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THE KANURI EMPIRE by Prof G.N. Ayittey February 20, 2012

Posted by seunfakze in EDUCATION.
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In continuation of a study on Nigerian history, please read!!!

This Islamic empire came into existence in the ninth century, when the Kanuri succeeded in imposing their authority on the politically disunited and scattered communities of the Lake Chad basin. “The girgam Kanuri’s oral traditions credit this achievement to Say’f b. Dhi Yazan (or simply Saif) who established the Sefawa dynasty, the longestlived in Africa” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.57).[Note:1]

Like Ghana, another ancient Islamic empire, the Kanuri empire, the first at Kanem and the second at Borno, survived for almost one thousand years. The first empire at Kanem began to collapse from 1259 to 1472 due to struggles for power and internal dissension. The empire was revived by Mai Ali Ghaji (1472-1504) who reconstructed Kanuri power at Bornu rather than at the ancestral capital of N’jimi.

The political organization of the empire (both the old and new) operated at two levels, central and provincial. At the head of the empire was the Mai, a hereditary sovereign chosen from the descendants of Saif. He was the personification of the empire and the wellbeing of his subjects was identified with his state of health. Originally divine rulers, the Mais were sacrosant and preserved all the outward attributes of sacred monarchy long after their conversion to Islam. They ate in seclusion, appeared ceremonially before the public gaze on very rare occasions and gave audiences to strangers from behind a screen of curtaining. “In strict theory, their position as both political and religious leader of their people gave them absolute power in all spheres of government. In practice, they were constitutional rulers who had to heed the advice and ambitions of their councillors” (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.128). One notices again and again the wide gap between royal absolutism in theory and despotism in practice.

Olaniyan (1985) was more emphatic:

The Mai, like other sacred monarchs in other Nigerian states, was not an autocrat. He had to take cognizance of the existence of two bodies of title holders. The first was the council of state, made up of twelve men selected from the nobility and great men of servile origin. These twelve dignitaries, together with the Mai, formed the supreme ruling body. It was very unlikely for a Mai to take any decision without consulting them (p.61).

Besides a few councilors who held hereditary titles, the Mai appointed court and state officials and assigned responsibilities to them. All important activities of the state took place in his palace. But the official organ of government was the Council of Twelve, which advised the Mai on policy and saw to its implementation in his name.

This council was composed of the great officials of state who were selected both from the royal family and influential men of servile origin. Without their cooperation, the Mai was practically powerless; they, on the other hand, could govern the country with little reference to his wishes (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.128).

The second important political institution was a body comprising three women title holders: the Gumsu (Mai’s first wife), the Magara (Mai’s senior sister) and the Magira (the Queen Mother). These three women performed important activities in the palace and they trained the princes. They exercised great influence in the politics of the empire and they also exercised wide-ranging powers during an interregnum or when there was a weak Mai on the throne. By the threat to withdraw their services, this council of women could force a Mai to change his policies. The Magira had complete responsibility for the provision of royal food and the Magara for care of the royal children. “The extent of the Queen-Mother’s influence can be seen in the fact that Mai Biri was imprisoned on the Magira’s order and Magira Aisa controlled Kanuri political life before the accession of Idris Alooma” (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:129).[Note:2]

For administrative purposes, the empire was divided into four provinces and placed under four governors selected from the twelve councillors. The Galadima was in charge of the west; the Kaigama the south; the Yerima the north; and Mestrema the east. The governors defended their provinces from attack, prevented them from secession, mobilized their citizens for war and collected tributes for the Mai. They were also responsible for the preservation of law and order and for extending Kanuri influence beyond their frontiers. The governors, except for the Galadima, did not live in the provinces and had to appoint representatives known as the Chima to perform their functions. “The daytoday administration of the provincial villages and towns was left in the hands of their hereditary rulers, (known as Chima Gana), an arrangement which made it possible to govern indirectly and reduce instability” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.61).

The Kanuri empire and the Sefawa dynasty owed their success and longevity to a number of factors. For the empire, the first was the strong and effective leadership provided by such Mais as Saif, Dunama II, `Ali Ghaji and Idris Alooma. Second, membership of the Council of Twelve was not hereditary and the four great officers in charge of the major sub-divisions of the empire were appointed to govern areas where their families had no vested interests. What is more, with the exception of the Galadima, they and other important noblemen were required to live in the capital under the eye of royal authority. Only in times of emergency did they visit the areas they governed and assume personal control.

While this lessened the danger of their building up independent local power, it had the further value that as new areas were added to the empire, their natural rulers could be appointed Chima Gana to their own people. This reinforced their authority over their people, guaranteed a high degree of local autonomy and at the same time brought them under the supervision of one of the great Kanuri noblemen at Ngazargamu (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:129).

Third, “the Mais did not keep large standing armies” (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:130). The military therefore did not act as a drain on imperial budget. The bulk of the troops were local levies that could be called up and commanded by local officials. Yet, this imperial military machine was able to overcome smallscale uncoordinated resistance from the neighbors and repel invasions. Fourth, administration was decentralized though the Kanuri “absorbed the sociopolitical features of predynastic (i.e. preninth century) inhabitants” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.61). The inhabitants managed their own local affairs under their hereditary rulers. Fifth, Islam provided a unifying force.
“The Sefawa dynasty was one of the longest-lived in the history of the world, having ruled Kanuri states for about a thousand years” (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:125). A number of factors accounted for this. First, great precautions were taken to avoid dynastic struggles, preserve the balance of the constitution and minimize rivalries withing the ruling classes of the empire. As the Mai’s sons reached manhood, they were despatched to the provinces to prevent them from becoming centers of political rivalry and intrigue within the capital.

