Alternative History
Songhai Empire
إمبراطورية سونغاي (Arabic)
(Imbraatóor gu Songaay) (Jolof)
(Ilẹ̀ Ọbalúayé Sọ́ngháì) (Yoruba)
Timeline: Of Lions and Falcons

OTL equivalent: Songhai Empire c. 1464–1591
Flag of
War banner of the Songhai
Location of
Location Songhai (light blue)
(and largest city)
Other cities Jenné and Timbuktu and Tendirma
  others Fulan, Arabic, Berber, Wolof, Serer, Malinké, Mandinka, Malinke and Hausa
Islam (Sunni and Sufism)
  others African traditional religions
Government Monarchy
  Royal house: Askiya
Established 11th century
Independence from Mali Empire
  declared 1430 (833–834 AH)
Currency Gold dust (Salt, copper and cowries were also common in the empire), Dinar, Dirham and Fals

The Songhai Empire[1] is a state that dominates the western Sahel and the Niger river in the 15th and 16th century. The state is known by its historiographical name, derived from its leading ethnic group and ruling elite, the Songhai.


Initially, the empire was ruled by the Sonni dynasty (c. 1464–1493), but it was later replaced by the Askiya dynasty (1493–...) leading to the Songhai expansion and domination of the Sahel.

Originally a tributary of the Mali Empire, this region of fishermen on the eastern Niger would take advantage of the slow Malian decline to establish an independent state under the leadership of powerful Askiya.

Songhai expansion

Ali the Great's (1464-1492) conquest of Timbuktu and Jenné marked the slow collapse of the Mali Empire and the Establishment,ent of and independent Songhai Empire.

Muhammad I's reorganized the territories conquered by Ali the Great (1464-1492) and appointed men royal to him. His successors, specifically under Dawud I (1549-1582), started to replace all traditional chiefs with royal appointees and commissioners were periodically sent to inspect and ear complains and supervise provincial and local officials. Great care was taken to have direct administrative control and alliance of the lands on the shores of the Niger either conquered or imperial.

Unlike the previous raids, Ali the Great (1464-1492) and Askia the Great (1493-1529) started military campaigns with the objetive of conquest and domination of their neighbors to the west and east and control important center producing gold, salt and copper. Later Askiyas followed the same policy and completed the conquest of Mali and Wolof and made tributary-vassals the Hausa, they also pushed their control to the western coast and unsuccessfully to the Niger delta.

From its incipient, the Songhai Empire had to ward off the raids of the Mossi.

Rulers of Songhai

The supreme ruler of the Songhai Empire is the Askiya. He names all officials and holds extensive property in the shores of the Niger river. Commands the Army and appoints the kadi that impart Islamic justice and the royal judges that deal with all cases that concern the king and fall outside the jurisdiction of the kadi. The Sakiya as the paramount chief of the Songhai polity, of domains it controls and head of tributary-vassals has a semi-devine function in traditional religions of West Africa and Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Mu'minin) of the Muslims.

Portrait of Muhammad I also know as Askia the Great (1493-1529)

Sunni Dynasty
  • ...
  • Ali Ber also know as Ali the Great (1464-1492)
  • Bāru (1492-1492)
Askiya Dynasty
  • Muhammad I also know as Askia the Great, son of Abi Bakr (1493-1529)
  • Musa, son of Muhammad I (1529-1531)
  • Muhammad II Bonkana, son of Umar Komadiagho[2] (1531-1537)
  • Isma'il, son of Muhammad I (1537-1539)
  • Ishaq I, son of Muhammad I (1539-1549)
  • Dawud I, son of Muhammad I (1549-1582)
  • Al-Hajj Muhammad III, son of Dawud I (1582-1586)
  • Muhammed IV Bani, son of Dawud I (1586-1588)
  • Ishaq II, son of Dawud I (1588-...)


Under the Askia dynasty, lead by by its founder Askia Mohammad I the Great, the Songhai Empire saw an increased centralization. A central royal bureaucracy was established in charge of the treasury, army, navy, tax and customs collection, weights and measures, administration of royal and Islamic justice (sharia), irrigation, royal lands and granaries, affairs with the provinces and chancery.

The main officials are the Kanfari (and viceroy), who had general oversight of western Songhai, provincial administrators such as the dendi-fari (governor of the southeast), the fari-mondio supervised the collection of land taxes, while the wanei-farma directed commercial relations with Arabs and Berbers. Another important official was the har-farma in charge of waters and lakes to become important during the Songhai expansion and its full control of the Niger.

Taxes and customs duties became the chief source of income. Taxes were imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile, usually an isolated incident. This was the situation until Dwaud I started to appoint all provincial and local officials and send commissioners to the provinces. All autonomy was suppressed or under supervision by means of a hierarchy of royal officials.

The provinces comprised two groups. Those conquered and governed by chiefs (farma, koi and modio) appointed by the Askiya in office at his pleasure. The farma exercised in name of the Askiya all powers save judicial that was under the kadi. The koi and modio were local appointee chiefs. The imperial provinces administered by a hierarchy of governors and officials supervised by commissioners and provincial governors. All officials are named by the Askiya and serve ar his pleasure. The most important and top officials of the administration were generally of royal blood. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities. Individual towns and cities, such as Jenné, Timbuktu and Tendirma, likewise have their own governors.

Slave labor, a major element in Songhai's economy by the 16th century, is directed by fanfa or slave officials who managed royal agricultural estates.


The Songhai people are a socially stratified society, like many West African ethnic groups with castes. According to the medieval and colonial era descriptions, their vocation is hereditary, and each stratified group has been endogamous. The social stratification has been unusual in two ways; one it embedded slavery, wherein the lowest strata of the population inherited slavery, and second the Zima or priests and Islamic clerics had to be initiated but did not automatically inherit that profession, making the cleric strata a pseudo-caste.

The different strata of the Songhai people have included the kings and warriors, the scribes, the artisans, the weavers, the hunters, the fishermen, the leather workers and hairdressers (Wanzam), and the domestic slaves (Horso, Bannye). Each caste reveres its own guardian spirit until the full adoption of Islam. Some scholars list these strata in three categories: free (chiefs, farmers and herders), servile (artists, musicians and griots), and the slave class.


The military (Jund), founding stone of the Songhai Empire and ruling caste, is directed by regional commanders assisted by officials who organized military transport by boat up and down the Niger. The hi-koi[3] is one of the most important of these officials. The cavalry is the main force, however limited to the plains of the Sahel and unable to operate in the tropical forests.

  1. Also transliterated as Songhay.
  2. Brother of Muhammad I (Askia the Great)
  3. Master of the water (fleet commander)