Songhai Under Askia The Great


At old age, Sunni Ali still embarked on expedition. He, however, died in November 1492 whole returning from an expedition against the Gurma, and his son, Sunni Baru, was named ruler of Songhai two months later. Sunni Baru resigned for about fourteen months. He was ousted in a coup in April 1493 by one of Ali’s general, Askia (Askiya) Mohammed (1493 – 1520), with the support of the Muslim factions in the empire. Askia Mohammed turned out to be an able administrator who consolidate his position and built upon Sunni Ali’s achievement. But by relying on Muslim to carry out the coup against Al’s son who was supported by the traditionalist, he set the stage for the division of Songhai between Muslims and non Muslims, which in no long run, proved fatal for the empire. As a usurper, Askia Mohammed alienated many adherent of the traditional religion which supported Ali’s son. His immediate task was therefore, to consolidate his position and win the support of the majority of the people. Towards this end, he eliminated or expelled from the Empire the surviving members of the two previous dynasties, and actively cultivated the support of Muslims as an alternative power base by justifying his coup on religious ground. At the same time he did everything to try to win the support of the traditionalist while taking steps to ensure that future succession to the throne remained within his lineage. A major reason that led to the defeat of Sunni Baru is that he refused to declare himself a Muslim and at the same point Islam was already taken hold of most part of Sudan. Based on Askia personal ambition, he quickly took advantage of the situation and joined forces with the Muslim while parading himself to be a devout Muslim.

With Askia Mohammed, the Empire of Songhai entered a stage in its impressive political life. Becoming emperor at the age of fifty, he reigned from 1493 until 1528, and carried the political and commercial power of the Empire of Songhai to its greatest point of expansion. Askia is remembered for some of the following innovations in political and governance.

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A very peculiar aspect of Askia Mohammed political structure was that he made a sharp break with the religious and family traditionas of the Sunni line of rulers. He based his power firmly on the towns and, in line with this, ruled as a strict Muslim. Although many traditional custom and practices were still observed at his court, his laws and methods were increasingly in Accord with Muslim ideas. In this, clearly, he understood well the trend of power in Songhai. This is shown, among other things, by the fact that he could be absent on a pilgrimage to Mecca for two years without causing trouble for himself at home.

Askia Mohammed pilgrimage in 1496 to Mecca is very remarkable in the diplomatic relations of the Sudan. It is said that in order to attract attention, the pilgrimage was organized in an even more extravagant manner than that of Mansa Musa. A major aim of the pilgrimage was to consolidate his acceptance by both Sudanese and and non Sudanese Muslims. Hence while in Ciaro, he persuaded the Caliph of Egypt to recognize him as the Caliph of Sudan. On his return he declared a Jihad against the Mossi in 1493 – 1499. He also conquered air to the east, Diara and Beghana to the west, and Taghaza, Songhai was in full control of the salt and gold trade in the Western Sudan.

In order to strengthen Islam, he patronized and cultivate Muslim scholars, particularly those in Timbuktu, a town which he turned into a leading educational and commercial Centre, and attracted traders and scholars from North Africa and the Arab world. The status of Gao and Jenne as commercial and religious Centre was enhanced. Muslims were employed in matters like taxation and in the implementation of justice in matters involving Muslims. Although Islam was strengthened, Askia Mohammed, like Mansa Musa, was wise enough not to alienate the majority of the common people by forcing the religion on them. In fact, he retained a number of traditional practices in the palace. Islam in Songhai was essentially a religion of urban centers, the elites and the traders.

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In the political structure, there was a central administration under the direct control of Askia Mohammed. The rest of the Empire was divided into two broad regions, each with an administrator. The Islamized part of the Empire was the Western Region while the non Islamized part of the Empire was the Eastern Region. Each was divided into provinces, with administrators appointed for some areas while those vassal states that readily accepted the central authority were left under the traditional rulers as long as they pass their tribute regularly. As it were with Ghana and Mali, revenue were derived from various forms of taxation and custom duties, while there was also a number of state owned farms worked by slaves and craftsmen who produced various items for the central authority.

Finally, Askia Mohammed’s major contibution to Songhai was that he completed and consolidated it’s transformation into a large and prosperous Empire.

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