songhai. He was undoubtedly the most colourful and engaging of the Songhai rulers.

His private life was scandalous. He had relationships with women unrecognised by marriage and against the usual practices of Islam. If he took a liking to a woman, he brought her to his palace even if her family or even her husband disagreed.

He practiced a traditional African religion and only pretended to be a Muslim. It was a shallow pretence. His attitude to Islam was one of contempt. Concerning the five daily Muslim prayers, Ali said: “You know my sentiments, you can divide them between you.” For this reason, the scholars wrote terrible things about him. One writer claimed he was ‘a great oppressor and destroyer of towns, with a hard and unjust heart.’ Another described him as ‘An impious monarch and horrible tyrant.’ Despite this, he maintained a close personal friendship and listened patiently for over twenty years to the moderating advice of his chief lieutenant, Muhammad Touré, a devout Muslim. If Mahmud Kati reported accurately, Ali also led the yearly prayer for the celebration of the breaking of the fast during the month of Ramadan.

He had a mercurial temper, ordering the deaths of even close supporters. Yet others said of him: “He has been good to me; I will speak neither praise nor blame.” Mr J. A. Rogers, in a fine volume of biographical sketches of great Black personalities, says:

Sonni Ali’s temper was cyclonic. At times he would send to death even his most faithful followers, and then wish they were alive. His intimates, knowing this, would sometimes stay the execution and plead for the condemned when Sonni Ali had calmed down. One of these unfortunates was his favourite secretary, El-Kadr, who had brought Sonni Ali’s wrath down upon him because of a slight contradiction. Later when a book arrived from a vassal king which no one at the court could read, Sonni Ali sighed for El-Kadr, who was then brought in alive. Overjoyed, Sonni Ali handsomely rewarded those who had saved him.

Muhammad Touré was one such person whose existence in this world hung by the slenderest of threads. Despite being Sunni Ali’s right-hand man, his wisest minister, and his best general, Ali condemned him to death on many occasions.

There was one aspect of Ali’s career, however, that was uncontroversial: He was a brilliant soldier. Like his predecessor, Sulayman, he expanded Songhai power through conquest. This began a period of great achievement. Ultimately, the chroniclers came to call him Sunni Ali Ber. Professor Diop says that ‘Ber’ is similar to ‘M’Ber’ meaning ‘champion’ in Wolof. Lady Lugard seems to have detected a game plan behind the conquests of Sunni Ali:

He was one of the born soldiers of the world, and the moment was favourable to the gratification of military ambition. The hereditary enemy of his country [i.e. Mali], attacked by rude and vigorous foes on all her borders, was paralysed by internal decay, and a great sceptre was falling from a hand too weak to hold it. A lesser mind might perhaps have been content to join the ranks of the enemies of Melle [i.e. Mali], and revenge old wrongs by helping forward a work of sheer destruction, but Sonni Ali would seem to have had wider views. Whether, as is probably the case with many a constructive genius, his work grew under its hand till he himself was surprised at the dimensions it assumed, or whether he knew from the first at what he aimed, the result is the same. The Empire of the Soudan was the heritage which the petty kings in revolt against Melle purposed to divide. Sonni Ali resolved to keep it intact, and take it for himself. To this end it was necessary to overthrow, not only Melle, but all her foes.

Sunni Ali’s first notable achievement was the capture of the city of Timbuktu in 1469, with its world famous University of Sankore Mosque. The Malian withdrawal from the city by 1438 led to a power vacuum filled by the Tuaregs, an uncouth desert dwelling people. The following description of a Tuareg is representative of how historians have viewed them:

His fierce, unkempt look suggests that his home does not lie in the city nor in the haunts of civilised men, but that he is a wanderer who has come from the great desert … He belongs, in fact, to the Tuarek race, which is scattered over the Great Sahara Desert, and is nearly related to the Berbers of southern Tunis and Algeria.

The Tuareg leader, Akil ag Malwal, forced the conquered Timbuktu koi (king or governor), Muhammad Naddi, a man of eminent piety and learning, to hand over two thirds of all tax revenue collected. Upon the death of Muhammad Naddi, his son, Omar, succeeded him.

Although Akil initially maintained the same arrangement with Omar as existed with his late father, he further added the injustice of allowing his followers to conduct house searches and violate the Timbuktu women – all to the disgust of Omar. Moreover, Akil refused to allow Omar to keep even the one third of the tax revenue, as had previously been the case. As Akil contemptuously put it, “Who is the Timbuktu koi? What is the meaning of him? What good is he to me?” Omar, now at the end of his tether, sought help against the Tuaregs and secretly sent word to Sunni Ali. Omar promised to deliver Timbuktu into Ali’s hands if he sent an army. Sunni Ali rewarded the messenger who conveyed Omar’s message. In mid January 1469, he mobilised the Songhai army against the Tuareg rulers of Timbuktu, but many, including Omar, who seems to have had a change of mind, fled to the Malian city of Walata, 500 miles across the desert.

‘On the day of departure,’ says Al-Sadi, ‘there were to be seen bearded men of middle age trembling with fright at the prospect of having to mount a camel, and falling helplessly off as the animal rose to its feet.’ This supposedly came from the custom which then existed amongst the ‘virtuous ancestors’ of the people of Timbuktu of ‘keeping children so close to their apron-strings, that, having while they were young never learned to play, they grew up without knowing anything at all of the affairs of life. But games in the season of youth,’ the chronicler continues, ‘form the character of man and teach him a very great number of things.’ In other words, many of the people who fled were physically unfit having never taken any physical exercise, not even when they were children.

An angry Sunni Ali entered the city and promptly started a wave of repression that lasted for three years. The chronicles say he ‘perpetuated terrible wickedness in the city, putting it to flame, sacking it, and killing large numbers of people.’ The gold traders feared Sunni Ali would take control over their goods and transactions so many started trading via Kano in Northern Nigeria. The scholars of Timbuktu experienced a major setback. Sunni Ali drove the Sanhaja out of Timbuktu and undertook a purge of the scholars. He had leading citizens killed, supposedly for befriending the Tuaregs, and he pursued and killed some of the fleeing intelligentsia.

Nevertheless, there was one ethnicity he hated even more than the Tuaregs:

He hated no enemy more bitterly than the Fulani. He could not see one, whether learned or ignorant, man or woman, without wanting to kill him.

However, Professor Asante, the prolific Temple University scholar, presents a new perspective on Ali’s actions against the intelligentsia:

He sought to re-establish the presence of African culture in education, religion, and traditions throughout the empire. In this regard, he might be said to have been a reformer. He cleared the universities of intellectuals who brought Islam and replaced them with those who practised the African traditions.

