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History: Capitals of Borno before Maiduguri


By Abdulhamid Al-Gazali

In 1907, Maiduguri became officially known as the Capital of Borno. Many however do not know that there were at least three other capitals leaders of the state had lived in before Maiduguri.


A tale is told in Borno by local scholars about Shehu Abubakar Garbai’s 365 days prayer as a basis for his decision for relocation to Maiduguri as a new capital in 1907. When the idea to move to Maiduguri was brought to him by the British Government who wanted to effectively install its policy of Indirect Rule, Shehu Garbai was said to have assembled all his ulema and directed them to hold a year-long prayer on the note that, if at all the proposed capital would be deserted by his people any time in the future, may he never move in!

The prayer was said to have lasted a whole year from 1904 to 1905. Garbai’s reason for that was that the empire had had several experiences of unceremonious evictions in their capitals as a result of wars, political instabilities and what have you. This newspaper brings you a list of the capitals as were known to history.

But before this, it is imperative to understand the term Kanem-Borno. Kanem, now part of Chad Republic was until 1386, the base of most of the people of Borno. In 1386, series of crises forced the people of the state to move down to Borno, crossing the Lake Chad and by 1470 at least, Borno became the established base of the people. Hence Kanem and Bono were too bases of the same people. With this, the reader with little foundational knowledge of the history of Kanem-Borno, should for the meantime ignore the specifications and treat them as one for better understanding of the text.  


As is commonly known, the first mention of Kanem-Borno was in 891 A.D. by Ahmad Al-Yakubi, an Arab geographer in his work Al-Tarikh. In his reference, Al-Yakubi noted that the rulers of the kingdom lived in Manan as their political capital. For how long it lived before that time is not clear, but it seemed to have lasted for about two centuries after its first mention, before going permanently extinct. Though its exact location is not known yet, it is widely believed to be around the Chad Basin region.

The reason for its collapse is not too clear and considering the distance of time and limited archaeological inquiries, it is difficult to establish any coherent conclusion. To make a sense of the many interpretations by scholars here is also impossible and as such, it is an entirely ignored part of this work especially in view of space and medium of presentation. Suffice it therefore to say that it is the earliest known capital of the state that comes down to us as Borno.


According to recorded history, Njimi is the next capital of the rulers of Borno after Manan from at least early 11th century. What had caused the transfer is not very clear, but it also came with change in the ruling dynasty. While in Manan the kingdom was ruled by Zaghawa, a nomadic group believed to be practising traditional belief system; in Njimi, the leadership was taken over by the Saifawa dynasty who claim to have descended from Saif Dhi Yadhan.


The cause for the dynastic change and even how is very complex and a report like this does not give us the luxury to go into details. But again, traditional religion, which was the religion of the Zaghawa rulers in Manan was also replaced by Islam as both the religion of the state and the emergent Saifawa rulers in Njimi.

Njimi survived as their political capital until 1386 when it was deserted by the people. In Njimi, the Saifawa rulers spread their authority all over the Lake Chad region and reached the peak of their power.

Among other things, Njimi hosted some of the most celebrated rulers of the empire. One of them was Mai Hume Jilme, who was the first known Muslim ruler of the empire and under whose reign Islam became a state religion in 1096.

Another remarkable ruler who ruled in Njimi was Mai Dunama Humemi, who, some sources describe as the best of the sons of Mai Hume. It was reported that Egyptian authorities, threatened by the rising power of Mai Dunama and Kanem-Borno, conspired to drown him to death in the Red Sea on his third pilgrimage.

However, the most celebrated mai to have ruled over the state in Njimi was Mai Dunama Dabbalemi, under whose reign the empire expanded from River Niger in the west to Kawar Oasis in the east. He was recorded as having raised an army of over 40,000 horsemen to expand and assert his authority. He annexed Fezzan in southern Libya, built the Madrassa Riwaq al-Barnawi in Cairo both as a hostel and school for Borno students and pilgrims (en route to Mecca) in Egypt in c.1240 to promote education. The empire reached its zenith under his reign.

But succession disputes, rebellion and other socio-economic instabilities, at a time the rulers had already overstretched themselves, led to their necessary exit. Led by Mai Umar B. Idris (1382 – 1387), who, records show, was advised by scholars in his court to the resolve, they moved westward until they crossed Lake Chad and into what is present Borno and other parts of northern Nigeria.

                From 1386 when the displacement started up to 1470, the rulers had been wandering about in search for a new administrative capital. For at least 100 years, it remained a mobile kingdom without a permanent base.



Ngazargamu was founded late 1400. It was founded by Mai Ali Ghaji (1470 -  1503)—for which reason, he is today recognised as one of the most remarkable rulers of Borno. A very interesting tale is told about how Ali Ghaji founded or took over Ngazargamu from a group of loosely organised people called Sau.


It was said that Ali Ghaji tricked the ruler of the group to take over the place. The Sau people according to the tale were awed by the henna worn by the women in Ali Ghaji’s contingent and their lord requested that they be taught. The mai agreed but on the condition that he and his people would be given a piece of land in return. Some sources said that Ali Ghaji actually begged for the land. There were in fact two accounts of what transpired.

