Kanem-Bornu Empire: Reasons for the decline of a powerful dynasty

Africa 09 Mar 2021 Contributor
Kenem-Bornu Empire

Kanem and Bornu were two old Muslim empires that were mainly inhabited by the ethnic majority called the Kanuri. The kingdom was located in modern-day Nigeria. It also covered a huge area of Lake Chad, Cameroon, Niger along Libya.

Very few empires of ancient Africa have conserved for a long time like the Kanem-Bornu empire. It was a vast area of 777000 sq km. According to the great Abbasid historian Ahmad al-Yaqubi, it was one of the huge and greatest empires of Sudan.

The history of the Kanem-Bornu empire played a crucial role in the history of West Africa. It was the primary trans-Saharan route to Tripoli. Tripoli was a slave-trading kingdom and a warring state.

The origin of the Kanem-Bornu Empire

The origins of Kanem can be dated back to the habitation of fertile lands of the Mega Chad lakes. This historical evidence indicates that in the first century BCE, there were two lakes of Chad. These lakes were connected by the Jurab depression. The fertile soil provided huge amounts of food for hunters and gatherers, thus the New stone age happened. Then the human habitation increased.

Before Islamic reign,  Kanem was ruled by the Duguwa dynasty. This lasted for about 300 years (700Ad to 1086Ad).

In the 9th century, the Kanuri-speaking Muslims conquered the Duguwa dynasty and thus the Sayfawa Islamic dynasty was established. The first Muslim king was Mai Humai, although he was known as a nominal Muslim.

Kanem traded slaves to Ifriqiya and Egypt. The state helped to spread Islam to neighboring regions. For about 900 years, it was ruled by one or another faction of the Saifawa dynasty. There were a few interruptions during the time in terms of power placement and kingmaking.

The important kings of the Kanem dynasty

Mai Dunama or Dunama Dabbalemi was a fervent Muslim. He ruled between the years 1098 and 1151.

He was known as King of Kanem and lord of Bornu. According to Tunisian historians, he established friendships with empires of North Africa. He also declared a Holy war on his immediate neighbours and expanded his kingdom to the Fezzan region. The embassy of Kanem was established in Tunisia around 1257. The famous Andalusian historian Ibn Khaldun mentioned it in one of his books.

He was very much against pre-Islamic beliefs. He destroyed an ancient Pagan artifact called the Mune, which caused outrage among the non-muslim people of his empire. Thus, his rule brought strife to Kanem-Bornu.

In the 13th century, Kanem spread its control and entered a phase where there were internal conflicts between the ruling elite class and the dynasty.

Then, towards the 14th century, Kanem’s military heads (the Mais) returned to eastern Hausa-land. As a consequence,  Kanem’s declination started as its northern provinces were subdued by their rival power, the Bulala.

The reign of Able Mai in the Kanem-Bornu empire

In the 16th century, Bornu was ruled by the great Mai rulers. The greatest of whom was Idris Alawma. He ruled between years 1571 and 1603. He consolidated the internal administration of the state.  Also, he expanded its empire by trade leading to more stable Bulala regions.

The most important attribute of this ruler was, he supported the propagation of Islam. He declared Kanem Bornu an Islamic state.  In the 9th year of his reign, he went on a pilgrimage in Makkah and built a hostel for the pilgrims of Bornu. He also established the Qadhis court to enforce Sharia law. He encouraged building a lot of mosques for the prayers.

Its decline

His successors in the 17th and 18th centuries continued defending the heartland of Bornu from attacks of the Kwararafe from the south. Along with the growing Hausa states in the west and the resistance of the indigenous Mandara and the Tuareg from the north.

These external threats were also accompanied by severe weather changes like drought and famines in the arid Sahel and parched savanna of central Sudan. Thus, the fall of this great empire had been started.

In the year 1810, the reign of Mai Ahmed Kanem-Bornu declined completely. But, still today it has an importance in the Islamic history of the world.