Djenné was the next city to fall after Ali’s forces surrounded it for seven years and seven months. Although the army encamped and cultivated the fertile fields that surrounded Djenné, the siege stretched Ali’s forces almost to breaking point. He was on the brink of withdrawing, but Djenné suddenly capitulated. The proud Djenné population once boasted that they withstood 99 attempts by the Malians and others to capture their city. Now it fell to Ali. It was even bigger prize than Timbuktu with international trade links, a university, great hospitals and surgeons. It also had the most brilliant architecture in the region. Ali seized the city in 1473. The ruler of Djenné, a young man who inherited the throne from his late father who died during the siege, accompanied by senior army commanders, rode out to give their surrender to Ali. On seeing the ruler, Ali asked, “Have we been fighting with a boy all this time?”

Chu and Skinner inform us that:

For all the trouble that Jenne had caused him, Sunni Ali went out of his way to show the people that he held no grudge. He was generous in victory, and extremely kind to all. To seal the bond between the conquerors and the conquered, Sunni Ali married the Queen-Mother of Jenne.

At some point in the story, we do not know where, Sunni Ali conquered the Dogon. He also launched a campaign against the Berbers of Bara. His victorious army took control of all the mountainous regions where they were encamped. J. A. Rogers says the following about this campaign: ‘Next he struck at Senhadja Nounon, where he captured the Negro queen, Bikoum Kabi.’ In time, the Songhai hierarchy integrated the Berbers, i.e. Tuaregs, into the Songhai political structure. During the time of Sunni Ali’s successors, the Berbers were obliged to provide 24,000 soldiers in case of war.

Sunni Ali returned to Gao in 1476. His eight years of gruelling military campaigns massively expanded the power of the Empire. To the south, lay the Empire of Mossi, an enemy of the rulers of Mali. Now they became an enemy of Songhai, prompted by the growing prestige and opulence of Sunni Ali. In 1480 Naséré, emperor of the Mossi, marched northwest into the desert and launched a raid on the Malian city of Walata. They besieged the city for a month and forced Walata to capitulate. The Mossi seized women and children, and a large quantity of spoil. They attempted to return home to the Volta region but Omar, the former koi of Timbuktu, pursued them and was able to recover most of the seized women and children.

At this time, the Portuguese were busy sending reconnaissance voyages down the West African coast. They had already started to kidnap coastal Africans in a project that would ultimately expand into the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1481 they took Bemoy, a Djoloff prince, to Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. Receiving him with much pomp, they gave fêtes, bullfights and other entertainments in his honour. Bemoy, described as ‘a man of about forty … of a fine figure and generally well made’, gave the king of Portugal particulars on the King of Mossi and the King of Timbuktu. Based on this information, the Portuguese sent embassies to the ruler of Mossi and ruler of Timbuktu. The embassy sent to Timbuktu attempted to win the friendship of Sunni Ali. They asked his permission to establish a trading station at Wadan in the backcountry of Cape Blanco. Sunni Ali agreed and the Portuguese established their trading station within his Empire.

Like the Mossi, Sunni Ali also had a covetous eye on Walata. He commissioned his men to dig a canal from Lake Fagbine to Walata to make it accessible to his naval forces coming from Gao. The digging began. However, an invasion of Songhai territory by the Mossi in 1483-4, forced Ali to put the canal project on hold. His forces engaged and defeated the Mossi army, just south of Lake Debo, and pursued the survivors back to the Volta region.

Sunni Ali Ber established the Songhai state as one of the great West African empires. He became a world famous leader of his time conquering most of the old Malian Empire. He had several royal residences located at Gao, Kabara and Wara. After a brilliant career, he died on 6 November 1492 during a military campaign against the Zaghrani and the Fulani of Gurma. He drowned crossing a river that unexpectedly broke its banks. He ruled for an eventful 28 years. His sons had him mummified after his death and thus followed very ancient African traditions. His mummification indicates the level of medical knowledge in Songhai. One of his sons, Baru Dao, followed him on to the throne. Al-Sadi, the Songhai historian, says of the mighty emperor:

He was more powerful and had more soldiers than his predecessors. His conquests were many and he was celebrated from the rising to the setting of the sun.

Professor Jackson offered evidence that supports this opinion:

In North Africa he was regarded as the greatest sovereign south of the Sahara, and in the annals of Europe we find him mentioned as Sunni Heli, King of Timbuktu, whose empire extended to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Mahmud Kati says:

The people of his era and his soldiers gave him the surname of Dali as an honorary title, and each time a subordinate was summoned, he would refer to the [Sunni] as: “Dali!” One of our friends … told me that he had heard it said … “It is not licit to give this word as an honorary title to someone, for it means ‘the Most High’ and should be reserved for the All-Powerful Master, who is God Most High.”

Professor Diop states Ali ‘was the first emperor to take the title of Dali, which is the equivalent of Caesar in the African tradition.’

Finally, Professor Asante wrote:

By the time of his drowning death in the Niger River in 1492, he was the most powerful leader in all of Africa and one of the few leaders in the world who could be called absolute. At the time of his death he was, of course, more famous than Columbus, who would make a voyage from Europe to the Americas in the same year of Sonni Ali Ber’s death.

8. Sunni Baru (November 1492 – April 1493)

Last ruler of the Sunni Dynasty

Sunni Baru (also called Bakori Da’as by one writer), the son of Sunni Ali Ber, became the nineteenth ruling Sunni in November 1492. Like his father, he was a follower of a traditional African religion. He rejected all attempts to convert him to Islam by the Muslims in his Empire. Muhammad Touré, a devout Muslim, became his nemesis. Touré had been a principal lieutenant of the late Sunni Ali. He was a man of great influence and commanded the support of many in the army. For 52 days, Salih Diawara, an influential scholar, led negotiations with Baru with a view to converting him to Islam. He failed. The only recourse was to battle.

Baru was able to defeat Muhammad Touré’s forces initially, but the Muslims eventually triumphed in April 1493 at the battle of Angoo (near Gao). Al-Sadi records: ‘The combat was fierce, the battle great, and the encounter grim.’ Sunni Baru had to run for his life. He was the last king of the Sunni Dynasty, a ruling line that had been in power from 1335 to 1493.


