Songhai Empire

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Songhai Empire

Type of Government

The Songhai Empire was a succession of dynasties that spread through portions of present day Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger, and Mauritania between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. At the empire’s zenith, from 1460 to 1591, the government took the form of an absolute monarchy headed by a sovereign who served as head of state, commander of the armed forces, and head of government. The central government was divided into executive ministries with responsibility for disseminating imperial decrees through a system of administrators. The Songhai controlled numerous semi-autonomous vassal states at the empire’s periphery.


The Songhai are an ethnic group native to the Dendi region of Nigeria. By the eleventh century, the Songhai controlled a vast export industry along the Niger River from their administrative city of Gao. In 1323 the armies of the Mali Empire under the Mansa (King) Mūsā (1280–1332) invaded and captured Gao, making Songhai a vassal state.

The Mali Empire, which originated in the eighth century, gradually became the most powerful kingdom in the Sahel (the area south of the Sahara Desert), and the leader of the trans-Saharan gold and slave trade. Islam was first introduced to the Sahel region in the eleventh century and quickly spread throughout the region. Though traditional African religious remained popular among the populace, many of the leaders of the Mali Empire and subsequent states followed and supported Islam as a state cult. The cities of Timbuktu and Djenné were the economic centers of the Mali Empire and attracted traders, scholars, and artisans from across the Islamic world. The Songhai remained relatively autonomous although they were economically and militarily subordinate to the Mali empire.

In the fifteenth century, unchecked growth and political infighting prevented the Mali from addressing the spread of secession among their vassal states. The Tuareg, a Berber-speaking group, began encroaching on Malian territory, culminating in the capture of Timbuktu in 1430. The Mali were driven from their colonial territories and retreated to the upper Niger River, while the Sahel fractured into hundreds of warring states.

Sonni ʿAli (d. 1492), who became Songhai emperor in 1464, led the military in defending Gao from the Mossi Kingdom of Burkina Faso. With the city secured, the Songhai began a program of military expansion and eventually controlled the Niger Delta and the gold trade. In 1469 the Songhai captured Timbuktu from the Tuareg and shortly thereafter captured Djenné. By the 1480s, the Tuareg and Mossi had been subordinated and integrated into the Songhai state.

Sonni ʿAli instituted an administrative structure based on regional military leadership. The administration angered the Islamic community by granting equal status to native tribal religions and reducing the power and influence of Islamic sects. Sonni ʿAli continued to lead military expeditions into the surrounding regions, eventually gaining control over most of the Sahel.

Sonni ʿAli died in 1492 after leading a military expedition against one of the nation’s vassal states. His son and successor was unable to consolidate support among the Islamic community and was overthrown in 1493 by Mohammed I Askia (d. 1538), initiating the second major dynasty of the Songhai Empire.

The Songhai was the largest empire in African history, dominating thousands of tribes and controlling a region comparable in size to the United States. The central regions, including the major cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné, were predominantly Muslim. Timbuktu was one of the world’s foremost centers of Islamic scholarship and attracted students and religious adherents from across Africa and parts of Europe. More than 90 percent of Songhai subjects were non-Muslims, however, and the government adopted a policy of religious freedom, though Islam remained the dominant religion in the government.

Structure of Government

The Songhai Empire was divided into urban districts containing at least thirty-five cities, which blended into sub-urban districts and peripheral territories. The territories furthest from the central region contained vassal states and tribes. The Songhai vassals were largely autonomous but were required to pay taxes and contribute soldiers to military expeditions.

New territories were frequently added through military conquest. After annexation, transitional military leaders were installed in each territory. Conquered populations became indentured laborers. As the region developed, the emperor appointed permanent leadership to maintain the population under a loose military regime. Over time, indentured servants were integrated into society and allowed to pursue a variety of occupations.

The city of Gao was the nation’s administrative capital, while the cities of Timbuktu and Djenné were economic and cultural centers led by semi-autonomous governments. The emperor appointed governors to lead the urban districts with the support of a system of civil servants. The empire was bound together by a complex system of taxation and resource allotment.

The central government observed a patrilineal dynastic system (that is, through the male line of succession), in which the ruler served as head of state, head of government, and commander of the armed forces. An entourage including advisors, religious leaders, security, and members of the imperial family attended the emperor and assisted in administrative tasks. The emperor had sole and final authority to enact law by decree, appoint government leaders, and create treaties with foreign states.

A central council of ministers assisted the emperor by leading the nation’s executive offices. The ministries were divided into “departments,” including the treasury, military, domestic affairs, religion, and agriculture. The ministerial system was multi-tiered, with senior ministers supervising a system of junior ministers and civil servants.

Each region had a court system with appointed cadi (judges) who administered a blend of Islamic and tribal law. The sovereign had the power to appoint and dismiss members of the judiciary and the penal code was subordinate to imperial decree. The state maintained a complex penal system with prisons for each of the various social castes.

Political Parties and Factions

Songhai society was organized according to a caste system. At the pinnacle of the system were the emperor and his family. Imperial authority was disseminated through political, social, and religious leaders. The social elite consisted of families and individuals with ties to the imperial family who were treated as local leaders though they were not formally part of the government. The political elite consisted of imperial advisors, ministers, governors, and other regional leaders. The intellectual elite consisted of artisans, educators, and religious leaders. Within the elite castes, social networks and societies exerted a strong influence over government operations.

Below the elite were the common citizens, who were either privately employed or working in one of the state industries. The citizen caste was the most populous and comprised most of the nation’s agricultural and military employees. Individuals could move from the citizen caste into the elite by entering the civil service, apprenticing for artisanship, or training to join the Islamic leadership. Below the citizen caste were the slaves, who were traded for goods and services and were used as domestic servants, security, and laborers. Slaves could be freed, thereby becoming citizens, but were often restricted from joining the elite.

Major Events

Under the leadership of Mohammed I Askia, the empire adopted a flexible caste system, which allowed citizens to enter the elite caste through training in the civil service. The decision to adopt a system of advancement facilitated involvement in the government and encouraged popular allegiance to the empire.

Mohammed I Askia restored the prominence of Islam by appointing Islamic leaders to government posts and creating an Islamic legal system based on a network of regional courts. The re-integration of Islam into the state quelled friction between religious and political leaders and allowed for the stabilization of society. To facilitate economic growth, the Askia dynasty standardized many aspects of commerce including currency and weights and measures.

The effectiveness of the government declined under Askia Mohammed I Askia’s successors, as the nation grew too large for effective provincial management. The Maghreb people in Morocco staged a rebellion in the 1580s and gained control over the gold industry. Fueled by export revenues, and with the Songhai plagued by widespread rebellion, the Maghreb grew strong enough to challenge the empire. In 1591 the Maghreb captured Gao and the Askia dynasty collapsed into disarray. Over the next quarter century, the major cities fell from central authority and were captured by warlords. By 1620 the former Songhai Empire had splintered into dozens of minor states.


By uniting a diverse array of cultural, religious, and ethnic groups under a single government, the Songhai blurred traditional divisions between Sahelian cultures. After the collapse of the empire, territorial boundaries were unclear and minor nations spent centuries vying for control over the region and the trans-Saharan trade. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, European colonial fleets annexed the Sahel and eventually dominated the region under colonial governments. Through war and European domination, most of the intellectual and cultural developments of the Songhai were destroyed.

Hunwick, John O. “Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Saʿdī’s Ta͗rīkh al-sūdān down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents.” Boston: Brill, 1999.

Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore. The African Middle Ages, 1400–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Thornton, John. “Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.