Songhai Empire was located in West Africa along the Niger River. When it reached its peak, its location extended more than 1000 miles towards the Atlantic Ocean. It was centred on the middle reaches of the Niger River and extended west towards the Atlantic coast and east to the River Niger.


The fall of Mali Empire contributed to the emergence of the Songhai Empire. Gao, formerly a major city in Mali, became the capital city of Songhai Empire. The empire lasted from 1464 to 1591.

Songhai Empire made use of the opportunity of the fall of Mali Empire to establish itself and assert its independence. From its capital at Gao, the empire expanded towards the coast.

It became strong enough to collect tribute from Masina. It further waged war against the declining Mali Empire which led to the conquest of Timbuktu by the Songhai Empire.

Sunni Ali, who founded the empire and became the first king, was once a prisoner of Mali Empire. By 1464, he escaped from prison and took over Gao. From there, he established the Songhai Empire and began war of conquest of surrounding regions. He conquered the great commercial cities of Timbuktu and Djenne.

With the emergence of Askia Mohammed, as the king of Songhai in 1493, the empire was brought to its height of power. He founded the Askia dynasty. He also embarked on many wars of conquest. He conquered most of Mali’s territory and eventually took over the gold and salt trade.

The Songhai Empire was considered one of the greatest African empires, from the 15th to the 16th centuries.



The society was organized on the caste system. Marriage linked the larger families into social units called caste. Each caste specializes in different kinds of trade or business. There was a religious belief that the ancestor of each caste entered into a contract with the spirits who taught them their trade specialization before passing it down to the caste.

The social structure, in addition, was also a blend of traditional West African beliefs and Islamic religion. The daily life of the people was characterized by traditions and customs. While the law of the land was based on Sharia.

Also, some of the rulers maintained peaceful relations with the Muslim city dwellers, on whose wealth and scholarship the Songhai Empire depended. This promoted social stability.

The population of Songhai Empire was heterogeneous in nature. It was divided into wards based on ethnicity, or according to trade profession. Each of the ethnic groups had their own quarters in the cities, while the foreign traders dwelt in separate areas. Each of the quarter had its own social life.



Songhai Empire was divided into five provinces with a governor in each of the provinces. There were Muslim government officials who served as judges and town chiefs under Askia’s rule. The emperor had absolute power. He had ministers who were responsible for different functions in the empire, and advised the Emperor on important issues.

Under Muhammad Askia, the central region of the Western Sudan was combined into a single empire. He established a political system based on strict application of Islamic laws. His decrees were enforced by trained military personnel.

At a point in time, political reform witnessed the setting up of a complex bureaucracy with separate departments for agriculture, army and treasury, with supervisors in each of the departments.

The bureaucratic system was centralised; the emperor appointed the mayors and provincial governors and established Sharia throughout the empire.

There was hierarchy in the political system, starting with the king, dinakoi (director-general), Djenne-koi (administrative chief), the military general, Tunkoi Karan and Soira, which were the lowest positions in the army.

The government was tightly structured having the following administrative positions: governor of province, police commissioner, head judge, three levels of military personnel below the captain of territorial guards, administrators and military chiefs, directors of ports, chief of navy, chief tax-collector, those who control the market activities, saddle makers, administrative officers in charge of the Arab and the Berbers’ affairs, urban officer, chief of etiquette and protocol, minister of property, minister of waterways, white minority minister, chief of cavalry and lastly, the inspector of agriculture.

The organized political structures were developed by Askia Mohammad.



Songhai Empire had strict system for collecting taxes and customs duty. The authorities collected taxes in gold pieces and in kind, especially from slaves. The treasury of the empire had large stores of grains, saddles, swords and clothes.

The royal treasury also had golden coins and nuggets of gold which were used to sustain the economy of the empire. The empire used slaves to transport goods across the Sahara to Morocco and the Middle East, and its people served as middle men in the trade. Slaves were sold to Europeans to work in Europe and the American plantations.

Timbuktu again became an important city of trade and education during the Songhai Empire. Songhai authorities encouraged and supervised agriculture to add more money to the empire’s treasury. There were agricultural departments which encouraged and supervised farming within the empire. Agricultural system was highly organized. Crop rotation, irrigation system and manuring of farmlands were in practice. The farmers were highly industrious as there was abundance of edible products for local consumption and export trade.

The kings were also entitled to their own farmland in which they cultivated grains through the use of slaves.

Songhai also had mediums of exchange. The coins of Timbuktu, made of pure gold, was used in exchange for commodities of great values while in matters of small value, certain shells (such as Cowries) obtained from Persia, were also used in exchange. Standardization of weight, measures and currency made the culture throughout the Songhai Empire to be homogenized and this strengthened the empire as a whole.

Expansion of Songhai Empire reaching towards the lower portions of Niger River and the Atlantic coast in the West certainly helped the agricultural system thereby aiding the economy of the empire.

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