One. The Sau lord agreed to the request and gave him a land the size of a cow’s hide. Ali Ghaji then split the skin until it covered a large territory.

Two. The other account was that Ali Ghaji asked his people to tie the hands of all the Sau people with a raw hide as to teach them. When they did, he ordered that they be obliterated or until they submit. Whether true or not, series of rebellions by the resisting Sau followed even when the Sayfawa established themselves there until Mai Idris Alooma (1571 – 1603) cleared them a century later.

Before Ngazargamu, Ali Ghaji had temporarily based in Birnin Kimi and Birnin Wudi possibly with the intention of settling there but they seemed to have been both later abandoned because of the difficulties they must have posed—security, resistance and even resource wise.

In fact, Bulala, who actually forced the Sayfawa out of Kanem, were reported to have engaged the mai in a war at Wudi. The decision to base at Ngazargamu relatively far from fertile areas such as Marte, Monguno, etcetera in the north tells a lot about the stiff resistance and encroachments they must have faced.

 Imam Marbarma Uthman, Ali Gaji’s imam, was quoted in Account of the Masbarma Othman by Sir Richmond Palmer as:

This is the history of the Bornoan Caliphs… who built this city named Gasarkamo down to our time. Know that the first who built it was our Lord, Amir al-Muminin and Sultan of the Muslims, Ali Ibn Dunama, who reigned for thirty years and died a natural death and was buried in his house. May God have mercy on him.

Ngazargamu, now in Yobe state, lasted as the administrative capital of Borno until 1812, a period of about 400 years. In Ngazargamu, the might of Borno spread east-westward from Mandara Mountains in present Republic of Cameroun to Dala Hills in Kano and north-southward from the fringes of Sahara Desert to Upper Benue Valley under the successive reigns of the mais of Borno.

Ali Ghaji, who founded the capital, and Idris Alooma who stabilised it, were among the most celebrated rulers to have reigned in the capital. Another remarkable mai was Mai Ali ibn Al-Hajj Umar (1644 – 1685), nicknamed al-faqi because of his piety. Dan Marina, formally Said Muhammad Ibn Sabghi Al-Kashnawi, a seventeenth-century Katsina-based poet and royalty, moved by Mai Ali’s might and power, wrote a poem extolling his virtues.

Ngazargamu collapsed in 1808 as a result of a rebellion by Felata. Taking inspiration from the jihad of Usman Danfodio in Hausaland, Borno Feleta, having hoodwinked Sokoto for support, rebelled against the Sayfawa leadership. Along with a dynastic change, the rebellion also led to the collapse of Ngazargamu as the capital of Bornpo. A new capital, Kukawa, was to be founded immediately.


It was, at best, established by Muhammad Al-Amin El-Kanemi, or his insistence. El-Kanemi became very influential in the leadership of the state and at a time the de facto leader because of his role in dealing with the Feleta rebellion. The capital, established around 1814, lasted for close to a century until it was sacked in 1890.

It was named after Kuka, a term for baobab tree in Kanuri, which El-Kanemi found at the location his team arrived. Prior to Kukawa, two temporary bases, after Birnin Ngazargamu were noted—Birnin Jadid and Birni Kafela. Aside these, there was also Ngurno, the seat of the rising political influence of El-Kanemi, which seemed to have helplessly for the Sayfawa become the powerbase of the battered state in need of urgent overhaul.

The attack launched by the Felata rebels under Goni Mukhtar had proven fatal to Ngazargamu as it had to be permanently deserted—just as was the case with the mighty, over a millennium-old Sayfawa dynasty despite several attempts at comeback.

In Kukawa, more than just a new capital, a new line in Borno’s history was opened—a new dynasty was enthroned in 1846 to take the destinies of the state forward. The El-Kanemi dynasty, deriving from Shaykh Al-Amin El-Kanemi who enthroned his son, Shehu Umar as the first to rule from that line, following the passing away of the last Sayfawa  mai, in 1846 officially came to effect as the rulers of Borno for the rest of its history.

Coinciding with the century of increased European interest in Africa, Kukawa hosted almost all the explorers that visited the state. Apart from its being located along a commercial route, politically, especially in view of security and even proper administration, which includes reintegration of breakaway communities, ensuring submission through enforcement of taxation, etcetera, the choice of Kukawa as the capital of Borno cannot be attributed to any better reason.

In fact, its location at a major crossroad was part of the reason it didn’t take long for external disturbances to set in in the not too long. Rabi Fadl’Allah, a ‘wandering’ warrior bent on establishing a force-based empire, was to sack it in 1890, forcing the El-Kanemi leadership to flee. But he himself could not stay effectively in Kukawa and equally not any longer as he was ‘taken out’ by French firepower less than a decade into his reign in an encounter in Dikwa.

For the next few years, the El-Kanemi leadership of Borno, faced with a number of internal and even more grounding external aggressions, moved from one place to the other taking refuge until Maiduguri was established in 1907 by Shehu Abubakar Garbai Al-Amin El-Kanemi, the namesake and great grandfather of the sitting Shehu of Borno, His Eminence, Shehu Abubakar Umar Garbai Al-Amin Garbai.

Note: For those interested in the full version of this article for academic purposes, kindly contact us via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..





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