9. Askiya the Great (April 1493 – 15 August 1529)

Founder of the Administrative Structure of the Second Songhai Empire

Askia the Great, also called Muhammad Touré, was originally a principal lieutenant of Sunni Ali. However, he overthrew Sunni Ali’s son at the battle of Angoo in April 1493. As ruler, he insisted that Islam should be the state religion. He banished soothsayers from his retinue and replaced them with marabouts. In return, they legitimised his usurpation of the crown and claimed that his battle with Sunni Baru Dao was a just and holy war. He took the title ‘Askiya’ beginning a third line of kings all taking this dynastic title. Muhammad Touré's feats were to earn him the title ‘Askiya the Great.’

There is a droll story to the effect that ‘Askiya’ is actually ‘A si kyi a’ which means ‘He shall not be’. The tradition claims that the distraught daughters of Sunni Ali cried out ‘A si kyi a’ when Muhammad Touré proclaimed himself king in Gao. Touré adopted this title to defy the protestations of Ali’s daughters. We have no idea how true this story is. Other writers influenced by Mahmud Kati claim that ‘Askiya’ was originally a military title. Dr de Moraes Farias of the University of Birmingham found a 1234 AD tombstone inscription at a Gao cemetery with the phrase ‘son of Askiya’ written on it. This would suggest that the name or title was certainly in use before Sunni Ali’s daughters cried out ‘A si kyi a’ in 1493.

Whichever be the case, with the Askiya Dynasty, new symbols of kingship emerged:

The reigning askiya was the guardian of certain symbols of kingship. There were twelve royal standards which would have been carried into battle by his bodyguard, a royal drum, and an object called din turi, which means kindling wood, and may have been a symbol of the first fire lit by their ancestors in the land, symbolising their ownership of it. The askiyas subsequent to Askiya al-hajj Muhammad inherited his signet ring, sword and turban, and these and the other objects mentioned above had to be handed over if the askiya were deposed or abdicated. In addition there was a special stable of horses reserved for the askiya’s use.

According to Professor Diop, the tin-touri (cf. din turi) represents the embers lit by the first ancestors of the Songhai people. These ancestors passed these remains down from generation to generation of the same family. These family members were thus the true masters of the soil. However, the tin-touri symbol, now in the hands of the Askiyas, indicates that the Askiyas were, at best, only conquerors of the soil. They could never be the true owners of the land since it still belonged to the family whose ancestors lit the first fire.

Askiya the Great entrusted the government in the hands of his brother Omar. He launched his pilgrimage to Mecca through Cairo in late 1496 (some say a year later) with the aim of further legitimising his rule requiring ‘seventy leopard-skin bags to hold his robes.’ With one thousand five hundred armed men, his son Musa and Ali Fulan accompanied him on his journey. Ali Fulan held the position of General Supervisor of the Palace and was thus the closest confidant of the Askiya. Professor Jackson made a useful comment on this pilgrimage detailing the immense wealth at the Askiya’s disposal taken from a treasury established during the time of Sunni Ali:

He … [was] accompanied by an army of 1,000 infantry and a cavalry detachment of 500 horsemen. Some 300,000 pieces of gold were allotted for the financing of this trip. One third of the amount was used to cover the cost of travel; another third was distributed as alms [i.e. charity] in the holy cities of Arabia, and for the support of an inn in Mecca for the housing of Sudanese pilgrims; and the last third was expended in the purchase of merchandise.

Many modern scholars are unhappy about comparing money and prices in antiquity with those of today. However, Professor Hunwick of Northwestern University thinks the 300,000 gold pieces was a ‘notional’ figure. Strangely, he goes on to add: ‘It is equivalent in weight to about 44,850 oz. (or 2805 lbs. = 1,275 kg.), and at today’s prices would be worth over £8m ($13m).’

In Mecca, the Askiya met the Caliph of Egypt, Mulay Abbas, and requested that the Caliph appoint him as his religious representative in West Africa. The Caliph agreed. He asked the Askiya to abdicate from his throne for three days and on the fourth day reclaim his throne. This symbolised the transition of Askiya Muhammad I from being merely an earthly ruler to becoming the Caliph of the Western Sudan, a spiritual ruler. The Caliph gave him a green skullcap, turban and a saber to wear around his neck.

Moreover, the Askiya asked the Caliph to persuade a holy man, known as a Sherif i.e. someone directly descended from the Prophet Mahomet, to live in West Africa and thus bring blessings to the Empire. Should this happen, he offered to give the Sherif 100,000 dinars, 500 slaves, and 100 camels. The Caliph wrote a letter specifying all sorts of administrative exemptions throughout the Empire that the Askiya should grant to the Sherif as part of the conditions for relocating to Songhai. The Askiya asked his secretary, Ali ben Abdallah to draw up an edict meeting these requirements on the spot. Askiya Muhammad I returned to Gao in July or August 1498. On his return, he resumed his position as head of state, and appointed his brother Omar as Generalissimo. The Sherif arrived in Songhai later making a separate journey.

The Empire that Askiya inherited from the Sunni Dynasty was already massive, yet he expanded it north, east and west by conquest, until it covered an area about the same size as modern Europe. Conquering west, his armies battled against the Empire of Mali in a twelve years war (1501-1513 AD). It was a desperate struggle on both sides and the final victory came at a heavy cost. Leo Africanus confirms that the rulers of Mali were independent of Songhai ‘until the time of Askiya’ and that ‘the last of them became his tributary.’

Conquering east, his armies captured the Hausa Confederation of Northern Nigeria by 1514. Agadès was the next to fall. Between 1517 and 1518, there were many battles to pacify regions in the western part of the Empire. Some of his conquests were jihads – holy wars against people who did not believe in Islam. Other conquests to the north resulted in the capture of the mines of Taghaza.

The Askiya did not always meet with military success, however. Soon after returning from Mecca, the Askiya sent an envoy to Naséré, Emperor of the Mossi, located to the south of Songhai. You may recall that during the time of Sunni Ali, Naséré had previously besieged the city of Walata and had invaded Songhai territory.

He sent the envoy with a clear message for Naséré. He demanded his conversion to Islam. Naséré refused, saying that he had to take counsel on this matter with his ancestors who were in the Netherworld. Following this, Naséré and his court retired to the Temple accompanied by the Songhai ambassador, Salih Diawara, the same man who attempted to convert Sunni Baru Dao. Before all assembled, an old man at the Temple delivered the verdict from the Netherworld on whether or not Naséré should convert to Islam. “I will never consent to you doing this thing,” was the reply. Moreover, “you must fight against the Songhai until you have exterminated either the enemy or yourselves.” Then addressed to the Songhai ambassador, the old man said: “Return to your master and say to him that nothing but war could be between him and me.” On receiving word of this answer, the Askiya launched two military campaigns against the Mossi, one in 1498-9 and the other in 1505. The Songhai invaders slew many, destroyed crops, and captured children, whom they brought to Kukiya and converted to Islam. They were, however, unable to defeat the Mossi or bring them under the imperial rule of Songhai.

