The Kanuri Empire at its peak spread over an area which is today located between the Republic of Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. It covered an area more than 300,000 sq. miles. It was probably the largest centralised state in the Niger area before 1800. The kingdom was first mentioned by Arab writers in the 9th century AD. This implies that it must have emerged much earlier but the most important people living around the Lake Chad, the heart of the Bornu Empire, were the Kanuri or the Kanembu, the Bulala. But the original people were believed to be a Negro group called the So (Sao) people who were said to have migrated into the region from the Nile.

The Sao are today linked with groups such as Kotoko, Budumi, Musugu, Balewa and Gorugu. At the same period as the development of the Sao Civilisation, there lived to the north, in the Central Sahara, Negro groups known as the Zaghawa and Tebu. They were believed to be guides in the Sahara, a function which brought them into close contact with the Arabs who reported them to have developed a kingdom in Kanem as early as AD 872. In addition, were the kingdoms of Havidin, Mallel and Al-Qaqu. Al Ya’qubi claimed that the Zaghawa ruler took the title Kakaran while Mallel took the title Mai. The question as to how the Kanem kings took up the title Mai has been left to speculation. Be that as it may, one Mai Arki. C. AD 950 had been credited to have settled slaves at different oases in the Sahara.

A second version of the emergence of the Kanuri as founder of Kanem-Borno is based on the Himyaritic Culture, one Seif Ibn Dhi Yazan a great Arab adventurer, who gained control of a group of nomadic tribe known as the Magurni. This group lived North East of the Lake Chad. Ibn Dhi-Yazan and his Magumi followers subdued a number of other ethnic groups among who were the Kagu, Kayi, Ngakga, Kaburi, Kaguwa, Tomagua, Tuba, etc. Through Ibn Dhi Yazan, the Magumi ruled Kanem and Bornu under the throne name Mai, and his dynasty became known as the Sefawa dynasty, and is believed to have commenced in the 9th century.

  1. Mai Sayf IbnYazan: He was the founder and first Mai of Kanem. He established the capital at Njimi and the Sef or Sefawa Dynasty which ruled the first and second empires.
  2. Mai Hume Jilmi 1085-1097: He was the tenth Mai and the First Mai to be converted to Islam. His conversion to Islam at a time made Islam a religion of the king and his court. All other Mai practised Islam.
  3. Dunama (I) c 1089-1150: He was noted as a territorial expansionist. He was a warrior King and as a result of his conquest, he was able to extend the empire to Karwan and Tibesti in the north and to the regions south west of Lake Chad. Second, he was a devout Muslim who went on pilgrimage to Mecca on two occasions, accompanied each time with a large entourage. He is said to have drowned on a third attempt on the Red Sea.
  4. Duama Dibbalemi (II) c 1221-1259: Kanem reached its zenith during the reign of Duama Dibbalemi. His achievements centred on the following areas:
  • Military: Dunama was noted to be a warrior. He is credited to have extended the boundary into Fezzan in southern Tunis in the North and beyond Lake Chad where in AD 1252, he campaigned against Mabima Kalkor and Afuno; on the shores of the Lake close to the mouth of the Kamadugu Yobe, he fought the Badi who lived there. With these, he got control of Adamawa, all of Borno, Kano as well as Wadai on the east of the Lake Chad. He is noted to possess a cavalry of 40,000 horsemen and he made special efforts to acquire horses from Egypt. He also had a Navy, with which he conducted amphibious warfare against the Island and dwellers of the shores of the Lake Chad.
  • Religion and social: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Il was himself a devout Muslim. He encouraged the spread of Islam and invited Muslim Fulani scholars from Mali. To encourage Kanembus to go to Mecca and obtain scholarship, he built a hostel at Cairo known as Riwag or Madrasa. He also established the Maliki School of Law.
  • Foreign affairs: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi II was reputed to have established relation with the countries of North Africa; notable was Tunisia. His military actions did not however go unchallenged. The Bulala, for example opposed his religious programmes. The Maghina also refused to surrender and continued to share power with the Mai and twelve [12] Councillors of state. The Tubu engaged in a long drawn war which is believed to have lasted twelve years. While he lived, he was able to contain these troubles. They lasted from the mid thirteenth [13 ] century to its end, and were to lead to the weakness and devastation of the empire. These problems came to a head in the reign of Mai Daud 1377-1386. These struggles continued over the salt mine in the Sahara. He subdued the Tuareg of Air and Mandra and defeated Tetala. He reduced Kano to a vassal. Truly, he brought the troublesome Bulala of Kanem under control and exercised control as far East as Wadai. He thus completed the certification of the Empire.
  • Economic Affairs: Economically, his control of Bilma and Air gave him control over the Agades-Tripoli Trans-Saharan trade route. The peace and protection enjoyed on the route encouraged the flow of traders and Borno became an important trade terminus. Borno imported salt from Bilma and exported grains to the same. Natron was exported to Kano, while copper was exported in exchange of Kolanuts. A very profitable trade in slaves, especially eunuchs, was also carried on with North African towns of Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis, and fire arms and horses were imported from them.

