Brief History of Early Kingdoms in Africa

Looking at Africa today one is likely to believe that civilization, governance and trade are new concepts introduced probably in the late 19th with the advent of colonialism. Africa was the most underdeveloped region in the world. In terms of civilization, though they have made progress in the use of technology especially mobile phones, the other sectors remain largely infant or nonexistent. In the 21st century the largest income earner and highest contributor to the GDP of most African economies remains to be agriculture. These are centuries after the agrarian revolution. Trade in most African countries is restricted to their former colonial masters with hardly any interstate trade going on. As for governance most African countries are young democracies, some of them were suffering from cruel dictatorship and others locked in never ending civil wars. The current situation is not a true representation of the African continent before the 15th century. On the contrary historical and archaeological evidence present a totally different picture. Medieval Africa was almost at par with the rest of the world as far as civilization is concerned. There existed many African Kingdoms and Empires that were governed properly complete with ministries and trade and foreign policies. These empires often formed as a result of military conquest, traded with other empires in Africa and also out of Africa with people in continents like Asia; they traded with Arabs and Chinese people and Europe with the Spaniards and the Portuguese. These empires were at the forefront of developing and using technology and their citizens lived quality lives for that period of time. This paper studies the rise and fall of the empires that thrived on the western coast of Africa before the 15th with a specific focus on the Mali Empire. The work discusses the factors that led to the rise of Mali Empire taking into account economical, geographical and political factors. It also examines how the above aspects led to the decline and eventual collapse of the Mali Empire.

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In medieval Africa, most people were either farmers, hunters and gatherers or livestock keepers. Their economic activities dictated where they settled. For instance, farmers settled in area with fertile lands and adequate water supply either through rainfall or close to water bodies such as ocean and lakes. Hunters and gatherers settled in areas near forests or grasslands where wild animals could be found easily. The herders preferred grasslands with adequate pasture for their animals. Economic activities were determined by the people’s tribes. Hence individuals of one tribe would settle together in an area, which favored their economic activity. As people settled, their numbers increased due to reproduction and often they would fight for the available resources. As a result of these conflicts, they needed someone to mediate and solve them. This led to the development of governance (McKissack, 1994: 190). They thus selected a person, in most cases the individual was a religious leader to mediate and gradually this person became the political chief. As people believed the religious gifts were hereditary, often the sibling of the religious persona would succeed him as a leader of the people. These tiny organizations normally grew in size to form kingdoms with kings and even a council of elders to advise the king in the governing of the people. They would further be divided into chiefdoms headed by chiefs who were the king’s representatives in the chiefdoms. It was possible to find many such kingdoms existing concurrently in an area, living as neighbors and intermarrying and even trading (Mann, 1996: 67).

Over time one of the kings may develop a larger, more organized army whose military power exceeded those of the other kingdoms. Such a king would engage military warfare against his neighbors conquering them. In so doing he would force the other kings to pay allegiance to him; they would continue to rule their kingdoms as before, only this time they had to pay a fixed amount of revenue to him (McBrewster 85). The revenue came from the products produced in the kingdoms. The king of the strong kingdom hence merged a number of small kingdoms to form an empire and he became an emperor. Most empires then continued with the expansion by acquiring land and people from other kingdoms and through economic activities such as trade they grew in might. Most empires collapsed when due to weak governance or civil strife the individual kingdoms fought and achieved their independence. Many such kingdoms existed in Africa from the north to the south and to the east and west. To the east, kingdoms such as the Buganda kingdom flourished, the south had kingdoms such as the Zimbabwe Kingdom and the west had several great kingdoms including; Ghana, Mali and Songhai Kingdoms. The Mali Kingdom followed the above pattern and its rise and fall is discussed below.

The Rise of the Mali Kingdom

The rise of the Mali Kingdom was facilitated by a number of factors, which cut across all sectors ranging from geographical, political and economic factors.

Geographical factors that led to the rise of the Mali Kingdom

Mali had several geographical advantages over Ghana and the other kingdoms that enabled it to grow. First its proximity to the river Niger improved its transport system. This is as with the river, using canoes they were able to move not only more goods but also bulky ware that they would not have been able to if they had relied on then available transport means of horses, donkeys and oxen. The river also increased the pace of their transportation as it is faster that the beasts of burden used for those purposes. Transporting more goods and at a faster rate increased the volume of their trade and hence the capital available to them for expansion enabling it to rise as an empire.

