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Kanuri people

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Kanuri people
Ali Modu Sheriff, a Kanuri politician and former Governor of Borno State, Nigeria, 2007
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Nigeria, southeast Niger, western Chad, northern Cameroon and western Sudan
9,650,000 (2020)[1][2]
Includes Manga
 Niger1,500,000 (2023)[4]
Includes Manga, Yerwa, Bilma, and Tumari
 Chad1,071,000 (2019)
Most of which are Kanembu subgroup[5][1]
 Sudan381,000 (2022)[1]
 Cameroon180,000 (2024)[1]
Kanuri language
Related ethnic groups
Kanembu, Zaghawa, Tubu

The Kanuri people (Kanouri, Kanowri, also Yerwa, Barebari and several subgroup names) are an African ethnic group living largely in the lands of the former Kanem and Bornu Empires in Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon.[6] As well as a diaspora community residing in Sudan. Those generally termed Kanuri include several subgroups and dialect groups, some of whom identify as distinct from the Kanuri. Most trace their origins to ruling lineages of the medieval Kanem-Bornu Empire, and its client states or provinces. In contrast to the neighboring Toubou or Zaghawa pastoralists, Kanuri groups have traditionally been sedentary, engaging in farming, fishing the Chad Basin, trade, and salt processing.[7]


Kanuri peoples include several subgroups, and identify by different names in some regions. The Kanuri language was the major language of the Bornu Empire and remains a major language in southeastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria[8][9] and northern Cameroon, but in Chad it is limited to a handful of speakers in urban centers.[10]

The largest population of Kanuri reside in the northeast corner of Nigeria,[11] where the ceremonial Emirate of Bornu traces direct descent from the Kanem-Bornu empire, founded sometime before 1000 CE. Some 3 million Kanuri speakers live in Nigeria, not including some 200,000 speakers of the Manga dialect.[12] The Nga people in Bauchi State trace their origins to a Kanuri diaspora.[13]

In southeastern Niger, where they form the majority of the sedentary population, the Kanuri are commonly called Barebari (a Hausa name).[7] The 400,000 Kanuri population in Niger includes the Manga subgroup, numbering some 100,000 (1997) in the area east of Zinder, who regard themselves as distinct from the Barebari.[7]

Around 40,000 (1998) members of the Tumari subgroup, sometimes called Kanembu, are a distinct Kanuri subgroup living in the N'guigmi area, and are distinct from the Chadian Kanembu people.[14] In the Kaour escarpment oasis of eastern Niger, the Kanuri are further divided into the Bilma subgroup, numbering some 20,000 (2003), and are the dominant ethnic group in the salt evaporation and trade industry of Bilma.[15]

Kanuri speak varieties of Kanuri, one of the Nilo-Saharan languages. Divisions include the Manga, Tumari, and Bilma dialects of Kanuri and the more distinct Kanembu language.[16]

Inheriting the religious and cultural traditions of the Kanem-Bornu state, The Kanuri people are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

In Chad, Kanembu speakers differentiate themselves from the large Kanuri ethnicity. The Kanembu are centered in Lac Prefecture and southern Kanem Prefecture. Although Kanuri was the major language of the Bornu Empire, in Chad, Kanuri speakers are limited to handfuls of speakers in urban centers. Kanuri remains a major language in southeastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.[17]

In the early 1980s, the Kanembu constituted the greatest part of the population of Lac Prefecture, but some Kanembu also lived in the Chari-Baguirmi Prefecture. Once the core ethnic group of the Kanem-Borno Empire, whose territories at one time included northeastern Nigeria and southern Libya, the Kanembu retain ties beyond the borders of Chad. For example, close family and commercial ties bind them with the Kanuri of northeastern Nigeria. Within Chad, many Kanembu of Lac and Kanem prefectures identify with the Alifa of Mao, the governor of the region in precolonial times.[10]

Originally a pastoral people, the Kanuri were one of many Nilo-Saharan groups indigenous to the Central South Sahara, beginning their expansion in the area of Lake Chad in the late 7th century, and absorbing indigenous Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo and Chadic (Afro-Asiatic) speakers. According to Kanuri tradition, Sef, son of Dhu Ifazan of Yemen, arrived in Kanem in the ninth century and united the population into the Sayfawa dynasty. This tradition however, is likely a product of later Islamic influence, reflecting the association with their Arabian origins in the Islamic era. Evidence of indigenous state formation in the Lake Chad area dates back to circa 800 BCE at Zilum.[18]


The use of proverbs is very apparent in the Kanuri religion of Islam where they are used to help with comprehension of social happenings and to teach the meanings of things. These proverbs are created by the wise old men with a point of view based on the situation and what lesson is trying to be taught.[19] Proverbs will usually reference objects found in everyday life. However, the objects used in the proverbs are used in such a way that they teach social attitudes, beliefs or experiences. Often proverbs are built around necessary acts that are carried out in daily life, but made to be easily visualized and applied to other, more intense situations. Kanuri proverbs can be used as a way to scare or warn the people of foolish or dangerous acts, but can also be more light hearted and encouraging.[20]

The Kanuri became Muslims in the 11th century.[21] Kanem became a centre of Muslim learning and the Kanuri soon controlled all the area surrounding Lake Chad and a powerful empire called Kanem Empire, which reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when they ruled much of Middle Africa.[22][23]

Traditional state[edit]

Following the downfall of the Bornu Empire and the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century, the Kanuri were divided under the rule of the British, French and German Empires.

