The present-day city of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria falls inside territory that was part of the ancient Kanem Bornu empire that go back about 1,400 years ago. But it was only in 1907 that circumstances sprang up the city of Maiduguri at a crucial moment in the history of the region.

After more than 800 years of the Sefawa dynasty, it was the brutal rule of Rabeh Ibn Fade-Allah, the Sudanese warlord and slave raider, in the late 19th century that finally weakened the empire and left it prostrate and helpless as British colonialists swept by not long after. Under the agreement signed by Britain and France in 1898, a large part of the old Kanem Bornu empire fell under British control.

Then in 1907 the British chose Maiduguri, a war camp set up on the south bank of the Alo River, by Maidugu, a warrior who had moved there from the old Kanem Bornu  capital – Birnin Ngarzagamu – as its regional administrative centre. The same year, the reigning El Kanemi  Shehu Bukar Garbai chose Yerwa, (on the north bank of the river) as his new capital, after he moved from Kukawa, then under French control.

The twin settlements came to be known as Maiduguri or Yerwa to the local people. Farming and the rearing of livestock and cottage skills such as tanning, weaving and dyeing were among the major occupations in the area at the time. Maiduguri is also on a route used for centuries by West African Muslims going to Mecca from as far away as Senegal, which took them across modern-day Sudan into Egypt, then across the Sinai Peninsula.

Until today the various specialized guilds that emerged during the centuries of the old Kanuri Kingdom still have their distinct quarters in Maiduguri. Thus you have the Kumozomari for the calabash makers, the Mundulmari for where the tanners stay,  the Arinmari for dyers, and the Kaalmari for blacksmiths.

Ķogi dancers
Female dancers of the Kanuri ethnic group in Maiduguri (Photo: Sunday Alamba).

A Modern City Emerges

Maiduguri’s prestige increased after the El-Kanemi moved his palace to the place  and the British set up their regional administrative base there. By 1913 tax had been introduced by the British as a source of revenue for the Bornu Provincial Native Authority. A provincial school for Western education was opened in 1915, creating the pool from which  the early bureaucrats that ran the colonial administration were drawn.

An important turning point was when it became an airbase for the North African and the Middle Eastern campaign of the British and their allies during the Second World War that broke out in 1939. This led to a new surge of immigrants in search of work into the emerging urban centre from near and far. Many fighters who returned from the war were later resettled by the colonial government in the Gamboru district of the city.

Kashim Ibrahim, as the head of the native administration under British colonial rule, oversaw Maiduguri’s rapid modernization with the provision of more basic services such as schools, a road network, hospitals and other facilities.

The Nigerian railways was extended to Maiduguri in 1964 under the northern regional government of Ahmadu Bello, to help its role as a trading hub for agricultural produce such as cotton, cowpea, grains and livestock. It was first the capital of the Northeastern state, created in 1967, and later that of Borno state nine years later. The city is also the host to the biggest university in Nigeria’s northeast, the University of Maiduguri.

It became a metropole which had a distinct stamp of Muslim Kanuri hospitableness that was both tolerant and broadminded. It became a city where one also encountered other varied peoples including the non-Muslim communities from the southern part of Borno state to the fully integrated Shuwa Arabs, all mixed in with Igbo traders and Yoruba taxi drivers to form a vibrant Nigerian milieu.

Traditional trumpeters in the Shehu’s palace in Maiduguri.

Yet, the story of modern Maiduguri won’t be complete without mention of the violent, religious uprisings that have dominated the city’s existence in recent decades. The recent events have their antecedents in previous rebellions such as that waged by the Cameroonian preacher Maitatsine and his successors, which affected Maiduguri (among other places) in the 1980s and the 1990s. They usually bore an apocalyptic message to save the poor and do justice to oppressors and non-believers.

The emergence of the Boko Haram insurgency, with Maiduguri as it’s birthplace, while harking to those antecedents, has borrowed freely from violent methods out there in the global village.  It has also been an opportunity for Maiduguri to show its resilience as a city. The citizens fought back to reclaim their city from militants and are still fighting to defend it, bruised but unbowed.

Weather and Topography

Maiduguri falls into the Sahel Savannah region of West Africa, which is partly arid with very limited rainfall and temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius in the hottest periods of March-April, and below 10 degrees during Harmattan nights around December and January.

The rains begin effectively in June, reach their peak in August and begin to recede by the end of September. This is the main farming season when farmers grow mostly grains, such as sorghum, millet, rice and maize, and legumes such as cowpea.

Places of Interest

Maiduguri Museum hosts artefacts and images from Kanem Bornu’s ancient history and from the nearby cultures. It also features contemporary works that reflect the continuity of those cultures.

The palace of the El Kanemi, the Shehu of Borno, is one of the major places of interest in Maiduguri. It reflects the pomp and grandeur that has been associated with the Kanem Bornu empire for more than 1,000 years.

The palace built with burnt bricks by Kanuri traditional masons, borrows substantially from Arab architecture and is reminiscent of the prolonged influence of Islam in the region.

The Sanda Kyarimi Park Zoo and Botanical Garden on Shehu Laminu Way is a wildlife sanctuary created in 1970 out of a natural forest reserve. It has a wide variety of animal and plant species.

Getting there

There are daily flights to Maiduguri from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja and the commercial capital, Lagos. There are also connecting flights from the cities of Kano and Yola.

Maiduguri has road links to Kano, Jos and Jalingo in Nigeria as well as to Maroua in Cameroon, Ndjamena, the capital of Chad and to Diffa in Niger Republic.