Africa was great right? It had vast empires with powerful Kings and Queens. Legendary cities like Timbuktu, Meroe, Thebes, Mbanza Kongo and many more. It harbored the wealthiest man in human history, Mansa Musa. It also had access to most of the worlds natural resources and at some point African people controlled it, giving the continent enormous amounts of wealth.
We have Pan-Africanist or even Afro-centered scholars who tell us about how great Africa was and how we (Afro-descended people) were essentially the center of human existence. But for some reason, whatever our ideological persuasion, we all go kinda mute when asked a simple question, what happened?
In preparation to answer this question we read many books and scanned through the internet and got our hands on any documentary or journal article we could find. Through our thorough investigation, this is the best explanation we could muster for our community. Before we get into our answer, we have to explain how we broke this down. In order to understand the fall of an entire continent, we must first understand how its many empires fell because the decline of African empires led to the fall of the continent.
The primary African empires we’ll be discussing are going to be the Wagadu Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, the Kongo Empire, and finally the Kanem-Bornu Empire. After we go over in detail the decline of these primary African states, we’ll discuss the fall of the continent. We chose these empires because of their vast wealth, size, influence and overall power.
The fall of these empires has many things in common that foreshadow the declining condition of the continent. The purpose of this explanation is to provide our community with a working model we can use to understand what went wrong with our ancestral continent. This is not intended to be an absolute truth about the conditions that brought about our dark ages, but simply a foundation we can continuously build off of.
As it concerns the fall of Africa, we agreed upon a concept called the 4 Gates theory. The reason for the gates idea is because gates open and close and in the past these 4 gates were opened leading to the downfall of an entire continent. However, because we can now identify these gates, the diaspora can understand how to eventually close them. Here’s a quick summary of why the African continent fell:
Africa fell because of:
Globally desired resources
The Decline of African Empires
1. Wagadu Empire
The Wagadu Empire was the very first empire in West African history. It was founded by the Soninke people. Some highlights about the empire include great Mande style architecture with vast stone structures and well-planned cities.
One well known archeological location was Dhar Tichett. The capital city of Wagadu was said to be Koumbi Saleh. The Soninke developed a massive trading center and the Ghana’s or kings of Wagadu would even accommodate the Muslim and Arab merchants by building them their own city.
The Ghana’s (not to be mistaken with modern-day Ghana) taxed foreign merchants immensely to maintain economic dominance. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how Wagadu actually fell. The confusion over the fall of Wagadu is normal because there are usually numerous reasons why an empire declines.
One theory is that merchants began to find new routes for trade, which gave them access to goods. Thus, they didn’t need to go through Wagadu anymore. Another is that the Almoravid movement of Islam conquered Wagadu. However, there’s no direct evidence for this. But what seems to be a consistent theme in oral and written accounts from African sources itself is that a man named Sumanguru Kante (of the Sosso people) finished the job of conquering Wagadu after they were weakened due to the loss of trade.
2. Mali Empire
Because we have a lot of information concerning the fall of Mali we’ll try and get as specific as possible. I think most people would agree that Mali was one of the top empires in not just West African history but all of African history.
So how did it fall? Let’s start from a point that many people wouldn’t even consider. Mansa Musa, that’s right, the fall of Mali was doomed to occur the moment Mansa Musa made one simple decision. When Mansa Musa came back from his hajj to Mecca, he heard great news. His army had captured Gao, essentially the stronghold of Songhai power and influence.
So he casually went to Gao and one decision he made sealed the fate of Mali forever. Mansa Musa took the two sons of a defeated Songhai king and took them back to Mali. It’s hard to blame him because this was simply a tradition that Mandinka kings did so as to keep their vassal states loyal to Mali. The idea, of course, is if you vassal states act up, just remember we have your son.
The Crown Prince Ali Kolon and his brother were taken by Mansa Musa but they weren’t mistreated by the Mandinka. In fact, they were educated and even learned Mandinka warfare. But because Ali Kolon had much pride in the Songhai and a deep love for his people and probably grew up missing his father, he absolutely despised being in Mali.
So he left, took what he had learned and broke free from the bounds of the Mandinka. Ever since then he rejuvenated Songhai statehood. The Mandinka and the Songhai became passionately embattled pretty much for the rest of their hegemonic existence. So it was Askia the Great who started to put in the final work that devastated Mali.
Once other vassal states saw that Mali was greatly weakened, they took full advantage and started breaking away one by one. Still, even then, while Mali was weakened a window of opportunity and hope ran through because Songhai became littered with civil unrest which led to the Morrocan invasion of the territory.
