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Al-Kanemi, an Opportunist or a Tactical Political Usurper?

Who was Al-Kanemi?

Muhammed Al-Kanemi was a Muslim scholar, a warrior, and religious and secular leader who transformed the political arrangement of the Kanem –Borno Empire in the 19th century. The old Seifawa dynasty that had been ruling the empire since 800A.D. was rendered weak and systematically ousted out of power, and the new socio-political arrangement, the Shehu dynasty usurped the position.  

Borno faced several attacks from the Fulani jihadists in 1808. The Fulanis, who saw the 1804 Jihad as national liberation for the Fulanis to revolt against the Habe rulers, were committed to expanding the territories of the Sokoto caliphate by waging wars against nearby territories and bringing them under the Sokoto caliphate.

The Jihadists and Borno

As the flag bearers continued to wage wars against nearby territories, Borno under Dunama 1X was attacked in 1808. During this period, the Mai was weak; therefore, the Seifawa armies could not repel the jihadists who had then burnt N’Garzagamu, the capital of the empire. The Mai sought the help of Al-Kanemi, one of the scholars of Borno state, a few miles away from the empire.

The gallant soldier, a diplomatic leader, a warrior, religious and secular administrator, Al-Kanemi, his armies, and few soldiers from the Mia, collectively waged war against the Fulani fighters, killed Gwoni Mukhtar, the leader of the jihadists and finally repelled their attacks.

Al-Kanemi was rewarded by the Mai Ahmad with money, cattle and slaves. Also, he demanded fief that he could consolidate. Fortunately for him, the Mai granted him land, Ngurno. Al-Kanemi took the title of Shehu and gradually began to build a new form of political arrangement from behind the scene.

The New Political Arrangement

Mai Dunama was deposed by his uncle, Ngileruma in 1809, due to the weakness of the former. Instead of Al-Kanemi taking over the mantle of leadership, he forced Mai’s uncle to abdicate the throne and reinstated Dunama IX in 1814. The Mai kept enjoying the ceremonial position of authority while the Shehu indirectly ruled the empire. In order to ease the administration, he transferred the capital of the empire from N’Garzagamu to Kukawa.

Al-Kanemi used diplomacy to sort the differences between Borno and the Sokoto caliphate. There was Borno’s correspondence in Sokoto, and vice versa. The jihadists’ attack was justified, with the diplomatic relations established between the two states. He was also the chief judge in the new judicial system, with other judges called the Khadis.

Gradually, the sociopolitical arrangement of Borno started to take another direction with the activities of Shehu Al-Kanemi who was seriously revered because of his knowledge, and military ability, and capability. He executed new political, economic, and religious systems in Borno state, as he assumed the position of power. He also challenged the claim of the jihadists that they fought the war based on religious reasons. He condemned them that they had baser motive because Borno was already an Islamic state since 800 years ago.

Al-Kanemi started to infuse his kinsmen into the existing political structure of the Seifawa dynasty, but notably, in strategic and significant position. He subsequently made Islam the religion of the state and literacy and education thrived in Borno. Islamic scholars visited Borno, and there was commercial relation with the Hausa and other North African states. Borno gained popularity throughout the Middle East and Europe that European merchants rushed to travel to Borno for trade, but Al-Kanemi was considerate, he only allowed few merchants to Borno.

More than a hundred diplomatic letters were preserved between 1823 and 1918 (1). Popular among Shehu’s books was the infeig-al-maysur (2). Al-Kanemi assumed power in 1810s without any resistance from Mai Dunama IX.

However, Mai Dunama and his supporters (like Bagharmi) started to challenge the position of Al-Kanemi starting from 1820. There was jealousy combined with rivalry between the two superpowers in Borno until Mai Dunama was killed in a battle with Al-Kanemi in 1819-20. With the rebuilding of Kukawa by Al-Kanemi, the city became the de facto capital of Borno, while the Mai still had merely ceremonial functionality.

The Borno was solely run under Shehu Al-Kanemi till he died in 1837, while the Mais maintained titular positions as rulers of Borno. Al-Kanemi’s son, Umar, succeeded his father in 1846, totaling the disappearance of the old Seifawa dynasty in the region. Though the stories of the rule of the Seifawa dynasty remained in the history of this region, Shehu is still retained as the title of Borno rulers till today. A football team based in Maiduguri in Borno state is named El-Kanemi Warriors Football F.C., and notably, they play at El-Kanemi Stadium.

Citation: Faforiji Tadese. Al-Kanemi, an Opportunist or a Tactical Political Usurper?. 16-09-2021. Tadexprof. Retrieved from


  1. Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi. Wikipedia. Retrieved from
  2. HIS 301: History of Nigeria, 1800-1900. Lecture given by Dr. A. Afe of the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.
  3. El-Kanemi Warriors F.C. Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Read more

  1. Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi. Wikipedia. Retrieved from
  2. Muḥammad al-Kanamī. Britannica. Available at

Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.