The Oyo Empire was the largest Yoruba empire in pre-colonial West Africa, located in the Savannah below the bond of the river Niger in Bussa-Jebba region of southwest Nigeria. It occupied most of the states between the Volta River in the west and the Niger River in the east. The establishment of the empire was well known by the 14th century CE and, by its complex political structure, wealth, trade and formidable cavalry, it rose to become the most important kingdom in West Africa by the 17th and 18th centuries. Its impact was felt not only by other Yoruba kingdoms but by neighboring kingdoms including the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Benin Republic, bordering Nigeria.
Origin of the Oyo Empire
There are different accounts of the birth of the Oyo Empire. This is due to the lack of written history prior to the influence of missionaries. Yoruba history is widely based on oral traditions but the establishment of the empire can be traced to Oranmiyan. Yoruba history is widely based on oral traditions and mythology, which traces the empire to Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa who is regarded as the founder of the Yoruba people. Oranmiyan was the son of Oduduwa who is regarded as the founder of the Yoruba people.
The Yoruba can trace their origin to two major stories. The first is cosmological; the second is a story of migration.
The cosmological tradition gives an account of how Oduduwa was a god. In this account, Oduduwa had descended from heaven to create the Earth and then settled in Ile Ife, a place now considered the birthplace of the Yoruba race. Olodumare (translated roughly as God) had tasked a rival god, Obatala, with the duty of creating man and the Earth. Obatala while on the way down from heaven became drunk on palm wine. His task could not be achieved and led to the creation of albinos, hunchbacks, and other physical anomalies. Olodumare, seeing Obatala’s failure, then sent Oduduwa to complete the task of the creation.
In the migration story, Oduduwa and his people had fled Mecca or somewhere in the East after being driven out for idolatry and pagan practices. Oral tradition suggests that there was a chain of migration between 700 and 1000 CE. Oduduwa, in this tradition, was a crown prince. When Oduduwa and his followers got to Ile-Ife, he is said to have met another group of people, fought them, and established his authority.
Both traditions agree that Oduduwa had seven children who became the founders of the different Yoruba groups:
- The first child was a princess named Owu. She became the mother of the Olowu, the king of the Owu people.
- The second child Alaketu was also a princess whose progeny created the Ketu people.
- The third child was said to have founded the Benin people.
- The fourth child Orangun became the king of Ila.
- The Sabe people were founded by Onisabe, the fifth child.
- Olupopo, the sixth child founded the Popo people.
- Lastly, Oranmiyan, the seventh child ( who is mistaken for a grandchild in some accounts) was the founder of the Oyo people.
While this account of Oduduwa’s descendants is the strongest, there is another account about how Oranmiyan came to found Oyo.
In the second account, Oranmiyan along with his brother made a pact to attack a northern neighbor who had insulted their father, Oduduwa, the first Ọọni (King) of Ile Ife. On the way to the battle, the brothers fought and split up. Oranmiyan and his forces were too small to make a meaningful attack. He wandered off to the southern shore until he reached Bussa (in Borgu, a town in Northern Nigeria.) There, he met a local priest who entertained him and gave him a snake with a charm attached to its throat. The priest instructed him to follow the snake for seven days until it would stop and disappear into the ground.
Following the priest’s instructions, Oranmiyan stopped and established Oyo where the snake disappeared. This place was known as Ajaka. In this new kingdom, Oranmiyan established a society that would eventually grow into an empire and Oranmiyan became the first Alaafin (King) of the Oyo empire.
Early Period of the Oyo Empire
The early period of the empire was from the 14th to the 15th centuries CE. In this period, Oyo consolidated its existence. Oranmiyan established a stable society that went on to grow into an empire. After he had achieved this, he left to Ile-Ife, the land of his father, leaving Oyo to his sons.
Oranmiyan died at Ile Ife where a staff was erected in his honor. The staff, “Opa Oranmiyan (Oranmiyan Staff) still stands there till today.
In 1042, Oranmiyan was succeeded by his son, Ajaka, who was widely known to be a weak king and more devoted to animal husbandry than ruling the empire. During his reign, Oyo had suffered a series of attacks from its neighbors but Ajaka was not able to channel the war-like spirit that the empire was known for, and as a result, he was removed.
Sango the God of Thunder
After his dethronement, his brother, Sango became the Alaafin (King) of Oyo. During Sango’s reign, Oyo was constantly at war. He was the embodiment of a war-like king. When there was no war, he would provoke it. He was even rumored to possess magical powers and was said to emit fire and smoke from his mouth and nose.
Sango fought at the battlefront and mostly won, and throughout his reign, Oyo was at war. In the end, he was the architect of his own downfall. Once, when he had invoked lightning and thunder, as the story goes, he mistakenly killed his wives and children.
Devastated by this tragedy, he committed suicide. The place of Sango’s suicide was known as Koso (a town which later became the capital city of Oyo). The Yoruba adage Şango so ni Koso or Obakoso (the King died at Koso or King of Koso) reflects this fact. In Yoruba mythology, Sango is worshipped as the god of thunder.
Ajaka’s Second Reign
After the death of Sango, Ajaka returned to the throne and adopted an aggressive strategy. The new Ajaka was ruthless and brought the warring Nupe neighbors to a standstill. With this, he was able to cement Sango’s influence as his own over Oyo’s vassals.
