The Empire of Kanem-Borno: The Kanembu and Kanuri people


A short historical introduction

The core of the ethnicity of Kanuri/Kanembu is a mixture of Nilotic and Chadic roots- Nilotic because the mother-clan, according to some serious research among academics in Sudan, the Magumi descended from the same strain as many ethnic groups in Africa from the Nile basin, most specifically from the ancient kingdom of Meroe and Makuria, and who lived along the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan before they completely left the Nile region to settle in southern ancient Libya in Tou (Tibesti), or more specifically in the town Berdoa according to ancient Roman and Greek historians (which is called today Barday in Chad before their migration southward to settle in Kanem).

They are Chadic because of the mixture of the Magumi clans with the native Chadic clans who lived around Lake Chad in Kanem. It is also noteworthy that there were other non-Magumi Nilotic clans who settled in Kanem such as the Mundang, the Moussey and the Toupouri.

Those clans who kept their ancient pagan ways were called by the generic term in classical Kanembu, the SAO clans/peoples, who refused to adopt the new faith of Islam that was introduced by the two Magumi dynasties of Dugua and Sefua, most notably by the Mai Dunama Tchuluma Dabbilami (also misspelt Sélmama by Arab historians, which means Black in Kanembu language) who established a policy of forced Islamisation in the Empire through the doctrine of Jihad.

it is also very important to note that in order to explain the birth of Kanuri/Kanembu from these Nilotic and Chadic origines across the centuries, we should imagine that in the past dynastic wars, including the civil wars during the reign of Mai Dunama Tchulumami, which we find until the arrival of European forces the examples, women and children were often sacrificed, killed in battle or often subjected to slavery; man alone with his horse or camel kept the resource to flee when the war was lost.

He, therefore, finds new women in the tribes to which he had fled. Therefore, it is not surprising that once Kanémites clans were greatly troubled by internal wars and that Borno, Kanem, eastern Niger and northern Cameroon offer this prodigious ethnic mix that is the Kanembou/Kanuri of today.

The situation in Kanem after the arrival of Magumi

The situation may well be characterized by that of several clan-based kingdoms or entities. For instance, there were independent political entities of the Badde, the Toupouri, the Sao, the Buduma and other entities.

As I said, many of these clans either forced to leave or voluntarily left Kanem because of the forced Islamisation policy by Mai Dunama Dabbalémi of the Seyfua dynasty, to settle in Mayo Kebbi region of Chad, Cameroon and further beyond in Congo.  Note that, in Burkina Faso, the Mossi also trace their origin to Kanem.

The Magumis quickly made strong alliances with the indigenous clans that were mostly Chadic. Over time, most of these clans have adopted the language of the Magumi (the classic Kanembou) as a lingua franca, except for the Buduma who jealously guarded their language with the help of their isolation in the islands of the lake.

These indigenous clans have retained their political independence until the reign of Mai Idriss Allauma, who followed a strict policy of concentration of power in the new capital of Ngazargamu. Allauma (which literally means the person of Allah, i.e. the pious) waged wars against the clans who refused Islam until the destruction of their stronghold in the city Amsaksa after a long siege.

Allauma also waged a definitive war against the Bulala clan who controlled Kanem for several decades. This strict policy of centralization of power has also led many clans to completely flee Kanem.

Three families have ruled the kingdom of Kanem, and later the empire of Kanem-Borno:

The Dugua Dynasty (ca 600 AD – 1200 AD), with a strong alliance, with the Bulala and the Tubu nomadic clans in the north. This dynasty is sometimes mistakenly called by some Arab historians, Zaghawa, and thus confusing the Dugua with the modern Zaghawa ethnic group in eastern Sudan and western Chad, who prefer to be called Beri. The Zaghawa term is probably given by the Tuareg, a term that means camel-rider.

The Dugua exists today as a small minority in the town of Ngouri along with their cousins ​​and allies the Keyi (also Koyom) and the Kafa. The Tuareg up to these days calls the Kanuris in Niger, Izaghan – a term that follows from Zaghawa.

