The Kanuri Ethnic Nationality : Profile







The Kanuri ethnic nationality is a renowned ethnic nationality not only in Nigeria but also in Africa as a whole. It is a strong and large ethnic nationality that has remained relevant in Nigeria despite the turmoil it has gone through. It is one of the ethnic nationalities that is fortunate to have its history documented.

At the moment the Kanuri ethnic nationality is the dominant and potent political block in Borno  state. Borno as a state is in the full grip and control of the Kanuris. A lot of factors contributed to this but the most important of them was the emergence of a man whose large portrait hangs on the wall of the reception of the Maiduguri International Hotel, Maiduguri: Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi (776-1837), an Islamic scholar, teacher, religious and political leader.



In an attempt to discover the origin of the term, Kanuri, an oral tradition places great emphasis on the Arabic word “Nuri” (Light) which is an attempt to link the origin of the people and their language to the Arabs, and in particular the great founder of the ancient dynasty, Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan of Himyar (Alkali 1987).This notion of the Arabian roots of the Kanuris is also supported by the revered historian, O.E Udoji who wrote that, “…the Kanuri are said to have migrated from Yemen in Saudi Arabia and settled about 640 kilometers north of Lake Chad in the original Kanem Empire.”

The Kanuri and Manga were the products of the Kanembu people, the warrior custodians of the Kanem Empire. Available historical records showed that the Kanembu, like the Lakkas were the descendants of the legendary Sao people. There is however a slight variation between Kanuri and Kanembu languages but most Kanembus understand Kanuri even though the reverse is not the case. The Kanembu language is spoken in a very limited area of Borno, mainly in Kukawa district and of course in the region of Kanem in the republic of Chad.

The Kanem Empire once controlled a vast empire that covered countries like Chad, Niger, Cameroun and Nigeria (Mustapha 2009).We still have Kanuris in some of these countries, for example there are Kanuris in Gilendeng [Chad].In fact the Kanuri ethnic nationality had produced two prime ministers; one in Cameroun and the other in Niger.

The Sayfawa Dynasty

The Sayfawa Dynasty was founded by Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan  and it ruled and controlled the Kanem Empire for about 800 years. The old Kanem Empire was founded in the 9th Century and its first capital was a town in the north-eastern part of Lake Chad known as Njimi.The Empire became an Islamic state at the end of the 11th Century, precisely in 1090 when Mai Umme converted to Islam. He later on changed his name to Mai Abd al Jalal.

The Sayfawa Dynasty

The Sayfawa Dynasty and their subjects fled to Birnin Gazargamu when the Bulala people attacked them. Birnin Gazargamu remained as capital even after the reclaiming of Njimi in the 16th Century. Another attack by the Fulbe was launched against the Sayfawa people and this attack forced Mai Ahmad to ran way from Birnin Gazargamu in 1808.The rulers of Kanem had no option but to seek the assistance of a prominent Islamic scholar and warrior in Ngala known as Sheikh all Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad al Kanemi to checkmate the attaks of the Sokoto jihadists. The Sokoto jihadists retreated when el Kanemi confronted them .The Sayfawa Dynasty died in 1846 (Alkali 1987).

The el Kanemi Dynasty

At the exact time that America was about to become a republic in 1776, Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi was born near Marzuk in Libya.His father was a Kanembu cleric and scholar and his mother the daughter of a wealthy Zuila Arab trader. He was brought up in Marzuk and undertook religious studies which he continued in Tripoli and other North African cities. In the 1790s he joined his father died in Medina, el Kenemi remained in Egypt some years before deciding to return home to Marzuk via Kanem. In the early years of the century he settled down, with his wife and eldest son in Ngala where he earned a reputation as a religious leader, and by the time of the outbreak of the Fulani wars he had taken as a second wife the daughter of the Sultan of Ngala (Brenner 1973).

El Kanemi became a well respected religious leader who decided to identify from the Syfawa rulers. After he fought back the Sokoto jihadists through the network of his large following of Shuwas and Kanembus, Mai Dunoma rewarded him with a small province to lead as a titular leader. He decided to take the title of “Shehu” (Sheikh) and this act endeared him to the common people. In fact when Mai Dunoma was deposed in 1809 by his uncle,  it was el Kanemi that brought him back to power in 1813.

