Biography of Sonni Ali

Songhai Monarch Created Empire along Niger River

Africa, North Africa, Niger, Niamey, View Of Niger River (Year 2007)
Kypros / Getty Images

Sonni Ali (birth date unknown, died 1492) was a West-African monarch who ruled Songhai from 1464 to 1492, expanding a small kingdom along the Niger River into one of medieval Africa's greatest empires. He was also known as Sunni Ali and Sonni Ali Ber (The Great).

Early Life and Interpretations of Sonni Ali's Origins

There are two main sources of information about Sonni Ali. One is in the Islamic chronicles of the period, the other is through Songhai oral tradition.

These sources reflect two different interpretations of Sonni Ali's role in the development of the Songhai Empire.

Sonni Ali was schooled in the traditional African arts of the region and was well versed in the forms and techniques of warfare when he came to power in 1464 in the small kingdom of Songhai, which was centered around its capital city of Gao on the Niger River. He was the 15th consecutive ruler of the Sonni dynasty, which had begun in 1335. One of Ali's ancestors, Sonni Sulaiman Mar, is said to have wrested Songhai away from the Mali Empire towards the end of the 14th century.

Songhai Empire Takes Over

Although Songhai had once paid tribute to the rulers of Mali, the Mali Empire was now crumbling, and the time was right for Sonni Ali to lead his kingdom through a series of conquests at the old empire's expense. By 1468 Sonni Ali had repulsed attacks by the Mossi to the south and defeated the Dogon in the hills of Bandiagara.

His first major conquest occurred the in following year when the Muslim leaders of Timbuktu, one of the great cities of the Mali Empire, asked for help against the Tuareg, the nomadic desert Berbers who had occupied the city since 1433. Sonni Ali took the opportunity not only to strike decisively against the Tuareg but also against the city itself.

Timbuktu became part of the fledgling Songhai Empire in 1469.

Sonni Ali and Oral Tradition

Sonni Ali is remembered in Songhai oral tradition as a magician of great power. Rather than following the Mali Empire system of Islamic city rule over a non-Islamic rural people, Sonni Ali mixed an unorthodox observance of Islam with traditional African religion. He was a man of the people rather than the elite ruling class of Muslim clerics and scholars. He is regarded as a great military commander who carried out a strategic campaign of conquest along the Niger River. He is said to have retaliated against the Muslim leadership within Timbuktu after they failed to provide promised transport for his troops to cross the river.

Sonni Ali and Islamic Chronicles

The chroniclers have a different viewpoint. They portray Sonni Ali as a capricious and cruel leader. In the 16th century chronicle of Abd ar Rahmen as-Sadi, a historian based in Timbuktu, Sonni Ali is described as an impious and unscrupulous tyrant. He is recorded as having massacred hundreds while plundering the city of Timbuktu. This included killing or driving out the Tuareg and Sanhaja clerics who had acted as civil servants, teachers, and as preachers at the Sankore mosque.

In later years he is said to have turned on court favorites, ordering executions during temper tantrums.

Songhai and Trade

Regardless of the circumstances, Sonni Ali learned his lesson well. Never again was he left at the mercy of someone else's fleet. He built up a river-based navy of over 400 boats and used them to good effect in his next conquest, which was the trading city of Jenne (now Djenné). The city was placed under siege, with the fleet blockading the port. Although it took seven years for the siege to work, the city fell to Sonni Ali in 1473. The Songhai Empire now incorporated three of the greatest trading cities on the Niger: Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne. All three had once been part of the Mali Empire.

Rivers formed the major trading routes within West Africa at that time. The Songhai Empire now had effective control over the lucrative Niger River trade of gold, kola, grain, and slaves.

 The cities were also part of the important trans-Saharan trade route system which brought south caravans of salt and copper, as well as goods from the Mediterranean coast.

By 1476 Sonni Ali controlled the inland delta region of the Niger to the west of Timbuktu and the lakes region to the south. Regular patrols by his navy kept the trade routes open and tribute-paying kingdoms peaceful. This is an extremely fertile region of west Africa, and it became a major producer of grain under his rule.

Slavery in Songhai

A 17th-century chronicle tells the tale of Sonni Ali's slave-based farms. When he died 12 'tribes' of slaves were bequeathed to his son, at least three of which had been obtained when Sonni Ali initially conquered parts of the old Mali empire. Whereas under the Mali Empire slaves were individually required to cultivate a measure of land and provide grain for the king; Sonni Ali grouped the slaves into 'villages', each to fulfill a common quota, with any surplus to be used by the village. Under Sonni Ali's rule children born in such villages automatically became slaves, expected to work for the village or to be transported to the trans-Saharan markets.

Sonni Ali the Warrior

Sonni Ali was brought up as part of an exclusive ruling class, a warrior horseman. The region was the best in Africa south of the Sahara for breeding horses. As such he commanded an elite cavalry, with which he was able to pacify the nomadic Tuareg to the north. With cavalry and navy, he repulsed several attacks by the Mossi to the south, including one major attack which reached all the way to the Walata region northwest of Timbuktu.

He also defeated the Fulani of the Dendi region, which was then assimilated into the Empire.

Under Sonni Ali, the Songhai Empire was divided up into territories which he placed under the rule of trusted lieutenants from his army. Traditional African cults and the observance of Islam were combined, much to the annoyance of Muslim clerics in the cities. Plots were hatched against his rule. On at least one occasion a group of clerics and scholars at an important Muslim center were executed for treason.

Death and End of the Legend

Sonni Ali died in 1492 as he returned from a punitive expedition against the Fulani.  Oral tradition has him poisoned by Muhammad Ture, one of his commanders. A year later Muhammad Ture staged a coup d'etat against Sonni Ali's son, Sonni Baru, and founded a new dynasty of Songhai rulers. Askiya Muhammad Ture and his descendants were strict Muslims, who reinstated orthodox observance of Islam and outlawed traditional African religions.

In the centuries which followed his death, Muslim historians recorded Sonni Ali as "The Celebrated Infidel" or "The Great Oppressor". Songhai Oral tradition records that he was the righteous ruler of a mighty empire which stretched over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) along the Niger River.