A History of the West African Songhai Empire

The Songhai empire is the last in this trilogy of great West African kingdoms that were among the most prosperous, educated, and cultured civilisations in the world at the time.

In fact, it is worth highlighting that the Songhai Empire derives its origins from the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali that came before it. They not only occupied similar areas of West Africa, but also shared the same range of ethnic groups and religious beliefs, showing that diversity was key to the success of these vast communities.
It is from the ashes of Mali that the Songhai empire rose. As the former went into decline, the latter regained control of Gao, which was situated along the Niger river, and thus acted as an important trading post. The Songhai army, under the leadership of King Sonni Ali, then set its sights on Timbuktu and Djenne. The army’s success owed to king Ali’s military prowess, as well as their iron weapons, which they had inherited from the empire of Ghana before them. With Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenne under its control, the Songhai empire was able to amass a great wealth.

King Sonni Ali was succeeded by a man named Mohamed Toure, who became known as Askia the Great. This man earnt his title for overseeing the Songhai empire’s golden age. He expanded their territory, enabling the kingdom to engage in further trade with merchants from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, who flocked to West Africa in search of the gold which was so abundant there. Askia the Great believed strongly in education. Like Mansa Musa before him, he invited scholars from all over the world to his empire, built many universities and schools, and gathered an enormous collection of manuscripts which could be studied by his people. He also had a keen interest in astronomy, and therefore constructed an impressive number of observatories throughout his empire.
Askia’s reign was also successful for the political reforms he introduced. He centralised the government, and made Songhai into an organised and efficient civilisation. Askia was even admired by the people he conquered, especially the Mossi, for his religious tolerance. He refused to convert to convert them to Islam against their will, and for this reason he was a man ahead of his time. Askia was loved by the Muslims and non-Muslims in his empire, who were all able to practise their faith without persecution, and this is one of the reasons why his reign was so peaceful and prosperous.

Nonetheless, the success of the Songhai empire could not last forever. The fighting among Askia’s sons to take over throne weakened the kingdom. This allowed the Moroccans to invade from the north. The Songhai empire was so large that no one was able to control it in its entirety as Askia had managed. Therefore, it broke down into a number of smaller kingdoms, as the diagram shows.

As with the empires of Mali and Ghana before it, the Songhai kingdom is a source of great pride for the African people of today. At a time when the rest of world was impoverished by disease, war, and a lack of education, Africa was the beacon of prosperity to the world, advancing humanity between the 5th and the 16th centuries.




  1. Landry koumba 5 years ago November 12, 2016

    Wonderful history i did not know it. Thanks!

  2. Olivia 4 years ago January 14, 2018

    What was the education like there? Great info but i really need to know this. Please help

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