The Armies of Ghana and Songhai




In mentioning above the numbers of men in, we showed only the size of the imperial forces. The time has come to analyze the structure of these armies, their components, their weapons, their strategy, and even their tactics.


In Mali and Songhai, we know for certain, the king who appointed the generals was himself the commander-in-chief of the army and personally directed military operations, as would later the Dorobé Damels of Cayor. The Tarikh es Sudan points out that Askia El Hadj was never able to undertake an expedition during his entire reign, because at the time of his accession he contracted a disease that kept him from riding a horse. He was an exception, in sharp contrast to all the other Askias.

In each kingdom, each nation, the army was divided into several corps assigned to the defense of different provinces, although under command of the civil authority. Thus, each provincial governor had at his disposal a part of this army to which he could assign tasks under the orders of a general whose powers were purely military. On the lower level, below the king, in political or administrative affairs, the distinction between civil and military powers was thus very clear. The king of Mali, when he conquered Songhai, Timbuktu, Zâgha, Mima, the Baghena, and the environs of that region as far as the Atlantic Ocean, had two generals under his command. One was responsible for the defense of the southern part of the empire, on the Mossi border, the other of the northern part at the edge of the desert. Their respective names were Sankar-Zuma and Faran-Sura. These were the titles corresponding to their military functions. Each of them had under his command a certain number of officers and troops. The western borders of the state of Djenné, before the conquest of the city by Sonni Ali, were defended by the commanders of twelve army corps deployed in the country of Sana: they were specifically assigned to surveillance of the movements of Mali. The Sana-faran was their general-in-chief. We even know the family names of some of the officers under his orders: Yausoro, Soasoro, Mâtigho, Karimu, etc. Likewise, twelve commanders of army corps were assigned to the east of the Niger toward Titili.

Among the Mossi, the Moro Naba whom tradition prohibited from leaving his capital, could not personally direct military expeditions: as a result, this became the task of the active generals. The Mossi conscripted everyone. When the danger had passed, each citizen returned to his home, his village; the army was then demobilized, except for a few security units.

In Songhai, beginning with the reign of Askia Mohammed, a distinction began being made between the people and the army. Instead of mass conscription, a permanent army was created; civilians who were not part of it could go about their business. During the reign of Sonni Ali, all able-bodied nationals were subject to enlistment. The major divisions of the army were: knights, cavalry, foot soldiers, auxiliary bodies of Tuaregs, élite infantry regiments, the royal guard, and an armed flotilla.


The princes of Black Africa who could afford to outfitted themselves in complete or partial armor like that of the knights of the Western Middle Ages. After the accession of Askia El Hadj, the kormina-fari El Hadj, on February 13, 1584, started a revolt with intent to seize power. But he failed: the Askia, who was well informed, made him take off the flowing boubous he was wearing; beneath he wore a coat of mail. When balama Mohammed es-Sâdek revolted against Askia Mohammed Bano and in March 1588 attempted to march on Kaoga, the Askia, who came forth to challenge him to battle, wore an iron breastplate. As it was extremely hot and the Askia was very fat, he died of the effects of his armor.

The rebellious balama wore an iron helmet; when Omar-Kato threw a javelin at his head, it ricocheted off the helmet.

Another sultan of Morocco, Mulay Ahmed, in December 1589–January 1590, renewed the request made by one of his predecessors about the mines of the Teghezza. Ishâq II, who was then Askia, reacted violently, and as a sign of defiance and a show of force sent the sultan an offensive letter, some javelins, and two iron boots.

Complete knight’s armor was thus in use, as we have seen: coat of mail and iron breastplate, helmet, boots, javelin … all of it. The African princes of Songhai were armed as knights. This practice was certainly not as widespread as in Europe, if only because of the climate, as shown by the death of Askia Bano, who died of suffocation. The explorer Barth saw such knights in the kingdom of Bornu in more recent times, about 1850. It is likely that such armor came from Europe, as did certain fabrics; but no documents exist to prove it. It might have come into Africa from Spain. We may suppose that African blacksmiths made replicas from these models, better adapted to the climate, which could be worn either inside or outside clothing. The use of iron armor was common in Benin; the subjects appearing on the bronzes of the time as decoration were in the first instance real armor.


All other mounted soldiers of more modest birth and fortune formed the cavalry. They were armed with shields and javelins. The cavalry was terrifyingly powerful, if we judge by the panic that the clashing of its weapons caused in the Moroccan ranks during the war against Morocco (June 1609).

What frightened the Moroccans most in this encounter was the noise of the shields pounding aginst the legs of the horses when they were galloping. The entire Moroccan army, chiefs and soldiers, fled as far as Lake Debi, where the men were thigh-deep in water. But having recognized the cause of their terror, they left the water after having experienced the greatest terror and the most extreme fear.

