We assume that we understand what an empire is, especially by virtue of our familiarity with dictionary-rooted knowledge. However, among historians and political thinkers, the term is constantly debated.
This at the back of our minds is important to learning about ancient Songhai. For most, Songhai was an empire and that is where we will leave matters.
The question of Songhai’s imperial status tends to border on cultural identity and hegemony. These may be legitimate but not sufficient critiques.
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What we have come to know as Songhai is not so much a place as it is a reference to a loosely connected group of people.
These West African Sahelian people include the Zarma-speaking people of modern-day Niger, the Mande in today’s Mali among other Nilo-Saharan ethnic groups.
Certain aspects of their cultures may be connected but not language. Zarma speakers, for instance, do not understand the dialect of the Gao people in Mali even though both languages are technically Songhai.
We may thus speak of Songhai peoples whose connectedness was coerced by the militarism of the noblemen from Gao in the early 15th century.
The kingdom of Gao was a subset of the empire of Mali. When Mansa Musa II was the emperor of Mali at the end of the 14th century, he had to suppress rebellions in the western town of Takedda as well as Gao.
But Musa II was not as successful as his more famous ancestor Mansa Musa I, reputed to be the wealthiest man who ever lived. Musa II managed to quiet down the revolt of the Tuareg in Takedda but not that in Gao.
Mali’s powerlessness over the people of Gao only presented an opportunity for Sonni Ali who rallied his people in Gao to independence.
Ali then took to consolidating Gao’s victory of independence by booting out the Malian settlers as well as aggrandizing the smaller towns around Gao.
By the 1430s, Ali had taken over the famous ancient Malian city of Timbuktu even as he conquered other lands that laid at his mercy. What was known as the Songhai empire was to be solidified before the beginning of the 1500s.
Ali died in 1492, leaving in charge, Sonni Baru, the last ruler from the Sonni dynasty.
A lot of conjecture surrounds Ali’s death. From the storied ancient manuscript Tarikh al-Sudan, Ali drowned attempting to cross the Niger River at the eastern end of the empire.
But oral tradition also says Ali was killed by Askia Mohammed, better known as Askia the Great. Askia was a nephew of Sonni Ali who ended the reign of the Sonni family.
Askia kicked off his dynasty in 1493 and was incidentally the greatest ever Songhai emperor. According to multiple records, apart from wars of expansion, Askia set the tone for innovation Songhai was known for.
By Askia’s time, Islam had permeated the heartland of the Sudanese states. Famed for their literacy and arithmetics, educated Muslims from the Middle East began bequeathing 13th-century West Africa with all that they know.
Askia instituted a modern tax system for his time while standardizing trade measurements and regulations.
Some of what he built was also based on the progress made by the Mali empire. This was especially noticeable in education and legal education from the famous school in Timbuktu.
This almost-transitional connection to the Mali empire is one of the reasons some struggle to point out the uniqueness in the culture and identity of the Songhai empire.
The empire itself waned by the 1600s. By the time of Askia Ishaq II, Songhai covered various portions of modern-day Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania Niger and Nigeria.