The first ruler of Kanem was sef(Saif). Saif was the ruler of a small family group from Zaghawa who settled peacefully among the people east of Lake Chad around AD 700. Slowly these new settlers took over government from the locals and then founded N’jimi which became a commercially thriving capital of Kanem. At first the early rulers who ruled from N’jimi were nomadic people who had sparse authority outside N’jimi. The influence of the locals caused these early leaders to drop their nomadic lifestyle and settle down. This new resolve led to the unification and permanent government in Kanem.
The achievements of the kingdom Kanem rested solely on these factors: great leadership, organized military and ever expanding trade with North Africa. Islam also played an important role in the rise of the great empire of Kanem. The kingdom prospered because of her rulers, each ruler left a stone that cumulated to build the empire of Kanem.
Mai Umme(Hume), 1085-1097, was the first Muslim leader of Kanem. During his reign Islam took a foothold in Kanem. Such was the hold of Islam that Mai Umme exempted Mohammed Ibn Mani(his Muslim instructor) from taxation. Mai Umme died in Egypt while on Hajj to Mecca.
It was the son of Mai Umme, Dunama 1 who first brought the military of Kanem to limelight. First he organized a large cavalry which he used in uniting the whole Kanem under his rule. Dunami 1 created a fierce army feared in and around central Sudan. During his third Hajj to Mecca he was murdered in Egypt. The Egyptians became suspicious of his rising military power and out of fear for the unknown he was murdered.
Mai Biri, 1151 to 1176 took over the helms of power. He continued in the footstep of Mai Dunami, he brought more honor and respect to the doorstep of Kanuri. The next Mai was Salma, 1194 to 1220, Mai Salma extended the power of Kanuri over the inhabitants North of Kanuri. He also took control of the trade route to Tripoli as far North as Fezzan. Mai Salma grew the military power of Kanuri until she comfortably extended diplomatic ties into Tunisia on equal terms.
Dunama 11 took Kanem to greater height in both militarily and government. Such was the height of his power that Dunami11 was able to field thirty thousand cavalry supported by thousands of infantry on battlefields. Mai Dunami 11 did not only muster a great army but also increased the economy of Kanem through trade. Being a military genus, he instituted a special cavalry made up of men on camel back. This was to increase the mobility and efficiency of his army during combat on desert battlefields. The lands Mai Dunami 11 conquered stretched from North African coastal strip in the north to the upper Nile in the east, he also took Dekwa which is around the southern shores of lake Chad. He raided Adamawa, Kano and exacted tribute across Hausalands.
Dunami 11 was an ardent Muslim. He was so obsessed with Islam that he imposed Islam on any land he conquered. Each conquered land was required to be governed using Islamic laws. His affection for Islam led him to establish hostels in Cairo for the people of Kanem making Haji. It was his love for Islam that ruined this great King.
In his bid to unite his kingdom under Islam Dunami 11 made a huge blunder. He brought out the sacred mune which was an indigenous superstitious artifact. The ancient people of Kanem believed the spirit of victory lives in this mune and as such should not be opened in public. Mai Dunami 11 driven by his love for Islam opened the mune in front of his people. His plan was to show his people how superstitious they were, his plan backfired bringing to ruin his power. The unity existing between the two major religions of Kanem (Islam and tradition) broke bringing division among their adherents. A large number of the people of Kanem alienated themselves from Mai Dunami 11, even some of his sons sided with the angered side. A rebellion began causing the Bulala people to seek independence from Kanem, to them Dunami11 trampled on their honor. Mai Dunami the second was able to defeat the rebellion and other attacks aimed at his authority.
Already the seed of discord had been sown by Mai Dunami 11, the empire of Kanem fell into a long political disaster drawn along religious beliefs after the death of Dunami 11. The empire split into two factions and struggle for power began. Kanem fell into a civil war and this allowed her former tributaries to become independent, they in turn attacked and defeated their former lords. Among these now independent states was the kingdom of Bulala. The Bulala state launched fierce attacks on the weakened empire and drove the people of Kanem out of their capital city N’jimi during the reign of Mai Daud, 1366 to 1376. In the reign of Mai Umar ibn Idris (1384-1388) the power of Kanem broke completely and the whole empire was sacked. The people of Kanem were traded off as slaves by bands of Arabs while the remaining few migrated to Lake Chad and established a semi-nomadic life.