Mali Empire


Mali Empire developed from the fall of old Ghana Empire in Western Sudan. The empire’s total area included nearly all the land between the Sahara Desert and coastal forests of the Western Sudan. It spanned the modern-day countries of Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger Republic, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Cote d’ivoire and the north of modern Niger. It was located on the upper Niger River, east of the Fouta Djallon.



Mali Empire was one of the three great empires in West Africa. It rose around 800 to 1200A.D. and fell around 1600A.D. At its inception, it became a very important trading centre and was highly developed by some of its traders. The empire originated from a small settlement known as Kangaba and rose to be the largest empires in West African history. Its people were known as the Mandingo (they were also called the Malinke and Mandinka). After the resistance against the Susu Kingdom and Sumanguru Kante conquest, its leader, Sundiata, established the empire of Mali around 1235A.D. He converted to Islam in appreciation of the support he got from Muslims.

He made Niani, his birth place, to be capital of the empire. Sundiata founded a central government that kept order and peace throughout the empire.

The empire reached its peak when Mansa Musa came to power in the early 1300s. He ruled from 1307 to 1332A.D. At its peak, the empire was famous for trade, art, wealth, learning and military conquest.

Subsequently the empire gradually declined. In the 1600s it shrank back to its original size, the small kingdom of Kangaba.



  1. Social structure: With the emergence of Sundiata Keita in the empire, there were social reforms such as the prohibition of the maltreatment of prisoners and slaves and promotion of peaceful relationship among the clans. He made land reforms which made ownership easier for the subjects. The empire consisted of social classes; the king, priest, entertainers (those who entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances), villagers and slaves. The empire had a family-based social structure, from women to slaves to kings. Hierarchically, the kings were at the top and some of them, like Sundiata and Mansa Musa, created an enabling environment for the progress of subjects. The women cooked, weaved and dyed clothes and took care of the children. The men took care of the family, livestock and were also involved in entertainment and warfare. The children in the empire also had their functions. Boys start work at early age. Some were sent to school in Timbuktu. Girls were taught how to cook by their mother. They were not sent to school in Timbuktu as they were married off at an early age.
  2. Economic structure: Mali’s economy was boosted by tributes paid by smaller kingdoms, in the form of grains, livestock, slaves, weapons and all the gold belonged to the king. All the goods that were brought into the empire were taxed. Similarly, all commodities traded in the empire were heavily taxed. The revenue generated further enriches the empire. Mali participated in the trans-Sahara trade which connected West Africa and the Maghreb in the 13th Gold was the major article of trade in the empire. At a point in time, gold dust, salt and cotton clothes were used as currency in the empire. Subsequently, cowries were introduced. Sundiata promoted agriculture through the distribution of land to the subjects. Cloth weaving was another major occupation of people in the empire.
  3. Political structure: Before the emergence of Sundiata Keita as the leader of the Mali Empire, political structure was a monarchical system. The government of Mali was a dictatorship. This was as a result of the foundation laid by the founder of the empire, King Sundiata. He firmly established himself as a strong leader in both religious and secular matters. The king, who had the title of Mansa, was the sole secular and religious leader of his people. Even though the empire was ruled by a powerful king, much of the power was in the hands of court officials. The Mansa appointed an assembly which had twenty-nine clan delegates. They were responsible for advice on defence, Islamic affairs, trade and governance. The capital of the empire was Niani. It was once written by a traveler that a person could travel safely without fear of harm, and that the people of Mali hated injustice. The Mansa himself did not tolerate injustice at all. The empire was organized into provinces with a strict hierarchical structure, with each having a governor at the helm of affairs. Each of the towns in the province had a mayor as its leader. The decentralization of power to lower levels of government promoted political stability. The empire had a standing army made up of professional soldiers, who were always battle ready. Regardless of the achievements of Mali Empire, it was confronted by leadership problems. Not all its leaders were strong and capable of providing adequate leadership. This challenge was one of the reasons that led to its decline. Sundiata was succeeded by his son, Mansa Wali, who was considered to be one of the powerful leaders of the empire. Mansa Wali was succeeded by his brother, Mansa Wati, who was later succeeded by Mansa Khalifa. Khalifa was regarded to be a bad ruler during his reign. For example, he was believed to derive pleasure in killing people unnecessarily. He was subsequently deposed and Mansa Abubakar emerged as the new rule of Mali Empire. Abubakar was also deposed by Sakura, one of the military commanders. On coming to power, Sakura decentralized the political system of Mali. He was killed on his way back from pilgrimage to Mecca and was succeeded by Mansa Musa, the most outstanding ruler in the history of Mali Empire. It was during the reign of Mansa Musa that Mali Empire reached the peak of its glory. For example, he made peace treaty with Egypt. As a result, he invited Muslim scholars, mostly Egyptians who provided religious, educational and administrative services.

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