The Kanuri people are an African ethnic group living largely in the lands of the former Kanem and Bornu Empires in Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. Those generally termed Kanuri include several subgroups and dialect groups, some of whom feel themselves distinct from the Kanuri. Most trace their origins to ruling lineages of the medieval Kanem-Bornu Empire, its client states or provinces. In contrast to neighboring Toubou or Zaghawa pastoralists, Kanuri groups have traditionally been sedentary, engaging in farming, fishing the Chad Basin, and engaged in trade and salt processing.
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 and northern Cameroon, but in Chad it is limited to handfuls of speakers in urban centers.
The largest population of Kanuri reside in the northeast corner of Nigeria, 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 the some 200,000 speakers of the Manga or Mangari dialect. The Nga people in Bauchi State trace their origins to a Kanuri diaspora.
In southeastern Niger, where they form the majority of the sedentary population, the Kanuri are commonly called Beri Beri (a Hausa name). The 400,000 Kanuri population in Niger includes the Manga or Mangari subgroup, numbering some 100,000 (1997) in the area east of Zinder, who regard themselves as distinct from the Beri Beri.
Around 40,000 (1998) members of the Tumari subgroup, sometimes called Kanembu in Niger, are a distinct Kanuri subgroup living in the N’guigmi area, and are distinct from the Chadian Kanembu people. In the Kaour escarpment oasis of eastern Niger, the Kanuri are further divided into the Bla Bla subgroup, numbering some 20,000 (2003), and are the dominant ethnic group in the salt evaporation and trade industry of Bilma.
Kanuri speak varieties of Kanuri, one of the Nilo-Saharan languages. Divisions include the Manga, Tumari, and Bilma dialects of Central Kanuri and the more distinct Kanembu language.
Inheriting the religious and cultural traditions of the Kanem-Bornu state, Kanuri peoples 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.
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.
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 both indigenous Nilo-Saharan 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.
The Kanuri became Muslims in the 11th century. 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.
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.
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,  and was succeeded by Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi.
In Nigeria, famous post-independence Kanuri leaders include the politicians Kashim Ibrahim, Ibrahim Imam, Zannah Bukar Dipcharima, Shettima Ali Monguno, Baba Gana Kingibe, former GNPP leader Waziri Ibrahim, and the former military ruler, Sani Abacha. In Niger, Kanuri political leaders include the former Prime Minister of Niger Mamane Oumarou, and the former President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja.
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 and Diffa and Zinder Regions in Niger.
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.