Sonni Ali

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Sunni Ali

Sunni Ali (died 1492) founded the Songhay empire of West Africa. Best known as a great military leader, he was called Ali Ber, or "Ali the Great." There is much controversy about his attitudes toward Islam.

Almost nothing is known about the early life of Ali (who received the title of sunni, or si, when he became king of Gao) except that he was raised among his mother's people, the Faru of Sokoto, from whom he learned the use of magical powers. When he grew older, he lived with his father, Madogo, the tenth si of Gao. Madogo was a strong military leader, and he too taught Ali the techniques of magic. Thus by the time Ali became si, he was adept in the arts of both war and magic.

In 1464, when Ali succeeded the fourteenth si, Sulaiman Dama, Gao was still a tributary province under the Mali empire, which was then weakening. Trade in the western Sudan was becoming less secure as the Tuareg and the Mossi raided more freely from the north and the south. Thus Ali came to power in a centrally located and relatively strong state at a time when a power vacuum was developing in the Niger Basin, and he immediately advanced against the Mossi and then moved to throw off Mali rule. He succeeded in permanently freeing Gao from the once great Mali empire and laying the basis for the Songhay empire, which was even greater. He could defeat the Mossi only in battles, however, and never even attempted to conquer these formidable non-Moslem foes.

Wars of Conquest

Much of Ali's military career was spent subduing the great cities of the Niger River. During the first year of his reign he began a 7-year siege of the city of Djenné, which according to traditions had resisted 99 assaults by Mali. Meanwhile he expanded further to the west, defeating the Dogon, and the Fulani of Bandiagara. By about 1467 he had added the Hombori to the south.

Timbuktu had been held by the Tuareg since 1433, when they had taken it from Mali. In 1467 the local governor, Umar, petitioned Ali to come and liberate his city from its invaders. In January 1468 Ali advanced with such a formidable force that both the Tuareg and Umar himself fled. Then the Songhay entered and sacked the city. Ali's ruthless slaughter of most of the Moslem ulema there earned him the unanimous disdain and vituperation of the Moslem chroniclers who wrote the Tarikhs, which contain the main written sources of his deeds. In the following years Ali mounted additional attacks on the Mossi, Fulani, Tuareg, and other peoples. By 1471 the city of Djenné fell. In contrast to the harsh treatment Ali had accorded the Moslems of Timbuktu, whom he felt to have collaborated with a foreign enemy, here he was generous and accommodated the ulema.

During the next decade Ali extended his conquests in all directions, but he continued to nurse a powerful grudge against the Tuareg leader, Akil, who had escaped during the fall of Timbuktu. Akil had fled to Walata, where he still remained in 1480. Since a major part of Ali's military strength lay in his river navy, the isolated plains town of Walata presented special difficulties. Ali conceived a bold scheme to build a canal between Lake Faguibine and Walata in order to deploy his navy in an assault. This was a distance twice that of the modern Suez Canal. Soon, however, work was abandoned when the Songhay had to repel an attack of their nemesis, the Mossi. Ali never resumed construction of this canal, but traces of it are still to be found in Mali.

In the remaining years of his reign Ali led more attacks on the Dogon (1484) and the Gurme, Tuareg, and Fulani (1488-1492). He also again purged Timbuktu Moslems in 1486.

Ali and Islam

A major problem of Sudanic emperors was that of balancing urban, or Moslem, interests against those of the much larger rural, or non-Moslem, population. Rulers were generally Moslems themselves, but they always had to remain tolerant of established, local religions. Ali was a Moslem, and he performed all the routine Islamic rites; but he regarded Islam as a potential threat to his political power. He sought to retain his support in the rural masses, and he feared that he would be cut off from their support if the urban Moslems were granted too many privileges.

Ali's achievements were mainly military. During the early years of his reign he was constantly on the move, and he is remembered as having been undefeated. The task of administrative consolidation was, however, left to his successor, Askia Muhammad. Ali seems to have innovated a system of provincial governors, but it was not developed and Gao's control of its new territories was very tenuous. Songhay agriculture was frequently upset by his military levies, but he eventually alleviated this problem by incorporating more and more war prisoners into his own forces.