An attempt to kill el Kanemi in 1820 which was believed to be spearheaded by some aides of Mai Dunoma led to open hostilities between the Shenu and Mai Dunoma which eventually led to the death of the latter.

The Shehu had earlier on constructed a power base in the city of Kukawa in 1814 and this town became the defacto capital of Kanem-Borno Empire. The death of el Kanemi in 1836 made the Sayfawa Mai and his supporters to stage a plan to be in charge of affairs. They collaborated with Waddai Empire to realize this dream but Umar, el Kanmei’s son overpowered them and became the sole ruler of Kanem-Borno Empire.The descendants of el Kanemi are still the rulers of Borno at the moment. They hold the prestigious title of “The Shehu of Borno.”


The main units in the administrative structure of Borno were the royal family which was the nucleus of the whole political system; the Council which was the decision making body of the state; the Kogurama, a body of nobility who served as the executives and carried out the immense administrative work of the state, and the military—the composition of which included members from each of the above units. In its broad history outline we can divide the political history of Borno from about 1500-1800 A.D., into three phases.    

Below is a list of some of the titles of Borno

Mai Ruler Royal family
Magira Queen Mother Royal family
Magaram Official Sister Royal family
Ya Grema Magira’s Assistant Royal family
Gumsu Senior wife of the Mai Royal family
Waziri Mai’s Assistant Council
Kaigama Commander-in-Chief Council

The Kanuris are not new to the intricacies of power and they know how and when to negotiate and do dialogue. This was what Shehu al Hajj Muhammad al Amin  ibn Muhammad el Kanemi did with the son of Usman Dan Fodio,Sulatan Mohammed Bello to convince and persuade the latter to abandon his war against Borno Empire, a sister Islamic state. Kanem’s expansion peaked during the long and energetic reign of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (ca. 1221-59). Dabbalemi initiated diplomatic exchanges with sultans in North Africa and apparently arranged for the establishment of a special hostel in Cairo to facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca. During Dabbalemi’s reign, the Fezzan region (in present-day Libya) fell under Kanem’s authority, and the empire’s influence extended westward to Kano, eastward to Wadai, and southward to the Adamawa grasslands (in present-day Cameroon). Portraying these boundaries on maps can be misleading, however, because the degree of control extended in ever-weakening gradations from the core of the empire around Njimi to remote peripheries, from which allegiance and tribute were usually only symbolic. Moreover, cartographic lines are static and misrepresent the mobility inherent in nomadism and migration, which were common. The loyalty of peoples and their leaders was more important in governance than the physical control of territory.

Dabbalemi devised a system to reward military commanders with authority over the people they conquered. This system, however, tempted military officers to pass their positions to their sons, thus transforming the office from one based on achievement and loyalty to the mai into one based on hereditary nobility. Dabbalemi was able to suppress this tendency, but after his death, dissension among his sons weakened the Sayfawa Dynasty. Dynastic feuds degenerated into civil war, and Kanem’s outlying peoples soon ceased paying tribute.


An old Kanuri woman

The Kanuris like the art of politicking and some of them have taken it as a full time job. Politics which according to Max Weber is the striving to share, influence and control power appeals to them. They know how to use and exploit the intricacies associated with political dividends. This is why the Kanuris were so far the only ethnic nationality that has been producing civilian governors in Borno state. They have dominated the political terrain and it appears as if the other ethnic nationalities viz. Babur, Marghi, Chibok, Waha and so on have resigned to their fate.

The Kanuris had produced two presidential candidates in Nigeria: the late Alhaji Ibrahim Waziri  of the defunct GNPP and Ambassador Babagana Kingibe of the SDP who later on became the vice president of MKO Abiola in 1993.Research has shown that 90% of Kanuris belonged to a political party and they normally vote according to tribal and religious inclinations. This is one of the reasons why a Christian had never been successful to be elected governor and from the look of things it may never happen.

Borno state is predominantly an ANPP state and until the emergence of Sen. Ali Sheriff as governor in 2003, the Kukawa axis had always been the producer of the state’s number one citizen.

