|A man of the Songhai people from Mali, 2012|
|Approx. 4.5 million (2010)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Songhai (also Songhay or Sonrai) are west Africans who speak Songhai languages, the lingua franca of the Songhai Empire which dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th century. The Songhai are found primarily throughout Mali in the Western sudanic region (not the country). The name Songhai is historically neither an ethnic nor a linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhay Empire. Speakers in Mali have adopted it as an ethnic self-designation but other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves by other ethnic terms such as Zarma (or Djerma, the largest subgroup of the Songhai) or Isawaghen. The dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger, according to at least one report. The Songhay languages are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan but this classification remains controversial: Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family.
It was from one of Mali's former conquests, the kingdom of Gao, that the last major empire of the western Sudan emerged. Although the city of Gao had been occupied by a Songhai dynasty prior to being conquered by Mansa Musa's forces in 1325, it was not until much later that the Songhai empire emerged. The empire saw its pre-eminent rise under the military strategist and influential Songhai king, Sonni Ali Ber. It began its rise in 1468 when Sonni Ali conquered much of the weakening Mali empire's territory as well as Timbuktu, famous for its Islamic universities, and the pivotal trading city of Djenné. Among the country's most noted scholars was Ahmed Baba—a highly distinguished historian frequently quoted in the Tarikh al-Sudan and other works. The people consisted of mostly fishermen and traders. Following Sonni Ali's death, Muslim factions rebelled against his successor and installed Soninke general, Askia Muhammad (formerly Muhammad Toure) who was to be the first and most important ruler of the Askia dynasty (1492–1592). Under the Askias, the Songhai empire reached its zenith.
Following Askia Muhammad, the empire began to collapse. It was enormous and could not be kept under control. The kingdom of Morocco saw Songhay's still flourishing salt and gold trade and decided that it would be a good asset.