Second, the Sefawa deliberately intermarried with the women in the conquered areas in order to minimize feuds and rebellions. The number of offspring of such mixed marriages became members of the ruling dynasty (Olaniyan, 1985; p.57). Third, the Sefawa dynasty introduced Islam gradually and peacefully. For example, although `Ali Ghaji employed Islam to consolidate his bureaucracy, “he never used force to spead Islam” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.59).

The administration of the Kanuri empire was very similar to that of another Muslim empire, the Songhai which Stride and Ifeka (1971) described as “the greatest indigenous empire in the history of West Africa” (p.67). The progenitors of the Songhai empire were peoples living in small communities on both sides of the Niger river in the Dendi area. They included the Da (sedentary farmers), the Gow (hunters) and the Sorko (fishermen and canoe-men). They were invaded from the northeast and conquered by bands of dark-skinned Zaghawa nomads. Over time, they were forged into a powerful empire which reached the peak of its power in the 16th century under the Sunni dynasty.

One notable Songhai ruler was Sunni Ma Dogo, alias Muhammed Da’o, who reigned around 1420. He was followed by Sunni Ali (1464-1492), who within a period of 28 years transformed the little kingdom of Gao into the huge Songhai empire, stretching from the Niger in the east to Jenne in the west. After the Sunni dynasty came the Askia, the first of which was Askia Muhammad, which reigned between 1528 and 1591.
Askia Muhammad “did not implement Islamic models but merely improved upon or expanded the existing traditional system” (Boahen, 1971:39). He divided his empire into provinces, like the Kanuri empire, and each ruled by a governor called koi or fari. These provinces comprised of a metropolitan Gao and 4 major provinces: Dendi to the south of Gungia; Bal, north of the Niger bend and including Taghaza; Benga in the lacustrine area; and Kurmina in the important grain-producing area south of the Niger from Timbuktu.

The ruler of the eastern province was the dendi-fari while that of the western province was gurman-fari or kurmina-fari. Each was advised by a council of ministers. Thus the kurmina-fari was advised by a council consisting of the balama, the commander of the Songhai forces in the west, the binga-farma and the bana-farma, all of whom were royal princes.

At the center, Askia Muhammad established a council of ministers to assist him in all aspects of government. Most of these central posts, as well as the governors, were carefully selected from the Askia’s family and circle of friends to ensure maximum loyalty. There were enormous powers in the hands of these governors. But their offices were not hereditary. They served at the pleasure of the Askia who could both appoint and remove them at will.

One important feature of the reign of Sunni Ali needs to be noted:

All the rulers of the second dynasty, the Sunni dynasty, were attached to their traditional religion more than to Islam, and paid far more attention to their idols, priests and diviners than to the Koran and the mallams. Indeed, they became known as magician-kings, as Levtzion has pointed out: “even after they had lost temporal power, the Sohantyr, descendants of Sunni Ali, retained their prestige as powerful magicians.” Sunni Ali himself, though generous to the Muslims, did not hesitate to punish or persecute them if they stood in his way. Throughout his reign, the traditional Songhai religion remained the basis of his authority, and it was only because Islam was gaining ground in the western part of his kingdom that Sunni Ali had to keep up an outward Muslim appearance by saying prayers, fasting and so on.
Thus, during the period of the Sunni rulers, Islam never became the religion of the state (Boahen, 1971:34).

This flexibility and tolerance of traditional religious practices were also evident during the reign of the Askia dynasty. Each great official was allowed to have his own distinctive dress, his own personal allocation of drums for use on ceremonial occasions and some distinguishing privilege.

Such privileges included the right of the commander-in-chief (Dyina Koy) to sit on a carpet and sprinkle himself with flour instead of dust when prostrating before the Askia; the exemption of the governor of Gurma from removing his turban when kneeling before his ruler; and the distinction of the Governor of Benga who was allowed to enter the city of Gao with all this drums beating (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:79).

Stride and Ifeka (1971) continued with the observation that, although great stress was placed on the Islamic character of the towns with crowded mosques and Islamic judges, traditional African practices, such as the use of an “interpreter” as an intermediary between ruler and the people and African religious influences remained pervasive.

Thus, it appears that the Askias were either essentially Muslims who for political reasons paid lip-service to the traditional religious forms to retain the loyalty of non-Muslim subjects, or they gradually became re-absorbed into the ethnic religion while maintaining a Muslim gloss that propitiated indigenous and foreign Muslims alike. Whichever was the true state of affairs, it is clear that successful Askias drew political support and religious approval from all quarters. This was a remarkable feat of statesmanship (Stride and Ifeka, 1971:79). (Italics mine)

Unfortunately, that “feat of statemanship” has not been replicated in modern Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan, Tanzania and other Moslem African countries. Recent events prompted one irate Nigerian, Mr. Aloysius Juryit of Calabar, to write: “Events in the Sudan and Mauritania, to mention only a few, have shown that the worst racists are Arabs, especially when it comes to dealing with blacks” (New African, March 1990; p.6).



Ayittey, George B,N. (2006). Indigenous African Institutions. Ardsley-on-Hudson, NY:

Transnational Publishers.

Boahen, A.A. (1986). Topics in West African History. New York: Longman.

Olaniyan, Richard ed. (1985).Nigerian History and Culture. London: Longman Group Limited.

