A branch of the Zagawa Berbers called Beni Sefi created Kanem-Bornu

“Kanem-Borno, a former Muslim kingdom located northeast of Lake Chad, was created by a branch of the Zagawa people called Beni Sefi, with the likely collaboration of the Tubu, around the year 800. While Kanem is part of Chad today, Bornu located in Kanem’s southernmost part and west of Lake Chad, is part of Nigeria, a result of the imperial territorial divisions that occurred between the French and the British during the 1880s and 1890s.”

“The first Beni Sefi dynasty seems to have taken power around 1075, under the Sefuaw dynasty, which was headed by Mai (King) Hummay (1075-1180). A mythical man named Idris Sayf Ibn Dhi Yezan is said to have converted to Islam during the second half of the eleventh century and exerted pressure on the rest of the kingdom to embrace Islam as the state’s religion. During the thirteenth century, the Sefuwa were able to designate a specific capital for the Kingdom, Njimi.”


“As the mais solidified their power, Kanem expanded considerably during the thirteenth century, controlling the Bornu principality and virtually all that constitutes northwest Chad today, particularly during the reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (1221-1259). Under this rule, the sultanate encompassed Wadai and the Adamawa Plateau in northern Cameroon. Parts of Nigeria, Niger, and Sudan were also incorporated into the sultanate.”

“The greatness of Kanem was predicated upon two major factors. First was Kanem’s ability to control the trans-Saharan trade route, resulting from its location at an important trade crossroads. During the first zenith of its power during the thirteenth century, Kanem’s market exchanged, sold, and bought such items as salt, horses, ostrich, feathers, camels, hides, cotton, cloth, perfumes, copper objects, kola nuts, ivory, jewelry, and, evidently, slaves.” 

“The year 1804 presaged the decline and eventual demise of Kanem-Bornu as a Kingdom. Islamic warrior and leader ‘Uthman dan Fodio sacked the captial with his Hausa-Fulani crusaders, and in 1814, Shehu Mohammed el-Amin el Kanermi, a scholar warrior, virtually replaced until 1853, but could not maintain the kingdom as a choesice whole.”

“Meanwhile, the displaced mai was forced to move the captial to Kukwa, in Bornu. To the Sefuwa dynasty’s chagrin, Rabih ibn Fadl Allah, a former slave from Sudan, turned into a formidable potential conqueror of all of Central Africa, and dislodged the mais from Kukawa, a city he sacked in 1893. Kanem-Bornu was finally conquered by the French and the British who had appeared in the area during the 1880s and 1890s and divided the imperial spoils one Rabih had been killed at Kuseri (present Cameroon) in 1900.”

“The Tubu assited by the Turkish or Ottoman Empire and the Senoussyia Muslim order, resited the French for a time but, by 1920, the latter had prevailed and Kanem became part of the military colony of Chad. Today, it is one of Chad’s 14 prefectures, and with support from Niger, Kanem has at times been a source of several rebel movements against the central government. Bornu is an emirate in northeastern Nigeria.”

Source: Encyclopedia of African History 3-Volume Set edited by Kevin Shillington