Evolution of Warfare in Pre-Colonial West African States

David Olushola
November 28, 2023

(Discovery of Horses 1500 to 1700)



The discovery of horses as Beasts of combat revolutionized and changed the nature of warfare in Pre-colonial West African societies. This discovery led to the rise and fall of many empires and kingdoms that spanned across the length of West Africa.

Societies that quickly adopted this revolutionary discovery grew to become powerful kingdoms and empires that embarked on various expansionary wars to expand the scope of their dominions. The discovery of horse as a war weapon transformed the scope and scale of warfare in the sub Saharan African societies. Horses became symbol of strength and prestige to Empires and kingdoms that owned and deployed them in their military campaigns. These military campaigns contributed to the growth of these Societies, which enabled them to establish colonies and tribute paying vassal states in conquered territories. Military campaigns are intended to expand the territorial scope of an empire, kingdom or City-State. In our period of study, Oyo, Kanem-Bornu and the Hausa City State of Zaria under the leadership of the Warrior Queen Amina were examples of societies that adopted the use of horses as weapons of warfare.

Evolution of warfare in Pre-Colonial West African States

Early acquisition of Horses in West Africa

The earliest West African Societies that deployed the use of horses in warfare were the three Sudanic kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa namely; Songhai, Mali and Ghana Empire as early as the 10th to 14th centuries AD. These societies obtained horses from their trading contacts with the Caravan Merchants of the Trans Sahara trade from North Africa.

Sonni Ali expanded the scope and terrain of Songhai Empire when he amassed a huge cavalry force in his military campaigns across the upper and lower river Niger bend, conquering Kebbi and turning Katsina and Kano into tribute paying states.

The merchants of Ghana and Mali probably obtained horses from their trading contacts with the Arabs, Berbers, Almoravids and Tuaregs who brought goods such as garments, cotton, salt, fire arms, spices, horse, and camels from North Africa and the Middle East across the Trans-Sahara trade route which these empires controlled. Timbuktu, Gao, Jenne and Agadez became great centres of trade and commerce that were under the dominion of Mali and Songhai for many years due to Songhai’s acquisition of horses and their deployment in Songhai’s imperial military expeditions. The use of horses was advantageous in the battle ground as it fastened the pace and duration of warfare. Empires that possessed a cavalry and infantry in their military ranks easily defeated kingdoms that only relied on infantry force. Songhai and Mali began to deploy naval forces that engaged on expeditions of discovery and conquest across the inland waterways of the West African sub region and the Atlantic Ocean from the early 1400s. Sonni Ali in his military campaigns across the river Niger valley area began to deploy naval forces to attack settlements and towns that sat across the long stretch of the river Niger bank. Sonni Ali in most of his military campaigns launched a tripartite force of cavalry, infantry and naval. This was a revolutionary war strategy in that time.

Kanem-Bornu Empire and the Hausa City states also adopted the use of horses as weapons of warfare as early as the 13th century. The long reigning Saifawa dynasty in Kanem-Bornu recaptured the old capital at Njilmi when they obtained and deployed a strong cavalry force to maintain the dynasty. Horses were obtained as a result of Bornu’s participation in the Trans Sahara trade. Kanem-Bornu had contacts with Arab traders who exported goods and horse to Bornu. Kanem-Bornu embarked on several successful military campaigns under the reign of Mai Idris Alooma, thereby conquering many Hausa city states. The Hausa city states obtained horses from Bornu and through their commercial relations with the travelling Saharan merchants. Queen Amina’s wars of conquest were successful when she employed a strong cavalry force.

It became customary practice for societies that had adopted the use of horses in warfare to embark on expansionary wars to flaunt their power, intimidate their neighbours and for imperial glory. Societies like Oyo Empire and Nupe Kingdom grew to become great and prosperous territories when they adopted the use of horses in warfare.

The use of horses reached Nupe and Borgu as early as the 14th century AD. It was known that Tsoede the Founder King of Nupe had as much as 5000 horses which he employed in asserting Nupe’s hegemony in the upper Niger region. Nupe and Borgu were able to defeat Oyo in several battles in the 16th century when Oyo attempted to expand its territory across the upper bend of the Niger which Nupe and Borgu controlled. However, Oyo’s expansionary drive was curtailed by Nupe’s cavalry force.