Mai Daud c. 1366-1376 ascended the throne when Borno was assailed with assassination, fratricide strife. The ambitions of nobles within the Kingdom compounded the problems and the Bulala who took advantage of the situation drove him from his capital Njimi. The Bulala further attacked Kanem during the reign of Mai Umar Ibn Idris C. 1386-1390 who abandoned Kanem and established loosely in Kaga in Borno. This did not actually lead to the collapse of the Sefawa dynasty, it only signified the end of the first Kingdom of Kanem.


The Second Kanuri Empire (Borno)

With the seizure of Kanem by the Bulalas, the Sefawa, accompanied by their loyalists, moved to Borno where they found a new Kingdom. The new state was troubled by hostile tribes and civil strife ensuing from quarrels among the members of the royal family. It was not until the 15th century that an able Mai ascended the throne in the person of Mai Ali Ghaji.


Mai Ali Ghaji 1472-1504

Mai Ali Ghaji was the founder of the second Kanuri Empire. He restored the power and seat of the dynasty. He built a new capital at Ngazagamu to the west of the Lake Chad. His major reforms were in the administration of the empire. He reorganised the administration by reducing the power of the high officers of the state, the Kiagama and Chiroma whose struggles for power led to the weakening of the empire. In this way, he put an end to the civil wars.

Ali Ghaji was a devoted Muslim and he enforced the strict observance of Islamic tenets, such as reading the Quran, praying five times daily and marrying only four wives.

He built a strong army and maintained internal law and order. With the aid of the army, he was able to expand the territories of the new empire and subdue and conquer such groups as the Bulala, Tibesti, Jukun and Kano. His wars were mainly defensive.

Economically, he made efforts to improve the economic base of the new empire. He encouraged the trans-Saharan trade. This trade was important to Ali Ghaji as it ensured the importation of horses and slave export.

Under Ali Ghaji, Borno became important and appeared in the 15th century map of Africa drawn in 1487.


Mai Idris Katakarmabi 1504-1526

Mai Idris Katakarmabi 1504-1526 succeeded Ali Ghaji. His greatest achievement was the decisive defeat of the Bulala and the recapture of Njimi, the first capital of Kanem; Kanem now became a province of Borno. Mai Idris, by this act, unified the old and new kingdoms. In the West, he attacked Kebbi but did not fare well. He continued the practice of diplomatic relations with Tripoli.


Mai Idris Ali aka Mai Idris Alooma 1571-1603

Mai Idris Alooma was the son of Mai Ali and is reputed to be the most famous and greatest Mai of Borno. Under him, the empire reached its greatest height. His achievements are summarised as follows:

His administrative reforms: The central administration comprised the Mai and the council of twelve between whom the principal offices of the state were divided. Councillors were chosen from members of the royal family. To check their excesses, the actual administration of the province was carried on by governors chosen from slaves or families who were truly loyal to the Mai.

Judicial system: Idris Alooma established a judicial system based on Sono Muslim law which was enforced by Islamic Kadis or Judges. The Mainin Kanandi or Chief Judge and twelve other Judges formed the high court. These Judges, in addition to the adjudication of cases, acted as legal advisers to the Mai.


Religion: Idris Alooma was a devout Muslim. He went on a pilgrimage eris auto Mecca and built a hostel for Borno Pilgrims in Mecca. He made Islam a state religion as the Mai and all his notables became Muslim. He built Quranic schools.

Culture: He introduced the use of baked bricks as building materials and built brick mosques instead of reed mosques in the capital.

External Affairs: Idris Alooma courted and secured good relations with and traded with the people of North Africa. He sent an embassy bel forto Tripoli. Through these relationships, he was able to build an efficient and well equipped army, especially the Musketeers who were well trained and equipped with this new weapon. He maintained two detachments of army: the General army and the King’s army.

With this military might, he put to check the Sao, by conquering their stronghold, Damasak. He occupied Bilma, an important salt mine in the Sahara, subdued the Tuaregs of Air and Mandara, and defeated the Tetala.

Idris Alooma fought wars until his death in 1603 when he was shot and killed in battle. He was buried in Alo near Maiduguri. He was succeeded by competent but less warlike Princes like Mohammed and Ibrahim. They in turn, were succeeded by Ali Ibn Umar c 1623-1642.


Mai Ali Ibn Umar c 1623-1642

Ali Ibn Umar was a violent and intelligent leader. He maintained Ngazagamu as a centre of Islamic culture and learning. He built mosques and widened roads.

He was a devout Muslim who made four pilgrimages to Mecca. As a warrior like his predecessors, he engaged in an expansionist policy, waging several inconclusive wars with the Sultan of Air. He was able to subdue the Jukun and check the Tuaregs.

However, Ibn Umar’s wars were expensive and the cost of these wars brought famine to the empire. This contributed to the decline of the empire which started right after the death of Idris Alooma.


