Africa has an amazingly rich and complex history and there have been hundreds of important African kings, queens, sultans, chiefs, and emperors throughout the millennia. Unfortunately, not all of them are as well known to us as they should be. From great warrior kings to important political reformers, there are so many great stories and things to learn from them.

Largely overshadowed by our modern-day presidents and prime ministers and heads of states, in no particular order, here are 13 of the most powerful African kings.

Sunni Ali Ber

Sunni Ali, also known as Sunni Ali Ber, was the first king of the Songhai Empire and the 15th ruler of the Sunni dynasty. Under Sunni Ali’s infantry and cavalry, many cities were captured and then fortified, such as Timbuktu in 1468, and Djenné, in 1475. He conducted a repressive policy against the scholars of Timbuktu, especially those of the Sankore region who were associated with the Tuareg whom Ali expelled to gain control of the town.

During his reign, Songhai surpassed the height of the Mali Empire, engulfing areas under the Mali Empire and the Ghana Empire before it.

Sunni Ali ruled over both urban Muslims and rural non-Muslims at a time when the traditional co-existence of different beliefs was being challenged. His adherence to African animism while also professing Islam leads some writers to describe him as outwardly or nominally Muslim.

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Fulani jihad states of Africa, c. 1830. Image Credit: Wikipedia

There are two versions of Ali’s death: According to the Tarikh al-Sudan, Ali drowned while crossing the Niger River in late 1492. However, oral sources say he was killed by his sister’s son, Askia Muhammad Ture.

Ali was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baru, who was challenged by Askia because Baru was not seen as a faithful Muslim and Askia successfully succeeded to the throne.

Askia the Great

Askia Muhammad I who was born Muhammad Touré in Futa Tooro, was an emperor, military commander, and political reformer of the Songhai Empire in the late 15th century. Askia the Great was from the Soninke ethnic group.

Askia Muhammad strengthened his empire and made it the largest empire in West Africa’s history. At its peak under his reign, the Songhai Empire encompassed the Hausa states as far as Kano (in present-day Northern Nigeria) and much of the territory that had belonged to the Songhai empire in the west. His policies resulted in a rapid expansion of trade with Europe and Asia, the creation of many schools, and the establishment of Islam as an integral part of the empire.

Askia subsequently orchestrated a program of expansion and consolidation which extended the empire from Taghaza in the North to the borders of Yatenga in the South; and from Air in the Northeast to Futa Djallon in Guinea.

Instead of organizing the empire along Islamic lines, he tempered and improved on the traditional model by instituting a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled in Western Africa. In addition, Askia established standardized trade measures and regulations, initiated the policing of trade routes and also established an organized tax system. He was overthrown by his son, Askia Musa, in 1528.

He died 10 years after in 1538 and was buried in Gao, present-day Mali, under a pyramid of earth scaled by wooden spikes. His tomb is still standing and has become one of the most respected mosques in all of West Africa.

Shaka Zulu

Shaka kaSenzangakhona was born into the small South African clan of the Zulus in 1787. His father was the chief of the Zulus and his mother, Nandi, was the daughter of the chief of a nearby clan. When Shaka was still a young boy, his father drove him and his mother out of the village and soon became part of the clan of a powerful chief named Dingiswayo where Shaka trained as a warrior.

When Dingiswayo died, Shaka took control of the surrounding tribes and became the most powerful leader in the area. Shaka continued to train and build his army. He conquered many of the surrounding chiefdoms. At one point, he had a well-trained army of around 40,000 soldiers. Shaka was a strong, but brutal leader. Anyone who disobeyed an order was immediately killed. He sometimes massacred a whole village in order to send a message.

When Nandi, Shaka’s mother, died, he was heartbroken. He forced the entire kingdom to mourn her. He issued an order that no new crops were to be planted for a year. He also demanded that no milk be used for a year and that all pregnant women would be killed. He had around 7.000 people executed for not mourning enough for his mother.

The people had had enough of Shaka’s cruelty and were ready to revolt. In 1828, Shaka was assassinated and buried him in an unmarked grave.

Idris Alooma

Undoubtedly the greatest monarch of the Central African state of the Kanem-Bornu Dynasty, Idris Alooma was Mai or King of the Kanem-Bornu Empire which was located mainly in present-day Chad and Nigeria. An outstanding statesman, Kanem-Bornu reached the zenith of his power under his rule. Alooma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reform, and Islamic piety.

Alooma’s major adversaries were the Hausa to the West, the Tuareg and Toubo to the North, and the Bulala to the East. An epic poem extolls his victories in 330 wars and more than 1,000 battles.

Image of Idris Alooma, the Mai of Borno
Idris Alooma (c.1538–1596), the Mai of Borno (1564–1596).

