EMPIRE OF KANEM-BORNU or the Kanem-Bornu Empire was a huge African state that reigned over a region that includes the present-day nations of Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria from the 9th century until the end of the 19th century.

The Zaghawa nomadic people, who may have been the first in the central Sudan to obtain and exploit iron technology and horses, formed the empire.

Arab historians first made mention of the empire in the ninth century, and by the tenth century, the king of Kanem controlled the Kawar Oases, an important source of revenue. Most likely as a result of competing nations coming under Zaghawa rule, the governmental system of the Kanem empire developed.

In the eleventh century, Humai ibn Salamna, who established the kingdom of Kanem with a capital at Njimi, drove the Zaghawa clans out.

The longest known rule in history, the Saifwa dynasty was founded and ruled for 771 years.

The Saifwa dynasty dramatically increased the influence of Islam and made it the official religion of the court. Saifwa kings, also known as mais, believed they were descended from a heroic Arabic character.

The empire’s location close to significant North-South trade routes made it easier for trade, particularly in slaves, to flourish.

The empire traded for weapons and horses and employed a large cavalry force as part of its program of imperial expansion. Conflict arose between the dynasty and organizations like the Bulala after a mai desecrated a sacred animist religious relic.

The empire’s doctrine of collateral succession—brother following brother—which resulted in brief reigns and unstable conditions—also served to exacerbate conflicts from outside powers.

The Saifawa were compelled to flee across Lake Chad in the late 14th century and found a new kingdom known as Bornu. This is where the name Kanem-Bornu first appeared.

Bornu expanded territorially and commercially, but increasing threats from other rival states, drought, trade problems, and rebellious Fulani groups eroded state control. Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi, a Muslim cleric, eventually defeated the rebellious Fulani and built a new capitol at Kukawa in 1814.

His successors ended the Saifwa dynasty and the Kanem-Bornu Empire when they killed the last mai in 1846. Al-Kanemi’s Shehu dynasty was short-lived, and succeeded by slaver and warlord Rabih Zubayr, who was defeated by the French in 1900