Oyo embraced the use of horses as weapons of warfare later than Nupe and Borgu due to their trading contacts with Hausa Merchants. Horses were also obtained from Nupe and Borgu around the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Not long after, Oyo grew a large cavalry force of about 1000 horses which the empire employed in its expansionary drive across the upper Osun River, the south of Oyo Ile, the North of Yoruba land and the south of the river Niger bend. The empire acquired a lot of wealth from its involvement in the Trans-Sahara and Trans-Atlantic trade, as well as its regional dominance and military superiority. Oyo used this new found wealth to build a large army armed with a potent cavalry force. The use of horses as weapons on the battleground gave Oyo a leverage and a greater advantage in the regional balance of power over rival states like Owu, Ilesha and Ife. Oyo’s procurement of horses enabled it drive southwards towards the coast, thereby establishing its dominance and control over the coastal trade. Cavalry was the backbone of Oyo’s army and horses were the most important weapons that enabled Oyo to control its outlying territories. Horses remained an important aspect of Oyo’s militarism.

Oyo turned Dahomey, Ketu and Badagry into tribute paying states. For years, Oyo asserted its superiority over Dahomey due to its dreaded cavalry force. Oyo used its military might backed by a strong cavalry force to control the lucrative trade at the coast with the Europeans. Dahomey waged several unsuccessful rebellions against Oyo from the late 16th to the early 17th centuries due to Oyo’s strong influence and interference in its source of economic survival which was the trade with the Europeans. Until Dahomey finally acquired horses of its own was it able to free itself from the clutches of Oyo.

Oyo’s cavalry in the forest belt gave the empire a form of prestige in the comity of Yoruba and other neighbouring states. Horses became instruments of Oyo’s imperial expansion. The Alaafin became symbolized with the one who does not see death. Oyo became the most powerful Society in the southern bend of the Niger for over three centuries until it finally collapsed in the late 19th century due to the devastating effects of the Yoruba civil wars and the superior cavalry force of the Fulani Jihadists who had already conquered Ilorin and were on course towards sweeping southwards across Yoruba land. Oyo’s cavalry was no match for the Sokoto caliphate cavalry. However, the Jihadist drive southwards was thwarted by the Ibadan warriors in the battle of Oshogbo. Oyo lost many of its former territories who declared their independence and grew into powerful city states of their own.

It must be noted that the major aim for Oyo’s acquisition of horses and heavy investment in building a standing army was to protect its economic and commercial interests in the region that surrounds it and to establish its dominance in the Guinea forest and coastal region.

Horses represented strength, dignity and elegance, societies that acquired horses found them useful on the battleground, as well as for the transport of Monarchs.

Many traditional Rulers and members of the Royal Houses across West Africa purchased horses for their private use. Horses were most importantly used as means of transportation or running of errands and important task assigned by the king or a member of the ruling class who owned horses.

Early acquisition of Horses in West Africa

Military campaigns across West Africa in our period of study (1500-1700)

The discovery of horses as warfare ammunition had already become widespread across West Africa in the early 1600s and throughout the Atlantic economy age (1700s). Societies that had huge cavalry forces embarked on wars of expansion to reclaim old territories, establish tribute paying states, source for slaves which were sold at the coast to the Europeans, as well as the traveling Arab merchants from the Saharan trade route. Horses brought the requisite prestige and strength to Societies that acquired them which propelled them into waging outright wars of conquest against their neighbours and surrounding territories. These wars redefined the nature of Nation-State relationship in the Pre-colonial West Africa. Many Societies deployed a strong infantry backed by a potent cavalry force on the battleground. Some of the defining military campaigns across the Sub Saharan Africa in our period of study are highlighted in detail below;

The Oyo-Dahomey wars (1698-1892)

Oyo at the zenith of its power became embroiled in a prolonged war of dominance against the people of Dahomey in our period of study and all throughout the early 19th century until Oyo’s collapse at the Yoruba wars. Oyo began raiding the land of Dahomey as early as 1698 when Oyo’s cavalry invaded the southern Dahomey kingdom of Allada, thereby, turning it into a tribute paying state and one of Oyo’s biggest supply of slaves. It was also recorded that Yoruba and Hausa slaves who were war captives from Oyo were already being exported from the city of Whydah. Oyo’s military campaigns also led to the defeat of the Fon in 1724 and 1728. As a result, the Dahomey King was forced to begin paying annual tributes to the Alaafin of Oyo.