Another notable failure took place in 1517-8 when the Askiya’s armies tried and failed to capture the state of Kebbi located to the far east of Songhai. Kebbi, in fact, maintained its independence against all the succeeding Askiyas. The territory of Songhai and its dependencies enclosed Kebbi’s territory on all sides.

As the Empire grew much larger, Askiya Muhammad I came up with new methods of government, creating national and regional structures like those of a modern state organisation. However, he gave a part of the Empire to his brother residing in Tindirma to rule. One of his most important achievements was the creation of a professional army and navy. In this way, warfare did not disrupt the day-to-day life of the Empire since adult males who were not soldiers were not drafted away from their daily occupations. This created stability within the society as trade, education, and other economic and cultural activities remained unaffected by warfare.

In addition to this, he strongly encouraged high educational standards. This resulted in an educational system that had an international reputation for excellence. The city of Timbuktu, for example, had over 150 Koran schools with perhaps 30,000 school students. It also had a university that had, according to some writers, 25,000 students.

Askiya and other members of his dynasty were very accommodating of scholars. He offered them cash and in-kind privileges especially during Ramadan. These included slaves, grants of land and privileges, and exemptions from taxation. This raises the interesting question: Why did they offer them slaves? Major Felix Dubois explains: ‘to ensure them the tranquillity so necessary to the man of thought and letters, their affairs were managed and their properties cultivated by their slaves.’

Askiya Muhammad I ruled until 15 August 1529 at the impressive age of eighty-seven. By this time, however, he was blind but with the help of Ali Fulan concealed this fact from the public at large. In African societies, many people saw a direct relationship between the ruler’s health and the health and prosperity of the nation. Consequently, Musa, his son, deposed the blind man in a palace coup. Thus, Askiya Muhammad I ruled for a creditable 36 years. He died in obscurity nine years later on 31 January 1538 at the age of ninety-seven.

However, at the point of his death, the Songhai Empire extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of the Kanem-Borno Empire. Its power extended north, at least as far as Taghaza. Lady Lugard, perhaps inspired by Ibn Khaldun, suggests it ruled nearly as far north as Wargla. She provides good evidence that the Empire even included cities to the far north including Wadan, Tuat and Augila. A contemporary of the time wrote: ‘It was a six-month journey to cross this formidable empire.’

Originally a pyramid of seven stories, Askia the Great was buried in a Mausoleum in Gao. One can still see this monument today. In the years following his death, however, the Songhai Empire fell apart due to bad management and foreign invasions. Mahmud Kati described him as ‘the equitable imam, the father of the orphans and the protector of widows, the poor and the weak, as well as the wise.’

Lady Lugard made the following thoughtful comments on Askiya Muhammad I:

He appears to have been a man of liberal principles and large views, naturally humane, and disposed to temper justice with mercy, more than usually cultivated, active, wise and firm.

She also stated that:

Askia the Great reigned for thirty-six years. It is sorrowful to have to relate that he was not allowed to finish his life upon the throne which he had so conspicuously adorned.

Mr J. A. Rogers, the outstanding and brilliant Jamaican researcher, was even more flattering. In his view:

Under the leadership of Askia, the Songhai Empire flourished until it became one of the richest of that period. Timbuctoo became the real center of the Mohammedan world, and was known as the “The Queen of the Sudan,” and “The Mecca of the Sudan.”


10. Askiya Musa (15 August 1529 – 12 April 1531)

The most despicable and vile of the Askiyas

Musa was a son of Askiya the Great. However, in August 1529 in conspiracy with his brothers Dawud and Ismail, Musa killed their uncle Yahia who implored them to remain loyal to their father, Askiya the Great. Instead of displaying loyalty, the sons marched on Gao and forced their father to abdicate. Eventually, Musa’s successor banished Askiya the Great to a new life on a mosquito-infected island on the Niger. Thus, the once mighty emperor, ruler of two-thirds of all West Africa, would spend his next few years in gloom and wretchedness living in obscurity.

Askiya Musa (ruled 1529-1531) proved to be a tyrant. Kati wrote ‘No one more despicable or vile than the Askiya Musa ever occupied the royal throne of the Songhai.’ Musa had many people executed, especially rivals to the throne. Once the killings began, many of his brothers fled to Tindirma for their own safety. Musa feared that Uthman, one of his brothers, would lead a rebellion against him. As a pre-emptive strike, Musa wrote to their mother, Kamsa, and asked her to speak to Uthman to dissuade him from rebelling against him. She spoke to Uthman and successfully persuaded him to remain loyal to his brother telling him that: “I raised my breast to you.” i.e. you both drank the same breast milk. This, incidentally, is evidence that some elite women breastfed their own children rather than leaving it to wet nurses. Whichever be the case, Uthman changed his mind after hearing some stirring lyrics sung by his griot. He told his followers: “I swear that this head of mine shall never have dust poured on it for anyone.” An envoy returned to Musa at Gao and told him of Uthman’s intention of rebelling.

Eventually the chief cleric attempted to mediate between the Emperor and his brother. However, the cleric could not even bear to face Musa, prompting the emperor to ask, “Do you dare to turn your back upon me?” The sheikh replied, “I cannot look upon the face of him that has deposed the Emir of the true believers.” However, the sheikh asked Musa to avert civil strife and reconcile with his brother, but Musa was hell bent on war. In the ensuing conflict, many died on both sides. Uthman, and for that matter other rivals to the throne, Ismail and Balla, fled. Ali Fulan, Askiya the Great’s close confidant and a man hated by Musa, also fled.

Balla, Askiya the Great’s favourite son, became the next target of Musa’s tyranny. Balla asked the chief cleric to intercede with Musa on his behalf. The cleric passed on the message to the royal residence in Kabara but Musa’s response was clear: ‘Anyone who enters the qadi’s house has indemnity, except Balla.’ Consequently, Balla visited Askiya Musa in person and gave himself up to his brother. Addressing Musa’s son, Balla said, “My child, it is necessary that I should die; for these three things I would never consent to do – give Musa the title of Askiya, throw dust upon my head in his presence, nor ride behind him in processions.” After hearing this, Musa placed Balla under arrest. He then ordered the digging of a deep hole to bury Balla and a cousin alive. Musa ordered his executioners to fill the hole with water. The two men drowned.