The final Mansa, Mahmud Keita, tried to take back Djenne but was betrayed by his Fulani allies and his top two generals also betrayed him. Even against those odds he still almost won surprisingly against the Moroccan invasion of the territory. But the army in Djenne intervened and that was the end of Mali for good. To sum it up, the Songhai conquered Mali, but when there was a glimmer of hope to rejuvenate Mali, the Mandinka were betrayed by a rival ethnic group.
3. Songhai Empire
Now let’s talk about the Songhai Empire, the end of Songhai was ironically similar. They had a lot of unrest and were bathed in civil war after the greatest Askia or (ruler) died.
The Morrocans sent spies to see the best opportunity to strike. Ultimately, a former slave of the Songhai by the name of Wuld told the Morrocans the best opportunity to strike and informed them of valuable information.
With the civil war after the death of Askia the Great and the betrayal of the Songhai, Moroccans conquered Songhai territory and that was the end of the great West African state. However, by that time the Songhai were weakened by civil war and disorganization because the Kings were literally just trying to survive and not necessarily rule.
4. Kanem-Bornu Empire
Let’s bring our attention to Central Africa. The greatest empire in all of African history is an empire that is little known and discussed. It was the longest lasting empire in all of African history and one of the largest in the world. It’s called the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
The empire lasted for a thousand years from the 9th century all the way to the 1900s. It was also huge! The empire was founded by the Kanembu people and they have their own written history called the Girgam which we can use as a direct primary source for their history.
Some people will try and say that it didn’t last for a thousand years because there was somewhat of a break but we’ll explain. The Kanem-Bornu Empire basically started as just the Kanem Empire and it went through many dynasties, but one King who was completely dedicated to Islam destroyed an African relic that was very sacred to the people. After this tragic event, all the ethnic groups in the empire went completely ballistic.
Due to infighting, one ethnic group called the Bulala were able to oust the Kanembu and all their sub-groups out of Kanem. The Kanembu then moved into northern Nigeria and basically did a lot of lovemaking, literally creating a new ethnic group called the Kanuri.
After they established themselves in Nigeria (Bornu) they came back to Kanem and re-conquered it. This is why we say their empire lasted for so long with a brief break in the middle. It’s a testament to the strength of the Kanemebu and testament to the strength of the greatest African empire in history.
Unfortunately, its greatness was kinda too much and like all empires, it began to decline. They were expanding and encroaching on the territories of the Fulani and the Hausa. Their expansion was probably happening when the Hausa and the Fulani were in their prime and thus, that was their downfall. The relentless Fulani and Hausa attacks weakened the empire greatly and it was never the same. The Kanembu tried to make a comeback like the Mandinka, but in the end, they just didn’t have the tools.
5. Kongo Empire
Now let’s talk about another Central African empire, the Empire of Kongo. The Christian empire of Central Africa. Kongo has an incredibly interesting and rich history.
Their power and their foreign relations were quite unique. Kongo was, in all honesty, at that time, one of the most militarily powerful states in Central and Southern Africa. Anyway, how did one of the most militarily powerful empires in all of Central Africa fall?
The fall of Kongo is one of the most complex histories in all of Africa from our research. There are so many reasons and we’re sure the reason we’re about to give isn’t going to be good enough for you. Kongo fell simply because the Manikongo or the ruling elite absolutely loved European goods and services even to the detriment of their own people. That’s it.
When the Portuguese hypnotized the easily influenced Manikongo elite, they took the Portuguese word over the citizens of the empire. The interest of Portugal became the interest of the Manikongo.
The Manikongo even sent their children to Portugal and other parts of Europe to be educated and learn more about Christianity. One of the first African priests came from Kongo. So the people were fed up with the Manikongo on many occasions and rebelled. Kongo just became a haven for civil war and of course the Portuguese loved it.
One instance of Kongo’s military power, however, is when they ousted Portuguese efforts of total control even when they were in a civil war. This civil war lasted years and in the confusion and chaos many Bakongo people, citizens of the Kongo empire, were taken into slavery. Eventually, the empire weakened drastically largely due to infighting and Portuguese manipulation. Portugal was simply there to pick up the pieces.
The more we speak about the top empires of Africa the story seems to get more and more similar. With Eastern Africa, when it comes to ancient Kush, the Aksumite Empire destroyed it. Most of the greatest African empires fell due to ethnic groups in the region or within the empire itself. What we’re trying to say is that African diversity, as beautiful as it is, is the best and worst thing about Africa.