The kingdom of Dahomey also fought and resisted Oyo’s imperialism incessantly, thereby disrupting Oyo’s participation in the trade at the coast at intervals. They launched pockets of revolts against traveling Oyo Merchants, thereby disrupting Oyo’s access to the coastal trade with the Europeans. In 1798, Dahomey attacked the city of Ketu which was one of the outlying Territories under Oyo’s dominion, killing many of its inhabitants and seizing slaves/captives. Dahomey however continued paying tributes to the Alaafin until 1827 when the Fon King of Dahomey capitalized on the raging inferno of the Yoruba wars to free itself from Oyo’s hegemony. However, the old Oyo Empire went into demise in the aftermath of the Yoruba civil wars.

Songhai Empire’s military expeditions (1495-1624)

Following the collapse of the Mali Empire, Songhai Empire quickly rose to become a successor kingdom. Sonni Ali emerged as one of the most successful Songhai Emperors that was reputed to have never lost any battle. He rose to power in 1464 after throwing off the dominance of Mali Empire. Sonni Ali was a great military commander and war strategist who evolved Songhai’s army, thereby creating a tripartite naval, infantry and cavalry force that embarked on several successful military expeditions from the early 1400s until Sonni Ali’s death in 1492. One of his successful campaign was in 1468 when he defeated and chased out the Tuaregs from Timbuktu; a city which later became part of the Songhai empire. His occupation of Timbuktu earned him a reputation of been cruel and capricious on the battlefield.

After conquering Timbuktu, he set out to conquer Jenne which was a wealthy trading city in the Bani River near its confluence with Niger in a seven years siege that resulted in its conquest in 1473. Sonni Ali’s naval and cavalry force enabled it to establish dominance over the upper Niger region and some parts of the Hausa City States including Kebbi, Yauri, Gobir, etc. However, Sonni Ali’s conquest of Gao, Jenne and Timbuktu which were important trading towns in the Trans Sahara trade route enabled the Empire to become prosperous, thereby acquiring a large territory that spanned across present day Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Nigeria. Sonni Ali’s ferocious cavalry force enabled him to lead many successful military expeditions across the Sudanic regions of West Africa and beyond.

Sonni Ali spent most of his years as Emperor of Songhai on the battlefield repulsing attacks on his empire which came from the Mossi, the Fulani of the Dendi region, and the Tuareg. He was able to cripple the striking power of the Mossi although he could not annex them and to also discourage the Tuaregs incessant raids.Askia Mohammed Toure the successor to Sonni Ali after overthrowing Sonni Ali’s son; Sonni Baru in the battle of Anfao in 1493 inherited a powerful army built by Sonni Ali and he continued the expansionary drive/vision of his predecessor, thereby consolidating Songhai’s power which made Songhai a highly centralized Empire. Between 1498 and 1502, he was victorious over the Mossi of Yatenga and the inhabitants of the Niger. He also embarked on an unsuccessful campaign against Borgu. Between 1507 and 1514 he reduced the insurgent Fulani factions in Senegal and the Bornu factions near Agadez.

According to Sadi; the Timbuktu Chronicler, he said the territory conquered by Askia Mohammed by “fire and sword”  extended west as far as the Atlantic ocean, northwest to the salt mines of Taghaza, Southwest as far as Bendugu (Segu), South East to Bussa and North east to Agadez.Askia Mohammed was overthrown by his son Musa in 1528 who later became known as Askia Musa. However, the final collapse of the Empire was in 1591 at the battle of Tondibi when the Moroccans under the leadership of Sultan Ahmad Al-Mansur with their superior cavalry and firearms plundered the capital of the once blossoming empire, this led to the final death knell of Songhai.

Queen Amina’s military campaigns of expansion

Queen Amina was one of the most powerful Female Military Commander, Ruler and war Strategist who transformed the city of Zazzau into a powerful and large Kingdom or State in the mid and late 1500s. Her military prowess enabled her to wield control of the Kingdom of Zazzau at the demise of her brother who succeeded her mother Queen Bakwa Turunku the founder of the Zazzau Kingdom in 1536 after a ten years rule. Zaria was named after her sister Zaria who fled the kingdom and much was not known of her again.