Stride G.T. and Ifeka Caroline (1971). Peoples and Empires of West Africa. Lagos: Thomas Nelson.


1. Milton Davis - April 10, 2012

Thank you for this information. I’m writing a fiction story in which the Kanuri empire figures prominently.


BABAGANA - August 17, 2018
2. aliyu umar - June 27, 2012

I wonder why anybody should say Prof should mind his business and focused his attention on Ghana alone. An outsider who can objectively observe things and make better inputes proffering solutions where necessary,is always welcome. To me,Prof is not even an outsider as anything that affects Nigeria,by extension affects Africa and vice versa. Prof is a genuine stake-holder in the Nigerian project. Please keep on educating we the younger generation of our past as there are beauties in them.


3. samuel - September 29, 2012

Thanks to the Prof and thanks to Aliyu Umar for your comments.Unfortunately that is the sad spectre of ignorance and littlemindedness that is prevalent amongst our people this time and in this age.Instead of congratulating the professor for highlighting the beauty and greatness of our culture and political history and the purity of the Islam that our forbears practised.
Truly we can sift the facts from the deductions and interpretations of the historians which sometimes is erroneous.The rallying truth is that the rulers of both the kanuri empire and the songhai empires were truly followers of the holy Prophet Mohammed(PBUH) and therefore never forced religion on their subjects.In doing there was no place for ulterior motives as they were simply,most truthfully and naturally following the teachings of the Holy Qur’an—there is no complusion in religion(Holy Qur’an chapter 2 vs 257).
They also had clearly imbibed the teachings of the Holy Prophet to the effect that prophets and divine knowlegde have been sent to all peoples and that Islam did not enjoin wholesale jettisoning and condemnation of cultures and traditions if they did not depart from the oneness of God and from righteousness.


4. deygee - October 2, 2012

Reblogged this on deygee and commented:


5. dumbbells for sale - April 21, 2013

The drawback is you should take them apart and put
them back with each other just about every time you want to
kick your work out up a notch.


6. Olarinoye jamiu - April 28, 2013

This would have been better understood if there is a list and short explanations on the causes of the decline of the second kanuri empire…i mean a better highlighted outline.


7. Musa ALI - September 30, 2014

This is interestingly an academic stuff.


8. shareef kamilu - December 26, 2014

is well organised


BABAGANA - August 17, 2018
9. iyoma - March 18, 2016

This history is a lesson to those who think colonial masters have done a great favour to Africa. Who says colonial masters brought politics to Africa? who says colonial masters brought civilisation to Africa? who says colonial masters brought system of governance to Africa. Colonial masters only succeeded in retrogressing and redirecting economic progression of African people to their own advantage thereby rendering Africa eternally poorer and poorer after taking advantage of the political structures established by those dynasties and empires. These master’s evils cut across east-west-north and south of Africa. The result is the modern day hunger and starvation, diseases, insecurity, political and economic backwardness and social malaise that engulf Africa.


BABAGANA - August 17, 2018
10. Muhammad sani potiskum - October 29, 2017

The Kanuri Ethnic Nationality
ON DECEMBER 10, 2015


The Kanuri ethnic nationality is a renowned ethnic nationality not only in Nigeria but also in Africa as a whole. It is a strong and large ethnic nationality that has remained relevant in Nigeria despite the turmoil it has gone through. It is one of the ethnic nationalities that is fortunate to have its history documented.

At the moment the Kanuri ethnic nationality is the dominant and potent political block in Borno state. Borno as a state is in the full grip and control of the Kanuris. A lot of factors contributed to this but the most important of them was the emergence of a man whose large portrait hangs on the wall of the reception of the Maiduguri International Hotel, Maiduguri: Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi (776-1837), an Islamic scholar, teacher, religious and political leader.


In an attempt to discover the origin of the term, Kanuri, an oral tradition places great emphasis on the Arabic word “Nuri” (Light) which is an attempt to link the origin of the people and their language to the Arabs, and in particular the great founder of the ancient dynasty, Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan of Himyar (Alkali 1987).This notion of the Arabian roots of the Kanuris is also supported by the revered historian, O.E Udoji who wrote that, “…the Kanuri are said to have migrated from Yemen in Saudi Arabia and settled about 640 kilometers north of Lake Chad in the original Kanem Empire.”

The Kanuri and Manga were the products of the Kanembu people, the warrior custodians of the Kanem Empire. Available historical records showed that the Kanembu, like the Lakkas were the descendants of the legendary Sao people. There is however a slight variation between Kanuri and Kanembu languages but most Kanembus understand Kanuri even though the reverse is not the case. The Kanembu language is spoken in a very limited area of Borno, mainly in Kukawa district and of course in the region of Kanem in the republic of Chad.

The Kanem Empire once controlled a vast empire that covered countries like Chad, Niger, Cameroun and Nigeria (Mustapha 2009).We still have Kanuris in some of these countries, for example there are Kanuris in Gilendeng [Chad].In fact the Kanuri ethnic nationality had produced two prime ministers; one in Cameroun and the other in Niger.

The Sayfawa Dynasty

The Sayfawa Dynasty was founded by Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan and it ruled and controlled the Kanem Empire for about 800 years. The old Kanem Empire was founded in the 9th Century and its first capital was a town in the north-eastern part of Lake Chad known as Njimi.The Empire became an Islamic state at the end of the 11th Century, precisely in 1090 when Mai Umme converted to Islam. He later on changed his name to Mai Abd al Jalal.