Another geographical position that enabled Mali to rise as an empire was its location on the lower banks of river Niger. The latter flooded periodically depositing fertile silt its banks. The silt was fertile facilitating the growth of crops. The river also provided water for the crops planted and hence the Mali Kingdom had adequate food supply. They also traded in food crops. With adequate food the empire could focus on other aspects of growth as they were spared of the severe bangs of hunger leading to starvation that affected the other kingdoms (Conrad, 2005: 93).

Mali Kingdom unlike Ghana had actual gold mines in the Kingdom at Bumbuk and Bure. Hence increases its revenue from gold not just from transporting and facilitating its trade but also from the actual exploitation through selling of the gold that they mined. This helped them develop a stronger economy facilitating its rise. The trade routes for the Trans Saharan trade shifted eastwards and hence they fell in the Mali Kingdom. This leads to the rise of Mali as the empire, thus gaining a lot of revenue from the trade through the taxation of the traders. Revenue is important as it was used to support and fund the military and the royalty governing the empire enabling it to conquer more regions and hence rise.

Political factors that led to the rise of the Mali Empire

Several political factors led to the rise of Mali as an empire. The key among them includes the collapse of the Ghana Kingdom. When the Ghana kingdom collapsed, the individual kingdoms attained their independence and Mali was one of them. Together the Kingdoms were unassailable and strong but on their own they were weak and could easily be captured. When Mali gathered a sizeable army and the support of a few of its neighbors it became the strongest among the weak Kingdoms and was hence able to conquer them to submission thereby leading to its growth as an empire. If the Kingdom of Ghana had not collapsed then Mali would not have risen as an empire (Mann, 1996: 118).
Another political factor that led to the rise of Mali as a Kingdom was the cruel leadership of Somanguru. The latter had ceased power upon the collapse of the Ghana Kingdom. He was cruel and ruled in a tyrannical manner killing people carelessly. When Sundiata a Mandinka prince was approached he accepted to rule the military and he did so successfully winning the battle of Kirina (McKissack.1994:77). That act united several kingdoms to the upper banks of the Niger River, which later became the Mali Empire. Hence that act led to the rise of the Mali. The governance of Mali Kingdom also led to its growth. This is so because under the Mansa (emperor) Sundiata came up with an efficient organizational structure that facilitated proper governance hence leading to Mali’s rise. Under this structure, the kings that had sworn allegiance to him and his descendants were appointed as commanders, they ruled their own kingdoms just as before, but this time they paid tribute to the empire. He also established a parliament like organization. This organization called the Gabra decided on the cases and the rules for the empire (McKissack, 1994: 91). He also initiated land reforms in that he divided land portions ensuring people owned land within the empire. He came up with documentation that regulated the interrelationships between people. This effectively reduced the conflicts in the region. Some other reforms initiated by Sundiata included proper and humane treatment of slaves and the prisoners in the kingdom. These led to the rise of the kingdom. Another emperor Mansa Musa also effected political changes that facilitated the rise of Mali Kingdom to reach its peak. Musa made political changes such as dividing the entire into administrative units that can be liked to provinces. He then appointed rulers for these provinces. The latter were further broken down to towns ruled by the equivalent of today’s mayors who were called “mochrif” (Conrad, 2005: 174).

Mansa Musa also led to the rise of the empire by expanding its territories far into the west. He did this by establishing a huge well trained army, which was used to expand the territory of the empire. It was also used for peace keeping in that whenever there was a rebellion in any of the small kingdoms, the army would be sent to quell it hence facilitating the rise of the Mali Empire. The army also facilitated trade by protecting the traders as they engaged in the trade and as they traded. Another political factor that led to the rise of the Mali Empire was the fact that the kingship was hereditary. Upon the death of one king, succession disputes were reduced by the fact that people knew his heir to the throne. This prevented power vacuums as people tried to choose a new leader. Smooth transition of power was a key factor in facilitating the prosperity of the nation. Except if a few cases where the heirs were overthrown. All the above factors led to the rise of the Mali Empire (McBrewster, 2009: 29).

