The year 1591 witnessed the fall of the last of the great empires of the western Sudan. The uniqueness of the fall of Songhay is not just that it was shot down at the peak of its glory, but that the collapse was a product of direct military aggression from North Africa. This unprecedented military adventure marked the first time a North African country would attack one in West Africa.
The primary reason for Morocco’s hostilities against Songhay was due to economic interest. El-Mansur, the ruler of Morocco, coveted and sought to control the salt mines and gold deposits within Songhay’s territory, which was erroneously believed to still be in abundance at the time of the attack.
The first attempt at invading Songhay was a failure. This was due to inadequate preparations for the expedition. However, in December 1590 a more carefully planned military campaign was embarked upon, with an impressive army of musketeers, many of whom
Were renegade mercenaries from Spain. Commanded by Judah Pasha, the Moroccan army was very well equipped with the most sophisticated firearms of the time. Consequently, when both troops clashed at the battle of Todibi in 1591, the Songhay soldiers were forced to succumb to the superior firepower of their invaders. With the defeat of Songhay at Tondibi, Moroccan forces went on to capture other important cities such as Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne.
The first consequence of Moroccan conquest was the establishment of a protectorate over a substantial part of what used to be the Songhay empire. Songhay thus became a province of Morocco, with Judah Pasha acting as the governor. The nonrealization of Al-Mansur’s fortuitous ambition, and his consequent loss of interest in Songhay, resulted in the lack of effective administration of the territory and subsequent breakdown of law and order. By 1615, there was evidence of increasing internal weakness and confusion. Many of the former dependencies seized the opportunity to declare their independence as the empire disintegrated into small insignificant states. Among such states are those of the Tuaregs, Bambarra, Fulani, and the Hausa. The western Sudan never again had a political unit as large as the Songhay Empire.
Furthermore, the conquest and the rebellions which it occasioned took a heavy toll on the population of the western Sudan. Many lives were lost; some were sold into slavery and others taken to Morocco. There was a general displacement of the population. The breakdown of law and order, coupled with the general insecurity that pervaded the territory had grave economic effects. Agriculture suffered a setback, and this occasioned a period of famine. There was concomitant plundering of economic crops and valuables. In addition, trans – Saharan trade seriously declined because of the series of attacks connected with the invasion. The various routes were rendered unsafe, as pillaging of caravans and activities of brigands became a frequent phenomenon along trans-Saharan trade routes. This eventually led to a shift in trade traffic from the western routes linking Songhay to Marrakech and Fez to the eastern routes from Hausaland and Bornu to Egypt and Libya.
Again, none of the successor states had enough resources to support large-scale commercial activity. The Moors drained Songhay of the available gold. Moreover, there was the lure of the European presence along the Atlantic coast of the western Sudan that provided a better alternative to the cataclysmic state of affairs in Songhay and was not conducive to profitable economic activity. The totality of all these factors was a considerable decline in the volume of trade and loss of wealth in the Western Sudan.
In the realm of religion, Islam suffered a temporary setback. The Moroccans showed no enthusiasm for the promotion of religion, or for providing for the security and welfare of its agents. The Muslim scholars who did not welcome the Moroccan onslaught were regarded as foes and dealt with harshly. Their libraries and wealth were confiscated, while those found to be against them were exiled to Morocco. Prominent among such Muslim scholars were Ahmed Baba, the illustrious Timbuktu historian, Umar bin al Hajj Ahmed, Abdal al-Rahman bin Mahmud bin Umar, and many members of the Aquit family, who had previously enjoyed power and influence in Timbuktu as a result of their Islamic learning. Furthermore, the destruction of their libraries, and their deportation had a calamitous effect on Islamic learning in the region. The exiling of these renowned scholars, who had been the pride of Sankore University at Timbuktu, meant the death of learning and a gradual extinction of the scholarly reputation of Timbuktu.
Nevertheless, development in the post-Moroccan period suggests that Songhay’s defeat at Tondibi did not inaugurate a completely dark chapter in the sociopolitical life of West Africa. Politically, there was a shift of force from the Sahel region and the savanna to the forest region of West Africa. In the religious sphere, the collapse did not mean the end of Islam. The fleeing Muslims, especially the Fulani group, dispersed all over West Africa, spreading Islam southward to places like Futa Jalon. Islam was therefore carried at a grassroots level; the stage was set for the eighteenth and nineteenth century jihads (holy wars) in West Africa.
C. W. N. Ogbogbo
See also: Morocco: Ahmad al-Mansur and the Invasion of Songhay.
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