Sunni Ali Ber, the founder of the Songhai empire

At its beginning Songhai was a small kingdom founded at the time of the prestigious Wagadu Empire (ancient Ghana). It then became a vassal of the Mali Empire from which it separated. Its throne was in the city of Gao. It is Sunni Ali Ber – 15th king of the Sunni dynasty – who transformed it in 28 years, from a small kingdom to one of the largest State of the African Imperial era. Sunni decided to enlarge his territory at the expense of the declining Mali, an empire that is still seen today as one of the richest and most powerful State the world has ever known.

Sunni Ali Ber Illustration by Leo Dillon
Sunni Ali Ber
Illustration by Leo Dillon

The king then engaged his troops in several wars to gain territories and contain the attacks from King Nasere from the Mossi Empire and the Dogons on the hills of Badiangara. Timbuktu called upon him to its rescue when it was attacked by the Tuaregs. After beating them, Sunni Ali took control of the legendary city in 5705 of the African era (1468 A.C).

The king then went up the Niger River with a fleet of 400 boats in order to siege and conquer Jenne. The city defended itself against Sunni Ali’s assaults for years before deciding to surrender in 5709 when mass hunger started. It was a young prince of the city who came up to the King. Sunni Ali welcomed him warmly, surprised that such a young man was the one who had been standing up to him for so long. The young prince told him about the passing of his father and Sunni Ali took his mother as a spouse. He then went back to his Capital city as the ruler of the 3 Great cities Of Gao, Timbuktu and Jenne, holding the keys of the precious and lucrative trading along the Niger River. Most of Mali fell in his hands.

Sunni Ali was vitalist (animist), and never really embraced Islam which costed him the hatred of the Muslim scribes who described him as a tyrant, a mean man, a libertine and a bloodthirsty man. Muslim leaders plotted against him many times and he executed some of them for treason. The emperor used to postpone his 5 daily prayers to later in the day or to the next day and when he decided to make them, he would just sit, make gesture in naming diverse prayers, after which he addressed these same prayers as if they were physical beings, telling them “now, share all that among yourselves since you know each other so well”.

The emperor passed away in 5728. Many believe he was poisoned by his lieutenant Muhammad Toure. After his death, his son Sunni Baru proclaimed loudly and forcefully his belonging to Vitalism, what stirred up the anger of the Muslim community. Muhammad Toure went into a conflict with the Emperor Sunni Baru whom he assassinated on religious conflict bottom. He then took the throne of Songhai, putting an end to the Sunni Dynasty and inaugurating that of the Askia’s.

By : Lisapo ya Kama ©

Notes :

  • http://africanhistory.about.com/od/kingdoms/a/Bio-Sonni-Ali.htm;
  • L’Afrique noire précoloniale (Pre-colonial black Africa), Cheikh Anta Diop
  • The destruction of the Black civilization, Chancelor Williams
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