This is not to say that other empires in the world did not have diversity but in the case of Africa, the key is this, Africa had extreme diversity in small concentrated regions. This is not an absolute rule for all areas, but it gives you a fairly good idea of why Africa was the way it was. Africa’s geographic, genetic and linguistic greatness stymied itself. This is a perfect segway into our 4 gates theory.
The Decline of the African Continent
Now that we touched on how some prominent African empires fell we can better understand the fall from grace of an entire continent. We have the working theories and explanations from previous scholars concerning this topic and we can use it as a model to build on. From our perspective, the overarching theme no matter the theory seems to consistently tell us one story, that Africa’s assets were simultaneously the catalyst of its ultimate demise.
4 Gates Theory
Drawing from our previous conclusion, concerning the fall of African empires, our first gate is a natural occurrence. Unfortunately for Africa, because human beings originated from there it naturally saw the rise of human diversity. Human beings on the continent of Africa are said to be the most genetically diverse group of people on the planet. Linguistically speaking, there are countless different languages spoken just in one region, let alone the entire continent. Believe it or not, the very first signs of ethnocentrism and even prejudice began in Africa.
Even though we tend to admire African diversity, it became nearly impossible to unify all people groups into one homogenous unit. This is precisely why African empires couldn’t last. Due to African diversity, Africa failed to invent a Pan-African identity even on a small regional scale and therefore could not maintain large long-lasting states. Thus, our first gate is African diversity. The way in which we solve that issue as Afro-descended people is not by ignoring our diversity but simple acknowledging and valuing the fact that we’re all a related group of people.
Our second gate is also natural. We may appreciate the fact that Africa has nearly all the resources humans need to not only survive but thrive. Most of us view that from a positive light. We rant and rave about it a lot in the diaspora. But this was both a good and bad thing.
When you have nearly all the natural resources humans need to thrive and survive your region becomes the number one target on the planet. Another factor concerning the plethora of Africa’s natural resources was the fact that Africans were able to build a civilization fairly quickly. Africa’s natural resources allowed numerous ethnic groups to acquire wealth; a lot of it, gold being a common item of interest in the Ancient world.
Africa became distinguished for its legendary riches which led the Arabs to say:
Sudan, for the Arabs, meaning Africa below the Sahara. So as we can see foreigners were already targeting Africa in their oral traditions. Arab and European writers spoke frequently about the wealth of Africa and this narrative nurtured their desire to plunder.
However, invading armies or even migrations of people outside of Africa were not just seeking valuable resources from African soil, but even the civilization that developed because of wealth. Ancient Egypt was a prime example. One very valuable resource was unfortunately free human labor. Free African labor possessed all the genetic material available to survive virtually any environment; hot or cold.
It’s largely because of our first gate, African diversity, as to why it was so easy to manipulate and eventually depopulate entire regions during the Arab and Atlantic slave trades. This event left the continent bankrupt as young, capable/healthy Africans were used for the cultural, intellectual, and economic advancement of other non-African nations. Thus, our second gate is valuable resources. One way we as Afro-descended people can fight against this in the 21st century is ownership. We simply need to own what we build and what we create in all areas of human activity.
Our third gate at least to our knowledge has not at all been explored in the way it should. This natural event was absolutely catastrophic, literally shifting the landscape of African civilization itself. What we’re talking about is the desertification of North Africa. North Africa essentially becoming a desert was a pretty devastating event for African people and African history. For whatever reason, very few people seem to highlight this fact. We can simply look at the wall paintings our ancestors left us which clearly shows North Africa teeming with life and green pastures.
Imagine going from that to being faced with a lack of food or resources in a matter of a few generations. The truth is, the Africans we see further south were once thriving further North. This desertification led to the forced migrations and displacement of many African people.
These mass migrations made it very easy for later foreign invaders to sweep through with little to no resistance. For example, the invasion of North Africa by the Arabs. African people had to make a rather quick transition from thriving to surviving due to these new conditions in North Africa, which we’re sure effected their culture.
There are many African artifacts we’ve yet to discover because the evidence is probably buried under the sand. Even cultures we know existed like the Garamantes are hard to understand because we know so little about them and the desertification of North Africa is partly to blame.
Losing elements of your culture, history and even civilization are tough to deal with, especially when many of these cultures heavily relied on oral history to know its origins. So our third gate is the desertification of North Africa. We can’t prevent many natural occurrences, but taking care of our environment as African people is of utmost importance.
