Monday, 10 August 2015

Nigerian Empires: Bornu Empire (1380 - 1893)

The Bornu Empire (1380–1893) was a state of what is now northeastern Nigeria from 1380 to 1893. It was a continuation of the great Kanem Empire founded centuries earlier by the Sayfawa Dynasty.

Kanem-Bornu, African trading empire ruled by the Sef (Sayf) dynasty that controlled the area around Lake Chad from the 9th to the 19th century. Its territory at various times included what is now southern Chad, northern Cameroon, northeastern Nigeria, eastern Niger, and southern Libya.

Kanem-Bornu was probably founded around the mid-9th century, and its first capital was at Njimi, northeast of Lake Chad. Toward the end of the 11th century, the Sef mai (king) Umme (later known as Ibn ʿAbd al-Jalīl) became a Muslim, and from that time Kanem-Bornu was an Islāmic state. Because of its location, it served as a point of contact in trade between North Africa, the Nile Valley, and the sub-Sahara region.

In the late 14th century the Bulala people forced the Sef to abandon Kanem, and the capital was moved to Birni Ngazargamu in Bornu, west of Lake Chad. It remained there even after Kanem was retaken in the early 16th century.

Under its able rulers of the 16th century (Muḥammad Dunama, ʿAbd Allāh, and especially Idrīs Alawma, who reigned c. 1571–1603), Kanem-Bornu (thereafter sometimes called simply Bornu) was extended and consolidated.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Fulani of Nigeria disputed Bornu’s suzerainty over the Hausa states to the west of Lake Chad and drove mai Aḥmad from his capital in c. 1808. They were expelled by the intervention of Muḥammad al-Kanamī, a scholar, warrior, and diplomat of Kanem, to whom Aḥmad had been forced to appeal for aid. Obliged also to assist Aḥmad’s successor, Dunama, against the raiding Fulani, al-Kanamī assumed implicit control of Bornu but was never able to reestablish its power. The Sef dynasty died out in 1846.

Exile from Kanem

After decades of internal conflict, rebellions and outright invasion from the Bulala, the once-strong Sayfawa Dynasty was forced out of Kanem and back into the nomadic lifestyle they had abandoned nearly 700 years earlier. Around 1380, the Kanembu finally overcame attacks from neighboring Arabs, Berbers and Hausa, 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.

Early rule

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 1455, Mai Ali Dunamami defeated his rivals and began the consolidation of Bornu. He built a fortified capital at Ngazargamu (in present-day Nigeria), to the west of Lake Chad. This was 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 (1455–1487) 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.

Kanem-Bornu Period
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 statesman Mai Idris Alooma (c. 1571–1603).

Idris Alooma

Idris Alooma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety. His main adversaries were the Hausa to the west, the Tuareg and Tubu to the north, and the Bulala to the east. 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 camelry, Kotoko boatmen, and iron-helmeted musketeers trained by Turkish military advisers. His active diplomacy featured relations with Tripoli, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, which sent a 200-member ambassadorial party across the desert to Alooma's court at Ngazargamu. Alooma also signed what was probably the first written treaty or cease-fire in Chadian history.

Alooma 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 (hajj) to Mecca, where he arranged for the establishment of a hostel to be used by pilgrims from his empire. As with other dynamic politicians, Alooma'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. Alooma 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. (Alooma himself was the son of a Kanuri father and a Bulala mother.)

Kanem-Bornu under Alooma 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 Mediterranean Sea. Many products were sent north, including natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides, but the most important of all were slaves. Imports included salt, horses, silks, glass, muskets, and copper.

Alooma 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."


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.

Decline and Fall

The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Alooma 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 Hausa of modern Nigeria. The empire was still ruled by the mai who was advised by his councilors (kokenawa) in the state council or "nokena".

Fulani Jihad

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 al-Amin al-Kanemi, contested the Fulani advance.

Muhammad al-Kanemi

Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi was a Muslim scholar and non-Sayfawa commander who had put together an alliance of Shuwa Arabs, Kanembu, and other seminomadic peoples. He eventually built in 1814 a capital at Kukawa (in present-day Nigeria). Sayfawa mais 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 international history.

Post-Sayfawa Era
Although the dynasty ended, the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu survived. Umar eschewed the title mai for the simpler designation shehu (from the Arabic shaykh), could not match his father's vitality, and gradually allowed the kingdom to be ruled by advisers (wazirs). 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 led an invading army from eastern Sudan and conquered Bornu. Following his expulsion shortly thereafter, the state was absorbed by the British ruled entity which eventually became known as Nigeria. From that point on, a remnant of the old kingdom was (and still is) allowed to continue to exist in subjection to the various Governments of the country as the Borno Emirate.

Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica/Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment