Once upon a time in the 16th century Africa, one of the most powerful empires of the region, -with a population of about 5,000,000 people- was ruled by a series of successive kings that amount to around 78 kings. Among those rulers, there was one prominent queen that history failed to showcase her due right and acknowledge her due to how female rulers were regarded at that time, or shall we say, overlooked. That is why in this article, we will be shedding the light on this queen, Aissa, queen of the Empire of Bornu.
The Bornu Empire (1380 – 1893)
Due to the fact that Arab historians at the time used to ignore women sovereigns, there was not much recorded about her rule which resulted in some discrepancy about the parentage and dates of queen Aissa. Moreover, historians record that queen Aissa’s successor, Idris Aluma, enforced a Muslim bureaucracy upon previous pagan subjects, which makes it all the more reason for the Arab historians to overlook her rule in their records. However, significant evidence of her reign does exist among the local traditions.
Aissa Koli Ngirmaramma (also known as Aisa Kili) succeeded Abdullah III in ruling the Kanuri Empire of Bornu in West Africa from either 1497 to 1504 or 1563 to 1570. She was the 21st ruler in a line of 25 rulers of the Bornu Empire, yet she uniquely occupied the title of being the only female leader and queen among those rulers.
According to accounts, Aissa Koli was the daughter of Ali Gaji Zanani. Ali Gaji ruled for one year and then he died in around 1545/1547 (or 1497). After Ali Gaji Zanani’s death, Dunama VI, a relative of Ali’s succeeded him. Records mention that Dunama was succeeded by Abdullah III and after Abdullah, it was believed that there was no male heir, so Aissa Koli was announced as the queen of the Bornu Empire. Queen Aissa ruled alone for seven years.
However, Aissa was unaware of the existence of a brother, Idris. This was because at the time, the interim ruler, Dunama had threatened to kill the sons of all the former kings. Idris’s mother who was a Bulala, had sent off her son to live with the safety of her Bulala relatives. At the time when Aissa Koli’s reign began, her hidden half-brother, Idris was five years old. When Idris reached the age of twelve, he wrote to his mother and sister informing them of his existence and survival. The Bornu polity had a fixed term of seven years of ruling, so when Aissa’s term was almost up, she contacted her brother asking him to return back home. Thus, after Aissa’s 7 years of ruling, Idris Aluma was crowned king, and Aissa remained in a position of authority and influence as a trusted advisor to her long-exiled brother.
Other sources provide a slightly different account saying that Aissa was the daughter of King Dunama, a relative of Ali Gaji, who succeeded Ali in the reign. These accounts say that Ali had a young son, Idris, and that at the age of five he was sent away to live with his mother’s Bulala relatives in the Kingdom of Kanem, for fear that he could have been killed by Dunama. The rest of the story matches up with the previous one, for by the time he was twelve years old, Idris contacted his mother and Aissa. After that, when Aissa’s seven years term was up, she invited him to return to his homeland and assume his rightful position as king.
Both stories confirm that Aissa continued to support her brother as his adviser on government procedures and the ways of their empire and subjects. Her constant assistance strengthened his position against inter-dynastic strife until he grew to manhood. Thus, it can be said that Aissa Koli played a major role in the forming of the boy who came to be the most famous king in the one thousand year Sefawa dynasty of Kanem-Bornu.
Musketeers of Kanem-Bornu
Even though one would think that the current day African rulers should supposedly be leading with democracy, the reality remains to differ. If we take a look at the modern day rulers such as Omar Al-Bashir president of Sudan (from 1989 to 2019), Hosni Mubarak president of Egypt (from 1981 to 2011) and Robert Mugabe president of Zimbabwe (from 1987 to 2017), you’ll notice that their ruling lasted for thirty years. Just the sheer duration of their rule indicates that they were power-hungry and ruled their nations with dictatorship, and if it weren’t for the uprisings of their people, they probably wouldn’t have left their positions. This, unfortunately, resulted in causalities and losses in lives as well as causing major distress on the economy of said countries. In contrast, Aissa served her seven years term as a queen, and when her term was up, she proactively sought out her half-brother and handed over power without bloodshed. Not only was the power transition a smooth process, but the empire that she controlled for seven years was a rather complex one, and her ruling was dedicated to the wellbeing of her nation and the thriving of that empire.
Map of the trade routes in Medieval Africa
At its height, the Kanem-Bornu Empire encompassed an area extending over Chad, parts of southern Libya and eastern Niger, northern Cameroon and northeastern Nigeria. However, internal struggles along with external attacks tore the empire apart leaving the Bornu Empire as a smaller successor state. Still, the empire was centrally located along one of the most convenient trans-Saharan routes. The connections from Fezzan to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea were fairly facilitated. There were also easy routes connecting the kingdom directly to the Eastern regions of Africa. As for the Western regions, the empire was well-connected to the Empire of Ghana and the Empire of Mali. The empire controlled a strongly built network of trade between the West African kingdoms, North Africa, and East Africa.
Queen Aissa Koli’s reign maintained the Empire’s stability and prosperity, based chiefly on commerce. And at a time when women feared to venture alone in major European cities like London and Paris for fear of attack, the villages and towns of the Bornu Empire maintained their safety, security and continued to be peaceful and prosperous.
- Guida M. Jackson: Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide. ISBN-13: 978-1576070918.
- The Muslim Diaspora (Volume 1, 570-1500): A Comprehensive Chronology of the Spread of Islam in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. ISBN-13: 978-0786447138
- Guida M. Jackson: Women Leaders of Africa, Asia, Middle East, and Pacific. ISBN-13: 978-1441558442