By 1460, Mai Ali Gazi (1476-1503), ruler of the Kanem Empire, had defeated his rivals for the throne and was in the midst of reforms. The 15 Mais before him had died during internal and external wars, and the priority was the future of the Sayfuwa Dynasty. After nearly a century of the dynasty not having a capital, Mai Gazi decided to move the base of the empire from Kanem, east of the Lake Chad, to Bornu, one of its territories west of the lake. The new, fortified capital, Birni Ngazargamu, in present-day Yobe State, sat between two rivers: the Komadugu Gana and the Komadugu Yobe. The Kanem Empire had become the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
The Kanem Empire was founded around 700 AD by the Kanembu, a Tebu-speaking people. Forced by both dessication and political pressure, they moved southwest to the Lake Chad, dominating the Sao city-states, leading to the emergence of the Kanuri people. The rise of the Sayfuwa Dynasty, whose kings were called Mais, in the late 11th century, marked a shift in the empire’s fortunes.
The Kanem Empire’s earliest known capital, established by its first Muslim emperor Mai Hummay in 1075, was the town of Njimi. Another early capital, by the 12th century, was a small town called Manan. By 1387, in the thick of wars that cost the empire eight Mais, Mai Umar b. Idris was forced to abandon Njimi and move his base to Bornu, present-day Borno State.
After Mai Gazi made Ngazargamu the new capital, another Mai, Idris Katakarmabe, retook the former capital Njimi, but despite this, the Mai emperors remained at Ngazargamu because its lands were fertile and suited for cattle-rearing.
The rise of Mai Idris Alooma (1564–1596) brought administrative, military, and diplomatic reforms which lasted two centuries. While the empire became a center of Islamic learning by the 18th century, its reach had declined to include only a few Hausa city-states.
During Usman dan Fodio’s jihad, his follower, Mallam Zaki, conquered Ngazargamu in 1808. After Muhammad al-Kanemi defeated the Fulani jihadists, he founded another capital in 1814, in a town called Kukawa. The new capital would itself be destroyed in 1893 by the Sudanese warrior Rabih.
At its height, the Kanem-Bornu Empire stretched from Fezzan in the north, in present-day southern Libya, to the whole of northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon in the south, and westwards to the present-day Sudan. Its military power came from its cavalry and much of its economic power came from its location on the trans-Saharan trade route from Tripoli through the salt mines in Bilma.
The remains of Ngazargamu today include walls five metre high and over six km long. In 2015, the then government of Yobe State began a move to preserve the site and tap into its tourism potential.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.