Factors responsible for the Rise of the Kanem-Borno Empire

  1. Hardness of character of the Sefawa Group: The first factor that led to the rise of the Sefawa in the Chad region was the hardiness of character of the Sefawa Group, this character they derived from nomadic experience.
  2. Military superintendent of the Magumi: Another factor is the military superintendent of the Magumi who made up an important part of the Sefawa. Their power was based on the use of horses.
  3. Planned marriages: Furthermore, gains made through military conquest were consolidated through planned marriages. By this method, Kings from royal families developed kinship relations with the leading ethnic groups. These relationships were cemented by adoption of the divine kinship. It is believed that the sedentary agricultural people that they conquered, especially the So (Soa) group, developed the divine kinship. This system enabled the Sefawa to have a firm control over the peoples they ruled.
  4. Geographical location of Borno: The geographical location of Borno also contributed to its rise and growth. Its location within the Chad Basin was attractive to the peoples of the desertificated Sahara. This movement of people swelled the population. The environment also made it possible for the production of grains and the grazing of animals, that provided a sure source of food for its ever expanding population.
  5. Location of Kanem: Besides, the location of Kanem as an important southern terminus of the ancient Trans-Saharan trade route, ensured its economic prosperity and inturn, contributed to the growth of the state. The trade route reached Kanem through Bilma in Kawaran and Zawila in Fezzan and then to Tripoli. The wealth which the Sefawa derived from the control of this trade contributed immensely to the successful consolidation of their rule around Karem.
  6. Islam: Finally, Islam as a religion assisted the Sefawa to assert their authority. The conversion of Mai Hume to Islam helped to strengthen the position of the Sefawa and gave them a new supremacy. Islam was a force of coercion.


Socio-political Organisation of Kanem-Borno

Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Kanuri state had developed institutions and political practice which subsequently came to characterise the Kanuri-Borno Empire.

  • The kingdom was headed by a hereditary king called Mai. He was prohibited from appearing in public except on two annual religious festivals.
  • He appointed a council of twelve officials who controlled almost all his decisions.
  • The councillors were chosen from among the Maina or members of the royal family. There was also the Karcilia in the Kongana who were great dignitaries but of low birth. These councillors were appointed for life and had specific duties.

The empire was divided into four provinces:

  • The Southern district was ruled by the Kaigama who acted as the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
  • The Northern district was ruled by the Yerima. He was to check the excesses of the Tuareg.
  • The Eastern province was ruled by the Mestrema who also acted as the warden of the Mai’s household.
  • The Western province was ruled by the Galadima. He was based in Nguru. His territory stretched up to Hausaland. Of all the councillors, he was the only one that lived outside the capital.

Next to these councillors was the Magira or Queen mother. There was also the Gumsu or eldest wife of the king. The empire was divided into fiefs and held by the nobility. Each receiver or inheritor of a Fief was called the Chimakuru. The Chimakuru always left the administration of these fiefs in the hands of stewards called Chima Gana.

Kanem-Borno had a standing army. The army had two divisions each of which had its own special duty. These were the home force and field army. The home force was the elite army. It was composed of nobles and their sons. They had the duty to protect the Mai and royal family. The field army comprised the farmers and followers of the provincial governors and were assigned the duty of warding off invaders and extending the empire. Before 1800, four military leaders were important. They were the Kiagama, Yerima, Mestrema and Galadima.

The Kanuri developed a judicial system. In the capital was the chief judge called Mainin Kanendi. The chief judge was regarded as the second most important person in the empire. In large towns outside the capital, local Mallamai were appointed by the king to act as judges. Appeals could be taken from the local courts to the high court in the capital level.


The Economy of the Kanuri Empire.

The original habitants of Bornu were mainly farmers but they supplemented their food by hunting, fishing and gathering. The new comers the Sao and Magumi were largely agriculturists while many were nomads. In the course of time, many nomadic Kanuri lost their pastoral life and became farmers. The advent of camels and horses changed the Kanuri agriculture, trade, transportation and military.

Crops cultivated included sorghum, millet, pulses, masara flint maize, wheat, figs, lemons, pomegranates and lime. Irrigation was widely practised by farmers.

Internal and external trade took place simultaneously. Agricultural produce and dried fruits were the main commodities of exchange internally. From their neighbours, iron and tin were imported into Kanem.

Ngazagamu, the capital, was a major terminus of the trans-Saharan trade route. Foreign traders and merchants lived in a special quarter called Idasiliran. These traders collected from Borno such items as slaves, Ivory, ostrich feather, leather and gold dust. Borno, in exchange, demanded European and Middle East produce such as caps, perfumes, metals, ornaments, chain mail, swords, firearms and horses. By the 17th century, Borno had begun to import horses from the Northern Africa and the Nile valley. By the 18th century, she exported horses to Nupe and Oyo in the South. Through Borno middlemen, kola from Yorubaland and gold from the Ashanti region were exported to North Africa. In both the internal and external commerce, the Kings of Borno showed little interference in the day- to-day activities.



Empire: refers to a group of nations, tribes, people and territories ruled by a single authority usually; a king, emperor or an empress.

Dynasty: refers to a succession of rulers or kings from the same family. . Devout: means being very religious.

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