Sunni Ali was an African ruler who founded the Songhai Empire in the 15th century. He was the hereditary ruler of the kingdom of Songhai, which existed from the 11th century and was centered in the city of Gao on the Niger River in the southeastern part of the present-day Republic of Mali.
In 1335, Gao, as the kingdom was also called, fell under the influence of Mali, the predominant Sudanic state of the time. (The Sudan is the grassland region of West Africa between the forest area of West Africa and the Sahara, on a south-north axis. It extends from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Red Sea on the east.) Mali had been the dominant regional power since the mid-13th century.
After Sunni Ali ascended the hereditary throne of Gao in 1464, he transformed the kingdom of Gao into the empire of Songhai, even though the Songhai people were a numerical minority in the new empire he created. At its height in the mid-16th century, Songhai was the greatest empire in Sudanic history, with an area of more than 1 million square miles.
It stretched from the Niger bend in the east (on the borders of the contemporary states of Niger and Nigeria) to the Senegal headwaters in the west and from Timbuktu and the Sahara in the north to Jenne and the forest belt in the south. In creating this empire, Sunni Ali completed by 1470 the destruction of Mali, which had been declining for about 100 years.
As in the case of the predecessor empires of Ghana and Mali, the economic basis for the empire of Songhai under Sunni Ali was the trans-Saharan trade route. This so-called Silent Trade of goods was based on a trade route that ran north-south from North Africa to West Africa.
Goods from Europe and the Muslim world, such as cloth and salt, would be exchanged for gold derived from West African mines at Wangara and Bouke (in the present-day Ivory Coast). The traders from the north would leave their goods on a riverbank.
If the gold miners from West Africa approved of the amount, they would leave gold and take the goods. The gold would be deposited the next day on the riverbank for the traders from the north. Usually no words would be exchanged in these transactions. Songhai benefited from the tariffs imposed on these goods, which passed through its territory.
In establishing his empire, Sunni Ali made use of his well-armed cavalry, which was very efficient. His army also had an infantry. In addition, Sunni Ali developed a powerful navy, a fleet of ships manned by Sorko fishermen (the people who had cofounded Ghana).
In 1468, he ousted the nomadic Tuareg from Timbuktu, the major Sudanic city between the Sahara and the Sudanic belt. In the process, he pillaged the city, an oasis of Muslim learning as the headquarters of the famous Islamic university of Sankore, and killed many priests and scholars during these attacks, thereby earning the enmity of the Islamic establishment.
In contrast, his conquest of Jenne, although prolonged, was less violent. Utilizing the navy and siege engines, he took seven months and seven days to complete the blockade of the city. Jenne was the southern counterpart of Timbuktu as it was the connecting link between the Sudanic belt and the forest belt.
After 1480, Sunni Ali had established his empire and stepped up military campaigns against nomadic peoples who threatened the economic basis of the empire. The Tuaregs who menaced Timbuktu were harassed. The Mossi who sacked the gold town of Wangara were similarly harassed and driven back into their Upper Volta homeland between 1483 and 1486. (Until gold and silver began to arrive in large amounts in the mid-1500s from Mexico and Peru, West African gold was the major source of coinage for Europe and the Middle East.)
The Fulani were also pushed back to their home territory in northern Niger, Guinea, and Senegal. In fact, Sunni Ali drowned in 1492 after an expedition against the Fulani.
The empire that Sunni Ali founded lasted in part because of the administration he developed. The conquered territories were made into provinces whereby their hereditary rulers became governors of the newly created vassal states of the empire of Songhai.
Therefore, the empire that Sunni Ali created was a centralized state with some degree of local autonomy for outlying areas. In addition, places like Timbuktu and the Muslim provinces received special government.
It was Sunni Ali’s lukewarm practice of Islam that incurred the wrath of the ulema, the Muslim scholars. He was only nominally Muslim and did not neglect traditional Songhai religious practices, which his own people continued to observe.
He also did not make Islam the state religion. These actions, in combination with the sack of Timbuktu, earned him enduring hostility from Arab/Muslim historians. This enmity was a cause for the overthrow of Sunni Ali’s dynasty the year after his death.