After ordering two more executions, another marabout asked Musa to pardon the men whose lives now hung from the slenderest of threads. Musa refused claiming the issue was out of his hands. The marabout replied, “We enjoyed prosperity and repose in the reign of your father, the happy, the good; and we prayed that God might accord him victory and a long life. We asked ourselves, Has he a son who shall be the hope of Islam? And we answered, Yes; so we offered prayers for you as well as for your father. You have deceived our hopes, but we do not cease our prayers, only instead of invoking God in your favour we pray against you.”

The army overthrew Musa on 12 April 1531. The military leaders led by the Sha-farma, i.e. the governor of Sa, a port on the Niger, assassinated Musa in a conspiracy masterminded by his remaining brothers.

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11. Askiya Muhammad Bonkana (12 April 1531 – 12 April 1537)

The Askiya who presided over great luxury at court

Muhammad Bonkana benefitted from the assassination of Musa and stepped into the power vacuum as the next Askiya in April 1531. Clearly, this was not the intention of the Sha-farma who led the coup against Musa who said, “I do not break down a tree with my head so that someone else can eat its fruits.” However, the Sha-farma quite literally lost his head. An official seized and beheaded him with a sickle, sending the severed head to Bonkana. With little other opposition, Bonkana ruled until 12 April 1537.

Askiya Bonkana did much to embellish life at the royal court. People slept on silk bedding. He employed courtiers in ever-greater numbers:

[Whose] habits of dress became sumptuous, and it would seem from incidental allusions that different functionaries had their different uniforms and insignia of office, to the wearing of which great value was attached. The dress and appointments of women became also extravagantly luxurious. They were served on gold. In full dress their persons were covered with jewels, and the wives of the rich when they went out were attended by well-dressed slaves.

The trumpet, tambourine and the deep toned drum became a part of court ritual. Professor Diop thinks that the court music then was similar to the music made by today’s griots and murids. There was a lead singer accompanied by a chorus of singing slaves. We believe that scholars should conduct more research here based on one question: Is this the true origin of Gospel music? Whichever be the case, Al-Sadi says:

He increased the number of orchestras and singers of both sexes and lavished more favours and gifts. During his reign prosperity spread throughout his empire and an era of wealth began to be established.

Concerning more practical matters, Kati stated that Bonkana increasing the army by 1,700 personnel. He also stated that:

The Askiya … was a hardy, brave, and intrepid man. Whenever he was in combat and the fighting became violent, he would climb down from his horse and fight his enemies on foot.

This, however, is not the picture that emerges from Al-Sadi’s book. According to him, Bonkana was no military man. He launched an attack on the Kanta of Kebbi and was defeated. However, his main concern seemed to have been the reaction of the public. In a private conversation with a high official, he said, “This defeat I have suffered, and all the difficulties which have beset me, vex me less that what the folk of Timbuktu will say when the news reaches them. When they gather behind the Sankore Mosque the gossipers will wag their tongues.” Having studied at the university himself, Bonkana knew who the gossipers were likely to be.

Following this, he commanded an attack on Gurma. However, his general, Dankulku, was so absorbed in a game of Sudanese chess his enemies caught him completely unawares. Sudanese chess is the mathematical game otherwise known as wari. Despite this, the general on completing his play actually defeated the Gurma with no help from Bonkana.

On a personal level, Bonkana’s treatment of his uncle, Askiya the Great was reprehensible. He removed the blind old man from his palace and farm, which was near to Gao, for a miserable place on an island in the Niger. However, one night, Ismail, a son of Askiya the Great, visited his father, who on recognising his voice, took his arm. The old man asked “Heavens! How can an arm that is strong like this allow mosquitoes to devour me, and frogs to leap upon me, when there is nothing that so revolts me?” Ismail replied there was little he could do about this. Askiya the Great suggested a plan of action. He told him the location of a secret stock of treasure dating from Sunni Ali’s times that he could use to finance the overthrow of Bonkana. He also told of men who he could trust and how to contact them.

After six years on the throne, Ismail overthrew Bonkana with the help of the Dendi-fari, i.e. the governor of Dendi. Dendi was one of the most important provinces of the Empire. Ismail’s cavalry chased Bonkana into exile.


12. Askiya Ismail (12 April 1537 – late 1539)

The Askiya who overthrew a tyrant

Ismail became emperor on 12 April 1537 having chased his predecessor into exile and ruled until late 1539. According to Major Felix Dubois, Ismail gave his reasons for wanting the imperial crown, as follows: “I accepted the honour for three reasons, to rescue my father from his distressful condition, to enable my sisters to resume wearing the veil that Bankouri [i.e. Bonkana] had obliged them to relinquish, and to pacify Yan Mara, one of the hundred hen ostriches who was want to throw herself into a frenzy whenever she saw Bankouri.” Dubois goes on to say that in the wake of Bonkana’s dethronement: ‘The Tarikh does not tell us if Yan Mara [ever] recovered her happiness after this.’

While Ismail’s third reason does indeed conjure up a humorous image, not all scholars agree with Dubois’ reading of Al-Sadi’s original. Professor Hunwick has a much less colourful translation. According to him, it reads as follows, ‘and because of Yana Mara’s words whenever she saw him, “a single ostrich chick is better than a hundred hen chicks”.’ Thus, Hunwick thinks that Yana Mara is actually a griotte (not an ostrich), who sings to Bonkana every time she sees him that one Bonkana is worth a hundred sons of Askiya the Great. Whichever be the case, Ismail returned Askiya the Great to the royal palace at Gao where the old man died in early 1538.

13. Askiya Ishaq I (27 December 1539 – 25 March 1549)

The first Askiya to contend with the Moroccans

Askiya Ishaq I, ruled from 27 December 1539 to 25 March 1549. Al-Sadi describes him as the ruler ‘who inspired the most fear and awe.’ Kati says there was a great drought and famine during his reign.

Fearing coups from the army or from his brothers, he executed or banished rivals to consolidate his power The Empire had some stability under his rule. However, the constant intrigues led to heirs to the throne living in hiding. A good example of this being Muhammad Bonkana’s sons, who lived in constant fear of assassination.