The Sefua Dynasty (ca 1200 – 1800 AD): This dynasty was founded by Mai Tchuluma and later by his son Dunama Tchuluma Dounama after the introduction of Islam and the creation of the empire of Kanem-Borno. The most powerful Mais of this dynasty are: Dounama Dabbilami, Idriss Allauma, Idriss Katakarambe and Ali Gadjedi.

The Shehua Dynasty (ca 1800 – to present): The founder of this dynasty is none but Shehu Muhammed Al-Amin Al-Kanemi, a son of a father from the Kuburi clan and a mother from the Arab tribes of Fezzan in Libya. He successfully raised up an army of Kanembu warriors and archers to regain the province of Borno from the Fulani occupation.

The language

Both Kanuri and Kanembu belong to an ancient language called Classical Kanembu. Linguistically, this language belongs to the same Nilo-Saharan language family as the Tubu languages of Dazaga the tedaga, and the Zaghawa language, known as the Beria which is found in eastern Chad and western Sudan.

Kanuri and Kanembu are today spoken in many dialects in Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria. The standard Kanembou language was known as Classical Kanembu – click here to read my article in French about Classical Kanembu). This language is almost extinct and survived only by a literal language called Tarjumo, which is used by scholars to work on Quranic exegesis.

The extinction of this language is due to many factors such as the Arabization (replacement of the written old Kanembou with classical Arabic); the colonial policies that inhibited indigenous African languages, and the decreasing literacy culture among the Kanuri/Kanembu, most notably among the Kanembu in Kanem due to displacement of the capital of the empire (the centre of knowledge) from Kanem (The town of Njimi, currently known as Mao) to Borno, which led highly literate people and Islamic scholars to settle in the new capital in Borno, Ngazar Gamu. These Kanembou clans who moved to Borno are known today as the Kanuri (which means enlightened people, i.e. enlightened by the knowledge of Islam, i.e. kam – man and nouri – light).

Historically, this language belonged only to the Magumi clans who migrated from the north to settle in Kanem but was later adopted by the other clans living in Kanem after a long Islamisation process to constitute what is now called the Kanembu and the Kanuri peoples.

Thus the Kanembu and Kanuri are the result of mixing between different clans which was caused by Islamisation over the centuries and were organised under a single political entity, the Empire of Kanem-Borno, to forge an identity based on common traditions, history and customs.

An exception to this rule is that some clans, who were originally Magumi or Chadic and who lived under the empire but fell out of the fold because of historical processes. For instance, The Nguizim and Badde of Yobe retained their Chadic language, but their brethren the Badde and Nguizim of Kanem are today completely Kanembu in language, customs and traditions.

We have also a clan such as Babaliya, which was completely Arabised and became Arabs – they live today in the Chadian region Hadjer Lamis. There are Magumi clans such as the Sunna/Sunda, Tomaghra, Medella, Saalme, etc who adopted the language of the nomadic people of Tubu and became culturally and linguistically assimilated with the Tubu.

We also have the ones mighty Magumi clan of the Bulala who have completely lost their ancestral language of Kanembu after having settled in Fitri in Chad and conquered the Kuka people.

The Kanembu Alphabets (preserved in Kanem since the time of Mai Dunama Tchuluma Dabbalemi until today), also known as – Ba-ta-ta:

A ( ٱ ) – Aliu

B (پ) – Bah

T (ت) – Tah

Ŝ ( ث ) – Thuma-tholodu

G ( ج ) – Djum

H ( ح ) – Hah ngandu

Ĥ ( (خ ) – Ha Inchia

D ( د ) – Daal

Ď ( ذ ) – Zal

R ( ر ) – Rah

Z (ز ) – Zay

S ( س ) – Suni Ngandou

Ĉ (ش ) – Suni Inchia

Ŝ (ص ) – Saddu

Ś (ض ) – Daddu

Ť ( ط ) – Tamuska

Ž (ظ ) – Zadumuska

Ā ( ع ) – Aayne

Ġ ( غ ) – Ga-guine

F ( ف )- Fah

Q ( ق ) – Kowmi

K ( ك ) – Kolossur

L ( ل ) – Langatu

M ( م ) – Muguri

N ( ڽ ) – Nonowdu

Ħ (ه ) – Hadjara

W ( و ) – Wow

Y ( ي ) – Yakissu

The myth of Yemeni/Arab origins

Many Arab historians, ironically never visited the region themselves, attributed to the medieval Kanembu/Kanuri people, including the clan of Bulala before their immigration to Fitri, a Yemeni, thus Arab origin.

This is known and admitted by all who were introduced to the history of the Empire of Kanem-Bornu. In their books, they report traditions certifying that in a remote epoch the Kanembou clans were connected to Yemen through a legendary ancestor, know as Seyf Ibn Dhi-Yazan.

The great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun remains the only Arab historian who departs from this view in his book Al-Muqadimah. Ibn Khaldun refutes the authenticity of this affiliation, which is based on false assumptions, which are in turn completely illogical and defies factual historical events and processes.

He asserts that it is impossible for a huge Arab/Yemeni army to cross the huge distance from Yemen to the heart of Africa without facing the mighty armies of Egypt, Nubia or Abyssiniya. For such an army to cross all this distance, the army would need a huge amount of food and water.

I will add to Ibn Khaldun refutation my own refutation, which based on the following arguments:

It is logically contradictory because the medieval clans of Kanembu existed in the region long before the Arabs, who first entered African after they had conquered Egypt in 640 under the commander Amr Ibn Aaas.

It took the Arab tribes to wait 600 years before they began to settle in Kanem and everywhere in the empire, that is, during the rule of May Dounama Tchulumami in about 1200 A.D. The Arabs were busy fighting the Berbers in North Africa and met with huge resistance in the ancient Christian Kingdom of Dongola in northern Sudan. This means the Arabs never entered Subsaharan African until they have completely settled in North Africa and conquered all the lands.

All the historical sources, such as the original books of Girgam and Idriss Allauma’s grand Imam, Ibn Fortu’s book, point to that the myth originated during the time of Mai Dounama Tchulumami, i.e. the beginning of forced Islamisation (through Jihad) and the penetration of Arab tribes southward towards Kanem from the Libyan Fezzan.

There is no doubt that Mai Dunama Tchuluma was aware of the existence of powerful Arab sultanate to the north of his empire – a fact that is documented by his envoy of diplomatic emissaries to the Arabs and his pilgrimage through Egypt towards Mecca.

Thus, it is completely reasonable to deduce that Mai Dunama created the myth and used it skilfully to legitimise his throne in the eyes of the powerful Arabs and his policy of complete Jihad against those who refused Islam.

This strategy culminated in the destruction of the old relic or temple of Mune in the empire. This myth proved very useful in terms of sparing the empire from being invaded and subjugated by the Arabs, who completely decimated all ancient Berber kingdoms in North Africa, which let the Arab tribes settle peacefully throughout the empire. A fact that is witnessed to this day in the existence of many Arab tribes among the Kanuri and Kanembu peoples.

The legendary Sayf Ibn Dhi-Yazan died in 570, but all historically and archaeological facts prove that the ancestors of the Kanembu and Kanuri people lived in Southern Libya together with their neighbours the Gramentes and were known as the Berdoan since the times of ancient Greek, that is long before Sayf Ibn Dhi-Yazah himself was born.

How could then this person be the father of a nation that existed long before him and attested by ancient Greek sources, such as the historian Ptolemy?

The Kanuri/Kanembu showed a great literacy during the medieval time and their language (Classical kanembu) was known to be a lingua franca which was referred to by Arabs themselves as the language of Kanem, or as in Arabic (lughat biladu Kanem).

