The Kanuri People


The Kanuri, whose presence in the Lake Chad area goes back 1,000 years, make up thecoreethnicgroup oftheEmirateof Bornu (Bornou, Borno), in what is now northeastern Nigeria. Along with the Tubu and related groups, they belong to the Nilo-Saharan language family, stretching through Chad from eastern Niger to theDarfurregionofwesternSudan.The Kanuri, who now number nearly 4 million in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon, are closely related to a number of groups of eastern Niger, and especially to the Kanembu, centered north of Lake Chad, who represent the original stock from which the Kanuri developed.

Deeply implicated in both interregional and trans-Saharan trade, the Kanuri devel-oped a complex, commercialized economy. While a mixture of agriculture and live-stock production provided the bulk of local subsistence, most Kanuri were settled in towns and villages, where craft specializa-tion and weekly markets also flourished. Bornu was an exporter of slaves and ivory, cloth, and leather goods, importing salt from the Sahara and manufactured goods from as far away as North Africa and Europe.

Kanuri origins can be traced to the king-dom of Kanem, which took shape along the northeastern shores of Lake Chad toward the end of the first millennium CE. The Maguni Sefuwa clan, from whom the Kanuri trace their ancestry, constituted the ruling dynasty of Kanem. The kingdom, which developed as a terminus of the trans-Saharan trade route via the Kawar oases to Libya, soon adopted Islam and developed ties with Egypt and other North African states.

After a period of rebellions and inva-sions in the 13th and 14th centuries, how-ever, the Mai or king of Kanem and his supporters were obliged to flee, founding the new state of Bornu southwest of Lake Chad. Bornu soon recovered, reasserting its control over both Kanem and the trans-Saharan trade, and resisting the expansion of the Songhay Empire to the west.

The fall of Songhay—invaded by Morocco in 1591—destabilized the region, opening Bornu to Tuareg and Tubu raiding from the northwest. At the same time, Islamic jihads (holy wars) were displacing old ruling groups all along the Sahel. In the Hausa states west of Bornu, Islamic reformers, with a strong Fulani (Fulbe) ethnic base, were taking power, creating the new Caliphate of Sokoto. In the early 1800s, the Mai of Bornu himself was twice driven from his capital by Fulani forces, each time recovering thanks to the support of the Shehu (local pronunciation of the Arabic word Shaykh), the Kanembu leader of Bornu’s parent state and vassal, Kanem.

The balance of power had changed, how-ever, and it was now the Shehu, who settled in a new town near the Mai’s old capital, who wielded effective authority. By the mid-19th century, the new Al-Kanemi dynasty took formal control.Kanuri social and cultural life has tended to be dominated by the pervasive influence of Islam, on the one hand; on the other, the political hierarchies that have been such a salient focus of Kanem-Bornu over the centuries.

At the apex of the Bornu system was the Mai, surrounded by his royal kin and the Koguna, a ruling elite of free and slave titleholders. These officials were given landed estates for their support, from which they raised taxes, in turn, and supplied horses and troops for the Mai’s annual military campaigns. War-fare was necessary to supply the state both with slaves for local service or export, and with tribute from conquered towns and vassal states.Trade and warfare encouraged an accu-mulation and centralization of resources, underwriting elaborate court ceremonial as well as extensive redistribution in the form of gifts of clothing and other goods at the time of various religious holidays and other festivities and ceremonies.

From the ordinary household to the royal court, considerations of prestige, channeled through omnipresent patron-client hierar-chies and the circulation of goods, were at the heart of Kanuri social life. The Mai—and later the Shehu—was also the “Commander of the Faithful” or Amir al-Mu’minin (a title also held the by Moroccan king yet today), helping support numerous Islamic schools and influential clerics.Kanuri society is divided into three main classes. The large, extended family of the Shehu is the highest level, then the commoners, and in the past, slaves were at the bottom of the social scale.In the past,slaveswereabletorisetopowerful political positions and were given land grants by the Shehu or the Mai.

Unlike most African peoples, the Kanuri are less concerned with kinship, meaning that spe-cific lineage has little socially ascribed meaning. Many Kanuri were, and are, farmers and trade with Fulani and Shuwa Arab pastoralists for dairy products. In addition, Kanuri are well-known traders and today are involved in trade between Chad and Bornu State in Nigeria and beyond.In the 19th century, under the new Kanembu dynasty, centralization was increased, the standing army expanded, and Islamic orthodoxy (including the application of Shari‘ah law) intensified.

In 1893, however, Bornu was invaded and occupied by a Jihadi warrior, Rabeh, who attacked and enslaved even Muslims in the name of reform. In any case, in Bornu as in other Sudanic states, there had been an immense expansion in the local use of slaves, who constituted from a third to a half of local populations by the end of the century.The French, Germans, and British moved into the region in the early 1900s. Rabeh was defeated, and the Shehu of Bornu—in exile in Kanem—was reinstated. The British per-suaded the Shehu to return to Bornu, where a new capital was developed at Maiduguri.

The system of indirect rule allowed the reconstitution and gradual modernization of Bornuan political hierarchies, while the development of peanut exports provided a new source of revenues to replace those of the traditional long-distance trade.Bornu’s recent history has been more turbulent. Starting in the 1950s, a new Kanuri nationalism developed, calling for a reunification of the old Kanem-Bornu territories. Secessionist demands revived in the 1970s, and in 1976, a separate Borno State was created within the federal Nigerian system. Nationalist demands, spreading to include the Kanembu, rev-ived in the 1990s; in 2000, along with 11 other northern Nigerian states, Borno expanded the application of Shari‘ah law to the criminal domain.

K. P. Moseley

Further Reading

Cohen, Ronald. The Kanuri of Bornu.New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

Collelo, Thomas, ed. Chad: A Country Study.Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988. (accessed May 25, 2011).

Falola, Toyin. Culture and Customs of Nigeria. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

“Nigeria’s Borno State Adopts Sharia.” (accessed May 25, 2011).