Despite the loss of the Kanuri-led state, the Shehu of Bornu continues as the head of the Bornu Emirate. This traditional Kanuri/Kanembu state maintains a ceremonial rule of the Kanuri people based in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria but acknowledged by the 4 million Kanuri in neighboring countries. The Shehu ("Sheikh") of Bornu draws his authority from a state founded before 1000 CE, the Kanem-Bornu Empire.[24]

The current ruling line, the al-Kanemi dynasty, dates to the accession of Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi in the early 19th century, displacing the Sayfawa dynasty which had ruled from around 1300 CE. The 19th Shehu, Mustafa Ibn Umar El-Kanemi, died in February 2009,[25] and was succeeded by Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi.[26]

Political leaders[edit]

In Nigeria, famous post-independence Kanuri leaders include the politicians Kashim Ibrahim, Ibrahim Imam, Zannah Bukar Dipcharima, Shettima Ali Monguno, Abba Habib, Muhammad Ngileruma, Baba Gana Kingibe, former GNPP leader Waziri Ibrahim, the former military ruler, Sani Abacha, and the former Presidential Candidate Bashir Tofa. In Niger, Kanuri political leaders include the former Prime Minister of Niger Mamane Oumarou, and the former President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja.

Kanuri regionalism in Nigeria[edit]

A Nigeria specific small Kanuri nationalist movement emerged in 1950s, centred on Bornu. Some "Pan-Kanuri" nationalists claimed an area of 532,460 square kilometres (205,580 sq mi) for the territory of what they called "Greater Kanowra", including the modern-day Lac and Kanem Prefectures in Chad, Far North Region in Cameroon, the Yobe and Borno states in Nigeria and Diffa and Zinder Regions in Niger and Darfur in Sudan.[27]

In 1954, the Borno Youth Movement (BYM) was founded and played a role as a mass regionalist political party up through the end of colonialism, though it petered out at independence.[28][29]

Notable Kanuri people[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e "Yerwa Kanuri". Ethnologue. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  2. ^ a b "Manga Kanuri". Ethnologue. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  3. ^ "Tumari Kanuri". Ethnologue. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  4. ^ a b "Africa: Nigeria the World Factbook – Central Intelligence Agency". www.cia.gov. 2023. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  5. ^ "Kanembu". Ethnologue. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  6. ^ "AFRICA | 101 Last Tribes – Kanuri people". www.101lasttribes.com. Retrieved 23 January 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Idrissa, Abdourahmane; Decalo, Samuel (2012). Historical Dictionary of Niger. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-7090-1.
  8. ^ "Kanuri | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 27 December 2022.
  9. ^ "Kanuri | people | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 27 December 2022.
  10. ^ a b Thomas Collelo, ed. Chad: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988. This text, created by the United States federal government for official purposes, is in the public domain, and parts are used here verbatim.
  11. ^ "Kanuri | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 27 December 2022.
  12. ^ Ethnologue Nigeria overview.
  13. ^ History: Ngas-Kanuri Link[permanent dead link]. News Tower (Nigeria) Vol. 1, No. 7 (2006).
  14. ^ Ethnologue KRT.
  15. ^ Ethnologue BMS.
  16. ^ Kanuri language.
  17. ^ Project, Joshua. "Kanuri, Yerwa in Cameroon". Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  18. ^ "KANURI COMPLETE". ResearchGate. Retrieved 23 January 2021.
  19. ^ Finnegan, R. "The Epistemological Significance of Proverbs: An African Perspective". Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press – via JSTOR.
  20. ^ MohammedLaminu, Mele (September 2013). "Kanuri proverbs: metaphoric conceptualization of a cultural discourse". Journal of African Cultural Studies. 25.
  21. ^ "Kanuri | people | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 27 December 2022.
  22. ^ Urvoy, Y. (1949). "Historie De L'Empire Du Bronu (Memoires De L'Institut Francais D'Afrique Noire, No. 7 ed.)". Paris: Librairie Larose: 21.
  23. ^ Jones, Seth G.; Dobbins, James; Byman, Daniel; Chivvis, Christopher S.; Connable, Ben; Martini, Jeffrey; Robinson, Eric; Chandler, Nathan (2017). "Rolling Back the Islamic State". www.rand.org. Retrieved 15 September 2019.
  24. ^ "Nigerian traditional polities". rulers.org. Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  25. ^ Nigeria: Five Jostle for Shehu's Throne – Yar'Adua, Sultan, Governors Attend Funeral. Isa Umar Gusau and Ahmad Salkida, The Daily Trust. 23 February 2009
  26. ^ The intrigues, power play behind the emergence of new Shehu of Borno. The Guardian. Naija Pundit. 6 March 2009
  27. ^ Minahan, J. (1996). Nations Without States. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-28354-0.
  28. ^ Billy J. Dudley. Parties and Politics in Northern Nigeria. Routledge, (1968) ISBN 0-7146-1658-3 pp. 86–89
  29. ^ Richard L. Sklar. Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation. Africa World Press, (2004) Original edition, 1963. ISBN 1-59221-209-3 pp. 338–44

General sources[edit]

External links[edit]