Military Leaders and Strategies

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Military Leaders and Strategies


Military Leadership. Military leadership was drawn from various segments of West African social structure. Often, rulers had direct command of their forces and led their troops into battles. Emperor Nassere of the Mossi led an expedition against Ghana. Sumanguru and Sundiata in the


The following description of Sundiata’s famous 1235 defeat of Sumanguru illustrates how legends of warfare created larger-than-life heroes:

As Sundiata advanced with his army to meet Sumanguru, he learned that Sumanguru was coming against him with an army prepared for battle. They met in a place called Kirina. When Sundiata turned his eyes on the army of Sumanguru he asked, “What is this cloud on the eastern side?” They told him it was Sumanguru’s army.

As for Sumanguru, when he looked in Sundiata’s direction he exclaimed, “What is that mountain of stone?” And they told him “It is the army of Sundiata, which lies to the west of us.”

Then the two columns came together and fought a murderous battle. In the thick of the fight, Sundiata uttered a great shout in the face of the warriors of Sumanguru. At once, these men ran to get behind Sumanguru. He, in turn, uttered a great shout in the face of Sundiata’s warriors, all of whom fled to get behind Sundiata. Usually when Sumanguru shouted, eight heads would rise above his own.

When they had done this, Sundiata said to one of his captains, “Have you forgotten the taboo [that foretold Sumanguru’s end]?” As soon as Sangaran Danguina [the captain] heard Sundiata’s question he came to the front of the army, halted, grasped the [spear] armed with the spur of a white cock and threw it at Sumanguru. As soon as it had struck Sumanguru, Sangaran said, “This is the arrow of him who knows the ancient secrets ….” While he was saying this, Sumanguru vanished and was seen no more. Now he had had a gold bracelet on his wrist and this fell on that spot. A baobab tree grew out of it and carries the mark to this day. … As for Sundiata, he defeated the army of Sumanguru, ravaged the land of the Sosso and subjugated its people.

Source: Lester Brooks, Great Civilizations of Ancient Africa (New York: Four Winds Press, 1971), pp. 126-127.

thirteenth century and a host of other rulers at various other times and places led their armies into battles. In some kingdoms, such as Mossi, tradition forbade kings from leaving the capital city. The Mossi king Moro Naba had to appoint generals to lead his troops into battle. When Askia Muhammad II (ruled 1582-1586) of Songhai was unable to lead expeditionary forces to attack his neighbors because he was afflicted with a disease, he had to appoint generals to oversee the operations. High-ranking commanders might be rulers’ relatives. Sumanguru’s chief military general was his nephew, Fakoli Koroma. Even men from lowly backgrounds could ascend to the highest military ranks by proving their military skills in battle. The head of the Mossi cavalry, called

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Kidiranga naba> was usually from an ordinary family. In some cases, even slaves rose to top military leadership. The Samande naba, the general in charge of the Mossi infantry, was usually a slave. Many generals in the Songhai army were slaves. Slave generals played an important role in military and civil administration, often serving as members of the cabinet. The danger of a military composed of slaves was that slave warriors sometimes revolted and seized power. Such revolts created new ruling lineages and subordinated former power elites. Whether an army was led by a king, a freeman, or a slave, generalship was judged by intelligence, bravery, organizational ability, and astute leadership.

Figureheads. Africans created some symbolically useful offices whose holders had no power. Among the Ga, the Manste was said to have magical uses in war, but he was only “a small boy” in peacetime. Even in wartime, he never took part in battles. Instead, he sat on his stool apart from the fighting and was protected by a special bodyguard. The director of military operations, the Akwashontse, also headed a military court to which the Mantse was subject. It could order the beheading of an unsatisfactory Mantse.

Magic. Some military leaders enhanced their military skills with displays of magical powers. For instance, it was believed that Sundiata wielded magical powers to defeat his enemies, and his rival Sumanguru was “a smith and a renowned sorcerer” who used these gifts to enhance his military prowess. Oral traditions in Songhai painted Sunni Ali (ruled 1464-1492) as a foremost magician, who used his magical prowess to confuse his enemies in battle and win decisive victories in military campaigns. The fear that Ali struck in his enemies was best summed up by West African historian ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di (1569-1655), who wrote that when Timbuktu faced an attack from Ali, “bearded men of ripe age [were] trembling with fright at the prospect of mounting a camel and tumbling to the ground as soon as the animal got to its feet.”

Reconnaissance. Deceit and trickery were quite common in military reconnaissance. In 1582, Sultan al-Mansur of Morocco sent a messenger bearing gifts to the new ruler of Songhai, Askia Muhammad II. The Songhai learned later that the messenger was a spy, and soon after he returned home the Moroccan army attacked Timbuktu. Reconnaissance was frequently conducted at night, and soldiers on reconnaissance missions hid or disguised themselves as natives of territories under surveillance.

Tactics . Ambushes and massive two- or three-pronged attacks were used quite often. Attacks frequently came at night. Military lookouts climbed tall trees to see enemies from far away, and in some cases such lookouts directed the fighters below. Horses gave armies mobility and swiftness. Mande-speaking cavalrymen conquered an extensive territory in the Sahel, savanna, and savanna-woodland zones, founding many states and imposing their hegemony on subjugated peoples. Lat Dior of Cayor introduced a fighting tactic in which his troops dug a hole in the ground for each soldier. The hole was then covered, except for a tiny space from which to aim a weapon. When a frontal assault was deemed futile, military commanders often resorted to guerrilla tactics. For instance, when Askia Nur of Songhai realized that he could not challenge head-on Moroccan forces who were equipped with guns and cannons, he used guerrilla tactics in an attempt to halt their southward advance. Longdistance attacks were sometimes used. In 1590 Sultan al-Mansur of Morocco sent his army of 4,000 men and 9,000 transport animals 1,500 miles to attack Songhai. Similarly, Askia Muhammad I (ruled 1493-1528) penetrated as far as Kano and Zaria, places far from Songhai. Around 1561 Bornu troops attacked Kebbi, which was more than 500 miles from their capital. Some military campaigns lasted a long time. In the eleventh century the Almoravids needed fourteen years to subdue Ghana. The difference between victory and defeat was not determined by superiority of weapons alone but by strategy and the numbers or skills of the people who could be deployed as fighters. Some military leaders had elite, or special, forces. Despite its relatively small size, Borgu was not defeated by the mighty Songhai army in 1505-1506.

Rules of Engagement. While some battles were quite brutal, they were fought on the basis of specified rules of engagement enacted to keep violence within controllable limits. Except in extreme circumstances, the fighters did not engage in wanton destruction of lives and property. In 1591, Mami ibn Barun, the Moroccan commander in Timbuktu, apologized to the inhabitants of the city for the excesses of his fighters.


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Military Leaders and Strategies

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