views updated

Military Forces


Size of Military Forces. Many West African kingdoms built formidable military machines that were used for conquest of new territories and for the defense of an empire’s territorial integrity. Large armies were kept for the purpose of political prestige. Empires and kingdoms were founded, extended, or defended by thousands of soldiers. Kaniaga had an army of 2,000 hórsemen. Ghana had 200,000 soldiers, including 40,000 archers. Tilutane, the Lemtuna Berber leader, had an army of 100,000 camel-mounted men. Songhai had 12,500 cavalry and 30,000 infantry soldiers. Benin could mobilize as many as 100,000 soldiers in a day. In some instances, political alliances, family ties and personal ties, and astute diplomacy cemented relationships and obviated the need for large standing armies. Yet, overall, the military was an important institution in the states of West Africa.


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Bornu was a major expansionist power, and warfare was the main function of the state. According to historian Ronald Cohen,

as many as seven or eight military campaigns a year were not uncommon; this meant an expedition might leave Bornu every six or eight weeks during the dry season. With so much militarism the techniques of warfare elaborated accordingly. From at least the sixteenth century onward, Bornu imported muskets, swords, and chain-mail, which were vital and ancient parts of the Saharan trade, although such armaments were also manufactured by Bornu craftsmen as well.

The army itself was organized into regiments, representing a local area or an ethnic group under their own leaders, and they went into battle according to a welllaid-out military strategy. Campaigns were almost always conducted against walled towns. The shield bearers advanced first, then after it was felt that the poison arrows of the enemy were exhausted, the rest of the army would advance, either storming the walls or forcing the town dwellers to come out and fight—whereupon muskets and cavalry were used. Generally speaking, open encounters were quite unusual; the Bornu army was large, well disciplined, and well-equipped, while the town dwellers were weak in all these respects and would usually try to flee once the siege went against them. Fallen towns were then mercilessly looted and the inhabitants killed or enslaved.

After the campaign and the distribution of booty by the leaders, the army disbanded. Leaders of various territorial ethnic groups swore allegiance to the king and arranged for the next campaign to be held so many days hence. At that time, criers were sent around to local markets stating the date and place of rendezvous for the army. Able-bodied men were expected to go or send a representative bearing arms. A wife or female slave often accompanied each man to cook for him. But local townspeople were also expected to supply the army with food when it passed through their territory. However, it was preferred that the army be selfsufficient even to the point of digging their own wells. Discipline obviously posed some problems since the records indicate that at times, army morale was low, especially during long, arduous campaigns. However, it picked up very quickly when the prospect of booty was in evidence.

source Ronald Cohen, The Kanuri of Bornu (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967), pp. 23-24.

Social Composition. West African armies were composed of soldiers from different social strata. The 4,000-man Moroccan army that invaded Songhai in 1590 was composed of an assortment of men, including Portuguese Christian soldiers captured by Morocco in a war against Portugal, European captives bought from North African pirates, and European mercenaries, as well as troops of Moroccan descent. In Benin the adult age-grade association constituted the warrior group. The core of the Bornu infantry was composed of slaves. In addition to these armed slaves, its forces included 3,000 armored knights andconscripted peasants armed with spears and bows and arrows. Tributary rulers were required to provide warriors to an imperial army. For instance, the ruler of Bornu did not maintain a large permanent force. Instead, he drew many

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

fighters from conquered peoples or by imposing local levies. Several African states had professional soldiers. A few empires maintained full-time militaries and also had militias that could be called into active service as the situation warranted. In Mossi, a few security units were maintained on a permanent basis. Songhai maintained a standing army. Soldiers included knights, cavalry, foot soldiers and auxiliary soldiers of Tuaregs, infantry regiments, royal guards, and an armed flotilla. In many cases, West African armies were composed of citizen-soldiers who were drafted to fight and discharged from the military once a war was over. Even in states that had standing armies, if a particular military operation demanded more soldiers, the regular army was reinforced by the conscription of able-bodied young men. Military power was supplemented by military confederations and alliances. Military aid in the form of weapons or soldiers was extended to places outside the region.

Organizational Structure. Some West African armies, such as the Songhai army under Askia Muhammad I (ruled 1493-1528), were divided into territorial units. Some states divided the polity into four or more provinces. Each province had a governor who was responsible for law and order, defense, and the mobilization of citizens for warfare. In other cases, the military was organized on the basis of specialized functions, such as cavalry and infantry units, each with its own commander. Close coordination of the fighting forces was the responsibility of the supreme military leader.

Bravery and Gallantry. Military codes of honor emphasized valor, courage, and patriotism. Whether composed of conscripts, slaves, mercenaries, or volunteers, West African military forces usually fought gallantly. They learned bravery through discipline and epics of courageous ancestors. They took oaths of patriotism and were instilled with a spirit of fierce independence. Their sense of military honor demanded that they die rather than turn tail in the face of enemies. It is possible that stimulants such as kola nuts were distributed to soldiers to help them maintain a state of mental alertness. One famous example of bravery occurred during the reign of Askia Daud of Songhai (1549-1582), who sent forces to raid Hausaland. On one particular occasion, his twenty-four hórsemen boldly attacked a force of four hundred Hausa soldiers at Katsina. Fifteen of Daud’s men killed fifteen Hausa fighters and wounded nine others. Hausa forces captured several of Daud’s men but sent the captives back to Songhai instead of killing them. The Hausa soldiers justified their magnanimity on the ground that such brave men did not deserve to be put to death. Another instance of bravery among Askia Daud’s soldiers had a tragic outcome. Cheik Anta Diop has described the aftermath of a Moroccan defeat of elite Songhai foot soldiers: having been “taught not to run away in the face of overwhelming military odds,” they sat on their shields and waited for the Moroccans, “who massacred them in this position without any resistance on their part.”


J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, eds., The History of West Africa, second edition, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 1987).

Bolanle Awe, ed., Nigerian Women in Historical Perspectives (Lagos: Sankore / Ibadan, Nigeria: Bookcraft, 1992).

E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (London & New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1958).

Basil Davidson, Old Africa Rediscovered (London: Gollancz, 1959); republished as The Lost Cities of Africa (Boston &, Toronto: Little, Brown, 1959; revised, 1970).

J. C. De Graft-Johnson, African Glory (London: Watts, 1954).

Cheik Anta Diop, Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States, translated by Harold J. Salemson (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1987).

Robert Edgerton, The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast (New York: Free Press, 1995).

Jacob U. Egharevba, A Short History of Benin, second edition, revised and enlarged (Benin: Published by the author, 1953).

J. D. Fage, An Introduction to the History of West Africa, third edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

Sylvia C. Finkley, Africa in Early Days (New York: Odyssey Press, 1969).

Robin Law, The Horse in West African History (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1980).

Wale Ogunyemi, Queen Amina of Zazzau (Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press, 1999).

Roland Oliver, ed., The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 3: from c. 1050 to c. 1600 (Cambridge, London, New York & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1962).

Elias N. Saad, The Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Margaret Shinnie, Ancient African Kingdoms (London: Arnold, 1965).

John Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (London: Published for the University of Glasgow by Oxford UniversityPress, 1962).

Jan Vansina, Kingdoms of the Savanna (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

About this article

Military Forces

Updated About content Print Article Share Article