Foot Soldiers

Foot soldiers were armed mainly with bows and arrows. The infantry included a special élite corps, which was distinguished by the wearing of gold bracelets. Whatever the fortunes of war, the members of this élite corps could not turn their backs on the enemy: which is what happened at the end of the first battle that Djuder, under orders of the Sultan of Morocco, fought against Askia Daud on the left bank of the Niger River. The army of Songhai was defeated because it had no firearms. The whole élite corps allowed itself to be decapitated rather than run away.

There also perished that day a large number of important people among the foot soldiers. When the army was defeated, they threw their shields on the ground and squatted on these sorts of seats, awaiting the arrival of Djuder’s troops, who massacred them in this position without any resistance on their part; this because they were not to flee in case of rout. The Moroccan soldiers took the gold bracelets from their arms.

The army had a band consisting of drums, trumpets (kakaki, cf. Tarikh el Fettach, p. 136), and cymbals. When El Hadj revolted, he marched on Kaoga to the sound of such trumpets. “He had put on a breastplate and let the trumpeters, drummers, and so on, march ahead of him.”

The war drum of the Damel of Cayor was called Djung-Djung. It was used to beat out the bur dakha djap rendi, a march signifying: “The king follows [the enemy], catches him, kills him.”

The auxilliary corps of the Tuareg vassals were composed essentially of camel-drivers; there must also have been an infantry armed with long javelins, marching ahead of the camels and fighting according to the Berber technique, as described by Bakri. The Tuaregs wore puffed trousers, a tunic, a turban, and a litham.


There existed on the Niger an entire flotilla no doubt composed of small boats equipped with outrigging—hence uncapsizable—like those found today on Lake Chad, Lake Victoria, and other large lakes of Central Africa. In case of war, this fleet was used for military purposes; the director of the port of Timbuktu or some other place where the battle took place then played a leading role. At the time of the war against Morocco, he was to hide the boats so Moroccan soldiers could not cross the river.

Mahmud [leader of the Moroccan army] then decided to march against Askia Ishâq. First of all he set about procuring boats, since the director of the port, Mondzo-El-Fa-uld-Zerka, had taken them all with him at the time of his flight toward Binka, when Askia Ishâq had demanded the evacuation of the city of Timbuktu.

Those were the different corps that made up the African army of Songhai. They lacked one essential weapon, firearms; they did not have the time to acquire any because the very people who might have sold them to them, either manufacturers (Europeans) or intermediaries (Arabs), took advantage of this major weakness to try to conquer Black Africa. The first firearms sold to the Africans exploded in their hands.

Royal Guard

The king was surrounded by a very large body of guards in which the sons of vassal princes served side by side with other members of the nobility.

Within this army, in which a lordly, aristocratic mentality reigned, the role of the griot assumed all its sociological significance. Through his songs, which were living accounts of the history of the country in general and the families whose members he addressed, he helped, he even forced the indecisive, fearful warrior to act bravely, and the brave to act like heroes, to perform miracles. His contribution to victory was very important: his bravery and often temerity were beyond question, for he too was as exposed to danger as the warriors whose exploits he celebrated; even at the height of battle, they needed to hear his exhortations which boosted their morale. The griots, then, were not superfluous beings; their usefulness was obvious: they had a “Homeric” social function to fulfill. The division of labor was thus valid at all levels of society. European conquest dimmed the interest to be found in the character of the griot, but it is impossible to give an historical account of the mentality of precolonial African armies without assessing his part in it. To a certain extent, he even held the fate of the princes in his hands. After having been lectured by his mother, Otsman had given up all idea of revolt and was once again determined to obey his brother who had become Askia Daud; he even loaded some boats with food, to go and do him homage at the head of his troops. But the feelings of pride awakened by the song of his griot as he was setting forth were stronger than his sense of discipline: he no longer deemed it necessary to rub dust on his head as a sign of obeisance to anyone:

But almost immediately, as his griot began to sing, he went into such a fury that he almost burst with rage, and addressed his entourage, crying out, “Unload everything on the boats. Upon my life, the one speaking to you will no longer put any dust on his head for anyone.”

Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and tactics were quite different from one country to another; there were different ways of combining the attacks of cavalry and infantry. The use of scouts and encampments with tents was common.

Friday, the eighteenth of the month of Djomada First [April 15, 1588], Balama Mohammed es-Sâdeq camped with his troups at Konbo-Koraî. After his tent was put up, the Balama went inside and the first person who came to attack them was Mârenfa-El-Hâdj.

The Askia Daud also camped before the walls of Timbuktu. “On his return, Askia Daud passed through Timbuktu and camped in this city in the square behind the mosque.”