This indicates clearly that the Kanembu/Kanuri spoke an African language which was completely different from Arabic. They also showed a great level consciousness in protecting and safeguarding their language by naming everything in their language, for instance, –dandal (mosque), Mbodu (Mohammed), Kashim (Qassim), Shua (Arabs), Kinin (Tuareg), and so forth.

Simply put, they were conscious enough that they either created their own words for things that are new or assimilated foreign words and names by creating their own words.

Unfortunately, this myth was also reproduced by European scholars, who refused to accept the ancient Kanembu as purely Black Africans for reasons concerning the racial assumptions at the time. There was a common understanding among European scholars that Black people could not found any civilisation without the intervention of external sources, i.e. from the ancient Middle East, that is by light-skinned people.

Unfortunately, this myth was transmitted from generation to generation and perceived as the ultimate truth. There are also other reasons that helped propagate this myth, such as the misconceived belief that being an Arab equals to being a true Muslim; or that being of an Arab origin bestows upon the person a refined and esteemed origin.

This myth exists beyond the empire of Kanem-Borno in all Black African Islamic Kingdoms from Sudan (Funj Sultanate), through Chad (Ouaddai Sultanate, to West Africa (Songhai, Mali, Ghana, Hausa.Fulani Sultanates), etc. Those sultanates are in fact authentically Black African and they all trace their civilisational roots to that of all Black civilisations in the Nile Belt, i.e. Nubia, ancient Egypt, Abyssinia, Azania, Kush and so forth.

Who is a Kanembu today

Geographically, the Kanembus and their cousins the Kanuris, inhabit today the following regions: Kanem, Bahr Alghazal, Hadjer Lamis and Lac (in Chad); Zinder, Diffa and Agadez (Niger), Borno, Yobe and northeastern states (Nigeria) and the extreme north of Cameroun, including the Kanuri/Kanembou diaspora in Sudan and Arabie Arabia.

A Kanembou is a person who speaks the Kanembu language in its dialectical variants, that is the dialects of Ngouri-Massakory, Kogono, Kouriye and Toumari Niger and Nigeria. Tumari dialect is commonly considered as the limit where the kanembu language stops and the Kanrui dialects begin. The Kanembus adhere to common traditions and customs governing marriage, war and the relationship with the various traditional chiefs, district chiefs and the Alifa of the city of Mao, which is the heart of the administration of Kanem before the fall of the empire.

Today, the Kanembus, the descendants of this great ancient empire together with the Kanuri, but great respect and esteem to traditional to their traditional leaders, who are still more influential than government authorities. With their cousins ​​the Kanuri, they make up the majority population in a strip between the northern shores of Lake Chad and the Sahara desert. Remaining in their homes of mud brick, culture and traditional clothing, they have not changed much since ancient times and the names of several clans such as Kuburia, Badde, Konkou, Kouuria, Nguizim remain the same as since ancient times and as documented in the old books.

The favourite profession of the Kanembus is trading, so one could say that they are the largest ethnic group in Chad that controls trade and commerce. All this stems from the fact that the Kanembou traditions abhor laziness (ndusku), being poor (or Talqa in Kanembu) and encourage that man should be industrious and resourceful, and a real man is supposed to leave something behind for his family before his death, a remarkable roof over their heads.

75% to 80% of all traders in Chad are Kanembu, making them, in a relative way, one of the most powerful economic groups in Chad. They are sedentary and also involved in agriculture and livestock. Wheat, millet and maize are grown around the lake, but the country is without ports and having a poor transport system, low agricultural trade has developed. Living on the edge of the Sahara, famine is still a common threat because it rains only during the months of July, August and September, sometimes for a few weeks.

The meaning of Kanembu

From a historical point of view, the use of the term to denote a group is relatively new. We should practice caution when describing events that occurred in the past, i.e. before the Shehu Dynasty, and use the term Kanemites or Kanjis, instead of Kanembu or Kanuri, to describe the people who were mainly organised along with tribes and clans.

