Sonni Ali, Founder of the Songhai Empire: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

This lesson explores the life of Sonni Ali - the founder of one of the most powerful empires in African history. We will also learn about Sonni Ali's conflicting legacy as a mighty warrior and ruthless tyrant.

Becoming a Legend

How does one become a legend? The exceptional lives of individuals like Odysseus, Joan of Arc, and Abraham Lincoln were recorded in song and story. Today we immortalize them further through movies. Yet, the line between fact and fiction often becomes blurred as we tell their tales over the years. Our task today is to examine the written records and oral traditions concerning the life and accomplishments of one of the most extraordinary African legends and leaders in medieval times - Sonni Ali. We will learn about Sonni Ali's conquests throughout West Africa and how he founded the Songhai Empire in the 15th century. We will also consider how story-tellers and historians tried to shape Sonni Ali's legacy through their accounts of his deeds.

Songhai Before Sonni Ali

Inhabitants of Gao - a city along the Niger River in modern-day Mali - expanded into the Middle Niger region in the 9th century C.E. to form the state of Songhai.

The Mali River and Gao in West Africa

Songhai grew in wealth and power as it engaged in river commerce and the trans-Saharan trade. Gold, salt, ivory, copper, and other goods crisscrossed Songhai's borders en route to and from North Africa and West Africa.

Berber Traders Arriving at Timbuktu

In 1325, Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire brought Songhai under his rule. Mali's control over Songhai was short-lived as its imperial power waned in the 14th century. Leaders of the Sonni Dynasty began reasserting Songhai's independence around 1375, yet it was not until Sonni Ali's reign from 1464 to 1492 that Songhai earned imperial status.

The Magician-Muslim King

Little is known about Sonni Ali's early life. According to oral tradition, Sonni Ali learned magic power and Songhai traditions from his parents and their communities. The 'magician-king' also received an Islamic education. Similar to the Songhai kings before him, Sonni Ali combined Islamic and traditional religious practices. He contributed to mosques and participated in the fast of Ramada, while continuing to worship idols and drink alcohol.

Conquest and Rule

It was not long after Sonni Ali ascended to power in 1464 that he seized an opportunity to expand Songhai's borders. Muslim leaders in Timbuktu asked Sonni Ali to help overthrow the Tuareg, who had seized control of the city in 1433. Sonni Ali led his cavalry and fleet of canoes to conquer Timbuktu in 1468.


He then conquered the prosperous trading city of Jenne (or Djenné) in 1473. Both of the cities were major intellectual and commercial centers in the trans-Saharan trade network. They had universities and markets filled with gold, slaves, cotton goods, grains, salt, horses, and luxury items. Timbuktu and Jenne would serve as the cornerstone of Songhai's wealth and power throughout the 16th century.

The Great Mosque of Djenne

Sonni Ali did not stop there, but continued to wage war upon the peoples of the Middle Niger for close to three decades. As Sonni Ali drove back Tuareg and Mossi enemy forces to the north and south, he also conquered and incorporated various ethnics groups including the Fulani of the Dendi region. Sonni Ali divided the conquered territories into provinces that trusted lieutenants governed. Although Sonni Ali consulted with judicial advisers - the San Hou (or 'House of Scholars') - he retained ultimate judgment over all the affairs concerning his empire.

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