Kanembu warriors and their mounted
chief in an illustration from H.
Bornu Empire (1396-1893) was a medieval African
state of Nigeria from 1389 to
Barth's Travels and Discoveries Vol III, 1857.
It was a continuation of the great Kanem Empire
founded centuries earlier by the
. In time it would
become even larger than Kanem incorporating areas that are today
parts of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Exile from Kanem
After decades of internal conflict, rebellions and outright
invasion from the Bulala
, the once strong
was forced out of
Kanem and back into the nomadic lifestyle they had abandoned nearly
600 years ago. Around 1396, the Kanembu
finally overcame attacks from their neighbors (Arabs
) to found a new state in Bornu
. Over time, the intermarriage of the Kanembu and
Bornu peoples created a new people and language, the Kanuri
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 1472 Mai Ali Dunamami
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 Niger), the first permanent home a
Sayfawa mai had enjoyed in a century.
So successful was the
Sayfawa rejuvenation that by the early 16th century Mai Ali Gaji
(1497–1515) 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.
With control over both capitals, the Sayfawa dynasty became more
powerful than ever. The two states were merged, but political
authority still rested in Bornu. Kanem-Bornu peaked during the
reign of the outstanding statesman Mai Idris
Aluma is remembered for his military skills, administrative
reforms, and Islamic piety. His main adversaries were the Hausa to
the west, the Tuareg
to the north, and the Bulala to the east. One
epic poem extols his victories in 330 wars and more than 1,000
battles. His innovations included the employment of fixed military
camps (with walls); permanent sieges and "scorched earth" tactics,
where soldiers burned everything in their path; armored horses and
riders; and the use of Berber
boatmen, and iron-helmeted musketeers
trained by Turkish
diplomacy featured relations with Tripoli, Egypt, and the
Ottoman Empire, which sent a
200-member ambassadorial party across the desert to Aluma's court
Aluma also signed what was probably the first
written treaty or cease-fire in Chadian history (like many
cease-fires negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, it was promptly
Aluma introduced a number of legal and administrative reforms based
on his religious beliefs and Islamic law (sharia
). He sponsored the construction of numerous
mosques and made a pilgrimage to Mecca (see
hajj), where he arranged for the establishment
of a hostel to be used by pilgrims from his empire.
As with other
dynamic politicians, Aluma's reformist goals led him to seek loyal
and competent advisers and allies, and he frequently relied on
slaves who had been educated in noble homes. Aluma regularly sought
advice from a council composed of heads of the most important
clans. He required major political figures to live at the court,
and he reinforced political alliances through appropriate marriages
(Aluma himself was the son of a Kanuri father and a Bulala
Kanem-Bornu under Aluma was strong and wealthy. Government revenue
came from tribute (or booty, if the recalcitrant people had to be
conquered), sales of slaves, and duties on and participation in
trans-Saharan trade. Unlike West Africa
the Chadian region did not have gold. Still, it was central to one
of the most convenient trans-Saharan routes. Between Lake Chad and
Fezzan lay a sequence of well-spaced wells and oases, and
from Fezzan there were easy connections to North Africa and the
Many products were sent north, including
natron (sodium carbonate
, kola nuts
perfume, wax, and hides, but the most important of all were slaves.
Imports included salt, horses
, silks, glass,
, and copper.
Aluma took a keen interest in trade and other economic matters. He
is credited with having the roads cleared, designing better boats
for Lake Chad, introducing standard units of measure for grain, and
moving farmers into new lands. In addition, he improved the ease
and security of transit through the empire with the goal of making
it so safe that "a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to
fear but God."
Decline and Fall
The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma
sustained the empire until the mid-1600s, when its power began to
the late 1700s, Bornu rule extended only westward, into the land of
the Hausa of modern Nigeria.
empire was still ruled by the mai who was advised by his councilors
) in the state council or
Around that time, Fulani people
invading from the west, were able to make major inroads into Bornu.
By the early 19th century, Kanem-Bornu was clearly an empire in
decline, and in 1808 Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu
. Usman dan
Fodio led the Fulani thrust and
proclaimed a holy war (the Fulani War) on the allegedly irreligious Muslims
of the area.
His campaign eventually affected Kanem-Bornu
and inspired a trend toward Islamic orthodoxy, but a Muslim scholar
turned statesman, Muhammad
, contested the Fulani advance.
was a Muslim scholar and non-Sayfawa commander who
had put together an alliance of Shuwa Arabs
, and other seminomadic
peoples. He eventually built in 1814 a capital at
Kukawa (in present-day Nigeria).
remained titular monarchs until 1846. In that year,
the last mai
, in league with the Ouaddai Empire
, precipitated a civil war. It
was at that point that Kanemi's son, Umar
, became king, thus ending one of the
longest dynastic reigns in regional history.
Although the dynasty ended, the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu survived.
Umar eschewed the title mai
for the simpler designation
(from the Arabic shaykh
), could not match his father's vitality
and gradually allowed the kingdom to be ruled by advisers
). Bornu began a further
decline as a result of administrative disorganization, regional
particularism, and attacks by the militant Ouaddai Empire
to the east. The decline
continued under Umar's sons. In 1893, Rabih
az-Zubayr leading an invading army from eastern Sudan, conquered
- Kanem-Borno, in Thomas Collelo, ed. Chad: A Country
Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.