The Oracle: History and Its Unforgettable Events, and Personalities That Shaped Them (Pt 9)

By Mike Ozekhome SAN


Last week, we took on two historical figures, Mungo Park and Hugh Clapperton. These were great men that navigated their ways in the history of mankind. Mungo Park, was prominent known in his alleged discovery of the “River Niger”. Clapperton, on the other hand, was famous for being the first European to make known from personal observation, the Hausa states, which he visited soon after the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate by the Fula.

Today, we shall take a break from historical figures and discuss historical empires. We have already discussed the Benin Kingdom. Let us today take on the Kanem-Bornu Empire.


The Kanem–Bornu Empire once existed in areas which now from part of Chad and Nigeria. It was known to the Arabian geographers as the Kanem Empire, from the 8th century AD onward and lasted as the independent kingdom of Bornu (the Bornu Empire) until 1900. The Kanem Empire (c. 700–1380) was located in the present countries of Chad, Nigeria and Libya. At its height, the Empire encompassed an area covering not only most of Chad, but also parts of southern Libya (Fezzan) and Eastern Niger, Northeastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon. The Bornu Empire (1380s–1893) was a state in what is now Northeastern Nigeria. At a time it became even larger than Kanem, by incorporating areas that are today parts of Chad, Niger, Sudan, and Cameroon. The Bornu Empire existed from 1380s to 1893. The early history of the Empire is mainly known from the Royal Chronicle or Girgam discovered in 1851 by the German traveler Heinrich Barth.

In the 8th century, Wahb ibn Munabbih used Zaghawa to describe the Teda-Tubu group, in the earliest use of the ethnic name. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi also mentions the Zaghawa in the 9th century. Kanem comes from “anem”, meaning “south” in the Teda and Kanuri languages, and hence a geographic term. During the first millennium, as the Sahara underwent desiccation, people speaking the Kanembu language migrated to Kanem in the South. This group contributed to the formation of the Kanuri people. Kanuri traditions state the Zaghawa dynasty led a group of nomads called the Magumi.

This desiccation of the Sahara resulted in two settlements, those speaking Teda-Daza (Northeast of Lake Chad,) and those speaking Chadic (west of the lake in Bornu and Hausa-land).


The origins of Kanem are unclear. The first historical sources tend to show that the kingdom of Kanem began forming around 700 AD under the nomadic Tebu-speaking Kanembu. The Kanembu were supposedly forced Southwest towards the fertile lands around Lake Chad by political pressure and desiccation in their former range. The area already possessed independent, walled city-states belonging to the Sao culture. Under the leadership of the Duguwa dynasty, the Kanembu would eventually dominate the Sao, but not before adopting many of their customs. War between the two continued up to the late 16th century.

One scholar, Dierk Lange, has proposed another theory based on a diffusionist ideology. This theory was much criticized by the scientific community, as it is considered bereft seriously of direct and clear evidence. Lange connects the creation of Kanem-Bornu with exodus from the collapsed Assyrian Empire c. 600 BC, to the Northeast of Lake Chad. He also proposed that the lost state of Agisymba (mentioned by Ptolemy in the middle of the 2nd century AD), was the antecedent of the Kanem Empire.

Kanem was connected via a trans-Saharan trade route with Tripoli via Bilma in the Kawar. Slaves were imported from the South along this route.

Kanuri tradition states that Sayf b. Dhi Yazan established dynastic rule over the nomadic Magumi around the 9th or 10th century, through divine kingship. For the next millennium, the mais ruled the Kanuri, which included the Ngalaga, Kangu, Kayi, Kuburi, Kaguwa, Tomagra and Tubu.


Kanem is mentioned as one of three great Empires in Bilad el-Sudan, by Al Yaqubi in 872. He describes the kingdom of “the Zaghāwa who live in a place called Kānim,” which included several vassal kingdoms, and “Their dwellings are huts made of reeds and they have no towns.” Living as nomads, their cavalry gave them military superiority. In the 10th century, al-Muhallabi mentions two towns in the kingdom, one of which was Mānān. Their king was considered divine, believing he could “bring life and death, sickness and health.” Wealth was measured in livestock, sheep, cattle, camels and horses. From Al-Bakri in the 11th century onwards, the kingdom is referred to as Kanem. In the 12th century Muhammad al-Idrisi described Mānān as “a small town without industry of any sort and little commerce.” Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi describes Mānān as the capital of the Kanem kings in the 13th century, and Kanem as a powerful Muslim kingdom.

