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Top Three Empires of West Africa


An Empire is large territory which is ruled by an Emperor or any other centralized authority. It can also be said to mean an extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy, or a sovereign state. In this write up, we will examine the big three of West Africa; Ghana Empire, Mali Empire and Songhai Empire.



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The Ghana Empire flourished in West Africa from at least the 6th to 13th century CE. Not connected geographically to the modern state of Ghana, the Ghana Empire was located in the western Sudan savannah region (modern southern Mauritania and Mali) sandwiched between the Sahara desert to the north and the rainforests to the south. Trade in the Ghana Empire was facilitated by the abundance of salt, copper, gold, iron, and ivory and easy access to the Niger and Senegal Rivers and their tributaries. The Ghana kings, residing in the capital at Koumbi Saleh, grew immensely rich, building up stockpiles of the gold nuggets only they were permitted to possess; the Central part of the capital was called El-Ghaba. Consequently, the reputation of Ghana spread to North Africa and Europe, where it was described as a fabulous land of gold. The Ghana Empire crumbled from the 12th century CE following drought, civil wars, the opening up of trade routes elsewhere, and rise then the Mali Empire (1240-1645 CE).



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The Mali Empire was an empire in West Africa from c. 1235 to 1670. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita and its capital was called Niani. The Empire became renowned for the wealth of its rulers, especially Mansa Musa (Musa Keita). The Manding were spoken in the empire. At its peak, Mali was the largest empire in West Africa, profoundly and widely influencing the culture of the region through the spread of its language, laws and customs. The reign of Mansa Musa I (1312-1337) saw the empire reach new heights in terms of territory controlled, cultural florescence, and the staggering wealth brought through Mali’s control of regional trade routes. Acting as a middle-trader between North Africa via the Sahara desert and the Niger River to the south, Mali exploited the traffic in gold, salt, copper, ivory, and slaves that crisscrossed West Africa. Muslim merchants were attracted to all this commercial activity, and they converted Mali rulers who in turn spread Islam via such noted centre of learning as Timbuktu. In contrast to cities like Niani (the capital), Djenne, and Gao, most of the rural Mali population remained farmers who clung to their traditional animist beliefs. The Mali Empire collapsed in the 1460s following civil wars.



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The Songhai Empire was the largest and last of the three major pre-colonial empires to emerge in West Africa.  From its capital at Gao on the Niger River, Songhai expanded in all directions until it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean (modern Senegal and Gambia) to what is now Northwest Nigeria and central Niger. Gao, Songhai’s capital, which remains to this day a small Niger River trading center, was home to the famous Goa Mosque and the Tomb of Askia, the most important of the Songhai emperors. The cities of Timbuktu and Djenne were the other major cultural and commercial centers of the empire.

During the second half of the 13th century, Gao and the surrounding region had grown into an important trading center and attracted the interest of the expanding Mali Empire. Mali conquered Gao towards the end of the 13th century. Gao would remain under Malian hegemony until the late 14th century. As the Mali Empire started to disintegrate, the Songhai reasserted control of Gao. Songhai rulers subsequently took advantage of the weakened Mali Empire to expand Songhai rule.

The Empire crumbled from attack by Moroccan Army, since they could not govern it so it was conquered and afterwards the Songhai Empire could not be reestablished.  The surviving elites fled Gao and set up a new capital at Lulami.  From 1591 to 1901 various Askias (Emperors) attempted to continue the traditions of the old empire.  Finally in 1901 French colonial forces conquered their state, extinguishing the last connection to Songhai’s earlier glory.

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