Mahmud Kati, a Songhai chronicler, relates the following episode showing some of the human qualities of this Songhai ruler. Apparently, Askiya Ishaq I entered the city of Djenné and ordered the inhabitants, including the poor, to report to the Great Mosque. Before all assembled, he ordered his interpreter to deliver this proclamation: “I swear by God that I have undertaken my voyage to this land only for the good of the country and on behalf of the faithful. Tell me then if anyone is oppressing the Muslims and other citizens of this town. Anyone who has knowledge of this matter but refuses to speak up will answer to the worshipers of God.” The interpreter repeated this message through the different galleries of the mosque but the response from all was silence. Eventually, however, Mahmud a holy man spoke up. “Do you really mean what you say, Oh Ishaq?” “By God, I mean every word of it!” replied the Emperor. “And what will you do to this oppressor you speak of, once we point him out to you?” asked the holy man. “I will give him the punishment that he deserves, be it death, flogging, imprisonment, exile, restitution of confiscated goods, or restoration of a tributary title” said Ishaq. “Well then” said the holy man “we know of no one here today who is more of an oppressor than you yourself, for you are the father of all of those who oppress us. Those who oppress us exist only because of you. You are the only one present today who has confiscated anyone’s property; if it has happened, it has only happened through your orders and because you have supported it. So if you really want to put an oppressor to death, you should start with yourself and do it quickly! As for the money that has been donated for you to carry off and accumulate at your house, does it really belong to you? Do you not have slaves among us who till the soil for your benefit, who manufacture goods for you to make a profit on through trade?” After hearing these words, the Emperor let out loud sighs before bursting into tears. Members of the crowd, especially those of the lower orders said to the holy man: “Who are you to speak in such a way to the Sultan?” Some of them pushed forward, about to rush Mahmud before the ruler stopped them and rebuked them. After this, the Emperor showed his submission, humility, and respect by saying: “By God, you are right! As for me, I repent before God and beg his pardon.” The Emperor left the congregation for his encampment crying profusely. However, the Emperor got his own back on the learned holy man. He forced the position of Qadi of Djenné on him. The holy man, in turn, uttered curses against the Askiya but died during the same month.

During this period, political problems emerged with Morocco. In 1540 the Moroccan Sultan, Al Aredj, sent an embassy to Ishaq claiming that the salt mines of Taghaza in fact belonged to Morocco. However, the salt mines were not only a part of the Songhai Empire, but produced an important commodity for the people of the Western Sudan. Askiya Ishaq I felt insulted by the Moroccan demand and sent a special unit of 2,000 mounted Tuaregs as a show of strength. The unit raided Dra‘a, an area to the south of the Moroccan city of Marrakech. The Moroccans backed down and there were no further conflicts with them for the next sixteen years.


14. Askiya Dawud (25 March 1549 - 16 August 1582)

Last of the truly great Askiyas

Askiya Dawud became emperor on 25 March 1549. His ascension to the imperial throne was not without intrigue, however. As the late Askia Ishaq I was becoming terminally ill, Dawud suspected that the imperial crown would go to Bukar, a grandson of Askiya the Great and the public’s first choice. Dawud had this rival killed but his method was decidedly unorthodox. He begged the assistance of a man well versed in the occult sciences. Apparently, the magician filled a vase with water and then pronounced several invocations. After this, he called Bukar by name and then said “Come hither!” Al-Sadi claims that a puppet resembling Bukar emerged from the water. The magician placed chains upon its feet and stabbed it with his spear, saying, “Go!” The puppet disappeared into the water. Strangely enough, when Dawud later returned to Gao, he found that Bukar had died. Following this, he went to Kukiya, just before Askiya Ishaq I had died.

As emperor, Dawud’s military victories restored Songhai control over trade routes to the north. There were battles with the Mossi, the Fulani, the Malians, Kebbi and Katsina. For instance, Askiya Dawud was so sure of the bravery and fighting ability of his soldiers that he sent a raiding party of twenty-four horsemen to attack the Hausa city of Katsina. These resolute men hurled themselves at the 400 Katsina cavalrymen who had come out to meet them protected by quilted armour. Needless to say, Dawud’s men were beaten. The Katsina cavalry killed fifteen of them in the struggle. They wounded and captured the remaining nine. Amazingly, the Hausa soldiers nursed and dressed the wounds of the nine remaining men. The ruler of Katsina sent them back to Askiya Dawud with the message: ‘Men of such incomparable bravery do not deserve to die.’

However, problems with Morocco resurfaced. In 1556 the Moroccans attacked Taghaza. They killed the Songhai governor of the city and a number of Tuaregs who were engaged in the salt caravans. This outrage was possibly retaliation for the Songhai raid of Dra‘a some years earlier. The surviving traders petitioned Dawud to abandon Taghaza. The Emperor agreed. Moreover, the traders knew of a potential mine in safer pastures further south. Eventually the old salt miners opened this new salt mine in 1557 between Taodeni and Taghaza. The location of the new mine was called Taghaza el Ghizlan (i.e. Taghaza of the Gazelles).

Following a victorious campaign against Mali in 1559, Dawud married a Malian princess. Al-Sadi recorded that:

He caused the princess to be conducted to Songhai in a sumptuous train. She was covered with jewels, surrounded by numerous slaves, both men and women, and provided with an abundant baggage train. All of the utensils of the household were of gold – dishes, pitchers, pestle and mortar, everything.

Askiya Dawud employed only trusted supporters to key jobs in the government. Under his rule, trade and culture flourished. He built banks and libraries. He employed calligraphers to copy books in manuscript. A well-read man, he gave books as presents to key scholars. He repaired the Sankore University Mosque and enlarged the Djinguerebere Mosque, both in Timbuktu. The learned and dutiful Qadi, Al-Aqib, supervised these and many other reconstruction works between 1569 and 1580.

Mahmud Kati wrote a very positive account of Dawud’s reign recounting example after example of his many kind and charitable acts, particularly towards slaves. He also said:

As a king, the Askiya Dawud was feared. He was also eloquent, clever in government, generous, liberal, jovial and playful. God gave to the Askiya Dawud a great easiness of manner.

Towards the end of his reign (spring 1582), Dawud’s son, the viceroy, ruthlessly put down lawlessness among the population of Masina. A group of people attacked and pillaged a royal boat laden with merchandise, which began its journey in Djenné. The indignant viceroy decided to make an example of the people responsible. His troops ravaged the country with fire and sword, killing indiscriminately. Among those killed were a large number of distinguished scholars and clerics. The Sultan of Masina fled to safety. The Askiya, however, disapproved of the policy and conduct of his son, but died on 6 August, before he was in a position to take any action. He died in Tondibi but his corpse was prepared and then transported by barge to Gao where he was interred. Lady Lugard says of Dawud: ‘With him died the last of the great Askias.’


