Undisputably the greatest ruler of the Central African State of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, Idris Alooma (also Idris Alaoma , or Idris Alauma ) remains the only Bornu King whose name has survived the test of time. Idris lived at the same time Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was queen of England.
The Mai of Bornu
Idris Alooma (c.1538–1596) was Mai (King) of the Kanem-Bornu Empire (1396–1893), located mainly in Chad and Nigeria. An outstanding statesman, Kanem-Bornu reached the zenith of its power under his rule. Alooma is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety. His feats are mainly known through his chronicler Ahmad bin Fartua.
During his reign, Alooma avoided the capital Ngazargamu, preferring to set his palace five kilometres away, near the Yo River (Komadugu Yobe), in a place named Gambaru. The walls of the city were red, leading to a new architecture using red bricks characteristic of his reign. To this day, some murals still exist in Gambaru and are over three metres tall. These are vestiges of a flourishing empire.
Idris Alooma was known by the Kanuri title of Mai for king.
His main adversaries were the Hausa to the West, the Tuareg and Toubou to the North, and the Bulala to the East. One epic poem extols his victories in 330 wars and more than 1,000 battles.
Alooma’s innovations included the employment of fixed military camps (with walls); permanent sieges and “scorched earth” tactics, where soldiers burnt everything in their path; armored horses and riders; and the use of Berber camelry, Kotoko boatmen, and iron-helmeted musketeers trained by Turkish military advisers.
Diplomatic Relations and Reign
His active diplomacy featured relations with Tripoli, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, which sent a 200-member ambassadorial party across the desert to Alooma’s court at Ngazargamu.
Alooma also signed what was probably the first written treaty or cease-fire in Chadian history.
The Mai introduced a number of legal and administrative reforms based on his religious beliefs and Islamic law (sharia). He sponsored the construction of numerous mosques and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he arranged for the establishment of a hostel to be used by pilgrims from his empire. As with other dynamic politicians, Alooma’s reformist goals led him to seek loyal and competent advisers and allies, and he frequently relied on slaves who had been educated in noble homes.
Alooma regularly sought advice from a council composed of heads of the most important clans. He required major political figures to live at the court, and he reinforced political alliances through appropriate marriages (Alooma himself was the son of a Kanuri father and a Bulala mother).
Economy and Trade
Kanem-Bornu under Alooma was strong and wealthy. Government revenue came from tribute (or booty if the recalcitrant people had to be conquered) and duties on and participation in trade.
Alooma took a keen interest in trade and other economic matters. He is credited with having cleared the roads, designed better boats for Lake Chad, introduced standard units of measure for grain, and moving farmers into new lands. In addition, he improved the ease and security of transit through the empire with the goal of making it so safe that “a lone woman clad in gold might walk with none to fear but God.”
Dr. Heinrich Barth, the 19th century German traveller, described Idris Alooma as “an excellent prince, uniting in himself the most opposite qualities: warlike energy, combined with mildness and intelligence; courage, with circumspection and patience; severity with pious feelings.”
Ngazargamu was the capital of the Bornu Empire from c.1460 to 1809. Situated 150 kilometres west of Lake Chad in the Yobe State of modern Nigeria, the impressive remains of the city are still visible. The surrounding wall is 6.6 kilometres long and in parts it is still up to 5 metres high. The town was built by Mai Ali Gaji (ruled 1455–1487) after the final defeat of the Dawudid branch of the Sayfawa ruling dynasty. The city was then an important centre for trade and learning, at its height home to around 20,000 inhabitants.
There’s just too much evidence that pre-colonial Africa was teeming with construction and development that would have even rivaled Europe. Our kings and queens once existed just like Europeans royals. They ruled over massive lands and commanded strong, central armies. Sadly, these kingdoms fell into decline and the Scramble for Africa and colonialism in the 1700s and 1800s saw a lot of history destroyed, stolen, or lost.
In 1809, after several years of indecisive warfare, Ngazargamu was besieged and destroyed by Ibrahim Zakiyul Kalbi, also known as Mallam Zaki (who founded Katagum in 1814), in the Fulani jihad.
Presently, the Yobe State Government of Nigeria has set plans to restore and conserve the ruins of Ngazargamu, which has tourism and research potentials, and develop it into a cultural and historical center and also promote the site into a possible World Heritage Site.
His military prowess was outstanding with armies, possibly the first in Africa, to have muskets, acquiring them from the Turkish Empire. Like his Songhai contemporaries, he was a patron of learning, encouraging scholars from many other African countries to take up residence in Borno. He improved navigation on the Yobe River. He commissioned the building of longer, flat-bottomed boats initially for his navy.
For land transportation, he imported a much greater number of camels replacing the dependence on mules, oxen and donkeys. The great Mai was also a builder, raising new brick mosques in the cities that replaced the older buildings. He also founded a hostel in Mecca for Borno pilgrims.
Following the fall of Songhai in 1591, the great Mai became the undisputed champion of the Muslims in the region. The empire then became the Borno Caliphate and was the leading Islamic presence in Black Africa. It was now a Caliphate that represented all of Africa. Its capital city was called Ngazargamu and was one of the largest cities on Earth.
By 1658, the metropolis, according to architectural scholar Susan Denyer, housed “about a quarter of a million people“. It had 660 streets. Many were wide and unbending, reflective of town planning. The design of high streets, were lined on both sides by trees that offered shade. These buildings must have been erected on an impressive scale. Heinrich Barth, who inspected the remains of these walls during the 19th century declared that their workmanship was equal in quality to the finest masonry he had seen in Europe.
Death and Legacy
The name Alooma is a posthumous qualification for Idris, named after a place, Alo or Alao, where he was buried. He was crowned king at the age of 25-26. According to the Diwan, he ruled from 1564 to 1596. He died during a battle in the Baguirmi where he was mortally wounded; he was later buried in Lake Alo, south of the actual Maiduguri, thus the name Alooma.
There’s just too much evidence that pre-colonial Africa was teeming with construction and development that would have even rivaled Europe. Our kings and queens once existed just like Europeans royals. They ruled over massive lands and commanded strong, central armies. Sadly, these kingdoms fell into decline and the Scramble for Africa and colonialism in the 1700s and 1800s saw a lot of history destroyed, stolen, or lost. Almost all knowledge of these rulers (who ruled in lands stretching from West Africa to East Africa) is gone. What we now know is only bits and pieces of information. Nevertheless, we must know our history. It is a must.
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Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.