Our last gate is not necessarily the most devastating but it certainly played a significant role in the condition of African people today. The 4th gate is human error, a very simple naïve one at that. Unfortunately, Africans assumed the nature or social disposition of others was the same as their own.
This wasn’t true for some African ethnic groups, but this was certainly true for the overwhelming majority of Africans on the continent. African men, in particular, seemed to have this incessant need or even burden to uphold moral uprightness. And at times they seemed to have a desire to maintain this even in the face of social or economic annihilation.
Historically, African men appear to have maintained it due to this assumption about the nature of non-Africans. What evidence do we have to confirm this? Well, this topic can be expanded on in great detail, a book can even be written on it. For the sake of time, we’ll give you three examples straight from African kings themselves.
Keep in mind that these examples exemplify the very nature of African people as a whole. These three kings include Oba Ewaure the Great of Benin, King Piye of Kush, and King Mvemba Nzinga of Kongo. Let’s start with Oba Ewaure of Benin. Oba Ewaure is considered the greatest King of the Benin Empire by many.
In a prophetic vision, he is said to have predicted that Benin city would be burnt down in the future. This oddly specific prophecy from the King was strange enough but ultimately he was right. 500 years later Benin was consumed by fire as it was burnt down by the British.
Whatever he actually meant by this prophecy doesn’t really matter, but you would think that by his own vision, he would be hesitant to be welcoming to foreigners. Well, that didn’t deter him, and like all the African kings you’ll see in these examples he still decided to take the moral high ground. Oba Ewaure is quoted as saying:
This is a nice principle to have but via hindsight, we know that all foreigners on African soil were only interested in one thing. Unfortunately, there were transgressions forgiven by Benin and they still were cautious in their approach to take preemptive military action. Next, we have King Piye of Kush. Egypt during this time, from a Kushite perspective, was corrupted by foreign influence. So the Kushite kings sought to restore Nile valley culture, a culture they believed originated with them.
Thus, the Kushites conquered Egypt, but they didn’t destroy Egypt, they actually restored the culture and its many religious precepts. You would think that King Piye would kill the people he felt responsible for corrupting his beloved culture like any normal king. Surprisingly, he did the exact opposite.
He forgave his enemies and even gave them positions of power within the new Kushite Empire. I mean honestly, it doesn’t get any more morally upright than that and it wasn’t just King Piye who did this, other Kushite Kings did the same thing. These Kushite kings exhibited the highest moral character by forgiving the people they claimed were destroying the very fabric of their identity.
Our last one comes from King Mvemba Nzinga of Kongo. This is probably the greatest example of African Kings being more concerned with spiritual or moral uprightness than national security itself. King Mvemba converted to Christianity and was a genuine believer. He was said to be very enthusiastic about his new found faith and this excited the Portuguese because now they had a viable African king prime for manipulation. King Mvemba frequently wrote letters to King Manuel of Portugal.
King Manuel in attempts to butter up the African king often referred to King Mvemba in his letters as his royal brother. Ironically, King Mvemba was more spiritually Christian than the very people that converted him. He became increasingly disheartened and confused by the behavior of the Portuguese in Kongo and began to write many letters. The Letter of King Mvemba Nzinga of Kongo is such a great resource in understanding the nature of an African king.
In a letter to King John the 3rd of Portugal, he wrote him saying the following:
King Mvemba is also quoted as saying:
“Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects… They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night… As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.”
King Mvemba a Nzinga
So very clearly we see King Mvemba was trapped by spiritual blindness. He was so convinced by the allusion of Christian brotherhood that he couldn’t see the manipulation of Portuguese practices. This goes back to our last gate, Africans assuming the nature of other people is the same as theirs. Common sense should’ve told him that if they’re enslaving your people illegally, even aristocrats in your empire, then they’re a threat to national security and should be kicked out.
However, as mentioned before, African men have been more spiritually inclined even in foreign religions than the very people that converted them. The way we combat this is by understanding ourselves and knowing the world around us. The only validation we need as a people comes from within. Our social, political and economic interests should be exclusive. This is a standard that other people practice and we need to truly understand this.
So what is the point of all this? What do we gain as Afro-descended people from learning this history? Well, understanding what happened can help us shape the tools needed to build for our future. We must first be able to identify and acknowledge what went wrong so that we may remedy the issue. We can’t look at this as a doom and gloom message. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. That’s why it’s called the 4 gates theory. These gates have been opened in the past, but now we have the knowledge to close them. The African continent and her descendants around the globe have inherited such a unique opportunity to make the most glorious comeback in human history. We have nowhere to go but up.