15. Askiya Al Hajj (16 August 1582 – 16 December 1586)

An opportunist whose luck ran out

Al Hajj was a son of Askia Dawud. Although not the eldest son, on the death of his father he manoeuvred quickly to position himself as the next ruler. He took his father’s arms and mounted his father’s horse, all symbolic of his claim to be the next Askiya. He also countered the intrigues of the courtiers leading them all to proclaim him emperor. However, there was an incident where one of his brothers addressed him thus: “We admit only the right of primogeniture. If Muhammad-Bonkana [i.e. the absent firstborn not to be confused with a previous Askiya mentioned earlier with the same name] had been present this day, the power would not have fallen to you.” After his investiture, Al Hajj Muhammad II became emperor on 16 August 1582 and ruled for four years. Mahmud Kati describes him as ‘a handsome man, who was bearded, elegant, and virile … In his time, there was a great abundance of food.’

The Askiya had Muhammad Bonkana arrested while he was asleep at his home. A party dressed in black turbans and caftans overpowered his servants, killed his horse and captured him. The Askiya had Bonkana imprisoned at Kanatu. Lady Lugard likens Kanat[u] Prison to the Tower of London. Bonkana’s sons went into hiding only resurfacing to try to exact revenge on the leader of the raid on their father’s house. That man in turn hid among the souma, i.e. those persons responsible for the enthronement of an Askiya. They remained in the palace and wore hooded robes. The leader of the party only reappeared in public once the commotion died down.

Al Hajj faced down another rebellion when Al Hadi, the then Kurmina-fari, set out from Tindirma to Gao in early 1584 to do battle. In the end, however, Al Hajj had Al-Hadi arrested. He seized his prized horse, took his possessions and those of his followers, and had those followers flogged. One died as a result. The Askiya had Al Hadi jailed at Kanatu.

However, it was not long before Al Hajj’s luck ran out. His brothers plotted against him and removed from office. They installed Muhammad Bani as the next emperor on 16 December 1586. Al Hajj died shortly after the conspirators deposed him.

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16. Askiya Muhammad Bani (16 December 1586 – 10 April 1588)

A mere nullity

Muhammad Bani was installed as the next emperor on 16 December 1586 by the conspiracy of his brothers. As Askiya, Lady Lugard described him as ‘a mere nullity.’ Her ladyship was not exaggerating. Al-Sadi characterised his reign as one of hardship and famine. Kati shared this view. Professor Diop reported the only other information worth repeating on this ruler:

When balama Mohammed es-Sâdek revolted against Askia Mohammed Bano and in March 1588 attempted to march on Kaoga, the Askia, who came forth to challenge him to battle, wore an iron breastplate. As it was extremely hot and the Askia was very fat, he died of the effects of his armor.


17. Askiya Ishaq II (10 April 1588 – April 1592)

The last independent Songhai ruler

Askiya Ishaq II became emperor on 10 April 1588. His rule brought some stability to the Songhai Empire but he was only in power for three years. An old source attributed to ‘An Anonymous Spaniard’ tells us of what information a contemporary European received about Askiya Ishaq II. However, we warn the reader about the racist tone contained in this account:

It is said that Ishaq of Gao is a man of forty-five years. Although black, he is truthful and faithful to his word, and has a very gentle nature, and many good qualities; he is well loved by his subjects. He is not depraved as are the Moors of Marrakesh and Fez, and has no other vices than those permitted by his religion.

However, he also displayed an iron fist where necessary. He suppressed the revolt started by Muhammad Al-Sadiq (i.e. the same Mohammed es-Sâdek mentioned by Diop) within a month of assuming power. Al Sadi reported that the Askiya’s army were ‘like a swarm of locusts’ who stirred up ‘a huge cloud of dust.’ Mahmud Kati was even more poetic:

The partisans of the Askia fell upon them like a ravenous wolf falling upon a lamb; they glared at them as the lion in his den glares upon his prey; by the fire of their eyes, they rendered them spellbound like the chicks who are spellbound by the chicken hawk swooping down upon them; then, having charged the army of the Balama [i.e. Muhammad Al-Sadiq], they dispersed them in all directions. The men of the Balama turned their backs and took flight, without any of them stopping to take account of what has happened. On the contrary, they ran off in a stampede, abandoning the Balama.

In the end, the Askiya had Muhammad Al-Sadiq and some of his followers executed. One had an ox skin sown around him and was buried alive in a deep hole. Another died during a flogging. However, the Askiya pardoned other people who took part in the revolt. However, this battle did lasting damage to the Songhai Empire. Mahmud Kati says: ‘This civil war marks the beginning of the decline of the Songhai dynasty, its fall and ruin, before the actual coming of the troops of Mulay Ahmad.’

Over the next year or so, Ishaq II launched campaigns against traditional targets such as the Gurma. However, he never prepared for the most serious threat facing the Songhai Empire – the threat from the North. The Moroccan forces, backed by European firearms and personnel, invaded Songhai in 1591 and ultimately destroyed it.

On October 25 1590 the Moroccan army under Judar Pasha left to invade Songhai. The army consisted of 2,000 soldiers, 1,500 lancers, 500 cavalry, 1,000 camel-men, 8,000 camels, 1,000 packhorses and 600 scouts. Presumably, the 7,000 camels without camel-men were laden with artillery and supplies. Judar Pasha had a personal unit of seventy trained bodyguards to protect him. The records ominously describe Judar as ‘a little eunuch with blue eyes.’ The journey across the desert cost many lives. One-third of the army did not survive, but the rest continued their surge towards Songhai. On February 28 1591 they reached the River Niger.

Askiya Ishaq II expected that the invasion would come from the west and thus marched towards Kala. However, Songhai scouts soon learned the true nature of the foreign expedition coming from the north and immediately raised the alarm. The Songhai War Council quickly assembled 18,000 cavalrymen and 9,700 soldiers. Professor Diop, however, gives a higher figure of 12,500 cavalrymen and 30,000 soldiers. Whichever be the case, Songhai prepared to do battle. It must be borne in mind that the previous years of civil strife meant that the Songhai War Council now had only a fraction of the 100,000 troops at their disposal. Judar Pasha though vastly outnumbered had the advantage. He had large stocks of guns, ammunition and cannons. Songhai had none of these weapons.

The Askiya sent troops to block the wells along the desert routes. However, robbers waylaid the troops, prevented them from carrying out the order:

Had they succeeded [say Stride and Ifeka] the Moroccans must have perished in the desert. It has also been suggested that a number of sub-rulers delayed to send local levies to support the imperial army so that the Songhai forces at Tondibi were not at maximum strength. Be that as it may, the Songhai forces outnumbered the Moroccans by over ten to one, and the victory of Judar Pasha was a triumph of superior weapons and superior generalship. Songhai attempts to destroy Moroccan morale by religious rituals having failed, Askia Ishak attempted to sow confusion in Judar’s ranks by driving a maddened herd of cattle at them. The disciplined Moroccan forces broke ranks to allow the cattle to charge through their position and then rapidly regrouped. With their muskets, which the Songhai could only match with spears, bows and arrows, the Moroccans mowed down Askia Ishak’s cavalry; then moving onto the offensive, they routed the Songhai army, slaughtering the imperial veterans [i.e. the elite unit] who preferred death to flight. Ishak fled, the Moroccans occupied Timbuktu and Gao and soon the imperial unity of the western Sudan was no more.

