The household is the fundamental unit of Songhay social organization. Beyond the household is the village quarter ( kurey ), which elects a quarter chief ( kurey koy ). The neighborhood chiefs constitute a village council, which elects the village chief ( kwaara koy ). Whereas the Zarma profess a rather egalitarian ideology, the Songhay do not. Village chiefs are accorded deference, especially if they are of noble descent, which is usually the case in major towns.
In precolonial times, Songhay social organization consisted of nobles, other free Songhay, and captives. The latter were originally prisoners taken in precolonial raids. Captives could be sold, but their offspring were considered members—albeit stigmatized—of noble families. Captives became weavers, smiths, and bards.
The most important political authorities in Songhay country are various paramount chiefs. These men are appointed in Songhay villages of historical consequence (Dargol, Tera, Kokoro, Ayoru, Yatakala). Such chiefs are always of noble descent, and they have at least symbolic authority over the village chiefs in their jurisdiction.