The Mali Empire, one of the biggest and powerful kingdoms in pre-colonial West Africa, was part of the three West African empires that reigned and controlled the trans-Saharan trade. The other two included the Ghana Empire and the dominant Songhai Empire. At the peak of its glory, the Mali Empire covered an area about twice the size of modern-day France. It boasted superiority in mathematics, literature, art, among others, thus attracting the interest of explorers, as well as, fortune seekers.
The power, wealth, sophistication and organisation shown by the empire were succinctly explored by Ronald Oliver and J.D. Fage in their evergreen work: A Short History of Africa.
They explained how Ibn Battuta, the great traveller who toured Mali Empire in 1352-3, wrote that its Negroes “are seldom unjust… Their sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the act of it. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence…” Even in 1352, there was “complete security in the land”.
Even though one of the most influential and well-known leaders of the empire at the time was Mansa Musa largely due to his humongous wealth, Battuta would further disclose the activities of Suleyman Keita, Mansa (king) of the empire who assumed power in 1341.
Having commanded the largest army in Western Sudan, Suleyman was recognized as the most powerful of Muslim rulers at the time. He was also the wealthiest, with more than a dozen kingdoms in his empire, according to historical accounts.
But Battuta would later complain of Suleyman’s miserliness, which was in sharp contrast to his generous brother, Mansa Musa. Despite being an effective ruler of the empire, he was said to be unpopular with his people to the extent that his own wife nearly succeeded in having him overthrown in a coup d’état.
History books say that Suleyman’s “court’s splendour and ceremonial pageantry were virtually on a par with European courts of the time.”
“At times the king gave audience in the open air, seated on a platform covered with silk, and called Bambi. A large silk umbrella, like a canopy, was held over his head, having on the top a golden bird as large as a falcon. He walked slowly on these occasions, surrounded by 300 armed slaves. Two horses and two rams were led forth, among other emblems of royal state. The King’s words gave rise to laudatory harangues in the assembly, in the course of which the soldiers signified their approbation by twanging their bows. Whoever spoke to the King, or was addressed by him, stripped himself to the waist, and, throwing himself prostrate, sprinkled dust or clay over his head, and beat the ground with his elbows,” writes globalsecurity.org.
Battuta witnessed these while visiting Suleyman at his court, as well as, court sessions in which Suleyman heard disputes of ordinary citizens and made judgements. But what perhaps shocked Battuta was his witness of the attempted coup d’etat by Suleyman’s senior wife, Balba Kasa or Kassi, as other accounts called her.
A slave girl had publicly testified that Kasa had sent her to an exiled cousin of Suleyman with a message saying: “I and all the army are at your service,” urging the cousin to return and depose her husband from power.
As the principal wife and paternal cousin of Suleyman, Kasa ruled jointly with her husband, as tradition demanded. Varying accounts state that she was very popular with the royal court, which contained many of her relations, but Suleyman apparently grew tired of her soon and placed her in confinement in the house of one of his captains.
He subsequently married a commoner named Banju (sometimes spelt Bendjou). People were not satisfied with the king’s decision, and eventually, the noble ladies of the court sided with Kasa as they continued to recognize her as the legitimate wife while not giving the needed honour to the new queen. Banju complained that Kasa was treated with more honour than herself and this angered Suleyman, who forced Kasa to seek sanctuary in the mosque.
Kasa ultimately caused a civil war within the court, as she persuaded the nobility, including her relations to revolt. The public dissatisfaction with the king’s decision grew until the female slave disclosed the above plot to have Suleyman deposed. It was then agreed that Kasa’s punishment was death though some accounts state that she was imprisoned and later released.
After ruling for 24 years, Suleyman passed away in 1360. Civil war broke out that year over his succession. Timbuktu, one of the most sought-after cities in the empire, was eventually raided and burned. GlobalSecurity.org reports that several states revolted and seized their independence, including the Tuareg, Tukulor, and Wolof.