Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire

Under the leadership of Mai Dunama Dibbalemi, the Kanem kingdom wielded tremendous power in the Lake Chad region and employed that authority to expand the Kanem Empire and the Islamic faith.

Summary of Event

The initial empire called Kanem developed out of a federation of chiefdoms near Lake Chad. The Kanem kingdom was established around the ninth century and lasted in a reorganized and modernized form until the 1840’. It encompassed, at its height of expansion, an area covering what is now Chad, southern Libya, northeastern Nigeria, and eastern Niger. The grand scale of Kanem in the thirteenth century is attributed to the vision and campaigns of Mai Dunama Dibbalemi. [kw]Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire (1221-1259)
[kw]Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire, Mai Dunama (1221-1259)
[kw]Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire, Mai (1221-1259)
[kw]Kanem Empire, Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands (1221-1259)
Kanem Empire
Dibbalemi, Mai Dunama
Africa;1221-1259: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire[2300]
Expansion and land acquisition;1221-1259: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire[2300]
Government and politics;1221-1259: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire[2300]
Religion;1221-1259: Mai Dunama Dibbalemi Expands Kanem Empire[2300]
Mai Dunama Dibbalemi

The empire included trade routes that linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean and Red Sea trading networks. A nonsedentary population known as the Kanuri Kanuri , distinctive for their culture, migrated into the Kanem area in the 1100’. Migrations;Kanuri to Kanem By the thirteenth century, the Kanuri had developed into a sedentary population, replaced the Zaghawa rulers, and begun to conquer the surrounding areas and populations. It is postulated that the core group that came to represent Kanuri ethnicity and language emerged from the Magomi families that constituted the royal lineages of the Sefuwa Dynasty.

Dibbalemi is purported to have been the first of the Kanuri to convert to Islam. The Islamic faith was spread in the Lake Chad basin under Dibbalemi, who declared jihad against the surrounding populations, as a strategic element in the extensive period of conquest aimed at incorporating the neighboring territories into Kanem.

After consolidating the Kanem chiefdoms around Lake Chad, Dibbalemi and his followers set north to the Fezzan (Libya), to Kawar (between Lake Chad and the Fezzan, the region surrounding the salt mines of Bilma), and west to lands in Nigeria. This expansion was to spread Islam and to protect the Kanem state’s interests in the trans-Saharan trade routes to the north. Controlling and expanding trade networks was integral to the economic and political power of the Kanem Empire. In return for its exports of fabrics, salt, minerals, and slaves, Kanem received copper, guns, and horses as imports.

At the greatest extent of Kanem, the Kanuri ruling elite controlled a large and economically strategic portion of northern Africa’s trade routes. Many of the trade Trade;Africa
Africa;trade routes of northern Africa (Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt) had to pass through the Kanem territory at their southern terminus. As wealth increased, the Kanuri people increasingly became more sedentary in their lifestyle and became urbanized in centers such as Njimi, which is believed to have been the first capital of the Kanem Empire.

Following the death of Dibbalemi, internal rivalries and civil strife began to gravely affect the empire, although he was succeeded by two of his sons, Keday and Bir. In the early fifteenth century, the Sefuwa Dynasty Sefuwa Dynasty moved its center from the troubles of Kanem in the northeast to Bornu a bit farther southwest, re-creating and reinventing politically the kingdom on the western shore of Lake Chad. It was not until the sixteenth century that the Kanem-Bornu Empire reemerged as a powerful force just as a power vacuum was created with the decline of the Songhai Empire further west.

The history of the Kanuri rulers from Dibbalemi onwards is recorded in the Dīwān (royal chronicles), which German archaeologist Heinrich Barth discovered and published in 1850. For more general historical information about Kanem-Bornu, the Arab chroniclers Ibn Saՙīd (d. 1286), al-ՙUmarī (1301-1349), and al-Tidjani (fl. thirteenth century) reveal a great deal.

