INTRODUCTION TO THE KANEM BORNU EMPIRE
The Kanem/Kanem-Bornu Empire (700 AD – 1893 AD) existed for over a thousand years. It was first known as the Kanem Empire (700 AD – 1617 AD) and later came to be known as the Kanem-Bornu Empire (1617 – 1893 AD).* At its height, the Empire was located in the areas known today as modern day western Chad, north eastern Nigeria, southern Libya, eastern Niger and northern Cameroon. It was located at the southern end of the trans-Saharan trade route between Tripoli and the region of Lake Chad. We know about the history of this empire from the ‘Girgam,’ a royal artefact of the Kanem Empire. The Girgam has provided a written historical record of the Empire, which includes the names of Kings and Queens, the length of their reigns and the major events within the Empire.
THE ORIGINS OF THE EMPIRE
While the Empire’s official dates run from 700 AD – 1893 AD, we can actually trace its roots to 300 AD, under the Nomadic Tebu-speaking Kanembu. The Girgam claims that the Kanembu people moved from their lands to the land around Lake Chad for 2 key reasons. First, the lands around Lake Chad were fertile unlike their previous lands, which suffered from dryness and second, because there was political pressure. The lands around Lake Chad were also attractive because of the existing infrastructure. There were walled cities that belonged to the Sao civilisation. (The Sao civilisation, were one of the first civilisations to have lived in the territory that is now known as Cameroon.) The bounties of the land around Lake Chad caused the Kanembu to abandon their nomadic lifestyle. They founded a capital here around 700 called ‘ N’jimi,’ under the first Kanembu King, Saif. The Kanembu were led by the Duguwa dynasty and they eventually dominated the Sao civilisation; war continued up to the late 16 th century.
THE DUGUWA DYNASTY AND THEIR IMPORT OF ISLAM
The Kings of Kanem were known as ‘Mai’. The Duguwa Dynasty was the first Dynasty to rule the Empire. The ‘Mais’ of the Duguwa were regarded as divine Kings and belonged to the ruling establishment, the Magumi. Although Saif was the first King of the Empire, it was under his son King Dugu, the third King of the Empire that N’jimi grew in power and influence. Under the ninth King’s leadership, King Arku in 1023 AD, that the Kingdom expanded northwards into the Sahara and took over the trading routes of the African Muslims in the area. This would prove to be a turning point for the Empire because Islam would now have a significant influence in the Royal Court. King Arku’s successor, Queen Hawwa was important for 2 reasons. First she was the first female ruler of the Empire and second she was the first member of the Royal Family to embrace and convert to Islam. She ruled the Empire from 1067 AD for 4 years and had set the precedent for Islamic rule. Her successor was also an Islamic ruler, King Abd Al-Djalil (1071-1075) and his successor, King Hume Julmi (1075 AD) founded the Sefuwa dynasty, which would not only become the ruling class of the Kingdom, but more importantly one of the most powerful Islamic African Kingdoms at the time.
THE SEFUWA DYNASTY
The Sefuwa dynasty (1075 AD – 1846 AD) is one of the longest reigning African dynasties of all time. Under this dynasty, the Empire grew extremely wealthy. They controlled 12 vassal states (subordinate states) that were in addition to their own lands. They also took control of the salt deposits within the region of Bilma, located in what we know today as Niger and they increased their trade with North Africa. They obtained horses, fabrics and glassware in exchange for salt. They also exported ostrich feathers, elephant tusks and tin from the Hausa region of northern Nigeria.
Mai Dunama II (1210 AD – 1248 AD) (also known as Mai Dunama Dibalami), was an important King within the Empire. Not only was he a devout Muslim, like many of his predecessors, but he also had the ability to command an army of 40,000 men on horseback. He expanded the size of the Empire. Moreover, he was a great diplomat and developed key relationships with the sultans of North Africa. He established an embassy for the Kanem Empire in Tunisia along with both a school and hostel in Cairo for those Muslims taking their pilgrimage to Mecca. Under various Mai’s, the Royal court had a keen interest in the study of the Qu’ran and the development of Qu’ranic studies. They also encouraged the study of astronomy, mathematics and science.
Interestingly, the historian Dr Fagan has argued that although the Mais were Muslim and devoted to Islam, the political structure of the Kingdom retained some of the pre-Islamic elements. These pre-Islamic elements were inherited from the Zaghawa or Duguwa dynasties. An example of one such element is that 2 women held the highest positions in the Kingdom – the Queen Mother and the Queen sister both of whom had their own court and officers.
THE KINGDOM OF BORNO
Borno was an area that lay southwest of Lake Chad. The Kanem Empire temporarily moved here after their wars with the Bulala had restarted as the Bulala had taken control of the Kanem capital, Njimi and the surrounding regions. Borno proved to be important for the relocated Kanem Empire, as the lands here were more fertile than in Kanem. This land allowed for the cultivation of crops. Moreover, when the King Mai Ali Ghaji rose to power in 1472 AD, he established strong trade links with some of the Hausa Kingdoms (modern day northern Nigeria). He also constructed the city of Ngazargamu near the River Yobe, which subsequently became the capital of the Kanem Empire in Bornu. Other towns, such as Difa, Yo, Duji and Wudi also developed nearby and they specialised in pottery, clothing, weaving and leatherwork. By 1497, Mai Ali Ghaji had developed the Empire in Bonru to such a great extent, that he had enough resources to retake the city of Njimi from the Bulala. Once this was done, the Kanem Empire became the Kanem-Bornu Empire and went from strength to strength. Trade was conducted as far off as the Ottoman Empire in modern day Turkey.
KING IDRIS ALOOMA
King Idris Alooma is one of the most famous Kings of the Kanem-Bornu Empire. He came to power in 1564 AD, and was around at the same time as the famous Caliphs/Sultans of other Islamic Empires from Baghdad (Iraq), Cairo (Egypt) and Songhai (Mali). As a devout Muslim, he not only went on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1571 AD, but also brought back with him scholars from the Middle-East and Northern Africa. He, like Mai Dunama II also constructed a hostel in Mecca for the Muslims of Kanem to stay at when they went on their pilgrimage to Mecca. He imported camels from the Sahara that replaced the donkeys and oxen that had been used as transportation previously. He was a great military leader and he conquered surrounding territories. He firmly solidified the Empire as the Kanem-Bornu Empire, as he kept the potential invaders at bay. He controlled and protected the Empire from invasions by the Huasa to the West, the Bulala to the East and the Tuareg to the North.
THE KANEM-BORNU EMPIRE
The Kanem-Bornu Empire was officially known as the Kanem-Bornu Empire by 1617 AD. This date marks the unification of the Kanem and Bornu regions. Mai Idris Alooma had 3 sons all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps and further increased the prosperity of the Empire. Mai Muhammed (1617-1632 AD), Mai Ibrahim (1632 – 1639 AD) and Mai Oman (1639 – 1657 AD) expanded education and learning in the Empire. Security and peace also characterised their reigns. In fact, the Kanem-Bornu Empire continued to flourish well into the 1800’s. The German explorer Gustav Nachitagal, visited the Empire in 1850 and has remarked on how the Empire had ‘great beauty’ and had ‘prosperous development.’