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Idris Alooma: The Most Powerful Islamic Ruler and Fighter of Bornu Empire

One might consider Timbuktu to be the preeminent site of pre-colonial West African learning, but there were other cities known for their teaching traditions across Northern Africa and Western and Central Sudan.

Birni Gazargamu was one such site. This first great center of Islamic study in Central Sudan produced notable personalities such as Idris Alooma, the pioneering 16th century King who improved government and infrastructure.

The reign of Idris Alooma was part of the renowned Sayfawa or Sefuwa dynasty, which dominated the Bornu empire in the 16th and 17th century.

Idris Alaoma was the 54th King of the Sefawa dynasty, ruling the Kanem-Bornu empire in modern-day Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria, according to the Diwan al-salatin Bornu.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire was created in the 7th century and was located in modern-day Nigeria, Chad, Libya, and Cameroon, although it reached its height under the rule of Mai Idris Alooma.

Ma Idris Alooma (ca. 1571 – 1603) reigned over the Kanem-Bornu empire and is noted for his strong military and diplomatic skills.

The Hausa to the west, the Tuareg and Toubou to the north, and the Bulala to the east were his principal rivals.

Idris Alooma was born circa 1538 AD in the Kanem-Bornu Empire’s Sayfawa Dynasty. The Sayfawa dynasty controlled the Kanem-Bornu Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Idris Alooma was only 26 years old when he became the Mai (otherwise known as King) of the Sayfawa Dynasty and Emperor of the Kanem-Bornu Empire in 1564.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire existed in what is now Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. From the 8th century AD onward, it was known as the Kanem Empire by Arabian geographers, and it remained as the autonomous kingdom of Bornu (the Bornu Empire) until 1900.

At its peak, it engulfed not only much of Chad, but also areas of southern Libya (Fezzan), eastern Niger, northeastern Nigeria, and northern Cameroon.

The Bornu Empire (1380s-1893) was a state in what is now northeastern Nigeria that grew to be larger than Kanem, incorporating lands that are now in Chad, Niger, Sudan, and Cameroon.

When the Zaghawa (Kanem people) arrived in the area around Lake Chad, they discovered separate walled-city kingdoms from the Sao civilization, which thrived around the 6th century, with its core around the Chari river, south of Lake Chad.

The Zaghawa absorbed certain Sao customs, although conflict between the two lasted from the 7th to the 16th centuries.

The Zaghawa conquered Kanem during the Duguwa dynasty, which began around 700 CE with King Sef.

In numerous works, Idris Alooma is referred to as Idris Amsami, after his mother’s name.

Alooma is a posthumous qualificative, named after the place where he was buried, Alo or Alao.

The reign of Idris Alooma

Idris Alooma ruled from 1564 to 1596, according to Diwan.

One of the first decisions Alooma took as Mai was to establish Gambaru his capital city rather than the customary capital city of Ngazargamu, which was chosen for its bountiful grounds.

Gambaru was a walled city built with red bricks; the architecture developed during Alooma’s reign was distinguished by the use of red bricks.

On the African continent, warfare and empire expansion were commonplace. Idris Alooma was well-known for his diplomatic abilities, intelligence, leadership, and military prowess.

To expand the Kanem-Bornu Empire, he faced and conquered the Hausa, Tuareg, Toubou, Bulala, and Sao.

Alooma was an extremely inventive and level-headed soldier. He was well-known for his military strategies and dominance over his opponents.

He built fortified military camps to shield his army from attackers while sieging opposing forces, cutting off resources and communication, armored his soldiers and the horses and camels they rode, and used Berber, Ottoman, and Egyptian mercenaries in his army.

His army and empire were powerful and intimidating to their enemies. They would adopt the scorched earth method after victory over their opponents, burning everything on the territory they occupied.

Though Idris Alooma and his army were immensely successful, Alooma’s diplomacy and grasp of warfare allowed him to expand his empire through physical battle and negotiations; it is reported that he wrote the first ceasefire pact in the Kanem-Bornu Empire’s history.

Alooma recognized his political strengths and vulnerabilities, so he formed a council of the kings of the Kanem-Bornu Empire’s most prominent clans.

He frequently conversed with highly educated members of his empire’s administrative staff. He leads a significant administrative reorganization of his empire based on his understanding of Islamic law, aided by his wise counsel.

His primary opponents were the Hausa in the west, the Tuareg and Toubou in the north, the Bulala in the east, and the Sao in the Bornu region.

In one epic poem, he is hailed for his triumphs in over 330 conflicts and about 1,000 fights.

