The Kanuri Empire, by Prof G.N. Ayittey


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 longest lived in Africa” (Olaniyan, 1985; p.57).
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 leaders 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).
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 day to day 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 small scale 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 within the ruling classes of the empire. As the Mai’s sons reached manhood, they were dispatched 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 malams. 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 statesmanship” 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).


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