Ali depended more upon the fear and respect which he commanded as a strong magician-king than upon the love and admiration of his subjects, as he was a cruel and short-tempered man. He occasionally ordered the execution of even a trusted member of his retinue, only to later regret his loss. His general Askia Muhammad several times escaped such hasty sentences.

On his return from an expedition against the Gurma in late 1492 Ali died, possibly drowning while crossing a river. He was succeeded by his son, Baru, who tried to reject all Islamic influence, and was therefore felled by a Moslem-sanctioned coup led by Askia Muhammad within 4 months.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Ali. A chapter on him, translated from a French source, appears in P. J. M. McEwan, ed., Africa from Early Times to 1800 (1968). Other sketches of Ali's life can be found in Lavinia Dobler and William A. Brown, Great Rulers of the African Past (1965), and Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (1966). Important general sources are E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (1958; 2d ed. 1968); J. Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962); and J. O. Hunwick, "Religion and State in the Songhay Empire, 1464-1591," in the International African Seminar, Islam in Tropical Africa, edited by I. M. Lewis (1966). □

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Sunni Ali

Reigned 1464-1492

Ruler of songhai


Restoration of a Dynasty. Sunni Ali was the descendant of Ali Kohlen, the elder of two Songhai princes who were held captive by Mansa Musa to ensure the good behavior of the conquered people of Songhai. Around 1335, Ali Kohlen and his brother managed to escape from Mali, and on returning home, Ali ascended his father’s throne, founding the Sunni dynasty. Sunni Ali assumed the throne in 1464 and initiated the territorial expansion that was the basis for the Songhai Empire, which filled the power vacuum left by the disintegration of the older Empire of Mali.

Economic Reforms. Sunni Ali devoted considerable energy to warfare, but he also initiated political reforms that enhanced economic productivity. For instance, he increased from twelve to fifteen the number of captive states that were compelled to cultivate crops for the king. He also changed the quota of crop production. Instead of following the old practice of requiring each person to cultivate forty measures of land, he assigned two hundred measures of land to a group of one hundred cultivators.

Military Innovator. Ali was a military genius. He was the first leader in West Africa to use naval forces on the Niger River as part of a systematic strategy for conquest of new territories and defense of the empire. War boats regularly ferried his troops across the Niger.

Conquest of Timbuktu. Sunni Ali demonstrated his skill as a political strategist in 1467, when he made an alliance with Omar Muhammad Naddi, governor of Timbuktu, against Akil Ag Malwal of the Maghcharen Tuaregs. In 1468 Ali turned on Omar, who fled when he saw Ali and his forces, abandoning the city to Songhai. Ali’s treatment of the people of Timbuktu contributed greatly to his reputation for excessive cruelty and vindictiveness. He organized a systematic destruction of Timbuktu over a two-year period. His forces pillaged the city and put to death a large number of inhabitants, including many of the scholars for which the city was famous. (Scholars who managed to escape the massacre were not lured back to the city until after Ali’s death.)

The Siege of Djenné. In 1473 Ali used four hundred naval boats to end his siege of the city of Djenné, which— according to legend—lasted seven years, seven months, and seven days and inflicted great suffering in the people of the city. Ali did not destroy Djenné as he had Timbuktu. He spared the lives of the inhabitants of Djenné because he admired their bravery and fortitude in resisting his forces, if not for the more than seven years as legend has it, then certainly for a long time.

Great Warrior, Cruel Tyrant. Ali had immense energy and talent for warfare. In his march eastward to capture the kingdom of Borgu, he waged an incessant military campaign for ten years. The West African historian Mahmoud al-Kati (1468 - circa 1593) wrote:

He was always victorious. He directed himself against no country without destroying it. No army led by him in person was put to rout. Always conqueror, never conquered, he left no region, town or village … without throwing his cavalry against it, warring against its inhabitants and ravaging them.

Ali governed Songhai for twenty-eight years, a period regarded by some as a time of unparalleled tyranny. Having successfully avoided death on the battlefield many times, Ali drowned while crossing a river during a military campaign in November 1492.


J. O. Hunwick, “Songhay, Borno, and Hausaland in the sixteenth century,” in The History of West Africa, edited byj. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, second edition, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 1987), I: 264-301.

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Sonni Ali: see Songhai.