The Sayfawa Dynasty

The Sayfawa Dynasty and their subjects fled to Birnin Gazargamu when the Bulala people attacked them. Birnin Gazargamu remained as capital even after the reclaiming of Njimi in the 16th Century. Another attack by the Fulbe was launched against the Sayfawa people and this attack forced Mai Ahmad to ran way from Birnin Gazargamu in 1808.The rulers of Kanem had no option but to seek the assistance of a prominent Islamic scholar and warrior in Ngala known as Sheikh all Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad al Kanemi to checkmate the attaks of the Sokoto jihadists. The Sokoto jihadists retreated when el Kanemi confronted them .The Sayfawa Dynasty died in 1846 (Alkali 1987).

The el Kanemi Dynasty

At the exact time that America was about to become a republic in 1776, Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi was born near Marzuk in Libya.His father was a Kanembu cleric and scholar and his mother the daughter of a wealthy Zuila Arab trader. He was brought up in Marzuk and undertook religious studies which he continued in Tripoli and other North African cities. In the 1790s he joined his father died in Medina, el Kenemi remained in Egypt some years before deciding to return home to Marzuk via Kanem. In the early years of the century he settled down, with his wife and eldest son in Ngala where he earned a reputation as a religious leader, and by the time of the outbreak of the Fulani wars he had taken as a second wife the daughter of the Sultan of Ngala (Brenner 1973).

El Kanemi became a well respected religious leader who decided to identify from the Syfawa rulers. After he fought back the Sokoto jihadists through the network of his large following of Shuwas and Kanembus, Mai Dunoma rewarded him with a small province to lead as a titular leader. He decided to take the title of “Shehu” (Sheikh) and this act endeared him to the common people. In fact when Mai Dunoma was deposed in 1809 by his uncle, it was el Kanemi that brought him back to power in 1813.

An attempt to kill el Kanemi in 1820 which was believed to be spearheaded by some aides of Mai Dunoma led to open hostilities between the Shenu and Mai Dunoma which eventually led to the death of the latter.

The Shehu had earlier on constructed a power base in the city of Kukawa in 1814 and this town became the defacto capital of Kanem-Borno Empire. The death of el Kanemi in 1836 made the Sayfawa Mai and his supporters to stage a plan to be in charge of affairs. They collaborated with Waddai Empire to realize this dream but Umar, el Kanmei’s son overpowered them and became the sole ruler of Kanem-Borno Empire.The descendants of el Kanemi are still the rulers of Borno at the moment. They hold the prestigious title of “The Shehu of Borno.”


The main units in the administrative structure of Borno were the royal family which was the nucleus of the whole political system; the Council which was the decision making body of the state; the Kogurama, a body of nobility who served as the executives and carried out the immense administrative work of the state, and the military—the composition of which included members from each of the above units. In its broad history outline we can divide the political history of Borno from about 1500-1800 A.D., into three phases.

Below is a list of some of the titles of Borno

Mai Ruler Royal family
Magira Queen Mother Royal family
Magaram Official Sister Royal family
Ya Grema Magira’s Assistant Royal family
Gumsu Senior wife of the Mai Royal family
Waziri Mai’s Assistant Council
Kaigama Commander-in-Chief Council
The Kanuris are not new to the intricacies of power and they know how and when to negotiate and do dialogue. This was what Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi did with the son of Usman Dan Fodio,Sulatan Mohammed Bello to convince and persuade the latter to abandon his war against Borno Empire, a sister Islamic state. Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (ca. 1221-59). Dabbalemi initiated diplomatic exchanges with sultans in North Africa and apparently arranged for the establishment of a special hostel in Cairo to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. During Dabbalemi’s reign, the Fezzan region (in present-day Libya) fell under Kanem’s authority, and the empire’s influence extended westward to Kano, eastward to Wadai, and southward to the Adamawa grasslands (in present-day Cameroon). Portraying these boundaries on maps can be misleading, however, because the degree of control extended in ever-weakening gradations from the core of the empire around Njimi to remote peripheries, from which allegiance and tribute were usually only symbolic. Moreover, cartographic lines are static and misrepresent the mobility inherent in nomadism and migration, which were common. The loyalty of peoples and their leaders was more important in governance than the physical control of territory.

Dabbalemi devised a system to reward military commanders with authority over the people they conquered. This system, however, tempted military officers to pass their positions to their sons, thus transforming the office from one based on achievement and loyalty to the mai into one based on hereditary nobility. Dabbalemi was able to suppress this tendency, but after his death, dissension among his sons weakened the Sayfawa Dynasty. Dynastic feuds degenerated into civil war, and Kanem’s outlying peoples soon ceased paying tribute.

An old Kanuri woman

The Kanuris like the art of politicking and some of them have taken it as a full time job. Politics which according to Max Weber is the striving to share, influence and control power appeals to them. They know how to use and exploit the intricacies associated with political dividends. This is why the Kanuris were so far the only ethnic nationality that has been producing civilian governors in Borno state. They have dominated the political terrain and it appears as if the other ethnic nationalities viz. Babur, Marghi, Chibok, Waha and so on have resigned to their fate.

The Kanuris had produced two presidential candidates in Nigeria: the late Alhaji Ibrahim Waziri of the defunct GNPP and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe of the SDP who later on became the vice president of MKO Abiola in 1993.Research has shown that 90% of Kanuris belonged to a political party and they normally vote according to tribal and religious inclinations. This is one of the reasons why a Christian had never been successful to be elected governor and from the look of things it may never happen.

