The Kanuri live in settlements ranging in size from the large city of Maiduguri—which is the capital of Borno and has a population of 80,000—to tiny hamlets of three or four households. About two-thirds of the population live in villages of from 1,000 to 5,000 people. About one-quarter live in cities of more than 10,000. Hamlets are found about every 1.5 to 3 kilometers, and larger villages every 8 or 10 kilometers. Settlements are composed of walled compounds, made up of mud- or grass-mat-walled houses, with thatched conical roofs. Farms extend in a circle from the settlement, with scattered farms, pastures, and free land beyond.
Before European contact, Bornu was a feudal state, with royal lineages, a landholding aristocracy, peasants, and slaves. Today, in almost all cases, important political leaders are descendants of the aristocratic lineages, but popular elections have added commoners to their ranks. When the British took control at the beginning of the twentieth century, they abolished slavery and took over the top decision-making positions, but they left most of the social system intact. In small villages, there is little or no labor specialization, and differences in wealth are slight. In towns and cities, however, social stratification is pronounced, and differences in wealth may be great. New trading opportunities, Western education, and political power through election and financial support of others have all served to create a situation in which there are many commoners who have become as wealthy as the aristocrate.
Relationships between social unequals, in which each person has diffuse obligations to and expectations of the other, is still an integral part of Kanuri culture today. In the past, the principal contrast was between the nobility and royalty, on the one hand, and commoners, on the other. Today this contrast is being transformed to one between the modern, educated, bureaucratic elite and the traditional, illiterate peasantry. Occupations that are related to politics and religion have high status, whereas those that are associated with things thought to be dirty have low status. Quranic scholars and individuals with political positions have high status, but barbers, blacksmiths, well diggers, tanners, and butchers have very low status. In between are the great bulk of commoners who are farmers, artisans, and traders. Musicians (classed as beggars) and moneylenders (who, because they charge interest, are viewed as violators of Islamic law) hold the lowest status of all.
Another major dimension of social inequality in Borno is between men and women. In a pattern that reflects Islamic law as it is interpreted locally, women are legally and socially inferior to men, and they are considered a major source of instability. Accordingly, various civil and social rights are denied to women.
The Bornu Emirate is a political entity and is viewed as such by its inhabitants. Its present political structure is a result of the colonial era, but is still largely based on precolonial values, traditions, and ideology. The shehu, or king, is both the political and the religious leader of the emirate. There are twenty-one districts, each with a district head—usually a member of the aristocracy—and a district capital. The districts are composed of villages, each with its own headman ( lawan ), and of towns and cities, each of which may have more than one headman. Villages, towns, and cities are composed of wards and surrounding hamlets. Wards and hamlets are each run by a bullama, usually the founder or senior male.