Kanem-Bornu under Alooma was powerful and wealthy. Government revenue came from tributes, taxes and trade.

After the fall of Songhai in 1591, Idris Alooma became the undisputed champion of the Muslims of the city. The Empire then became the Bornu Caliphate and the leading Islamic power in Africa. It was a Caliphate that served all of Africa. The capital city was called Ngazargamu, and it was one of the largest cities on Earth.

In 1658, Ngazargamu housed “about a quarter of a million people.” There were 660 avenues. Many of them were broad and unbending, indicative of town planning. The architecture of the high streets, lined on both sides with trees offering shade. Such buildings had to be built on an unprecedented scale and the workmanship was of the same quality as seen in Europe at the time.

Alooma ruled from 1564 to 1596, according to the Diwan. He died in the Baguirmi campaign, where he was mortally wounded; later he was buried in the Lake Alo, south of the Maiduguri present-day Northern Nigeria.

Behanzin Bowelle

Born in 1844 in Abomey, Béhanzin Hossu Bowelle was the eleventh king of Dahomey from 1889 to 1894. Dahomey was one of most powerful kingdoms of West Africa, deriving its power from trade and its superior army. At the time, Béhanzin masterfully led an army of 15000 men and 5000 amazon women. 

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In February 1890, the French occupied Cotonou; Béhanzin, now king after his father’s sudden death, prepared for war. His forces attacked the French simultaneously on two fronts—militarily at Cotonou and economically by destroying the palm plantations at Porto Novo. However, France was determined to annex Dahomey before the British or Germans did. Béhanzin, knowing that he would have to defend his sovereignty, continued upgrading his army in preparation for renewed war.

He declared a treaty made with France by his father, Glèlè, in 1868 null and void, from this war began.  In 1894, Béhanzin was defeated by Colonel Alfred-Amédée Dodds, a Senegalese mulatto, who was sent to fight against him with powerful French armed forces. Béhanzin, not wanting his people to be massacred, surrendered his person to Dodds, without signing any instrument of national surrender or treaty. Dahomey was then placed under France’s protection and it eventually became a French colony.

In 1906, Béhanzin died while on exile in Algeria.

Menelik II

Menelik II was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death in 1913. At the height of his internal power and external prestige, the process of territorial expansion and creation of the modern empire-state was completed by 1898. Menelik is also remembered for leading Ethiopian troops against the Kingdom of Italy in the First Italo-Ethiopian War, where Menelik scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa.

Ethiopia was transformed under Emperor Menelik: the major signposts of modernisation with the help of key ministerial advisors were put in place. Externally, Menelik’s victory over the Italian invaders earned him great fame. Following the Battle of Adwa, recognition of Ethiopia’s independence by external powers was expressed in terms of diplomatic representation at his court and delineation of Ethiopia’s boundaries with the adjacent colonies.

Menelik expanded his kingdom to the south and east, into Kaffa, Sidama, Wolayta and other kingdoms. Later in his reign, Menelik established the first Cabinet of Ministers to help in the administration of the Empire, appointing trusted and widely respected nobles and retainers to the first Ministries. These ministers would remain in place long after his death, serving in their posts through the brief reign of Lij Iyasu and into the reign of Empress Zewditu.

Mansa Musa

In the 17th year of his reign (1324), Mansa Musa I of Mali set out on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this pilgrimage that awakened the world to the stupendous wealth of Mali. Cairo and Mecca received this royal personage. Traveling from his capital of Niani on the upper Niger River to Walata, present-day Mauritania, and on to Tuat, now in Algeria, before making his way to Cairo, Mansa Mūsā was accompanied by an impressive caravan consisting of 60,000 men including a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves, all clad in brocade and Persian silk.

The emperor himself rode on horseback and was directly preceded by 500 slaves, each carrying a gold-adorned staff. In addition, Mansa Mūsā had a baggage train of 80 camels, each carrying 300 pounds of gold.

The historian al-ʿUmarī, who visited Cairo 12 years after the emperor’s visit, found the inhabitants of this city, with a population estimated at one million, still singing the praises of Mansa Mūsā. So lavish was the emperor in his spending that he flooded the Cairo market with gold, thereby causing such a decline in its value that the market some 12 years later had still not fully recovered.

Under Mansa Mūsā, Timbuktu grew to be a very important commercial city having caravan connections with Egypt and with all other important trade centres in North Africa. Mansa Musa not only expanded Mali’s borders from the Atlantic to Nigeria, but he also built a vast trade network from gold and salt, and undertook various building projects, truly making Timbuktu the center of West Africa, if not the world at the time.

Other African Kings

If you would like to know more about other powerful African kings, please check out the video below.

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