Borno state is predominantly an ANPP state and until the emergence of Sen. Ali Sheriff as governor in 2003, the Kukawa axis had always been the producer of the state’s number one citizen.

Politics among the Kanuris is not centered on ideology but on financial clout. Most Kanuris see politics as full time business, an avenue to get motorcycles, cars and money. It is however worthy of mention that the Kanuris rarely engage in political thuggery and violence.

The Kanuri Language

The term Kanuri is applied to the people as well as the language. The earliest groups that occupied the region of the Lake Chad were the Kanembu, Bade, Ngizim ,the Bulala and the Zaghawa. Of these three groups who competed for political relevance in Kanem, the Kanembu appeared to have taken over the control of the state. There has been a clear distinction between these three major groups in the language which they speak, and it is difficult to assume that they mutually understood their different languages. This was a situation which necessitated the emergence of a lingua franca and there is little doubt that the Kanembu language came to be accepted in Kanem by various other groups as a common language(Alkali 1987).

It is clear that many Kanuri today accept their language as an offshoot of Kanembu and the latter in its original form is accepted as the matrix. In short, Kanuri is often considered as a dialect of Kanembu.For this reason, Kanembu is used as the language of tafsir in Borno today.

According to Abdullahi Smith,Kanuri emerged as a result of the movement of the Kanembu people from Kanem to the area west of Lake Chad, predominantly inhabited by Chadic speaking peoples, such as, the Kotoko, the Ngizim and the Bade. In the process of this movement, the Kanembu speaking peoples, whom linguists have classified as Nilo-Saharan, mixed with these Chadic speaking peoples,resulting in the emergence of Kanuri. But there is also an indication that the Kanuri people originated from a mixture of various ethnic groups—the Maghumi, the Ngalaga, the Kanga, the Kayi, the Kaguwa, the Tubo and the Nguma (Udofia 1987).The language spoken by these groups evolved gradually to what is known today as the Kanuri language.

The Kanuris are jealous of their language and are always on guard to see that the Hausas do not dominate it. The Kanuri language is ne language in the northern parts of Nigeria whose adherents had refused to agree that it is subordinate to Hausa. The Kanuris believe that their language and culture is higher and superior to that of the followers of Usman Dan Fodio, Hausa-Fulbe. In fact the first news broadcast in Borno (BRTV,NTA) is always in Kanuri before other languages.

Research has shown that 90% of Kanuris understand and speak the language but it is only 67% of them that understand and speak Hausa. The Kanuris are however traditional playmates with the Fulbe, each calling the other a slave in jokes.

The Economic life of the Kanuri

Historical records showed that the presence of Lake Chad made the Kanem Borno Empire to be a lucrative trade centre. Along its shores is provided considerable pasture grounds during the dry and rainy seasons to support large nomadic populations of Kanembu,Shuwa and Fulani.In addition to the fishing and cattle trade on the shores of the lake, there was also a considerable trade going on in kelbu (natron) and salt which were left as deposits after the level of the lake had subsided. Natron and salt production were carried out in commercial quantities by the sedentary Kanuri and Buduma.

Until recent times the Kanuris don’t believe in Western education and this had made a lot of them not to be able to secure government employment. They preferred to send their wards to Qur’anic schools to learn the Qur’an and afterwards give them a small capital to start business: hawking perfumes, clothing, and transportation and so on. Research carried out in the course of writing this paper in Monday Market, Maiduguri and other weekly markets in Gajiram,Gajiganna,Jakana,Banki,Baga and Munguno showed that 60% of the traders were Kanuris or they identified themselves as such. They buy and sell all kinds of goods: food stuff, livestock, shoes, clothing, electronics etc. In fact they also sell cars in and around Maiduguri.They are good business men and some of them were sagacious enough to collaborate with banks. This partnership had enabled them to grow and expand their businesses. The late business mogul, Alhaji Mai Deribe is Kanuri.

At the moment the Kanuris are beginning to fully embrace western education. The effort of elder-statesman, Dr. Shetima Ali Munguno and others is very noticeable here. There are so many Kanuri lawyers, doctors, lecturers, engineers and accountants today. In fact the former CMD of the University Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri, Prof. Kyari Othman, the former vice-chancellors of the University of Maiduguri, Prof. Muhammed Nura Alkali and Prof. Abubakar Mustapha mni and the vocal media commentator, Dr. Khalifa Ali Dikwa are all Kanuris.

Some Kanuris also engage in farming. They produce ground nuts, millet, guinea corn, beans, sesame, water melon, cucumber and maize. They also do irrigational farming in places like Munguno and Marte were they produce tomatoes, pepper, onions and spinach in the dry season.

The buying and selling of Arabic gum is also dominated by the Kanuris.

The fact that Borno is a neighbor to Chad, Cameroun and Niger is facilitating business activities in the state and the Kanuris were wise to be in the lead. It is only in the pharmaceuticals, motor spare parts and building materials that the Igbos outpaced them. It has also been discovered that the Kanuris are few in the crafts: mechanic, carpentry, vulcanizing, painting and so on.

Religious life of the Kanuri

The Kanuri as a people have, throughout their history, maintained one basic identity—that of Islam which they used both as a religion and philosophy of government, and as a force of integration that cut across ethnic barriers. Islam first came into Nigeria in the 11th Century, precisely in 1090 when Mai Umme, of the Sayfawas converted to Islam. But there is a school of thought that believes that Islam came to Borno as far back as the 7th Century during the raids of Nafi ibn Iqbal .This is why it would be very difficult to separate Borno from Islam.

