History & Culture

Kanem-Bornu Empire in precolonial Nigeria

The northern region’s first well-documented state was the kingdom of Kanem, which emerged east of Lake Chad in what is now southwestern Chad by the 9th century AD. Kanem profited from trade ties with North Africa and the Nile Valley, from which it also received Islam.

The Saifawas, Kanem’s ruling dynasty, periodically enlarged their holdings by conquest and marriage into the ruling families of vassal states.

The empire, however, failed to sustain a lasting peace. During one conflict-ridden period sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Saifawas were forced to move across Lake Chad into Bornu, in what is now far northeastern Nigeria.

There, the Kanem intermarried with the native peoples, and the new group became known as the Kanuri. The Kanuri state, centered first in Kanem and then in Bornu, is known as the Kanem-Bornu Empire, hereafter referred to as Bornu.

The Kanuri eventually returned to Chad and conquered the empire lost by the Saifawas. Its dominance thus assured, Bornu became a flourishing center of Islamic culture that rivaled Mali to the far west. The kingdom also grew rich in trade, which focused on salt from the Sahara and locally produced textiles.

In the late 16th century, the Bornu king Idris Alooma expanded the kingdom again, and although the full extent of the expansion is not clear, Bornu exerted considerable political influence over Hausaland to the west.

In the mid and late 18th century, severe droughts and famines weakened the kingdom, but in the early 19th century Bornu enjoyed a brief revival under Al-Kanemi, a shrewd military leader who resisted a Fulani revolution that swept over much of Nigeria.

Al-Kanemi’s descendants continue as traditional rulers within Borno State. The Kanem-Bornu Empire ceased to exist in 1846 when it was absorbed into the Wadai sultanate to the east.

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Adeyemi Adisa

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