Kwasi Konadu

Complex Societies in Africa: Wagadu, Mali and Songhay

EssaysKwasi KonaduComment

Understanding how complex societies developed in Africa can be as challenging as how to tell the histories of Africa. These interconnected issues are true for scholars who sort through equally complex evidence, but also for teachers and students who rely on scholarly interpretations of the past. Though Africa has long been part of the global exchanges shaping the modern world, the African past has been so maligned that its interpretation must grapple with the problem of sources and long-standing preconceptions. A common view is that “precolonial” African societies were without social and political complexity because they lacked the technologies, innovations, and institutions of post-medieval European societies. While historians debate the extent of “civilization” in medieval and post-medieval Europe, recent archaeological and historical linguistic research into Africa’s deep history show, instead, a range of complex societies as diverse as Africa’s ecologies. These societies were characterized by exchanges and interdependences between foragers, farmers, pastoralists, and fishers, settled in communities or polities of varying size and egalitarianism. In many instances, social and political complexity was achieved with centralized authority and a ruler, but also with collective rule based on pacts between lineages, ritual specialists, and autonomous settlements. Nowhere was the mixture of environment, nature’s resources, and the economies and relationships that flowed from them clearer than in pre-1600 West Africa. There, the factors of religion/spirituality, commerce, ecology, and relations and hierarchies of power influenced the development of Wagadu, Mali, and Songhay.

In the West African savanna grassland and Sahel emerged three overlapping kingdoms-turned-empires between the fourth and the end of the sixteenth century. The first of these was Wagadu, popularly known as “Ghana,” but, as theologian and geographer al-Bakrī explained, “Ghana is a title the people give to their kings.” The kingdom was located between the southern Saharan desert and the savanna grasslands in what are present-day Mauritania and Mali. Wagadu was also located on major routes of the Trans-Saharan Trade network, where its peoples exchanged gold, ivory, salt, kola, and cloth for metals, horses, and other commodities. Control of these routes were crucial to Wagadu’s expansion. By the ninth century, West African gold was in global demand and the expansion of the gold trade translated into increased notoriety for Wagadu. A great deal of our knowledge of Wagadu comes from Arabic sources, which focused on the kingdom and its gold trade and less on its ordinary peoples. In the early eleventh century, Muslim advisers at the court of Wagadu recorded only a fraction of the growing intersection between Islam and West African states. Few provide detail accounts about the nuanced ways Islam co-existed or conflicted with existing spiritualities as bases of moral authority, which is to say shared indigenous cosmology, symbols, and principles also united people without recourse to military force or coercion. Jenne-Jeno in the Niger River valley, proximate to Mali, is one such case. Be that as it may, many Arabic accounts contain consistent biases against non-Islamic peoples and their cultures, viewing them as unbelievers (kuffār) and “pagans” whom should be conquered through religiously-sanctioned war (jihad). Outside of archaeology, these sources have remained standard references. But this was a trap: the paucity of documentary evidence led to an over-reliance on Arabic sources and an uncritical acceptance of their insights, biases, and propaganda.

This problem of sources and interpretation has undervalued how Africans in such complex societies recorded their own histories—in oral epics, writings in Ajami (African languages using a modified Arabic script), inscriptions on tombstones—and has misguided, for instance, our understanding of Wagadu’s decline.[1] Most textbooks circulate the standard claim that Wagadu’s ruin came at the hands of an Almoravid attack in 1076. The Almoravids came out of an Islamic reformist movement in north Africa around the time al-Bakrī wrote, spreading into the Sahel and Iberian Peninsula, falling to the Almohads around 1147. An Almoravid military conquest of Wagadu, however, is not supported by local oral epics and sources as well as a critical look at the Arabic chronicles, such as al-Sa'dī’s Ta'rīkh al-sūdān (“History of the land of the Blacks”) and Ibn al-Mukhtar’s Ta'rīkh al-fattāsh  (“Chronicle of the researcher”).[2] The evidence does reveal the decline of Wagadu in the thirteenth century coincided with the emergence of Mali and political turmoil in northern Africa, such as the fragmenting of the Almohad empire and ousting of Muslims from Iberia. A more nuanced picture, then, emerges when we consider not an “Islamic” conquest of a “pagan” empire, but rather increased demand and competition in the gold trade as regional states vied for power, Wagadu losing its once dominant position in the gold trade due to environmental deterioration and new sources of gold, and conflicts between its ruling Muslim elite and a large non-Muslim population. Another factor in this competitive world of commerce and empire-building was the ascension of the Mali empire led by Sundjata Keita, whom came to power after defeating Sumanguru Kante’s Susu kingdom in 1235, and then expanded the empire by securing the agricultural and gold-producing areas once controlled by Wagadu. Under Sundjata’s leadership, Mali took control of some societies formerly under Wagadu, while others dispersed south and westward.