Politics among the Kanuris is not centered on ideology but on financial clout. Most Kanuris see politics as full time business, an avenue to get motorcycles, cars and money. It is however worthy of mention that the Kanuris rarely engage in political thuggery and violence.


The Kanuri Language

The term Kanuri is applied to the people as well as the language. The earliest groups that occupied the region of the Lake Chad were the Kanembu, the Bulala and the Zaghawa. Of these three groups who competed for political relevance in Kanem, the Kanembu appeared to have taken over the control of the state. There has been a clear distinction between these three major groups in the language which they speak, and it is difficult to assume that they mutually understood their different languages. This was a situation which necessitated the emergence of a lingua franca and there is little doubt that the Kanembu language came to be accepted in Kanem by various other groups as a common language(Alkali 1987).

It is clear that many Kanuri today accept their language as an offshoot of Kanembu and the latter in its original form is accepted as the matrix. In short, Kanuri is often considered as a dialect of Kanembu.For this reason, Kanembu is used as the language of tafsir in Borno today.

According to Abdullahi Smith,Kanuri emerged as a  result of the movement of the Kanembu people from Kanem to the area west of Lake Chad, predominantly inhabited by Chadic speaking peoples, such as, the Kotoko, the Ngizim and the Bade. In the process of this movement, the Kanembu speaking peoples, whom linguists have classified as Nilo-Saharan, mixed with these Chadic speaking peoples,resulting in the emergence of Kanuri. But there is also an indication that the Kanuri people originated from a mixture of various ethnic groups—the Maghumi, the Ngalaga, the Kanga, the Kayi, the Kaguwa, the Tubo and the Nguma (Udofia 1987).The language spoken by these groups evolved gradually to what is known today as the Kanuri language.

The Kanuris are jealous of their language and are always on guard to see that the Hausas do not dominate it. The Kanuri language is ne language in the northern parts of Nigeria whose adherents had refused to agree that it is subordinate to Hausa. The Kanuris believe that their language and culture is higher and superior to that of the followers of Usman Dan Fodio, Hausa-Fulbe. In fact the first news broadcast in Borno (BRTV,NTA) is always in Kanuri before other languages.

Research has shown that 90% of Kanuris understand and speak the language but it is only 67% of them that understand and speak Hausa. The Kanuris are however traditional playmates with the Fulbe, each calling the other a slave in jokes.

The Economic life of the Kanuri

     Historical records showed that the presence of Lake Chad made the Kanem Borno Empire to be a lucrative trade centre. Along its shores is provided considerable pasture grounds during the dry and rainy seasons to support large nomadic populations of Kanembu,Shuwa and Fulani.In addition to the fishing and cattle trade on the shores of the lake, there was also a considerable trade going on in kelbu (natron) and salt which were left as deposits after the level of the lake had subsided. Natron and salt production were carried out in commercial quantities by the sedentary Kanuri and Buduma.

     Until recent times the Kanuris don’t believe in Western education and this had made a lot of them not to be able to secure government employment. They preferred to send their wards to Qur’anic schools to learn the Qur’an and afterwards give them a small capital to start business: hawking perfumes, clothing, and transportation and so on. Research carried out in the course of writing this paper in Monday Market, Maiduguri and other weekly markets in Gajiram,Gajiganna,Jakana,Banki,Baga and Munguno showed that 60% of the traders were Kanuris or they identified themselves as such. They buy and sell all kinds of goods: food stuff, livestock, shoes, clothing, electronics etc. In fact they also sell cars in and around Maiduguri.They are good business men and some of them were sagacious enough to collaborate with banks. This partnership had enabled them to grow and expand their businesses. The late business mogul, Alhaji Mai Deribe is Kanuri.

At the moment the Kanuris are beginning to fully embrace western education. The effort of elder-statesman, Dr. Shetima Ali Munguno and others is very noticeable here. There are so many Kanuri lawyers, doctors, lecturers, engineers and accountants today. In fact the former CMD of the University Teaching Hospital, Maiduguri, Prof. Kyari Othman, the former vice-chancellors of the University of Maiduguri, Prof. Muhammed Nura Alkali and Prof. Abubakar Mustapha mni and the vocal media commentator, Dr. Khalifa Ali Dikwa are all Kanuris.

