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Empire of Kanem-Bornu (ca. 9th century-1900): Formation, Consolidation and Expansion

Kanem-Borno lies in the Lake Chad region. It is now shared among four countries: Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. This region is notable for its Lake Chad, and its history has been revolving around the influence of this geographical feature.

Ethnic Groups

It is a region that comprised many ethnic groups; the Duguwa, Zaghawa, So, Tuaregs, Bulala, the Kanuris, among others which records could not cover. The evolution of states in Kanem-Borno was actually a resultant impact of abysmal wars of conquest among the ethnic groups occupying this region.

System of Government

This region operates a monarchical system of government having the Mai at the highest position of authority with an advisory council of twelve members. The Magira (Queen mother) and Magara (King’s sister) also occupied different positions and carried out different functions. Maini Kanendi was the chief judge in the law court.

History of Dynastic Rulers

The Za (Duguwa) dynasty was the original ruler of this region prior to their conquest in 800A.D. by the Seifawa dynasty. The Za dynasty was a set of aristocracy who chose leaders among themselves.

They could actually be regarded as the group that conquered many ethnic groups and claimed dominance. Unfortunately for this dynasty, it was conquered by the Seifawa dynasty who ruled the empire in sweet-bitter experience for centuries until 1846 A.D.

Fall of the Za Dynasty

Following the fall of Za dynasty, the empire never rested from external attacks, mostly from the Bulala and the Tuaregs. The empire of Kanem-Borno was of two stages: the first Kanem Empire, capital at Njimi, ending in 1470 and the second Kanem-Borno when Ali Ghaji moved to the Western part of Lake Chad following attacks from the Bulala and the Tuaregs.

Seifawa Dynasty

Mai Umme Jilmi became the first Muslim leader of Kanem. Having accepted Islam, he allowed Islamic practices to thrive and rulers after him like Dunama I and II even contributed to the course of Islamic propagation; education and literacy became the order of the day and scholars from Islamic empires like Mali and Songhai empires visited Kanem-Borno.

Islamic Scholars

At this juncture, it is of aid to stress the importance of these Islamic scholars like Ibn Battuta, al-Maghili, Ibn Abdullah among others. These people became the first (writing) historians to ever write something about the African past covering trade, religion, state formation, and others.

Dunama I and II

Dunama I and II also were popular for their pilgrimages to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. Also, Dunama II opened the mune of animism in Kanem as it did not conform to Islamic principles.

This later led to power thirst and, eventually under Mai Daud, the Kanuris were made to shift to the east of Lake Chad. Ali Ghaji moved the people to the western part of Lake Chad, setting up another capital, N’Garzagamu in Borno in 1470.


Here in N’Garzagamu, elements of statehood existed. Ali Ghaji built walled city to defend the empire from external attacks; from the Tuaregs, Bulala and others. Different archaeological excavations showed the depth of the bulwark built by Ali Ghaji in the 1470s to protect the empire.

Consolidation of the Empire

The coming of Mai Idris Katagarmabe led to the ‘consolidation of the empire’. He was a man of great military prowess. He waged war against the Bulala, Tuaregs and So in Kanem and finally entered the old capital of the empire in Kanem, Njimi.

As usual, Islam was the religion of the state and all reforms were made in accordance with Islamic principles; having good educational system, political administration, trading activities especially with the Hausas, and others

Mai Idris Aloma of the 16th century

Finally, the advent of one of the most significant Mais in Kanem-Borno history, Mai Idris Aloma of the 16th century led to the consolidation of the empire. He was able to make greater reforms and he expanded the territory of the empire tremendously.

He is mostly referred to as the protagonist of state evolution in the Kanem-Borno Empire. However, it is notable that the formation, consolidation and expansion of the state in the Kanem-Borno Empire were more of collective efforts aided by many factors like geography and Islam.

Citation: Tadese Faforiji. Kanem-Borno Empire: State Formation, Consolidation and Expansion. (March 2021). Tadexprof. Retrieved from 

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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.