The Kanuri-speaking Muslim Saifawas gained control of Kanem from the Zaghawa nomads in the 9th century. This included control of the Zaghawa trade links in the Central Sahara with Bilma and other salt mines. Yet, the principal trade commodity was slaves. Tribes to the south of Lake Chad were raided as kafirun, and then transported to Zawila in the Fezzan, where the slaves were traded for horses and weapons. The annual number of slaves traded increased from 1,000 in the 7th century to 5,000 in the 15th. Mai Hummay began his reign in 1075, and formed alliances with the Kay, Tubu, Dabir and Magumi. Mai Humai was the first Muslim king of Kanem, and was converted by his Muslim tutor, Muhammad b. Mānī. This dynasty replaced the earlier Zaghawa dynasty. They remained nomadic until the 11th century, when they fixed their capital at Nijmi.

Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (1210-1259). Dabbalemi initiated diplomatic exchanges with Sultans in North Africa, sending a giraffe to the Hafsid monarch, and arranged for the establishment of a madrasa of al-Rashíq in Cairo, to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. During his reign, he declared jihad against the surrounding tribes and initiated an extended period of conquest with his cavalry of 41,000. He fought the Bulala for seven years, seven months, and 7seven days. After dominating the Fezzan, he established a governor at Traghan, delegated military command amongst his sons. As the Sefawa extended control beyond Kanuri tribal lands, fiefs were granted to military commanders, as cima, or ‘master of the frontier’. Civil discord was said to follow his opening of the sacred Mune.


By the end of the 14th century, internal struggles and external attacks had torn Kanem apart. War with the Soa brought the death of four Mai: Selemma, Kure Gana, Kure Kura, and Muhammad, all sons of ‘Abdullāh b. Kadai. Then, war with the Bulala resulted in the death of four Mai in succession between 1377 and 1387: Dawūd, Uthmān b. Dawūd, Uthmān b. Idris, and Bukar Liyāu. Finally, around 1387 the Bulala forced Mai Umar b. Idris to abandon Njimi and move the Kanembu people to Bornu on the western edge of Lake Chad.


But, even in Bornu, the Sayfawa Dynasty’s troubles persisted. During the first three-quarters of the 15th century. For example, fifteen mais occupied the throne. Then, around 1460, Mai Ali Gazi (1473-1507) defeated his rivals and began the consolidation of Bornu. He built a fortified capital at Ngazargamu, to the west of Lake Chad (in present-day Nigeria), the first permanent home a Sayfawamai had enjoyed in a century. So successful was the Sayfawa rejuvenation that by the early 16th century, Mai Idris Katakarmabe (1507-1529), was able to defeat the Bulala and retake Njimi, the former capital. The Empire’s leaders, however, remained at Ngazargamu because its lands were more productive agriculturally and better suited to the raising of cattle. Ali Gaji was the first ruler of the Empire to assume the title of Caliph.


Bornu peaked during the reign of Mai Idris Alooma (c. 1571–1603), reaching the limits of its greatest territorial expansion, gaining control over Hausa land, and the people of Ahir and Tuareg. Peace was made with Bulala, when a demarcation of boundaries was agreed, upon with a non-aggression pact. Military innovations included the use of mounted Turkish musketeers, slave musketeers, mailed cavalrymen, and footmen. This army was organized into an advance guard and a rear reserve, transported via camel or large boats and fed by free and slave women cooks. Military tactics were honed by drill and organization, supplemented with a scorched earth policy. Ribāts were built on frontiers, and trade routes to the north were secured, allowing friendly relations to be established with the Pasha of Tripoli and the Turkish empires. Ibn Furtu called AloomaAmir al-Mu’minin, after he implemented Sharia, and relied upon large fiefholders to ensure justice.

The Lake Chad to Tripoli route became an active highway in the 17th century, with horses traded for slaves. About two million slaves traveled this route to be traded in Tripoli, the largest slave market in the Mediterranean.

Most of the successors of Idris Alooma are only known from the meagre information provided by the Diwan. Some of them are noted for having undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca, others for their piety. In the eighteenth century, Bornu was affected by several long-lasting famines. Aïr was independently operating the Bilma salt mines by 1750, having been a tributary since 1532.

The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the Empire until the mid-17th century when its power began to fade. By the late 18th century, Bornu rule extended only westward, into the land of the Hausas of modern Nigeria. The Empire was still ruled by the Mai who was advised by his councilors (kokenawa) in the state Council or “nokena“. The members of his Nokena Council included his sons and daughters and other royalty (the Maina) and non-royalty (the Kokenawa, “new men”). The Kokenawa included free men and slave eunuchs known as kachela. The latter “had come to play a very important part in Bornu politics, as eunuchs did in many Muslim courts.”

During the 17th century and 18th century, Bornu became a centre for Islamic learning. Islam and the Kanuri language were widely adopted, while slave raiding propelled the economy. (To be continued).



“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” (James Baldwin).

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