Some Kanuris also engage in farming. They produce ground nuts, millet, guinea corn, beans, sesame, water melon, cucumber and maize. They also do irrigational farming in places like Munguno and Marte were they produce tomatoes, pepper, onions and spinach in the dry season.

The buying and selling of Arabic gum is also dominated by the Kanuris.

The fact that Borno is a neighbor to Chad, Cameroun and Niger is facilitating business activities in the state and the Kanuris were wise to be in the lead. It is only in the pharmaceuticals, motor spare parts and building materials that the Igbos outpaced them. It has also been discovered that the Kanuris are few in the crafts: mechanic, carpentry, vulcanizing, painting and so on.


Religious life of the Kanuri

The Kanuri as a people have, throughout their history, maintained one basic identity—that of Islam which they used both as a religion and philosophy of government, and as a force of integration that cut across ethnic barriers. Islam first came into Nigeria in the 11th Century, precisely in 1090 when Mai Umme, of the Sayfawas converted to Islam. But there is a school of thought that believes that Islam came to Borno as far back as the 7th Century during the raids of Nafi ibn Iqbal .This is why it would be very difficult to separate Borno from Islam.

Research conducted by the writer revealed that the conversion of a Kanuri to another religion especially Christianity is rare and where this occurs, the persecution associated with is monumental because it is ridda according to the teachings of Islam. At the moment there are two known Kanuri Christians: Rev Musa Garba and Pastor Musa Ali.

Most Kanuris subscribe to the Malikkiya code of Islamic law which means that there are a lot of Sunni Muslims among the Kanuris.The Kanuris hardly join the Shi’ite sect. The Kanuris are passionate and zealous about Islam and most of them still believe that the Shehu of Borno ought to be the chief of the Muslim faithful in Nigeria and not the Sultan of Sokoto.

There is a prevalence of Qur’anic schools, madrassatas and Islamiya schools in all Kanuri settlements to cater for their children. Professor Abubakar Mustapha mni wrote that, “ History bestowed upon the Kanuri authorities in Borno the responsibility of teaching the arts of writing and reading the Qur’an in the Central Bilad al Sudan since the establishment of the Sayfawa Dynasty. From the 13th Century up to the coming of the European colonialists at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Native Authority of Borno funded and supported this type of education.” But at the moment this is not the case because there are thousands of Qur’anic students roaming about on the streets of Maiduguri and its environs begging for food, soliciting for alms, doing menial jobs and so on.



The foundation of the Borno Kingdom was laid towards the end of the 15th Century under the forceful influence of Mai Ali Gaji (c. 1470-1503).

Borno state has 27 local government areas and the Kanuris dominated 20 of these local government areas. It is only in Bayo, Biu, Hawul, Chibok, Askira-Uba, Gwoza and Damboa that the Kanuris are not having a large society. In the remaining local government areas, the Kanuri language is like a lingua franca because some of them don’t even understand or speak Hausa. This does not apply to Maiduguri.

There is also a Kanuri society in states like Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Nassarawa, Plateau and Jigawa. However they do not control business and politics in these states. In fact it has now been discovered that there is considerable number of Kanuris in Lagos and Imo states. The children of these Kanuri families communicate fluently in the Yoruba and Igbo languages.


The region into which the Kanuris moved was formerly inhabited by diverse peoples: the Marghi,Kotoko,Musgum,Buduma and Ngizim (James 1987).It was the conflict with the Bulala people that led to the collapse of the Sayfawa authority in Kanem in the 14th Century and their subsequent migration to Borno(Alkali 1987). Borno remains the undisputable bastion of the Kanuris even though there are Kanuris in Chad,Niger,Sudan and Cameroun. The fact that Shehu all Muhammad al Amin ibn Muhammad el Kanemi settled in Birnin Gazargamu and Kukawa, and he also resided in Ngala when he returned from Mecca is enough to make Borno the umbilical cord of the modern day Kanuris.