Economic factors that led to the rise of the Mali Empire

The Mali Kingdom like the other kingdoms in West Africa, though established by military conquest, thrived on trade. Therefore, economic factors played a big role in their rise and subsequent falls. In the Mali Kingdom the economic aspects that led to its rise include presence of such minerals as gold, copper and salt. Mali Empire has three gold mines within its borders. These facilitated the trade in gold. It improved the gold trade of the Mali Empire beyond that of Ghana Kingdom. The Empire also had other minerals such as bronze and copper. The latter was mined and traded in Takedda (Conrad, 2005: 245).

Agriculture is another economic activity that enabled Mali to flourish. Through it Mali was able to trade in agricultural products like rice. The Niger River economically facilitated the growth of Mali, thus helping people transport goods along the trading routes that it passed through. Another economic factor leading to the growth of Mali kingdom was its location along the trade routes. Some of Mali’s major towns were located conveniently along the trade routes enabling them and hence the empire to grow. For instance, Taghaza town where people traded in salt. In Takedda people exchanged copper for gold. The government also had effective economic policies that led to the rise of the Mali Empire. The policies included taxation. The government taxed all the people trading in the Empire as well as ones who brought gold into the empire. This provided them with adequate funds to properly run the empire hence facilitating its growth (Mann, 1996: 105).

The government intervened economically to stimulate the growth of the empire through the implementation of the monetary policy. This is evident that the empire or the place was the only custodian of gold. They received all mined gold and exchanged it for gold dust. This action prevented inflation and hence led to the rise of the Mali Empire, which had a good foreign policy, especially during the reign of Mansa Musa (McKissack, 1994: 87). This was because when he made the pilgrimage to mecca passing across Egypt and other countries he displayed his affluence and generosity attracting a lot of people. He made the rest of the world realize the existence of Mali and came to trade with them, thus resulting to high volumes of trade. He also personally brought scholars and doctors among other experts from around the world revolutionizing Timbuktu into a learning town. This attracted a lot of visitors, especially from North Africa and Asia, and hence improved the revenue of the country leading to its rise. During Mansa Musa’s reign, Mali reached its peak; it was at its largest size about one point two million square kilometers. It had the largest trade volume and military strength.

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The Fall of Mali Empire

Just like the Ghana Kingdom before it and The Songhai Empire after it, the Mali Empire fell, though it was gradual. Just like the rise, the fall of the Mali Empire is attributable to economic, geographical and political factors. The main political aspect leading to the collapse of the Mali Empire was succession. Upon the death of Mansa Musa the empire lacked a strong leader (McKissack, 1994: 74). His sons fought over the succession, since each of them desired to be the ruler. As a result, they fragmented the kingdom into smaller kingdoms. The latter also wanted their freedom as they desire to participate in the trading of gold and salt and to reap direct benefits. They thus revolted. Without an organized strong army to quell the rebellion, they succeeded in declaring and establishing their independence. Some of this Kingdoms such as the Songhai actually acquired enough military strength to conquer towns in the original Mali kingdom such as Goa and Timbuktu. Aside from political factors, economic and geographical ones also led to the fall of the Mali Empire (McBrewster, 2009: 109). New goldmines were discovered to the east and the trade shifted eastwards. As the economic base of the Mali Empire was gold, the shift hurt the economy leading to the eventual fall and final collapse of the Mali Kingdom.

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The Mali Empire lasted several centuries. It was on an upward trajectory from the early eleventh century to the late 15th when its fall began. Factors such as good governance, favorable economic conditions and proper geographical location led to its rise. Its fall was caused by poor governance and a change in economic patterns. It had a structure similar to those of the other West African Kingdoms with an Emperor at the head and kings at the provincial level. At its peak it was the second largest empire in the whole world and was a model of civilization. Through the use of iron in the daily lives for purposes such as farming and fighting (spears) it achieved the success that had never been attained before. Its collapse however, was as a result of majorly poor governance. From this paper we can learn that authority is the key ingredient to a successful nation. Despite examples from Mali and Ghana subsequent Kingdoms in West Africa also fell as a result of poor governance and greed for power. Even in the 21st century African countries continue suffering from poor governance.

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