Queen Amina’s military exploits were backed by a powerful cavalry force which enabled her to lead her soldiers of over 20,000 infantry and 1000 cavalry on various successful military campaigns. Kano and Katsina were forced to become levy paying states to Zazzau under Queen Amina. Her army conquered surrounding towns like Bauchi and advanced to Kwararafa and Borgu.

Queen Amina became a legendary figure among the Hausa people due to her military prowess. For a period of 34 years which she reigned, Zazzau conquered many outlying territories and also controlled the trade routes in the Hausa region. From childhood, she was known to possess a combative nature which grew with her into adulthood and was reflected in her ferocity on the battlefield as documented by Hausa Historians and in the Kano Chronicles.

The Imperial expansion of Kanem-Bornu under Mai Idris Alooma (1538-1596)

Mai Idris Alooma’s reign was one of the most successful in the history of Kanem-Bornu Empire. Idris Alooma like his counterpart in Songhai Sonni Ali belonged to a crop of Warrior Kings that emerged in West Africa south of the Sahara in our period of study, who led their subjects on actual military campaigns across neighbouring territories. During his reign, the empire embarked on some expansionary wars backed by its huge cavalry and infantry force to extend its frontiers. At the zenith of its power, the Empire’s covered a large area from Northern Nigeria to the Niger, the Lake Chad basin and North East Cameroon.

His major adversaries were the Hausa City States to the west, the Tuaregs and Toubo to the North, and the Bulala to the East. An epic poem extolls Alooma’s victories in 330 wars and more than 1000 battles. His inventions included the use of fixed military camps with walls, permanent sieges and scorched earth tactics. He also used Berber camels, kotoko boat men, and iron-helmet musketeers trained by his Turkish military advisors. His army was probably the first to have muskets which he procured from the Turkish Empire. Idris Alooma’s military campaigns and the relative successes he enjoyed helped to consolidate his rule and entrench Kanem-Bornu Empire as a regional hegemon in the Savannah grassland region of West Africa..

Alooma’s diplomacy and knowledge of warfare enabled him to expand the frontiers of empire through physical conflict and using treaties. It was said that he wrote the first ceasefire treaty in the history of Kanem-Bornu.However, he died in the battle of Baguirmi where he suffered severe injuries.

The expansionary wars in the Senegal region and the rise of the Wolof Empire

The Wolof/Jolof Empire in the confluence of the Sene-Gambia region and rivers grew into a powerful empire that controlled the Senegal and Gambia River regions of West Africa by consolidating many cities and towns that surrounded it into an empire that spanned modern day Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. In the early 16th century, the empire was capable of fielding 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry forces.

In 1513, Koli Tenguella led a strong force of Fulani and mandinka warriors into Futa toro, seizing it from the Jolof and setting up a dynasty there.

In 1549, Kayor a former tributary and region of Jolof successfully broke away from the empire under the leadership of Crown Prince Amari Ngoone Sobel Fall by defeating Jolof at the battle of Danki. The ripple effects of this battle also led to more shrinking of the Jolof Empire’s territory when Waalo and Baol also left the empire.

By 1600, the Jolof Empire was relatively over and had shrunken to a minute version of what it once was.


In our period of study (1500-1800) many Kingdoms and empires across West Africa expanded their frontiers through various expansionary wars and battles.Warfare was one of the major factors involved in the process of Nation building and state formation in West Africa. Warfare led to the redefining of boundaries and one of the earliest forms of inter-state relations in West African Societies.

List of References
  1. “Idris Alooma, the Mai of Bornu (1538-1596”, Ayomide Akinbode, Historyville website, March 15th 2019.
  2. “The Democratic Structure of Yoruba Political-cultural Heritage” Yunusa Kehinde Salami
  3. Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Amina, Queen of Zazzau”. ThoughtCo.com. Dotdash, June 3rd , 2019.
  4. Y, Dr. “Queen Amina of Zazzau: the Great Hausa Warrior born to rule”. African Heritage. AfroLegends.com, January 18th, 2014.
  5. Cheikh Anta Diop, “Pre-colonial Black Africa: A comparative study of the political and social systems of Europe and Black Africa, from antiquity to the formation of modern states. Lawrence Hill and Company, 1987.

Recent posts

Latest content  in your mailbox


Search articles and podcasts