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Kanem was situated north east of Lake Chad. Its early origins are thought to lie in the 7th century with the settlement of the Zaghawa people. In the early 11th century, the Kanuri-speaking Sefawa dynasty was established, displacing the Zaghawa.
There appears to have been a corresponding shift in lifestyle from being entirely nomadic to combining a pastoralist way of life with agricultural cultivation. The state became more centralised; a place called Njimi was thought to be its capital. Nobody knows its exact location.
ISLAM AND TRADE
Kanem converted to Islam under the ruler Hu or Hawwa (1067-71). There is some speculation that this ruler might have been a woman. But the faith was not widely embraced until the 13th century. Certainly, Muslim traders would have played a role in bringing Islam to Kanem.
The wealth of Kanem derived from the ability of its rulers to control trade in the region. Their main exports were ostrich feathers, slaves and ivory. Their exports were crucial to their power and ability to dominate their neighbour. They rode horses, which they imported from the north.
In addition to trade, there seems to have been a good deal of formal exchanges of presents between the kings of Kanem and the sultans of the north. Most memorably, a giraffe was presented by the king of Kanem and Bornu to the Hafsid Sultan al-Mustansir of Tunis in the 13th century.
HEIGHT OF POWER
Kanem reached the height of its power under the long rule of Mai Dunama Dibalami (1210-1248). His cavalry numbered over 40,000. But over the next hundred years, a combination of overgrazing, dynastic uncertainties and attacks from neighbours led the rulers of Kanem to move to Borno, which had previously paid tribute to Kanem. At this point, the state is sometimes referred to as Kanem-Borno.
The move to Borno brought new trading partners in the form of the Hausas, (based in what is now northern Nigeria) and closer contact with the Muslim world. Borno became a centre of learning and scholarship.
In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the army of Borno was modernised and expanded. Firearms (still relatively new in Europe) were imported from North Africa and Turkish mercenaries were recruited. The decline of Borno in the 18th century is not at all well documented. However, it appears to have been gradual and in the main peaceful.
There are a number of descriptions of Kanem-Borno by Arab writers. Several allude, confusingly, to it being near the Nile. In fact, the Nile is over 1,000 miles east of Lake Chad where Kanem was situated.
Click here to listen to the Emir of Zazzau in Zaria, northern Nigeria, talking about his office. Followed by a song, performed by court musicians, reminding the Emir of his distinguished ancestry