Ghana is one of the earliest known Negro empires in recorded history. It was first mentioned by an Arab geographer, Al-Fazari, in AD 773 in his book Al-Masudi, where he referred to it as “a land of gold”. Ghana is also found on the first islamic world map produced by a Persian geographer, Mohammed Khwarizim, in the ninth century. The Arab traveler Al-Bakri, writing in AD 1067, tells us that the name “Ghana” was the title of the Soninke kingdom called Aoukar. The title means “war chief”. It was visiting Arabs and people from other parts of the Sudan who referred to the Kingdom by the title of its kings; and by the ninth century, Aoukar was popularly known as “Ghana”.
It is not yet certain how and when Ghana was founded. But from Arab Sources, particularly the Tarikh as Sudan, it appears to have been founded by Soninke dynasty between AD 300-400.
The Ghana kingdom was situated on the grasslands north of the headwaters of the rivers Senegal and Niger. It’s capital, Kumbi Saleh, is said to have been founded by Kaya Maghan, who is reputed to have overthrown the immigrant minority ruling class of “whites” (products of intermarriage between Berber settlers and Negro indigenes) about AD 770 and established a pure Soninke dynasty.
By AD 1000 the Soninke kingdom had extended its territory west to the river Senegal, south to the Bambuk region, east to the Niger and north to the Berber town of Audoghast on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. By the middle of the eleventh century, when Ghana was at the zenith of its Imperial expansion, it controlled the area covering most of the modern states of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania – a territory of roughly 650,000 square kilometers with a population of several million people.
GHANA IN THE ELEVENTH CENTURY
It is believed that the people of the Ghana empire did not develop a system of writing, for no records of theirs have as yet been discovered. All that we have of Ghana has come from the writings of Arab scholars and travelers. One of the best of such written accounts is that of Al-Bakri, an Arab scholar of Cordoba in southern Spain. In his book Kitab al Masulik wa’l Mamalik, written in 1067, Al-Bakri has left extremely interesting and useful information on the Emperor and the magnificence of his court, the system of government, defence, economy, taxation and trade. Al-Bakri never visited the Western Sudan himself but collected his information from Muslim merchants of North Africa engaged in the trans-Saharan trade.
DECLINE AND FALL OF THE GHANA EMPIRE
Let us now do an important historical exercise – examine, analyze and find out the reasons for the gradual decline and eventual collapse of Ghana, the earliest greatest imperial power in Western Sudanese history.
We have learnt earlier in this post that Ghana was at the peak of its wealth and power by the beginning of the eleventh century. However, the first serious signs of decline became noticeable in 1054, when the Sanhaja Berbers recaptured Audoghast and made it their base, after converting the people to Islam. Then from here, a Sanhaja movement of religious fanatics known as the Almoravids made a consistent attack on Ghana and in 1076, they captured Kumbi Saleh. This event marked the beginning of the end of that great first Negro empire. Let us now identify the factors responsible for its gradual decline and fall.
INTERNAL WEAKNESS OF GHANA
The decline of the empire has been attributed to certain inherent weaknesses. One such weakness was political instability arising from the lack of a stable and well-defined system of succession to the throne. The system of succession was matrilineal, which means that the King’s successor was his sister’s son. This practice created an opportunity for many to lay claim to the throne especially where the late King had many sisters with sons qualified to contest the kingship. As a result, the empire was often engulfed in civil wars. This weakened the central authority and created opportunities for enemies like the Tuareges to attack frontier and even the heartland of the Empire.
Another source of weakness resulted from the social and cultural heterogeneity of the empire, that is, it embraced peoples of different languages and cultures– the Susu, the Tekrur, the Mande-speaking people to the south and the Berbers of Audoghast to the north. These conquered peoples with no deep political, social or cultural attachment to the Soninke empire of Ghana were always struggling to regain their independence. When that opportunity arrived with the capture Kumbi Saleh by the Almoravids in 1076, they seized it and became free.
REASONS FOR INVASION OF GHANA
The Almoravids had religious, commercial and political motives for the invasion of Ghana.
The Almoravids movement was primarily a movement for the purification and spread of Islam by a holy War, or jihad. The Almoravids invaded Ghana because it was a pagan kingdom and its kings had resisted conversion to Islam though they tolerated Muslims living or trading in the empire.
The Almoravid Berbers wished to regain control of the southern trans-Saharan trade route which they lost when Audoghast, their principal caravan centre, was captured by Ghana in AD 990. That objective they achieved in 1054 when they recaptured Audoghast and also took Sijilmasa, another important northern terminus of this trans-Saharan trade route.
The Almoravid Berbers wanted to put a halt to Ghana’s Northern expansion, which was a serious threat to their political independence.