Sunni Ali (died 1492) founded the Songhay empire of West Africa. Best known as a great military leader, he was called Ali Ber, or "Ali the Great." There is much controversy about his attitudes toward Islam.
Almost nothing is known about the early life of Ali (who received the title of sunni, or si, when he became king of Gao) except that he was raised among his mother's people, the Faru of Sokoto, from whom he learned the use of magical powers. When he grew older, he lived with his father, Madogo, the tenth si of Gao. Madogo was a strong military leader, and he too taught Ali the techniques of magic. Thus by the time Ali became si, he was adept in the arts of both war and magic.
In 1464, when Ali succeeded the fourteenth si, Sulaiman Dama, Gao was still a tributary province under the Mali empire, which was then weakening. Trade in the western Sudan was becoming less secure as the Tuareg and the Mossi raided more freely from the north and the south. Thus Ali came to power in a centrally located and relatively strong state at a time when a power vacuum was developing in the Niger Basin, and he immediately advanced against the Mossi and then moved to throw off Mali rule. He succeeded in permanently freeing Gao from the once great Mali empire and laying the basis for the Songhay empire, which was even greater. He could defeat the Mossi only in battles, however, and never even attempted to conquer these formidable non-Moslem foes.
Wars of Conquest
Much of Ali's military career was spent subduing the great cities of the Niger River. During the first year of his reign he began a 7-year siege of the city of Djenné, which according to traditions had resisted 99 assaults by Mali. Meanwhile he expanded further to the west, defeating the Dogon, and the Fulani of Bandiagara. By about 1467 he had added the Hombori to the south.
Timbuktu had been held by the Tuareg since 1433, when they had taken it from Mali. In 1467 the local governor, Umar, petitioned Ali to come and liberate his city from its invaders. In January 1468 Ali advanced with such a formidable force that both the Tuareg and Umar himself fled. Then the Songhay entered and sacked the city. Ali's ruthless slaughter of most of the Moslem ulema there earned him the unanimous disdain and vituperation of the Moslem chroniclers who wrote the Tarikhs, which contain the main written sources of his deeds. In the following years Ali mounted additional attacks on the Mossi, Fulani, Tuareg, and other peoples. By 1471 the city of Djenné fell. In contrast to the harsh treatment Ali had accorded the Moslems of Timbuktu, whom he felt to have collaborated with a foreign enemy, here he was generous and accommodated the ulema.
During the next decade Ali extended his conquests in all directions, but he continued to nurse a powerful grudge against the Tuareg leader, Akil, who had escaped during the fall of Timbuktu. Akil had fled to Walata, where he still remained in 1480. Since a major part of Ali's military strength lay in his river navy, the isolated plains town of Walata presented special difficulties. Ali conceived a bold scheme to build a canal between Lake Faguibine and Walata in order to deploy his navy in an assault. This was a distance twice that of the modern Suez Canal. Soon, however, work was abandoned when the Songhay had to repel an attack of their nemesis, the Mossi. Ali never resumed construction of this canal, but traces of it are still to be found in Mali.
In the remaining years of his reign Ali led more attacks on the Dogon (1484) and the Gurme, Tuareg, and Fulani (1488-1492). He also again purged Timbuktu Moslems in 1486.
Ali and Islam
A major problem of Sudanic emperors was that of balancing urban, or Moslem, interests against those of the much larger rural, or non-Moslem, population. Rulers were generally Moslems themselves, but they always had to remain tolerant of established, local religions. Ali was a Moslem, and he performed all the routine Islamic rites; but he regarded Islam as a potential threat to his political power. He sought to retain his support in the rural masses, and he feared that he would be cut off from their support if the urban Moslems were granted too many privileges.
Ali's achievements were mainly military. During the early years of his reign he was constantly on the move, and he is remembered as having been undefeated. The task of administrative consolidation was, however, left to his successor, Askia Muhammad. Ali seems to have innovated a system of provincial governors, but it was not developed and Gao's control of its new territories was very tenuous. Songhay agriculture was frequently upset by his military levies, but he eventually alleviated this problem by incorporating more and more war prisoners into his own forces.
Ali depended more upon the fear and respect which he commanded as a strong magician-king than upon the love and admiration of his subjects, as he was a cruel and short-tempered man. He occasionally ordered the execution of even a trusted member of his retinue, only to later regret his loss. His general Askia Muhammad several times escaped such hasty sentences.
On his return from an expedition against the Gurma in late 1492 Ali died, possibly drowning while crossing a river. He was succeeded by his son, Baru, who tried to reject all Islamic influence, and was therefore felled by a Moslem-sanctioned coup led by Askia Muhammad within 4 months.
Further Reading on Sunni Ali
There is no full-length biography of Ali. A chapter on him, translated from a French source, appears in P. J. M. McEwan, ed., Africa from Early Times to 1800 (1968). Other sketches of Ali's life can be found in Lavinia Dobler and William A. Brown, Great Rulers of the African Past (1965), and Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (1966). Important general sources are E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (1958; 2d ed. 1968); J. Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962); and J. O. Hunwick, "Religion and State in the Songhay Empire, 1464-1591," in the International African Seminar, Islam in Tropical Africa, edited by I. M. Lewis (1966).