Songhai (Songhay) Empire

Songhai (Songhay) Empire was an empire that arose on the collapse of the Mali Empire, in the western Sudan. It restored the stability of the trans-Saharan trade. It was defeated by the Saadian Moroccan Kingdom and went into decline.


The Songhai speak a Nilo-Saharan language, unlike most of their neighbors. The Songhai originate from Sorko fishermen, who were expert boatsmen. This expertise would serve the military of the empire well, as battalions of war canoes would maintain order and inflict destruction on enemies along the Niger. The original capital of the Songhai, was Kukiya. It was later transferred to the muslim trade city of Gao.
Songhay Knight
After the fall of Mali, the Songhai engaged in a course of expansion. Under Sunni Ali Ber(1464-1492), they brought the Mossi Kingdoms under their control, in the southeast Niger. Sunni Ali placed the Tuaregs in check, and grabbed Timbuktu, stretched the empire west to the Senegal River near Futa Toro, Fulani country.

He was succeeded by one of his general Muhammed Ture, who took the throne from Sunni Ali's heirs. Ture founded the Askiya Dynasty, which lasted from 1493 to 1592. Unlike Sunni Ali Ber, Muhammed Ture was a devout muslim. Ture extended the empire further into Tuareg country, capturing Taghaza and Air. He never conquered Hausa country, but brought it into the empire's trading network. He took a hajj in 1496,  establishing diplomatic connection with North Africa and the muslim world. Ture also secured, strengthened the trans-saharan trade that became unstable after the fall of Mali.

In 1528, Ture was depose and an internal struggle for the title of askiya ensued. In 1549, Ture's oldest son Dawud solidified his control of the throne. Dawud was a devout muslim who built numerous mosque and founded numerous quranic schools.

Administration and Economy

The Songhai Empire was more centralized than the Mali Empire. Under Ture, traditional rulers or chiefs were replaced with administrators from the royal court, in each province. Songhai was divided into the province of Kurmina, Dendi, Baro, Dirma, and Bangu. Each province had a governor called a fari (farma, koy). The senior governor was called kurminafari.

The empire had a significant civil service with numerous post. The barey-koy was in charge of court arrangement and assisted by the kukura-koy, who was in charge of bringing foodstuff and necessary amenities. The katisi-farma was head of finance and assisted by waney-farma, who dealt with issues of property, bara-farma who dealt with wage issues, and the dey-farma who purchased all imperial items.The fari-mundia was in charge of all farming issues. The sao-farma was in charge of forestry issues. The asari-mundia was in charge of the department of justice. The garei-farma was master of the "camp."

Songhai's source of revenue came from taxes paid by each province and royal farms. The empire also taxed trade going through the empire. Food was a major commodity of trade within the empire. Gold and slaves were major items in the trans-Saharan trade. Slaves taken from mainly Mossi territory and kola nuts from the forest zones were used in exchange for horses, linen and woolen cloth, cowries, luxury goods from North Africa.


Before Askiya Muhammed the Great, men were drafted into the army from conquered territories. Askiya Muhammed established a fulltime army of foot soldiers. It was run by a fulltime general called the dyini-koy or balama. In addition, an army of cavalry was established under the tara-farma. Furthermore, an organized  fulltime navy of canoes on the Niger was created. The fleet was placed under the hi-koy (admiral of the canoe fleet).


After Askiya Dawud, Songhai was ruled by ineffective leaders. In 1591, Ahmad al-Mansur of the kingdom of Morocco invaded Songhai. Songhai under Askiya Ishaq II(1588-1591) was defeated by Moroccan troops at the Battle of Tondibi. The Moroccan army was unable to hold unto the empire's territories. The empire eventually broke into different states.

Related Article: Timeline of African History

Works Cited

Shillington, Kevin (2005). History of Africa. Revised 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.101-105,179-181, ISBN 0-333-59957-8

Collins, Robert O. and Burns, James M. (2007). A History of Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 87-89 ISBN 978-0-521-68708-9.