Therefore, the use of Kanembu or Kanuri to designate an ethnic group cannot go beyond 150 to 200 years, i.e. after the mixing of tribes and clans to forge common identities. This is largely true to the Kanembus who are still clan-based in Kanem as in ancient time, as the Kanuri started to forge the nucleus of non-clan-based identity a century earlier than the Kanembus.

Linguistically, the term is composed of « Kanem » and « Bu », which means the man of Kanem and it took its present ethnic sense after the interbreeding that took place between the clans to forge a common identity, that is the modern Kanembou. The first use of the term to denote a group of people goes back to the 17th and 18th, i.e. to the time of the expansion of Fulani rule under the leadership of Osman Dan Folio, whose son managed to occupy briefly Borno and its capital Ngazagamu.

A noble Kanembu man by the name of Mohammed Al-Amin Mustapha Al-Kanemi, who belonged to the Kuburu clan of the Kanembu through his father and whose mother was an Arab from the Fezzan region (Libya), managed to build up an army composed mainly of Knembu warriors, Arab Shua leaders, and together with the help of the mighty archers of Kanem, to regain Borno. Al-Kanemi established a new dynasty, the Shehua Dynasty, who is still present until today in Maiduguri in Borno.

There are many hypotheses about the meaning of the word Kanembu:

Some say the term means simply southerners (Kam-anumbiyé in Kanembu language),

Some say it means the Man of Kanem, that is Kanem-bu, bu is a suffix that was used in classical Kanembou language to denote man, but the suffix « bu » is not used today in most of the Kanembu dialects.

The Kanembu refer to the Tubu in their dialects as Tu-uo, the letter B is dropped instead of the Classical Kanembu Tu-Bu, Tu means the modern region of Tibesti in classical Kanembu, which means the Man of Tu. The kanembu also say Kanum-uo, instead of Kanem-bu to designate all the Kanembu clans in northern Kanem who were assimilated to the Tubu.

Another hypothesis says that the term was coined after the annexation of Borno to Kanem to form the empire, meaning Kanem-Bornu, so Bu in Kanembu stands for Bornu.

The structure of the ethnicity Kanembu

I use the term ethnic in its anthropological sense and wisely here for the following reason: the Kanembus are not tied together by purely blood relations or origins, but by culture, language and historical social ties. The Kanembus do not have a political consciousness that they belong to a nation or people in the true sense of the term, but affiliations are today are closely tied to clan-ship. Except for the Kanuris, who have created relatively a common sense of identity that goes beyond clan divisions due to their proximity to the cultural and administrative centre of the empire.

As in ancient times, The Kanembus have remained organised in clans because of the socio-political factors in Chad, clan warfare before and after the independence of Chad, their distance from the centre of the empire, the continuous marginalisation of Kanem from the heart of the empire in Borno because of the Bulala wars and the demographic change after the massive arrival of the nomadic Tubu tribes from the north which made Kanem ungovernable, and finally the arrival of the French colonization which introduced an administrative system based on clan differentiation to divide and rule, and to cut ties with Borno.

We can divide Kanembou into the following categories:

The Magumis: These are the clans that descended directly from the clan-mother, the Maîyi, spelled also as Magui, Mami, etc. It should be noted here that the current Magui or Maîyi clan in Kanem descends itself from the former mother-clan and who retained the original name.

They spoke a language, which is now called the Classic Kanembu by linguists after the discovery of some old Koranic manuscripts by researchers from the London School of Oriental and African Studies in Niger and Nigeria.

The Magoumi clans are believed to have descended from the north (the oases of Fezzan in Berdo) long before the conquest of the Arab and before settling in Kanem it there are 1000 years.

Old books such as Girgam (the chronology of the  Mais of Kanem-Borno), the wars of Borno (written by Ibn Furtu in 1575), the testimonies of Al-Yaghoubi (930), Leo Africanus and other testimonies assert that Magumi had a close commercial relationship with the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians through the Berber kingdom of the Garamantes.

