Information is lost about the birth and early years of Sonni Ali, but we do know he was the man who is the founder of the Songhai Empire, which he ruled for 28 years. Before Songhai became a mighty empire it was a small kingdom under the control of the Mali Empire. Around the end of the 14th century Sonni Sulaiman Mar an ancestor of Sonni Ali was able to regain control of Songhai from the Mali Empire. In 1464, Sonni Ali Ber became the ruler of the Songhai Empire. Before he became the ruler Ali was well trained in political and military science. He understood the importance of retaining the empires capital city of Gao. As the 15th ruler of Songhai, one of his first acts was to defeat the Mossi and the Dogon to help expand his empire. His next victory was the conquest of the historic city of Timbuktu. The Mali Empire reached out to Ali for help against nomadic invaders called the Tuareg, after defeating the Tuareg he also captured the city of Timbuktu.
At this point Ali held control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, now had his eyes set on the trading city of Jenne. With a Navy of over 400 ships Ali laid siege upon the city of Jenne for 7 years until he gained control of the city. Now Ali’s Sudanic Empire held control of the Niger River and its many natural resources, as well as control of the 3 main cities that were a part of the Trans-Saharan Trade routes. The Trans-Saharan Trade routes connected people and resources from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River. Ali controlled the Niger River area from Timbuktu to the Great Lakes region by the year 1476; he was also able to maintain peace among the collective Kingdoms and became a foremost producer of grain.
As a military commander, Ali took advantage of the landscape and constructed a mighty Cavalry which was used to defeat the nomadic Taureg. He also used his Cavalry and Navy to defeat the mighty Mossi at the Watala region, and the Fulani of Dendi. 1492 was the year that Sonni Ali died; some stories state that he drowned returning home from a victory against the Fulani, other stories state that he was poisoned by one of his commanders Mohammad Ture. We do know that the story of Sonni Ali is told from two viewpoints; traditional Songhai oral tradition and Islamic historians. The Songhai tradition is said to praises him as a great and just ruler, the builder of the mighty Songhai Empire. The Islamic tradition is said to regard him as an oppressor and who disrespects traditional Islamic customs. Ali incorporated Islamic religion, customs and culture into the traditional African culture he was raised with. I see a man who was able to build an Empire that was able to thrive under his rule for 28 years. He took a small kingdom with only one major city and expanded his kingdom into an Empire history will never forget. Emperor Sonni Ali Ber, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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