The present day city of Maiduguri is the power base of the Kanuris. This city is a combination of the old aristocratic town of Yerwa and the British created town, Maiduguri in 1907.Yerwa was derived from the Kanuri word “herewa” meaning “ good land”  (Udofia1987) but there is a school of thought that says the word was derived from an Arabic expression meaning, “quenching the thirst,” which was a direct reference to the waters of Ngadda River.The town of Yerwa was founded on the site of Kalam and was given the name Yerwa by Shehu Garbai.The two towns, Yerwa and Maiduguri were later unified and this gave birth to the present city, Maiduguri. A city that is being dominated, controlled and ruled by the Kanuris who are fond of saying “bula ade kaande.”





Tribal Marks

The Kanuris have a tribal mark that is distinct from the armada of tribal marks we have in Nigeria. The tribal marks of the Kanuri is done by piercing a straight line from the fore head to the nose, then two straight lines on both cheeks and another two straight lines on the rear sides of both cheeks near the ears. This is the kind of tribal marks seen on the face of the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha. Many Kanuris don’t want to have tribal marks on their faces nowadays.


The Kanuris, generally have no physical stereotype but in most cases one can say that the Kanuri woman has a stereotype: she covers herself with laffaya, adorns her hair with a special hair do and perfume herself with Khumrah, a traditional incense-perfume that has a distinct smell.

Until the decline of the use of tribal marks, it has always been the stereotype identity of the Kanuris.


As in most African tradition the groom will go and introduce himself to the family of the bride and then later on send his representatives with items like kola nuts, biscuits and sweets to ask for the bride’s hands in marriage. If the two families agreed on the proposal, a date would be fixed for the payment of dowry. The average dowry is twenty thousand naira.

A Kanuri woman

The customary practice of dela(washing of the hair of the bride) and nanle (adorning of the hands and feet of the bride)would later follow. Normally this takes place on a Thursday but the groom and his friends are supposed to come on a Friday to observe the wushe wushe festivity. The female relations of the groom will be the ones to take the bride to her new home but at least two of her relations will stay with her for a week at new home. It is a tradition that the new couple go to pay respects to their in-laws on Sunday (Baari  2011).


Research has shown that there is a strong connection between religion and Islam. This is because under the Islamic religion, a man is permitted to marry up to four wives if he can cater for their needs and do equal justice to them. Since almost all the Kanuris are Muslims, the rate of polygamy among them should be expected to be high. Three out of every five Kanuri men have more than one wife.


The rate of divorce among the Kanuris is alarming. There are instances were marriages don’t last up to a month and these women who end up in these divorces, in some cases are not up to 20 years. One of the prominent religious figures who have done a lot through education and counseling to curb the menace was the late Sheikh Abba Aji al Barnawi. Interestingly the Kanuri man want to have plenty children.

Maternal mortality is high and access to good medical facilities is poor.

Childbirth and Naming

The birth of a child is always a thing of joy in the Kanuri society. Every man wants to have children. Plenty of them.

The Kanuris do normally name their child after the seventh day and tradition dictates that a ram be procured for the naming. Friends, well wishers and relations would converge at the home of the parent to celebrate the naming. The father is expected to give a good name to his child and in most cases an Islamic  one with a traditional one attached like Babagana, Bakura,Yagana,Fantami,Baanzeye,Kachalla etc.The Kanuris also have their versions of Islamic names, thus you hear them calling Ali as Ari,Mohammed as Modu,Aisha as Ashe and Ibrahim as Yuram.

It is always a special honor to have a child named after you among the Kanuris. At the moment Dr. Shettima Ali Munguno has over 70 children named after him. Of course one is expected to respond generously to the child and his parents in a way a god father does among the Italians. There is always a strong bond between one and the child named after him/her.


The Kanuris don’t waste time with the dead. Once someone dies, he or she would be buried according to Islamic rites. However it has now became a tradition to cook and give out sadakat at the home of the deceased. The three ,seven and forty days prayer is also generally observed in all Kanuri societies.

If the deceased was a man, his wife can remarry after her idda period.