According to the accounts of Ibn Saՙīd Ibn Saՙīd , Dibbalemi expanded the Kanem Empire northward, incorporating the Kawar and Fezzan regions, and controlled Takedda, a western trade center on the road to Gao, a major seat of trade on the Niger River. Ibn Saՙīd reported that Dibbalemi ruled Tadjuwa, Zaghawa, and Djadja in the east, and ruled over Berber populations in the south. Al-ՙUmarī ՙUmarī, al- ’s description confirms much of Saՙid’s history. In the fourteenth century, al-ՙUmarī wrote that it took three months to traverse the Kanem Empire from northeast to southwest, a testament to the size of the state even after Dibbalemi’s death. Al-Tidjani Tidjani, al- ’s records extend Kanem beyond the Fezzan, stating that in 1258 Kanem reduced the power of its rivals in the Waddan, north of the Fezzan.

While the core of the Kanem state was well defined and established, and Kanem clearly had a plan of expansion aimed at controlling trade routes and preventing the rerouting of trade to secondary uncontrolled routes, it is not as clear how strongly established was the rule of the expanded Kanem state. Was the power and authority over the Fezzan real or symbolic? Long or short-lived? While there is enough information recorded to assume some control over the north, west, and south, the evidence demonstrates that the Tubu in the east remained a defiant challenge to the conquests of Dibbalemi.

Dibbalemi was also known to have developed a military force of forty-one thousand cavalry. According to Arab chroniclers, the horses used for Dibbalemi’s military endeavor were imported from Tunisia. These horses were of note because they were smaller than the breeds imported from other parts of the world. Dibbalem was able to use the horses to build a powerful military for executing territorial expansions and consolidation and for spreading the Islamic faith. Dibbalemi was an Islamic reformer who organized and established madrasas (Islamic schools) for Kanem pupils to study in Cairo, Egypt. Under Dibbalemi, Islam became more profoundly established in an orthodox and all-encompassing form in Kanem-Bornu life.


According to Ibn Saՙīd, the Sefuwa Dynasty emerged in Kanem as a foreign power controlled by foreign rulers, but the dynasty became widely acknowledged as a legitimate power. It was even accepted in popular memory as indigenous within a short period of time. It seems from the available evidence that the Sefuwa were descendants of the Zaghawa Berber kings who became Islamized. In fact, a small state in the vicinity of Kanem can be dated to the sixth century, but it was the influx of Kanuri in the early twelfth century that fostered the large kingdom of renown. It was under Dibbalemi that Kanem became a large and powerful imperialist state with securely established and widely recognized territorial divisions and bureaucratic organization.

Further Reading

  • Collins, Robert O. Western African History. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1997. Primary document from western Africa. Contains a document on Kanem wars and brief discussion of Dibbalemi.
  • Garba, Abubakar. Research Guidelines for the Documentation of Ancient Kanem-Borno Capitals. Maiduguri, Nigeria: Centre for Trans Saharan Studies, University of Maiduguri, 1988. Explains excavations of ancient cities particularly capital cities, of the Kanem-Bornu empire.
  • Holl, Augustin. The Dīwān Revisited: Literacy, State Formation and the Rise of Kanuri Domination (A.D. 1200-1600). New York: Kegan Paul International, 2000. A history of the politics and the sultanate in the Kanem-Bornu empires. Contains an excellent bibliography of research on Kanem.
  • Lange, Dierk. “Ethnogenesis from Within the Chadic State: Some Thoughts on the History of Kanem-Bornu.” Paideuma no. 39 (1993): 261-277. Examines the ethnic history of the populations in Kanem-Bornu region.
  • Levzion, Nehemia. “Islam in the Bilad al-Sudan to 1800.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by Nehemia Levzion and Randall Pouwels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. This chapter describes the history of Islamic expansion in the central Sudan. It includes a two-page section devoted to Kanem and Bornu.
  • Oliver, Roland, and J. D. Fage. The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A historical account of African civilizations from c. 1050 to c. 1600.