A fact that is now shown, for instance, by the loan Greek words in the language Kanuri and Kanembou, for example, the word Nguila which derived from the word anggelos and means beautiful or good.

Desertification and the arrival of the Arab conquerors led the Berbers to the mountains (except Touareg) and the Magumi to settle in Kanem through Tibesti (or Tu in classic Kanembou).

However, throughout its history, all the kings of Kanem-Borno resulted from only two dynastic Magumi families, the Dugua and the Sefua until the reign of Shekhu Al-Kanemi and the arrival of the colonial forces of England (Nigeria), France (Chad and Niger), Italy (Fezzan) and Germany (Cameroon).

The Magumi clans are today numerous and we could mention just a few: the Kogono families Mao, the Kalkalaoa, the Ndjoloûa, the Rudôwa, The Kafa, the Kuburi, the Kuuri, the Kaidi, the Keyi/Koyom, the Sounda the Kénguina, the Sugurti, the Tumari, the Blaa, the Boromaya, the Kafa, the Malawaru, the Artianaoa and many others.

Chadic: These are the natives of the land long before the arrival of Magoumi clans. However, unlike other indigenous clans who were not Islamized (collectively known as Sao), they have established strong ties and military alliances with the Magumi clans to first establish a united kingdom under the Dugua and later the Empire of Kanem-Borno under the ruling dynasty, the Sefoua.

Intermarriage was so intense that they adopted the Kanembu language to form their own dialects Kanembou over time. Today they are considered an integral part of the Kanembou identity. We cite as examples the followings: the Buduma (they always keep their Chadic language), the Bade, the Nguizim, the Biriwa, the Diwu, and so on.

The Konuma: This is a relatively modern term for Magumi clans who by intermarriage with the Tubu clans adopted the Dazagha language and their customs. We can cite, for example, the following clans: The Medella and the Saalmé. Although they speak Dazagha as a first language, their status as Kanembou is not disputed today by any Kanembu clan in Kanem.

The Artisans, fishermen and hunters: This category is known colloquially by the term Duu (in Kanembu) and Haddad (in Chadian Arabic). They speak  Kanembu and share with other Kanembu clans villages, customs and culture, with the exception of marriage which is considered taboo. However, each clan Kanembou is linked directly through a military alliance with a clan from this category. Unlike other clans in Chad, the Kanembou show relatively high levels of social tolerance to this category by sharing land and social visits/events. They are found today in all the Kanembu villages and towns.


The ties between the Kanembus and the Kanuris have weakened dramatically since the arrival of colonial forces to the region and the dismemberment of the provinces of the Empire of Kanem-Borno among the modern states of Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

However, some familial ties still persist among the Kanembu of Chad and their cousins the Kanembus and Kanuris of Niger, and to a lower degree with those of Nigeria. The last attempt to resurrect imperial ties was by the hands of Borno Youth Movement (BYM) in the 1950s which sought to unite the Kanembu and Kanuris.

This situation is due to the following factors:

The ignorance of the Kanembu/Kanuri of their common heritage and history. Their history was left to be written with tremendous errors by the Arabs who wanted to impose an Arab origin to the empire and the European scholars who wanted to impose a Middle-Eastern (Akkadian) origin to the founders of the empire.

The common and written language (Classical Kanembu) that once united these people, is now almost extinct and only accessible to highly learned Quranic scholars who use the variant Tarjumo.

The colonial boundaries, colonial policies and colonial languages which made communication and contact between the groups weakened over time.

The Organisation of African Unity (today African Union) charter that colonial boundaries are inviolable paved the ground for post independance African leaders to suppress any historical sentiments, especially that which crossed many boundaries.

Political factors in the modern states, such as the Biafra war in Nigeria and ethnic war in Chad, which made national leaders wary of any historical overtures that could threaten the integrity of modern states.


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