The Kanuris are known to be good consumers of millet gritz (burabusko) and baobab soup (miyar kuka).The baobab soup is prepared with spices and beans. Another substitute for baobab soup is a vegetable soup known as miyar yakuwa da alaiyaho (spinach) which is usually prepared with grounded groundnuts, spices and fish.

A pap drink made from millet/maize flour,tamarine and sugar is also highly consumed along with bean cakes(kosai).This pap is known as kunun tsamiya. The Kanuris don’t drink alcohol.


The average Kanuri man doesn’t wear the so called westernize dresses like jeans,chinos,shirts etc. He wears a kaftan and in most cases a flowing gown (bunjuma) with a cap. The typical attire is a sky blue and black color bunjuma with a red cap. This was the kind of dressing code President Goodluck Jonathan wore during his presidential campaign in Maiduguri.


The women normally wore simple designed attire made from Ankara and this dress usually goes beyond the buttocks. They would put it on while another yard of Ankara wraps their body from the waist to the toe. After that a big linen or silk material called laffaya would be used to cover their body from head to toe. This kind of dressing is similar to that of Sudanese and Bangladeshi women. Most Kanuri women put bangles on their wrist, rings on their nose and waist beads on their waist.

There is particular dress code for young girls below the age of puberty. The girl who is below the age of puberty has a special hair do known as kelayasku.It is a hairdo in which only four ropes of hair plaiting appear at the front and back of the head. Both sides of the head are shaven. Same with boys. Only three lock of hair are allowed to grow on their heads. One at the front, another at the middle of the head and last one at the back of the head, towards the nape.


The Kanuris believe in the power of the evil eye and the inherent power of witches and wizards to cause mayhem. There is a prevalent belief on a ghost like spirit or apparition known as Mairam kuru and many people believe that witches normally turn in to cats in the night.

The Kanuris believe in giving out alms and sadakat to avert evil. There is a widespread belief among the Kanuris that the rearing of animals like rams  and goats is good because it can be used as a scapegoat; that if an enemy sends an arrow to kill you, the arrow would fall on the animal. The animal would die but you would survive. As a result most Kanuris keep animals.

The Kanuris and the rights of children

Research has shown that a lot of Kanuri children in the rural areas don’t go to school and a large proportion of them subscribe to the tsangaya system of Qur’anic education. These students of the tsangaya system of education are known as almajirai. They are the Qur’anic students who came to Borno which the Hausa called gabas(east) to study the reading, writing and recitation of the Holy Qur’an with its prefect intonation and orthography(Mustapha 2007).

The Child Right Act says, “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education”(Part 1 Section 15[1] and, “No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage ” but till date many boys of school age don’t go to school and many young girls as young as 14 years are given to marriage. The effort of people like Hajiya Maryam Bukar Petrol, a former Commissioner of Women affairs, NCWS and GTZ in campaigning against girl-child marriage is slowly yielding results.

Kanuri women and politics

The right of Kanuri women in Borno is gradually appreciating because 40% of Kanuri women had fully embraced education, and at the moment two out of every ten Kanuri women are graduates. Many of them had gone into the nursing, teaching and banking profession. There is however no any Kanuri woman in the army, police or the para military.

Kanuri women are now participating in politics but it is sad to note that no any Kanuri woman had never been elected as a senator, member of the House of Representatives or state House of Assembly. In fact hardly does a woman becomes a local government chairlady among the Kanuris.Although the wife of the former governor of Yobe state,Hajiya Khadija Bukar Abba had been elected in Yobe as a member of the House of Representatives, yet it is because of the influence of her husband.

It is noteworthy to point that the prevailing purdah system confines many a woman to the home during daylight hours. This requirement constrains the Kanuri women to home activities and restricts their participation in some community activities. In all the communities, there is consensus that women, as a gender category, are not part of decision-making process. They are not valid to the for a as village council, where vital issues or decisions are taken (Alubo 2005).

Kanuris and assimilation

The Kanuris, like the Huasa-Fulbe ethnic nationality has assimilated so many people from other ethnic nationalities and this is why it is numerically strong. Research conducted in Maiduguri,Ngala,Damboa and Bama showed that some people who are Marghi.Gamargu.Buduma,Lakka and Waha are claiming to be Kanuris.


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