An African state founded by the Kanuri, a mixture of people from south of the Sahara and the Berber from the north, Kanem lasted a thousand years from the ninth to the nineteenth century.
The Kanuri lived northeast of Lake Chad in Kanem (Kanuri for anem, south of the Sahara). During the first few hundred years of Kanem’s existence, the Kanuri had been dominated by the Zaghawa nomads from the north until the eleventh century when a new dynasty, the Saifawa, named after the legendary hero from the Yemen, Saif ibn Dhi Yazan, was founded by Humai (c. 1075-86) whose descendants continued to wield power in the Chad Basin until the nineteenth century. Perhaps of Berber origins, Humai established his capital at Djimi (Njimi) as the mai (king) and founder of the Saifawa dynasty. Kanem prospered from agriculture and livestock, but the power of the mai and his court was derived mainly from the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Merchants coming across the desert brought goods that enhanced the prestige and authority of the mai, Islam, and the literacy of Arabic.
By the eleventh century, Islam was the religion of the court, but the mai and his officials continued to recognize the rituals and festivals of the traditional beliefs throughout the long history of the state. The consolidation of the court enabled it to embark upon conquests and during the next two centuries Kanem expanded by military might and alliances with the Zaghawa nomads of the desert and Sahel as far west as the Niger river, east to Wadiai, and north to the Fezzan. The expansion of Kanem reached its zenith in the thirteenth century during the reign of mai Dunama Dabalemi ibn Salma (c.1210-1248) after which the power of the state began to decline, torn by a century of dynastic strife from within and the Bulala from without.
The introduction of collateral succession (one brother following another) rather than direct descent by primogeniture produced factions within the dynasty from the offspring of wives and concubines, short reigns, and instability that the Bulala exploited. The Bulala were nomads of the Nilo-Sahara language family living southeast of Lake Chad who invaded Kanem in the fourteenth century. They ravaged the eastern regions of Kanem, sacked Djimi, and between 1377 and 1389 killed seven successive mais, driving the Saifawa dynasty from the capital and their subjects west of Lake Chad into Bornu by the end of the century. The fraternal factionalism of the Saifawa dynasty continued throughout the fifteenth century until mai Ali Gaji ibn Dunama (c. 1476-1503) asserted his authority over his rivals, consolidated his rule in Bornu, and defeated the Bulala who remained, however, a constant threat on his eastern frontier. He constructed a new, walled capital at Birni Gazargamu and, according to legend, was able to mobilize 40,000 cavalry in his army.
Throughout the sixteenth century Bornu expanded under a succession of able mai, the greatest of whom was Idris Alawma (c. 1571-1603). He consolidated the internal administration of the state, expanded its empire and commerce, stabilized the Bulala frontier, and supported the propagation of Islam. Although a confirmed Muslim who supported the construction of mosques in Bornu, he did not make the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and his subjects remained stubbornly committed to their traditional religions, which he respected. His successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continued these fundamental policies to defend the heartland of Bornu from incursions by the Kwararafe from the south, the Tuareg from the north, the growing power of the Hausa states to the west, and the resistance of the indigenous Mandara in Bornu.
These external threats were accompanied by the vicissitudes of climate that have historically determined life in the arid Sahel and parched savanna of the central Sudan. Drought was accompanied by famines, over which the mai had no control; all he could do was appeal to the spirits and Allah. The depression of the trans-Saharan trade during these centuries resulted in the loss of a constant supply of firearms, which was dramatically changing the balance of power in the Bilad al-Sudan.
More disturbing was the immigration of the Fulbe (Fulani) from Hausaland in the west. These pastoral nomads from western Africa eroded the state. They were disliked and discriminated against in Bornu and demanded redress for their grievances against the mai, his government, and his people. Supported by Uthman Dan Fodio of Sokoto, the Bornu Fulani rebelled in 1805 and would have prevailed if the mai had not called upon Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi, a Kanembu cleric, for assistance.
Al-Kanemi was reared in the Quaranic tradition, traveled widely, and made the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. In the 1790s he returned to Bornu as a malam (teacher). Responding to the mai, he carried on a famous correspondence with Uthman Dan Fodio over the religious reasons for his Fulbe jihad against fellow believers, the Muslims of Bornu. He rallied the forces of Bornu to defeat the Fulbe, and by 1820 he had become the virtual ruler of Bornu with a new capital at Kukawa built in 1814. Known as the Shehu he consolidated the sultanate of Bornu before his death in 1837.
Thereafter his successors, the Shehus of Kukawa, ruled Bornu killing the last mai to end the ancient Saifawa dynasty in 1846. The short-lived Shehu dynasty was soon overthrown by the freebooter, Rabih Zubayr. Born in Khartoum in 1845, Rabih Zubayr was a successful slaver in the Upper Nile and later in the 1880s a warlord in the Ubangi-Chari River valleys. He defeated a French expedition in 1891, occupied the kingdom of Baguirmi, and conquered Bornu in 1894. Supported by his bazinqir (slave troops), he dominated the Chad and Bornu until defeated and killed at Lakhta on April 22, 1900, by a French force under Emile Gentile. The kingdom of Kanem-Bornu was now a province of the French West African Empire.
Robert O. Collins
See also: Borno, Sultanate of. Further Reading
Brenner, L. The Shehus of Kukawa: A History of the Al-Kanemi Dynasty of Bornu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Cohen, R. The Kanouri of Bornu. New York: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston, 1967.
——— . "From Empire to Colony: Bornu in the Nineteenth and
Twentieth Centuries." In Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960, vol. 3., edited by V. Turner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
Urvoy, Y. F. "Bornu Conquest and Empire." In Africa from Early Times to 1800, edited by P. J. McEwan. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Usman, B., and N. Alkali, eds. Studies in the History of Precolonial Borno. Zaria: Northern Nigeria Publishing Company, 1983.