They carried on long sieges, lasting for years, with consummate technique, in no way less expert than that of Agamemnon before Troy. This was the case in the siege of the city of Djenné by Sonni Ali. The cities were fortified by a system of ramparts, with a variable number of guarded gates. A fortified city was called a tata. “Djenné is surrounded by a rampart with eleven gates. Three of them were later sealed, so that only eight remain today.”

To conquer a city thus fortified, which never before had been subjugated, if we are to believe the Tarikh es Sudan, Sonni Ali laid a siege which lasted seven years and some months. His camp was set up at Zoboro, former site of the city; he left there each day to fight before the walls until evening. These battle scenes took place daily throughout the entire low-water season. When the water rose, surrounding the walls of the city, making it unapproachable, he withdrew with his troops to the place which today bears his name: NibkatuSonni, or Sonni’s Hill. While waiting for the water to recede, the troops cultivated the soil to produce their own food. Things continued in this way until, at the end of seven years, Djenné surrendered, chiefly for lack of supplies. During that time, the king had died and his young son had replaced him. Sonni Ali treated the latter benevolently and married his mother. After his death, the city of Djenné was to keep his horse’s trappings in a kind of museum as relics.

According to Kâti, however, the siege lasted only about six months, with some battles at night. Djenné was blocked, he reports, by four hundred warships. Since Sonni Ali reigned for only twenty-seven years, the duration of the siege indicated by Sâdi does appear excessive. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes (six months and seven years). Further research will enable us to come closer to the historical truth.

The effects of surprise and secret missions were in common use. On August 21, 1563, Askia Daud ordered the farimondzo Bokar to go and fight Bani, a rebel chief in Barka land. Bani was very clever and had in the past given much trouble to the central power. The Askia resolved to keep secret the mission with which he had entrusted the fari-mondzo. The most unfavorable time of year for such a maneuver was chosen so as to overcome the vigilance of Bani, who could never have suspected that so many obstacles would be faced in order to reach him. The direction of the march also was unlikely: troops would go up into the mountains, from which they would then pour down, to the great surprise of the enemy who at most might have expected to see them lining up on the usual horizon. The fari’s troops were kept completely ignorant of the goal and destination of the operation. Even the Askia’s son, who was along on the expedition, was unable to learn the secret known only to the general, the fari-mondzo. Thus, Bani was defeated.

Military demonstrations were also used. Askia Daud, for one, deployed his forces as far as Mossi and Lulami country without engaging in battle or pillaging, for the sole purpose of impressing his neighbors and taking away any desire they might have to venture into the interior of his lands.

The Tarikh el Fettach also stresses the development of military science in Songhai. Its author underlines the difficulties of the kurmina-fari’s expedition against Tenidda (Ten-gella, Tia-N’Della), king of Futa. Tendirma, the point of departure, was two months’ march away; even so, the expedition was victoriously completed with a large army. The defeated enemy was put to death and the troops returned with a great deal of booty (March 8, 1513).

Although the Cayorians were formidable warriors, their military tactics, until the accession of Lat Dior, seem not to have been so well regulated as in Songhai.

The knights charged in total anarchy, each one whenever he felt like it, after having gotten carefully “plastered” far in the rear; they felt that their noble station was incompatible with the idea of an organized command, especially when it was headed by a slave generalissimo, the diaraff bunt ker. The fact was, that they often arranged to let the foot soldiers take the first rounds of fire, the only ones that usually were fatal. The firearms the Cayorians had at the end of the Damel period were loaded with powder, pottery shards, and other small fragments of cast iron. It is easy to imagine that during a battle, the soldiers did not often have time to replace such loads. So, after the first rounds, what followed was nothing but fireworks, causing, at most, slight superficial burns. More than one brave knight chose such a moment to enter the fray, seeking out among the enemy knights a single personal adversary he might defeat; he fired his gun only when in sight of this enemy. He had sworn to do so on the eve of battle at the time of the “Khas”: this was a ritual, often held at night, in which all the valiant warriors, plunging their lances repeatedly into a pile of sand they had surrounded, proclaimed their intended exploits for the next day.

It was Lat Dior who probably introduced mobile war into Cayor. Before the technical superiority of Faidherbe’s armies, the Damel, who had accepted the teachings of the French school, knew how to adapt to the situation. Instead of putting forward the bulk of his army, he divided it into small corps, posted at strategic points; so it was a war of harassment, a guerrilla war he waged against Faidherbe. His men even dug individual holes in the ground, fully covered, with just one opening through which to aim a weapon: a surprise salvo thus greeted the arrival of the enemy on the scene; this was the tactic called guedjo (individual hole). This period of mobile war was called the “Time of the Werwerlo” (whirling). Lat Dior stalked Faidherbe’s troops who were stalking his: so people wondered, with a touch of mockery, who was chasing whom.


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