The Songhai Empire was the largest empire in the history of western Sudan. It grew from the small state of Gao, which was founded between 500 and 700 a.d. However the empire did not become a major force in the history of empire building and territorial expansion until 1464 when Sunni Ali, also known as Ali Beer, became the king.
In 1469 and 1470, his military campaigns led to the incorporation of Timbuktu and Azawad, located northward and northeast, respectively. In 1473, he attacked Jenne, a great Islamic center located southward, and in 1483, he was able to drive the Mossi out of Walata-Baghana.
Within 28 years of his ascendancy, Sunni Ali had converted the little state of Gao into a magnificent empire stretching from the Niger in the east to Jenne in the west, and from the Timbuktu in the north to Hombori in the south. He was said to be a ruthless ruler who maltreated all those who opposed his administration and did all that was possible to keep vassal states under firm administrative control by appointing governors who administered his orders.
Payment of tributes, which were in form of goods and contribution of workforce for further territorial expansion, placed the empire on a powerful economic and political footing.
The death of Sunni Ali in 1492 was followed by a 40-month reign by his son Sunni Baru, who was deposed in 1493 by Askia Muhammad Touré. Askia Muhammad Touré, popularly known in history as Muhammad the Great, completed the process of nation building and conquest initiated by Sunni Ali by extending territories of Songhai Empire to Baghana and Taghaza, a significant caravan route and salt producing area.
While Sunni Ali’s reign was characterized by ruthlessness and dislocation of commerce, that of Askia Muhammad the Great was known for the pacification of the subjugated people and the promotion of commerce, Islamic scholarship, and general tranquility.
His 1496 pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca had far-reaching consequences for the promotion of Islam as it attracted Muslim clerics and commerce to the empire. Islamic religion flourished in the great Islamic centers such as Timbuktu and Sankore. The University of Sankore produced the likes of Mahmoud Kati and Abdulrahman As Sadi, whose books are valued sources for the reconstruction of the history of Songhai and western Sudan in general.
Askia Muhammad the Great relied on the advice of Muslim clerics in governing the empire and made Islamic law the instrument of political and administrative machinery in western parts. In the eastern territories of Gao and Kikiya he allowed traditional religion to exist by granting non-Muslims of the region the freedom they needed to practice their religion.
As had his predecessor, Askia Muhammad divided the entire kingdom into provinces administered by governors, or kio. The central administration consisted of a council of ministers predominantly from his immediate and extended families. While Jenne controlled internal commerce, Gao and Timbuktu served as link to other economic centers in the east and northeast and west and northwest, respectively.
The prosperity of the empire was however short-lived. Starting in the middle of the 16th century, internal problems hindered the government and provided an enabling condition for its invasion and destruction by the Moroccans in 1651. At the top of the list of the internal factors that led to the fall of Songhai Empire was the succession dispute among the sons of Askia Muhammad the Great.
Aside from allowing hitherto subjugated states to assert their independence, this development inhibited economic prosperity and further territorial expansion. The Civil War of 1588 had its origin in poor internal control exemplified in the succession dispute between Ishaq and Sadiq, two sons of Askia Daud, and the crises between the western parts, which was under strong Islamic influence, and the east, under the firm control of the non-Muslims.
The last straw was the Moroccan invasion of 1591. The defeat by the Moroccans can only be appreciated against the backdrop of the fact that the empire on the eve of the invasion was in the throes of an internal convulsion. Al-Mansur, the sultan of Morocco, who had failed in two early expeditions, wasted no time to invade the empire during its most turbulent period.
In 1591, he attacked Songhai with 4,000 professional soldiers and another 2,000 armed with arquebus, a gun with three legs. Askia Ishaq II raised an army of 18,000 cavalry and 9,700 infantry to resist the invasion of the Moroccan army.
The overwhelming numbers of the Songhai army could not defeat their Moroccan counterparts in the battle, known to history as the Battle of Tondibi; the Moroccan army was more professional, disciplined, and equipped with sophisticated weaponry.
The Moroccan invasion led to the demise of the Songhai, the largest empire to have emerged in western Sudan. The guerrilla warfare initiated after 1591 was not formidable enough for the reassertion of political freedom.
The invasion led to loss of lives and property and the extension of Moroccan political hegemony over Songhai. Islamic scholars and clerics fled to other parts of the western Sudan and the great Islamic centers of Timbuktu and Sankore lost their hitherto prime position.