After his initial victory at Tondibi, Judar Pasha pressed on. He sacked, pillaged and burnt to the ground the cities of Djenné, Gao and Timbuktu. His troops filled in water wells and destroyed fields of crops. They spared few, included women and children, and showed little mercy. The people of Gao probably fared a little better than those of the other cities since the Askiya had been able to order the evacuation of the city. He warned the inhabitants to remove their wealth to a safer place. Only the very poorest people and the foreign students were there at the time of the invading forces. In the case of Timbuktu, however, so great was the slaughter that the invaders dramatically reduced its population. A modern historian wrote that:

Vast agglomerations of people dwindle into insignificant villages. Timbuktu which had a population of 200,000 dwindled into a village of 15,000 people … Even moral standards were relaxed in the midst of this universal distress.

Al-Sadi tells us that after the invasion:

The high cost of food … became excessive. A vast number of people died from hunger and the famine was such that people were forced to eat from the bodies of dead animals and humans. The exchange rate fell to 500 cowries.

‘The conflict was intensified’, says Professor DeGraft-Johnson:

Askia Ishak II made ready to oppose Mahmud Pasha [i.e. Ben Zergun], but when they met the Songhai army again had to retreat in haste, making its way southward, into western Dendi. The ungrateful Songhai army turned on their Emperor, Askia Ishak II, who narrowly escaped being assassinated. He tried to reach Kebbi near Lake Chad, but circumstances compelled him to place himself at the mercy of the Gurma, who had long hated Songhai rule, and he and his companions were all murdered. The ingratitude of the Songhai people to Askia Ishak II will go down in history as one of the worst acts of perfidy ever perpetrated by Africans.


18. Askiya Muhammad Gao (April 1592 - ?)

A ruler undermined by his own people and double crossed by the enemy

Askiya Muhammad Gao was a one time chamberlain to the Askiya Ishaq II. He was elected ruler in April 1592 after the death of Ishaq II. However, many of the powerful dignitaries in the Empire opposed him becoming emperor and sided with the Moroccans! Perhaps seeing few other options available, Muhammad Gao made overtures to the invaders and offered to pledge allegiance to them.

Ben Zergun suggested that if the Askiya was serious, he should prove his sincerity by providing food for the Moroccan army, who by now, were feeling the effects of the famine engulfing the Empire. Muhammad Gao arranged to send food from the Hausa territories to feed the invaders. The Moroccans then invited him to come to their camp and pledge his allegiance. Despite this show of surrender, the Moroccans seized the Askiya and his party and sent them as prisoners to Gao where Judar Pasha was in charge. Others escaped. One fled on horseback. Another plunged into the river and swam to safety. The invaders sent a messenger to the Sultan of Morocco to ask what they should do with the Askiya. Before the messenger could even return, however, other Moroccans took matters into their own hands. They killed the Askiya and his party and installed a puppet as the next ruler of the Empire.

19. Askiya Nuh (April 1592 – June 1595)

Leader of the resistance to Arab rule

In 1592 under Askiya Nuh, a younger brother of the murdered Muhammad Gao, Songhai fought back from the south. The small number of surviving nobles and remnants of the royal elite proclaimed him Askiya. Mahmud Kati wrote: ‘He was a good cavalier and very brave. He was also large, tall, and well-proportioned.’

Abandoning the northern portions of the Empire to the enemy, he fled to the south, pursued by the invaders. Tired and without hope, he said the following to his followers: “Where to go? We have run so much already that we do not have the strength to run again; today we will wait for the enemy until death comes and provides us with rest.” However, his followers persuaded him to mount his horse and flee. Ben Zergun’s invading forces, however, pursued and captured some of Nuh’s men and ultimately sent them to the puppet Askiya ruling in Timbuktu.

A re-energised Askia Nuh, with a rag-tag army possessing arrows and assegais, resisted the enemy by diverting the battles to the forests. Here he employed guerrilla warfare tactics, inflicting a number of serious losses on the Moroccan army. At the Battle of Birnai, his forces killed 80 of the enemy’s men. Nuh’s actions began the war for independence, a struggle which would continue in some shape or form for the best part of seventy years.

Moreover, nature was not kind to Ben Zergun. For two years his men contended with malaria, dysentery and the tsetse fly. They marched through blisteringly hot weather, tornadoes, desert, tall grasses, stinking ponds and rivers that contained crocodiles. The forests ultimately hindered them from advancing further south. Ben Zergun wrote to Sultan El Mansur and told him that in one battle alone he lost his entire cavalry. El Mansur sent six more divisions of soldiers.

Two years later, Mahmud Ben Zergun was dead after a particularly foolhardy campaign against Traditionalists within the Empire. Askiya Nuh was still undefeated. Beraud-Villars calls the Askiya ‘Nuh the uncatchable.’ Ben Zergun himself was among the first to fall in the campaign, killed by many arrows. The Traditionalists cut off his head and sent it to Askiya Nuh, who in turn sent it to Kanta, the King of Kebbi. The ruler of Kebbi had the head displayed in the marketplace of Lika on the end of a stake.

This called for drastic action! In June 1595, Judar Pasha, now reinstated, gathered all the Moroccan forces and engaged in a great battle against the Askiya. Overwhelmed by the wild forces waged against him, Askiya Nuh’s resistance lay in ruins and his army was finally defeated. The Moroccan military regime, now known as the Arma, was now the effective government of Songhai.


20. Askiya al-Amin (fl. 1612)

Last heroic figure to stand up to the invaders

In 1612 Askiya al-Amin, a later ruler from the south, made the last valiant attempt to recapture the Empire from the invaders. Sayyid Kiray-ije was sent at the head of a large force to challenge the foreign rulers. The two armies, Songhai and invader, met at a location in the far south of Benga. They stood facing each other then both turned away and parted without fighting. Rumours spread that the Moroccans had bribed Sayyid Kiray-ije and later, the Askiya exposed him in a council meeting. Gold was found among the commander’s belongings showing that the rumours were true. Professor DeGraft-Johnson adds: ‘He was promptly executed. The struggle continued.’

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