The three great kingdoms of western Africa were the Kingdom of Ghana (now Mauritania), the Mali Empire (now Mali), and the Songhai Empire (now Niger). During the fifth century A.D. the Soninke people ruled the Kingdom of Ghana from its capital Kumbi Saleh (present-day Kouimbi Saleh in southeastern Mauritania), along the agriculturally rich Niger River. The Soninke were settled farmers and miners, who made tools and weapons of iron and ornaments from gold. They traded their ample supplies of gold for salt from Berbers, nomadic Muslim traders from North Africa, who crossed the dangerous Sahara Desert with camel caravans. Salt was a precious commodity, needed for preserving food and for replenishing water lost by the body through perspiration. Ghana's kings ruled from Kumbi Saleh and led a standing army against the Berbers, who overran the kingdom in 1076.
The Mali Empire, which was at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was located near the agriculturally rich flood plain of the Niger River and gold mines that had been controlled by the Ghana Empire until the mid-eleventh century. After the decline of the Ghana Empire, a period of unrest existed until the various tribes unified under Sundiata Keita. Under Sundiata's leadership, the three independent states of Mali, Mema, and Wagadou formed the Mali Empire. The king controlled the army, dispensed justice, and managed trade, especially trade in gold. Historians note that Mali king Mansa Musa converted from shamanism (belief in a world of unseen gods, and ancestral spirits responsible only to spiritual leaders called shamans), the native religion, to Islam (a religion founded by the prophet Muhammad; c. 570–632) and made a pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia) that is required of Muslims (followers of Islam). In the early 1500s, the Mali Empire dissolved when the northern tribes revolted.
Although the Songhai (also spelled Songhay) people who lived along the largest bend in the Niger River were for centuries dominated by their neighbors to the west (the Ghana and Mali Empires), in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they extended their control upstream. For about 100 years, the Songhai people, led by the warrior king Sunni Ali Ber, controlled the territory previously ruled by Ghanian and Malian leaders. Sunni Ali Ber wielded a large army of soldiers on camels and horses, armed with swords and spears. In 1468 Sunni Ali conquered Timbuktu and seven years later Djenne, building an empire with trade routes that extended north and south. After Ali's death in 1492, Ali's son Baru ruled until he was over-thrown by a Songhai military officer, Askia Muhammad Toure. Muhammad welcomed the previously exiled Muslims back into the empire, thus stimulating trade. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and set up Muslim judges to dispense justice in the towns and villages. He expanded the empire through military campaigns and formed a centralized government, with governors ruling the provinces and ministers giving counsel. The population was divided into people who lived in the cities, those who lived in villages, and those who worked as fisherman and were nomads (wandering tribes). Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenne were the principal cities. People from twelve different clans served the king as bodyguards and ladies-in-waiting. Five royal estates provided weapons, ironwork, foodstuffs, transportation, horses. Muhammad supported the arts and established universities run by the Muslims.
Further Information: Halsall, Paul, ed. Internet African Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/africa/africasbook.html, October 20, 2000; Koslow, Philip. Centuries of Greatness: The West African Kingdoms. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1994; McKissack, Patricia, and Fredrick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt, 1994; Millar, Heather. The Kingdom of Benin in West Africa. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997: Sheehan, Sean. Benin and Other African Kingdoms. Austin, Texas: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.