The town was founded in 1814 as capital of the Kanem-Bornu Empire by the Muslim scholar and warlord Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi after the fall of the previous capital, Ngazargamu, conquered in 1808 in the Fulani War. The town had great strategical importance, being one of the southern terminals of trans-Saharan trade routes to Tripoli.
The town was visited by German explorer Heinrich Barth in 1851 who arrived from Tripoli seeking to open trade with Europe and explore Africa, and again in 1892 by the French explorer Parfait-Louis Monteil, who was checking the borders between areas of West Africa assigned to the French and the British. The town was captured and sacked in 1893 by the Sudanese warlord Rabih az-Zubayr, and then by the British in 1902.
Historically the city was much larger than today, with a population estimated by the British at 50,000-60,000 in the late nineteenth-century.
On 16 January 2015, "caretaker chairman of Kukawa Local Government Area, Musa Alhaji Bukar Kukawa", speaking on behalf of the Kukawa residents who were displaced to Maiduguri following the 2015 Baga massacre, "called on the federal government to intensify military operations so that they can return to their homes."
- Steve Kemper (2012). Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa. W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0393079661.
- J. D. Fage, ed. (1985). The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 6. Cambridge University Press. p. 16. Retrieved June 3, 2014.
- Emil Lengyel. Dakar - Outpost of Two Hemispheres. READ BOOKS, 2007. p. 170ff. ISBN 1-4067-6146-X. Retrieved 2010-10-11.
- Hamza Idris and Yahaya Ibrahim. Nigeria: CBN, Nema Reach Out to Baga Attack Victims, Others. Daily Trust - allAfrica.com, January 16, 2015
- Nigeria (2000). Nigeria: a people united, a future assured. 2, State Surveys (Millennium ed ed.). Abuja, Nigeria: Federal Ministry of Information. p. 106. ISBN 9780104089.
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