His inventions included established military camps with barricades, constant war, scorched earth tactics in which soldiers destroyed everything in their way, armored horses and riders, and the use of Berber camels, Kotoko boatmen, and iron-helmeted musketeers trained by Ottoman military advisers.

His active diplomacy included connections with Tripoli, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, which dispatched a 200-member delegation across the desert to Alooma’s palace at Ngazargamu. Alooma also signed what was most likely Chad’s first documented treaty or cease-fire.

Based on his religious views and Islamic law, Alooma instituted a variety of legal and administrative reforms.

He funded the construction of various mosques and traveled to Mecca, where he arranged for the erection of a hostel for pilgrims from his realm.

Alooma’s reforming objectives prompted him, like other active politicians, to seek loyal and capable advisers and supporters, and he frequently relied on eunuchs and slaves educated in noble houses.

Alooma sought guidance from a council made up of the heads of the most powerful clans on a regular basis.

He required significant political individuals to reside at the palace, and he strengthened political alliances through proper marriages (Alooma was the son of a Kanuri father and a Bulala mother).

Alooma’s Kanem-Bornu was powerful and prosperous. Government money came from tribute and trade duties and participation.

His realm was strategically located along one of the most expedient ways over the Sahara desert.

Many goods were shipped north, including natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides, but slaves were the most profitable trade. Salt, horses, silk, glass, muskets, and copper were all imported.

Idris Alooma was very interested in commerce and other economic issues. He is credited with clearing the roads, designing better boats for Lake Chad, introducing regular grain units of measurement, and relocating farmers to new regions.

Furthermore, he enhanced the ease and security of travel across the empire, with the goal of making it so safe that “a lone woman dressed in gold might wander with nothing to worry about but God.”

Alooma, like many other monarchs of his period, was preoccupied with military conquest and territorial expansion, and he made various initiatives to improve the professional skill of his troops. He formed a new military force that was armed and taught by Turkish instructors.

He provided his cavalrymen with chain mail, quilted armor, and iron helmets, and he established a cavalry of camels as an army transportation corps.

He also developed larger naval vessels. He continually attacked a specific target in order to tear down the defenders’ resistance and morale while keeping his own forces’ morale high through the generous distribution of war plunder.

Although his military prowess overshadowed his other achievements, Alooma was also an accomplished administrator and diplomat.

He restructured the Bornu administrative system and isolated the judiciary from the main bureaucracy. He established a court of appeals to review lower court decisions.

Also read: The Life of Patrice Lumumba

Alooma’s tactic for stopping conquered people from rebelling was a combination of mass expulsion and immigration.

He shifted his empire’s demographic profile by pushing out obstinate populations and encouraging or forcing other groups from outside Bornu to settle in certain places. He also encouraged intermarriage between his subjects and conquered women.

Idris Alooma maintained diplomatic connections with the Ottoman Empire, sending messengers to the emperor to obtain a promise of the safety of Bornu visitors in Ottoman territory.

He sought the Ottoman ruler’s support in developing a combined strategy to combat the threat of Tuareg raids on trans-Saharan trade.

As a devoted Muslim, Alooma constructed numerous brick mosques throughout Bornu and improved the Islamic court system by recruiting skilled judges to administer the law.

He urged his citizens to carry out their Muslim responsibility to make the journey to Mecca. The fact that his grandson, Mai Ali, undertook three pilgrimages to Mecca, taking hundreds of Bornu pilgrims each time, demonstrates the impact of Alooma’s policy on pilgrimage.

As a devoted Muslim, Alooma constructed numerous brick mosques throughout Bornu and improved the Islamic court system by recruiting skilled judges to administer the law. He urged his citizens to carry out their Muslim responsibility to make the journey to Mecca.

The fact that his grandson, Mai Ali, undertook three pilgrimages to Mecca, taking hundreds of Bornu pilgrims each time, demonstrates the impact of Alooma’s policy on pilgrimage.

He was wounded during combat in the Baguirmi and was later buried in Lake Alo, south of Maiduguri, hence the name Alooma.

He is the most well-known and successful leader of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, and one of the main reasons the empire is remembered today.

Magnus Edet became Nollywood’s youngest award-winning film director in 2013, dedicating it to Idris Alooma, stating he was a powerful man during his reign as a freedom warrior.

Sources

https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mai-idris-alooma

https://www.ontheshoulders1.com/the-giants/this-african-man-was-the-most-powerful-islamic-ruler-of-his-empire-mai-idris-alooma#/

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