Research conducted by the writer revealed that the conversion of a Kanuri to another religion especially Christianity is rare and where this occurs, the persecution associated with is monumental because it is ridda according to the teachings of Islam. At the moment there are two known Kanuri Christians: Rev Musa Garba and Pastor Musa Ali.

Most Kanuris subscribe to the Malikkiya code of Islamic law which means that there are a lot of Sunni Muslims among the Kanuris.The Kanuris hardly join the Shi’ite sect. The Kanuris are passionate and zealous about Islam and most of them still believe that the Shehu of Borno ought to be the chief of the Muslim faithful in Nigeria and not the Sultan of Sokoto.

There is a prevalence of Qur’anic schools, madrassatas and Islamiya schools in all Kanuri settlements to cater for their children. Professor Abubakar Mustapha mni wrote that, “ History bestowed upon the Kanuri authorities in Borno the responsibility of teaching the arts of writing and reading the Qur’an in the Central Bilad al Sudan since the establishment of the Sayfawa Dynasty. From the 13th Century up to the coming of the European colonialists at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Native Authority of Borno funded and supported this type of education.” But at the moment this is not the case because there are thousands of Qur’anic students roaming about on the streets of Maiduguri and its environs begging for food, soliciting for alms, doing menial jobs and so on.


The foundation of the Borno Kingdom was laid towards the end of the 15th Century under the forceful influence of Mai Ali Gaji (c. 1470-1503).

Borno state has 27 local government areas and the Kanuris dominated 20 of these local government areas. It is only in Bayo, Biu, Hawul, Chibok, Askira-Uba, Gwoza and Damboa that the Kanuris are not having a large society. In the remaining local government areas, the Kanuri language is like a lingua franca because some of them don’t even understand or speak Hausa. This does not apply to Maiduguri.

There is also a Kanuri society in states like Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Nassarawa, Plateau and Jigawa. However they do not control business and politics in these states. In fact it has now been discovered that there is considerable number of Kanuris in Lagos and Imo states. The children of these Kanuri families communicate fluently in the Yoruba and Igbo languages.


The region into which the Kanuris moved was formerly inhabited by diverse peoples: the Marghi,Kotoko,Musgum,Buduma and Ngizim (James 1987).It was the conflict with the Bulala people that led to the collapse of the Sayfawa authority in Kanem in the 14th Century and their subsequent migration to Borno(Alkali 1987). Borno remains the undisputable bastion of the Kanuris even though there are Kanuris in Chad,Niger,Sudan and Cameroun. The fact that Shehu all Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi settled in Birnin Gazargamu and Kukawa, and he also resided in Ngala when he returned from Mecca is enough to make Borno the umbilical cord of the modern day Kanuris.

The present day city of Maiduguri is the power base of the Kanuris. This city is a combination of the old aristocratic town of Yerwa and the British created town, Maiduguri in 1907.Yerwa was derived from the Kanuri word “herewa” meaning “ good land” (Udofia1987) but there is a school of thought that says the word was derived from an Arabic expression meaning, “quenching the thirst,” which was a direct reference to the waters of Ngadda River.The town of Yerwa was founded on the site of Kalam and was given the name Yerwa by Shehu Garbai.The two towns, Yerwa and Maiduguri were later unified and this gave birth to the present city, Maiduguri. A city that is being dominated, controlled and ruled by the Kanuris who are fond of saying “bula ade kaande.”

Tribal Marks

The Kanuris have a tribal mark that is distinct from the armada of tribal marks we have in Nigeria. The tribal marks of the Kanuri is done by piercing a straight line from the fore head to the nose, then two straight lines on both cheeks and another two straight lines on the rear sides of both cheeks near the ears. This is the kind of tribal marks seen on the face of the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha. Many Kanuris don’t want to have tribal marks on their faces nowadays.


The Kanuris, generally have no physical stereotype but in most cases one can say that the Kanuri woman has a stereotype: she covers herself with laffaya, adorns her hair with a special hair do and perfume herself with Khumrah, a traditional incense-perfume that has a distinct smell.

Until the decline of the use of tribal marks, it has always been the stereotype identity of the Kanuris.


As in most African tradition the groom will go and introduce himself to the family of the bride and then later on send his representatives with items like kola nuts, biscuits and sweets to ask for the bride’s hands in marriage. If the two families agreed on the proposal, a date would be fixed for the payment of dowry. The average dowry is twenty thousand naira.

A Kanuri woman

The customary practice of dela(washing of the hair of the bride) and nanle (adorning of the hands and feet of the bride)would later follow. Normally this takes place on a Thursday but the groom and his friends are supposed to come on a Friday to observe the wushe wushe festivity. The female relations of the groom will be the ones to take the bride to her new home but at least two of her relations will stay with her for a week at new home. It is a tradition that the new couple go to pay respects to their in-laws on Sunday (Baari 2011).


Research has shown that there is a strong connection between religion and Islam. This is because under the Islamic religion, a man is permitted to marry up to four wives if he can cater for their needs and do equal justice to them. Since almost all the Kanuris are Muslims, the rate of polygamy among them should be expected to be high. Three out of every five Kanuri men have more than one wife.

The rate of divorce among the Kanuris is alarming. There are instances were marriages don’t last up to a month and these women who end up in these divorces, in some cases are not up to 20 years. One of the prominent religious figures who have done a lot through education and counseling to curb the menace was the late Sheikh Abba Aji al Barnawi. Interestingly the Kanuri man want to have plenty children.

Maternal mortality is high and access to good medical facilities is poor.

