Sunni Ali was the hereditary ruler of early Songhai who laid the foundation for what became a massive empire. Assuming leadership in 1464, he launched a strategic campaign of conquest to unite varied ethnic groups into a strong, consolidated Songhai. To accomplish this goal, Ali built and commanded an army with an expansive infantry, a well-armed cavalry, and a navy that numbered more than 400 ships. He wisely ruled Songhai through a governance structure that shared power with regional leaders and upheld indigenous cultural practices.
Despite Sunni Ali’s irrefutable achievements, he is routinely characterized in Islamic chronicles as a tyrant and infidel largely because he refused to institute Islam as Songhai’s religious and cultural standard. While Ali accommodated many aspects of Islamic culture, he held on to the traditional beliefs and practices of his indigenous ancestors. In fact, Sunni Ali developed a reputation for using traditional African spirituality to advance his reign and nation-building efforts.
To learn more about Sunni Ali, and why he is memorialized in Songhai oral traditions as a wise and powerful magician, click here.