(The following is my interpretation of Roderick McIntosh’s book, The Peoples of the Middle Niger: The Island of Gold, first published in 1988.)
Between around 300 and 1591, three great empires dominated West Africa. First, there was the Ghana Empire, which lasted from about 300 un4l 1200. It was followed by the Mali Empire, which was ruled by Mansa Musa between 1312 and 1337. He was famous for being perhaps the richest person in history. The Mali Empire was then replaced by the Songhai, which lasted until defeat by the Moroccans in 1591. But why were they so special? Often, we concentrate on their wealth and power, but actually one of their distinguishing features was the ability to include diverse groups of people within the empire and to treat them with respect. This was due to the unique history and geography of West Africa, which encouraged these empires to tolerate diversity. Therefore, we cannot understand the history of West African empires without looking back in time.
WEST AFRICA: ENVIRONMENT AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY
The ecology and environment of West Africa were very important in the development of empires. The terrain is very productive, but also highly diverse; plus the climate is very changeable. Farming and agriculture, as well as trade, allowed these empires to become very rich. But because the types of land were so different and the weather was so changeable, farming communities needed to be able to respond quickly to change and to work together in order to produce all the goods that people needed. This meant that when large empires formed, like Ghana, Mali and the Songhai, lots of communities were quite independent and had to cooperate with each other. This was especially important between 1100 and 1400, which was period of major climate change and big population losses in West Africa.
THE GHANA EMPIRE
Let’s look at the Ghana Empire (whose lands were not the same as modern Ghana), which was actually more like a network of kingdoms and tribes cooperating with each other. The Empire taxed the trade which passed through its lands, and had a cavalry-based military force. But its different parts did not all have the same relationship to the ruler. According to tradition, Ghana was founded by a man called Dinga and his descendants. Before going to the Empire’s Wagadou heartland, Dinga lived for about 20 years in the city of Jenne/Djenné, which was never formally part of the Ghana Empire. This suggests that Ghana and Jenne/Djenné had a close relationship, while Jenne/Djenné still remained independent. This is not surprising, because Jenne/Djenné had close cultural and commercial ties with places that were part of the Empire, like Méma and Dia. Therefore the power and wealth of the Ghana Empire was based not only on conquest, but also on cooperation.
THE MALI EMPIRE
The Mali Empire replaced Ghana as the major regional power in about 1200, and it is famous for its wealth and power. Again, just like in Ghana, the Mali Empire allowed some of its diverse peoples to be quite independent. Some places, like Méma and Wagadou, were officially independent but paid tribute to the main ruler. Tribute means paying money or goods to another state in exchange for protection or independence. Other places were provinces of the empire, meaning that they owed direct obedience to the ruler. There is disagreement about how independent some places were. For example, one account from the 4me says that the city of Jenne/Djenné was never conquered by Mali, but another account claims that it was. These two different ideas about the status of Jenne/ Djenné show how a variety of political structures existed in the Mali Empire.
THE SONGHAI EMPIRE
When the Mali Empire became less powerful, the Songhai rose to take their place – just as the Mali Empire began when Ghana declined. This shows how for one empire to rise, another one must fall. The Songhai built on the legacy of Ghana and Mali, and wanted people to see them as the heirs of these two earlier empires. This may explain why, in the fifteenth century, the Songhai decided to conquer the Méma region. Méma was associated symbolically with the Wagadou of Ghana, and so whoever ruled it had the right to rule others too. This shows how people in West Africa thought of these empires as connected across time.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THESE EMPIRES?
The story of these three empires suggests two main lessons. First, we cannot understand West African history without looking back in time. All of these empires were connected, and in order for one empire to rise, another one had to fall. This suggests that we should look at West Africa as one big unit, rather than only viewing one part at a time.
Second, these empires were successful partly because they respected diversity. The unique geography and history of West Africa meant that its peoples had to work together. Therefore, these three great empires were special because of their common West African heritage, which encouraged diversity and toleration.