Childbirth and Naming

The birth of a child is always a thing of joy in the Kanuri society. Every man wants to have children. Plenty of them.

The Kanuris do normally name their child after the seventh day and tradition dictates that a ram be procured for the naming. Friends, well wishers and relations would converge at the home of the parent to celebrate the naming. The father is expected to give a good name to his child and in most cases an Islamic one with a traditional one attached like Babagana, Bakura,Yagana,Fantami,Baanzeye,Kachalla etc.The Kanuris also have their versions of Islamic names, thus you hear them calling Ali as Ari,Mohammed as Modu,Aisha as Ashe and Ibrahim as Yuram.

It is always a special honor to have a child named after you among the Kanuris. At the moment Dr. Shettima Ali Munguno has over 70 children named after him. Of course one is expected to respond generously to the child and his parents in a way a god father does among the Italians. There is always a strong bond between one and the child named after him/her.


The Kanuris don’t waste time with the dead. Once someone dies, he or she would be buried according to Islamic rites. However it has now became a tradition to cook and give out sadakat at the home of the deceased. The three ,seven and forty days prayer is also generally observed in all Kanuri societies.

If the deceased was a man, his wife can remarry after her idda period.


The Kanuris are known to be good consumers of millet gritz (burabusko) and baobab soup (miyar kuka).The baobab soup is prepared with spices and beans. Another substitute for baobab soup is a vegetable soup known as miyar yakuwa da alaiyaho (spinach) which is usually prepared with grounded groundnuts, spices and fish.

A pap drink made from millet/maize flour,tamarine and sugar is also highly consumed along with bean cakes(kosai).This pap is known as kunun tsamiya. The Kanuris don’t drink alcohol.


The average Kanuri man doesn’t wear the so called westernize dresses like jeans,chinos,shirts etc. He wears a kaftan and in most cases a flowing gown (bunjuma) with a cap. The typical attire is a sky blue and black color bunjuma with a red cap. This was the kind of dressing code President Goodluck Jonathan wore during his presidential campaign in Maiduguri.

The women normally wore simple designed attire made from Ankara and this dress usually goes beyond the buttocks. They would put it on while another yard of Ankara wraps their body from the waist to the toe. After that a big linen or silk material called laffaya would be used to cover their body from head to toe. This kind of dressing is similar to that of Sudanese and Bangladeshi women. Most Kanuri women put bangles on their wrist, rings on their nose and waist beads on their waist.

There is particular dress code for young girls below the age of puberty. The girl who is below the age of puberty has a special hair do known as kelayasku.It is a hairdo in which only four ropes of hair plaiting appear at the front and back of the head. Both sides of the head are shaven. Same with boys. Only three lock of hair are allowed to grow on their heads. One at the front, another at the middle of the head and last one at the back of the head, towards the nape.


The Kanuris believe in the power of the evil eye and the inherent power of witches and wizards to cause mayhem. There is a prevalent belief on a ghost like spirit or apparition known as Mairam kuru and many people believe that witches normally turn in to cats in the night.

The Kanuris believe in giving out alms and sadakat to avert evil. There is a widespread belief among the Kanuris that the rearing of animals like rams and goats is good because it can be used as a scapegoat; that if an enemy sends an arrow to kill you, the arrow would fall on the animal. The animal would die but you would survive. As a result most Kanuris keep animals.

The Kanuris and the rights of children

Research has shown that a lot of Kanuri children in the rural areas don’t go to school and a large proportion of them subscribe to the tsangaya system of Qur’anic education. These students of the tsangaya system of education are known as almajirai. They are the Qur’anic students who came to Borno which the Hausa called gabas(east) to study the reading, writing and recitation of the Holy Qur’an with its prefect intonation and orthography(Mustapha 2007).

The Child Right Act says, “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education”(Part 1 Section 15[1] and, “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage ” but till date many boys of school age don’t go to school and many young girls as young as 14 years are given to marriage. The effort of people like Hajiya Maryam Bukar Petrol, a former Commissioner of Women affairs, NCWS and GTZ in campaigning against girl-child marriage is slowly yielding results.

Kanuri women and politics

The right of Kanuri women in Borno is gradually appreciating because 40% of Kanuri women had fully embraced education, and at the moment two out of every ten Kanuri women are graduates. Many of them had gone into the nursing, teaching and banking profession. There is however no any Kanuri woman in the army, police or the para military.

Kanuri women are now participating in politics but it is sad to note that no any Kanuri woman had never been elected as a senator, member of the House of Representatives or state House of Assembly. In fact hardly does a woman becomes a local government chairlady among the Kanuris.Although the wife of the former governor of Yobe state,Hajiya Khadija Bukar Abba had been elected in Yobe as a member of the House of Representatives, yet it is because of the influence of her husband.

It is noteworthy to point that the prevailing purdah system confines many a woman to the home during daylight hours. This requirement constrains the Kanuri women to home activities and restricts their participation in some community activities. In all the communities, there is consensus that women, as a gender category, are not part of decision-making process. They are not valid to the for a as village council, where vital issues or decisions are taken (Alubo 2005).

Kanuris and assimilation

The Kanuris, like the Huasa-Fulbe ethnic nationality has assimilated so many people from other ethnic nationalities and this is why it is numerically strong. Research conducted in Maiduguri,Ngala,Damboa and Bama showed that some people who are Marghi.Gamargu.Buduma,Lakka and Waha are claiming to be Kanuri and Magumi (Magumiri) are Ngazar/Ngizim, like those in Bursari, kayari,jumbam,kursori karasuwa,lantewa ,kariari and duwura in Yobe are purely Ngizim aborigines.


