Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sunni Ali: The Rise of the Songhai Empire

Songhai Empire
Mali’s power had waned by the 15th century. Various regions of the empire began to assert their independence from the declining Mali. Among this regions was near the famous bend of the Niger River. It only took a ruthless ruler, named Sonni or Sunni Ali Ber to lead his people to independence and to a military campaign that would forge a new empire – the Songhai.

Sonni or Sunni Ali Ber was the founder of the Songhai Empire. Not much was known about his birth or his early life. The story of Sunni Ali began when he became the ruler of the Songhai people in 1464. Centered on Gao, the territories held by the Songhai expanded throughout the course of Sunni Ali’s reign.

Sunni Ali’s army was composed of an army and a navy. His army included well-armed cavalry force. The army was then supported by a riverine navy. It riverine warships were manned by the Sorko People, famous boatmen and fishermen who knew the course of the Niger River.

The Songhai people under Sunni Ali undertook a long military campaign in order to attain vast lands. In 1469, the first great conquest went to Sunni when the rich city of Timbuktu fell into his hands. Timbuktu provided Sunni Ali additional resources to proceed with his campaign. The next great victory of Sunni Ali came in 1475. After a seven year siege of the great city of Jenne (Djenne), the city fell to Sunni after a political marriage between Sunni Ali and its Queen. The capture of Djenne signaled the dominance and the collapse of the Mali Empire in the region. The fall of Djenne also meant the start of the imperial legacy of the Songhai people.

After the fall of Djenne, the Songhai Empire acquired huge wealth. Both Timbuktu and Djenne were centers of the lucrative Trans-Saharan trade. Caravan flock to the two cities to trade for salt and gold. Gold and salt, in addition to taxes, became a source of wealth for the new Songhai Empire.

But even this huge wealth, Sunni Ali’s military ambition was not yet over. From 1483 to 1486, Sunni Ali launched a long military campaign to subdue and annex the Mossi people in the south. Also, during the late 1480’s until his death, Sunni waged a war against Fulani people and its kingdom of Massina.

Sunni Ali announced himself publicly as a Muslim, however, his action dictate otherwise. Despite declaring himself a Muslim, Sunni Ali continued practicing traditional religion. He was also tyrannical and brutal towards Islamic scholars and priests. In fact, during the sack fall of Timbuktu, some scholars were arrested and even killed in the Sankore Madrasah. Throughout the reign of Sunni Ali, Islamic scholarship that flourished in Timbuktu suddenly became silent. Many judge him for this action. Muslim scholar denounced him for such conduct against intellectuals and priests.

His tyranny towards Islamic scholars could not reflect the same for his administrative skills. He was known for his efficient rule of his domains. He established a strong central power centered on Gao. He divided the empire into provinces each have an appointed governor. Many leading families in each province became loyal after they were made governors of the area. In special cases, special governors were appointed by Sunni Ali. For example, a special governor with more powers known as tondifari or governor of the mountains was appointed for the Mossi state.

The reign of Sunni Ali ended in 1492. During a campaign against the Fulani people, Sunni Ali drowned on a river en route to Fulani region. Sunni Ali was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baru. But the reign of his did not last long. Just a year after Sunni Baru ascended the throne, Sunni Ali’s greatest general, Mohammad Ture, usurped the throne and took the reign name of Askia Mohammad.

Sunni Ali was a brutal but an efficient leader.  It was his skill that gave rise to the last great West African Empire of Songhai. It was from this foundation that Askia Mohammad would establish a new dynasty and herald a golden age for the Songhai Empire

See also:
Asante Empire
Askia Mohammad
Ghana Empire
Great Zimbabwe
Lunda Empire
Songhai Empire

Ackermann, M. et. al. (eds.). Encyclopedia of World History v. 7. New York: Facts On File, 2008.

Beck, R. et. al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Florida: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., 2012.

Stearns, P. (ed.). Oxford Encyclopedia of World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.