The famous pilgrimage (ḥājj) of Mansa (“ruler”) Mūsā Keita to Mecca extended Mali’s notoriety and wealth throughout the Islamic and European worlds. Mansa Mūsā also established diplomatic and scholastic relations that placed Muslim scholars and artisans in the commercial and intellectual cities of Jenne and Timbuktu—home of the renowned university of Sankoré. By the time of his death, the Mali empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, Awdaghust in the north, near the Black Volta river in the south, and to the city of Gao in the east. A century later, weak leadership, succession disputes, and fratricide led to Mali’s decline, as signaled by its loss of Timbuktu and probably Gao some time earlier. Gao ruler Sunni (or Sii) Ali Beer would transform the kingdom of Gao into the Songhay empire, conquering lands belonging to Mali and extending its frontiers along the Niger River toward central Africa in the east and the Atlantic coast in the west. After Sunni Ali Beer died under suspicious circumstances in 1492, Askia Muḥammad Ture seized power, claiming he was a more legitimate than rightful heir Sunni Baru because he was a just Muslim ruler, having made the ḥājj and surrounded himself with Muslim notables, unlike his predecessor Sunni Ali Beer. Ture charged Beer “worshipped idols” and thus an unbeliever (kāfir), disqualifying his lineage from ruling. This “right” to overthrow doctrine would set a precedent, as Songhay fluctuated with leadership issues through the sixteenth century, before it was conquered in 1591 by Ahmad al-Mansar, sultan of Morocco. Although the looting of Timbuktu and Gao brought the Moroccan state some spoils of war, the occupation of Songhay drained al-Mansar’s resources as the trade in gold shifted to the northern and western African coasts, where Portuguese merchants and slavers would usher in a new era.

As in the previous empires, a cross-section of farmers producing grains, fishers along the Niger, pastoralists rearing cattle, and merchants exchanging kola, salt and gold remained the backbone of local communities under the rule of Songhay. Yet, the lives of these individuals are the least of concern in standard accounts. Also persistent were not only the theme of succession disputes that plagued all three empires, but the way leaders of Mali and Songhay, for instance, were memorialized in the Arabic chronicles, based on how close or far chronicle writers felt they were from Islam. More broadly, those chronicles have also narrowed our understanding of social and political complexity in greater West Africa by valorizing coercive state power under centralized, Islamic rule but dismissive of local African bases of moral and spiritual authority with and without central governments.[3] In this way, Sundjata Keita and Sunni Ali Beer were profiled in the chronicles as less than “real” Muslims and therefore not quite legitimate in the eyes of Muslim elites whom depended upon the patronage of rulers, whereas successors who performed the ḥājj, whether Mūsā Keita or Muḥammad Ture, appeared most hospitable to Muslim intellectuals who wrote those locally-produced chronicles. The principal seventeenth-century Ta'rīkh chronicles were also produced as propaganda to present a coherent, celebratory, and unbroken Islamic history of Songhay that reached its highest point under the devout Askia Muḥammad Ture. As important as it is for teachers and students come to grips with these issues of source, interpretation, and bias, it is equally crucial for them to know that in the same Niger River valley where these empires positioned themselves were other kinds of political communities, such as Jenne-Jeno. Archaeological studies for Jenne-Jeno has revealed long-distance trade, high population density, craft specialization, prosperity, and socio-political complexity existed without political centralization.[4] In other words, Jenne-Jeno and “precolonial” Africans kingdoms, such as the Luba in south-central Africa or Meroe in northeast Africa, developed social and political complexity based on symbolic authority rather than coercive, military power.[5] Not so ironically, then, centralization came to Jenne-Jeno when local leaders converted to Islam during the decline of Wagadu and the expansion of the Mali empire.


[1] For examples of oral and inscriptive sources, see P. F. de Moraes Farias, Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles, and Songhay-Tuāreg History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (London: Longman, 1995).

[2] David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher, “The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076. I. The External Arabic Sources,” History in Africa 9 (1982): 21-59; idem, “The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076. II. The Local Oral Sources,” History in Africa 10 (1983): 53-78.

[3] On the minimization of local African spiritual bases of authority in Songhay, see Dierk Lange, “Not yet Songhay,” Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 99, no. 2 (2004): 145-156.

[4] Susan K. McIntosh, “Pathways to Complexity: An African Perspective” and “Modeling Political Organization in Large-Scale Settlement Clusters: A Case Study from the Inland Niger Delta,” in Susan K. McIntosh, ed., Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1-30 and 66-79; Roderick McIntosh, “The Pulse Theory: Genesis and Accommodation of Specialization in the Middle Niger,” Journal of African History, 34, no. 2 (1993): 181-220.

[5] P. de Maret, “The Power of Symbols and the Symbols of Power through Time: Probing the Luba Past,” Susan K. McIntosh, ed., Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 151-165; David Edwards, “Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms,” Journal of African History 39, no 2 (1998): 175-193; Thomas Q. Reefe, The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981).