BABAGANA - August 17, 2018
11. Mansur ABUBAKAR sadiq - October 29, 2017


In recent times, the official mouthpiece and propaganda platforms of the bolewa of fika have intensified the glorification of their history as a people and their traditional institution. Fika emirate and the Bolewa are described as one of the most organized traditional and community administration and group respectively which the british met on their arrival to the area. Mention is further made of the “fame, novelty and historic antecedents” of the Emirate. Whatever may have prompted the nostalgic memories is not the subject of this pieces. One is intrigued to know more about that history for which trumpet is being blown and to contribute the little one has read from some sources. At this point one or two observations suffices.

2. In spite of the larger than life presentation about the significance of the Bolewa and their institutions, there are also alternative views. For example, G.Merrick(1904:417) while passing through Bolewa districk which he described as stretching from Pali to Fika observed that the Bolewa are among the seventy percent of tribes composing Northern Nigeria that are almost unknown. Furthermore, some of the neighbours of the Bolewa also have state formation and centralization experiences from very early times.

Towards the end of the first century A.D. For example, the Ngizim were organized in a polity known as AGIZIMBA which was the most important polity of the region of Lake Chad. Similarly when the British colonialists arrived Potiskum area, they found the Ngizim organized in a chiefdom headed by Mai Gabau (C.1893-1902). They confirmed Mai Bundi (C.1902-1909) as overload of Ngizim and Karai Karai districts as a second class chief. Conversely, the chief of Fika, Moi Sulyman was recommended for appointment as third class chief as indicated by J.E.Lavers (NNSS 1972) in the following words:-

“Late in1902 a British patrol visited western Borno and surprisingly enough considering the size and
importance of Fika recommended that Sulyman should be appointed a third class chief while Bundi was to
be a second class chief”

3. One aspect of the history of the Bolewa is that which deals with their relations with the jukun. Historical sources indicate that after leaving Yemen the Bolewa believed to have been one branch of the kwararafa group moved together with other groups including Jukun. Let us examine briefly what some sources have said on the relations with Jukun. According to M.M.Aliyu (BOLDU Report 2:179) colonial anthropologists used the terms Bolewa and Jukun interchangeably. He concluded that based on Bolewa tradition of origin, the two existed as different ethnic groups. He went further to dismiss as speculation the idea that the Bolewa and Jukun belong to the Kwararafa groups. Some Jukun sources and writers on the other hand claim that after the jukun left the kanuris at Gazargamu, they settled in Kibla, Pindiga and other column settled in Fika. In this light, the Bolewa are projected as derivatives of Jukun.

4. Isa Alkali Abba (1985:43) also believes that a strong bond exist between the Bolewa and Jukan. He submits that:-

“…Bolewa and Jukun are one blood and they reached the confines of Nigeria in one wave of Migration from

the region of Abyssinia and the eastern Sudan ( Called by the them-Yamal) The Bolewa took the northward route to Gurboli and Biri (all in Gombe area). After some time, some moved to Kalam and others to Daniski” which was originally an aboriginal land the Ngamo’s

From the foregoing, it’s probable that the Bolewa are an offshoot of the Jukun or like some groups are related to them in one way or the other. The reference to the bolewa as belonging to the Kwararafa may not be speculative whether one considers the words to mean a multi ethnic state, a confederacy or a collective name given by Muslims to their non-muslim southern neighbours. in the final analysis, the Bolewa are more Kwararafa than Kanembu in Origin and identity.

5. Some neighbours of the Bolewa who also claim Kanembu origin are the Bade and the Ngizim. These are among the groups that established strong ties and military alliances with the Magumi Clans to first establish a united kindom under the Dugua. Through intense intermarriage and adoption of Kanembu language, customs and traditions, they formed their own dialects of kanembu and have become an integral part of the Kanembu identity. For example, the Ngizim kanembu clans exist today in Dibbinintchi in the Lake region of the Republic of Chad. It has reliably been revealed that a traditional ruler and representative of the Kanembu Ngizims of Chad not long ago paid a visit to his brethren in Potiskum and was received and hosted by his brother Kanembu Ngizim traditional ruler of town, the Mai Pataskum.

6. One other curious aspect of Bolewa history has to do with the name of the group itself. Bolewa and other sources indicate that the Fika Bolewa do not refer to themselves by the name Bolewa. Rather, they call themselves biya pikka/fika or Am pikka/fika. As to the origin of the word Bolewa, some explanations have been advanced. It is said to be derived from the word “Boli” which means “Why”. It is further said that in explaining to strangers the customary announcement by the public crier of feeding hours twice a day, the word “Bolo” (Bolewa word for two) occured frequently and they came to be known as “Bolo bolo”. Merrick observed that in older maps Bolewa districts appears as “Bolo bolo”. Another explanation says the Kanuris and Hausas refer to them as Bolewa and Bolawa respectively. In the light of these, the use of word Bolewa may be of recent origin. If the people of Fika don’t refer to themselves as Bolewa what other name do they call themselves because “Am Fikka” is also recent considering the fact that Fika was Founded C.1890. Is it probable that the Bolewa are Jukun in Origin thus reinforcing their Kawrarafa identity?

Mansur Abubakar Sadiq


12. BABAGANA - August 17, 2018

For those interested in more additional history about the KANURIS please read it also @ Research Gates Link here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320004428_KANURI_COMPLETE


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