Idris Alooma: The greatest Mai of Kanem Borno

Famous Zainab Sulaimon
Idris Alooma

“An excellent prince, uniting in himself the most opposite of qualities, warlike energy, combined with mildness and intelligence, courage, with circumspection and patience, severity with pious feelings”

Described in those words by Dr.Heinrich Barth (a 19th century German traveler), Idris Alooma continues to remain the greatest Mai (ruler) that ever ruled the Kanem Borno Empire. As the 54th king of the Seyfawa dynasty, Idris was an outstanding statesman who reigned from 1564 to 1596, making Kanem Borno reach its zenith of power. His qualities were innumerable but he is mostly remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms and Islamic piety.

Military Skills of Idris Alooma

Just like many other leaders of his time, Idris was engrossed, and busied himself with the expansion of his territorial domain. His main opponents were the Tuareg and Toubou to the North, the Hausas to the west and the Bulala to the east. It is said that he was victorious in 330 wars and more than 1000 battles and he signed the first written treaty or ceasefire in the history of Chad. He took several steps to intensify and strengthen the expertise of his military, such as establishing a new military corps equipped with firearms and trained by Turkish instructors.

He introduced a cavalry of camels as a transportation unit of the army and also furnished his cavalry men with coated armour and iron helmets. He built larger boats for naval use and repeatedly attacked particular targets to break down the opposition’s defense and morale whilst maintaining the confidence of his own men with generous distribution of war booty.

Administrative reforms done by Idris Alooma

Alooma was an experienced administrator. He separated the judiciary from the main bureaucracy and created a court of appeal to review the judgments of lower courts. He made use of a combinative strategy of mass expulsion and immigration to prevent the rebellion of conquered groups. He changed the socio-economic profile of his empire by driving out unruly groups and encouraging or forcing new groups from outside Bornu to settle in those areas. He also encouraged intermarriage between his subjects and women of conquered territories.

Trade and Revenue

Not only was Kanem Bornu strong and wealthy under Idris, but the government revenue was generated from tributes or booty (spoils of war). Revenue was also generated from levies charged on those who participated in different forms of trade. Because of the centralized location of the region of Chad, it was an accessible trade route to North Africa and the Mediterranean. Many products were sent to North Africa including hides, sodium carbonate, wax, perfumes, kola nuts, ivory, cotton, ostrich feathers, and slaves (the most profitable trade then). Trade items imported into the empire include Muskets, horses, silk, glass, copper and salt.


Furthermore, as a skilled diplomat he established diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire by sending emissaries to establish, with the emperor, a guarantee of security of lives and properties of Bornu travelers in the Ottoman territory. He solicited the cooperation of the Ottoman ruler on a joint strategy to deal with the menace of Tuareg raids on trans-saharan caravans. Also, he sought advice from a council composed of heads of the most important clans.

Religious Sanctity

On one of his pilgrimages to Mecca, he organized a hostel to be utilized by pilgrims from his empire. As a submissive Muslim that he was, Idris built many brick mosques in several parts of Bornu and enhanced the Islamic judicial system by appointing qualified judges to administer the Shari’ah (Islamic law). He encouraged his subjects to fulfill their Islamic obligation to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. The impact of Idris’s policies on pilgrimage can also be deduced from the fact that his grandson, Mai Ali, made three pilgrimages to Mecca, taking thousands of Bornu pilgrims each time.

Death of Idris Alooma

In one of his battles known as the Baguirmi campaign, he was wounded fatally and unfortunately couldn’t survive the injuries. He died and was buried in a lake called Lake Alo, which is south of present-day Maiduguri.

Other insights from the life of Idris.

  • Alooma is a posthumous surname for Idris, a name after the place he was buried – “Alo”. His real name is Idris Amsami (which means “Idris, son of Amsa”).
  • During his reign, he built his palace in Gambaru, 5km from the Yo river (near present day Yobe) instead of Ngazargamu (the capital). A new architecture using red stone bricks was typical of his reign. In 2018, the Yobe state government in Nigeria revealed plans to preserve and protect the remains of these walls in order to foster tourism and, if possible, turn it to a heritage site.
  • He was a patron of learning which attracted a number of scholars to settle in Borno.
  • Due to his keen interest in trade and other economic matters, he is praised for the good boats that Lake Chad housed, which enabled more trade across the Mediterranean. He introduced standard unit measures of grain and moved farmers into new lands.
  • He is also said to have improved the ease and security on the streets and roads (for safety) throughout the empire such that “a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God”.
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