With subsequent Alaafins, Oyo lived in peace with very few wars fought. It was only when Alaafin Onigbogi (1490–1542 CE.) assumed power that Oyo was toppled by the Tapas. The Oyo Empire was attacked and destabilized. The Oyo people were forced to take refuge in Bariba land where Onigbogi died. Three other Alaafins died in exile.
Alaafin Abipa (1570–1588 CE.) on becoming king, chased out the Tapa from the Oyo empire. Subsequently, other Alaafins (Kings) safeguarded the sanctity and authority of the empire.
Oyo Empire’s Trade and Geography
The empire covered an area north of Lagos in an ideal geographic location between the Volta and Niger Rivers. Due to this location, the empire was an important trade center.
Prior to the Berlin Conference (1884 -1885 CE) which led to the creation of imposed boundaries, the Yoruba speaking people lived in an area that stretched between the rivers Niger in Nigeria and Mono in Togo.
The land was good for agricultural cultivation. Dotting this vast land were hills, valleys, mountains, and low flat plateaus. Natural resources existed in large quantities, and the weather was divided between dry and wet seasons. Due to these geographical and topographical features, farming was an important occupation for the Yoruba people.
The Yoruba were also textile makers, weavers, blacksmiths, and enjoyed hunting as a sport and for food.
The Yoruba were active participants in the Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic trade in which goods and ideas were exchanged. This led to exponential growth and development which allowed the Oyo empire to capitalize on its influence and create an empire with a complex democracy and intimidating army.
Political Structure of the Oyo Empire
The Oyo Empire was a well-defined democracy. It has often been described as a constitutional monarchy. Well entrenched in the system were checks and balances that prevented the abuse of powers at all echelons of the monarchy. It had a hierarchical structure that kept the government organized.
The Alaafin was the king. He was considered a ruler with paramount powers emanating from God. He was a semi-divine king. Hence, he was an absolute ruler with uncheckable powers. He was at the center of the Oyo Empire.
He ruled with consultation from the Oyo Mesi. The Oyo Mesi were chiefs who resembled the House of Lords or Assembly or Legislature in a modern democracy.
The position of the Alaafin was sacred and hereditary. Candidature for the position was from the Royal family. An election was then carried out for the nominated candidates before a winner was chosen. For the coronation of the king, intricate and elaborate rituals were then carried out by the priests. Once the rituals were complete, he was no longer considered an ordinary man.
The Alaafin lived secluded in his palace and it was forbidden for him to eat in public. He was barely ever seen except during the Ifa, Orun and Bere religious festivals. The Alaafin acted as a judge in rare and grievous crimes such as murder, treason, arson, and blasphemy.
Alaafin roughly translates to “the owner of the palace.” He was also usually referred to by his subjects as Kabiesi – Alaseikeji Orisa meaning one who no one dared to question.
The Alaafin’s first son, Aremo, who was the heir to the throne ruled alongside the Alaafin. Although he had inferior powers, he was to die with the Alaafin. The reason for this was to prevent him from toppling his father or conspiring in a palace coup.
The Oyo Mesi was a council of senior chiefs. They were saddled with the responsibility of enthroning and dethroning kings. They enthroned a king after the demise of an incumbent one. They dethroned kings that abused their powers by going against the laws of the state. The dethronement of a king was similar to modern-day impeachment. They were seven in number headed by the Bashorun who served much like a prime minister. Other roles were Agbaakin, Samu, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku, and Ashipa.
The Oyo Mesi ensured that the King was not autocratic or tyrannical in ruling over the empire. They also ensured that the King was proactive in ensuring the peaceful co-existence of his vassals and that the King was able to protect the empire from internal and external attacks.
An Alaafin who failed at his duties was sent an empty calabash (gourd) by the Oyo Mesi. This symbolized “the people reject you, the earth rejects you.” On receiving the calabash, the Alaafin was expected to commit suicide.
The Oyo Mesi was not left unchecked. The dethronement of a king required concrete reasons that were solid and not just arbitrary. A council of chiefs known as the Ogboni checked the Oyo Mesi. They served as a watchdog for the actions of the Bashorun and his council. Because the Ogboni enjoyed public support and were backed by the authority of religion, their checks carried divine authority.
The Ogboni was essentially a cult. The cult was responsible for carrying out important rituals and sacrifices for the empire. They carried out the appointment and coronation of a new king and were headed by the Oluwo or Head Priest.
Because the members of this secret cult were reputable members of the society who were revered for their wisdom, knowledge, and religious importance, they enjoyed a special revered in the empire.
Are Ona Kakanfo
The Are Ona Kakanfo was the field Marshal appointed by the Oyo Mesi and his 70 subordinate war chiefs, the Eso, were also appointed and promoted by the Oyo Mesi.
The potential of a coup was minimized by the fact that the Are Ona Kakanfo was from a slave origin or the lowest caste. This isolated him from politics. He was also forbidden from entering the capital. He was to commit suicide if the army suffered an inglorious defeat.
Aside from this major hierarchy at the center, much like other Yoruba empires, the empire had a basic political unit – the Ilu (town). It was comprised of people from a single lineage. A town consisted of many families who formed the bedrock of the government.
In the township or settlement, the component lineages were headed by the Baale or father of the house. He was in charge of the administration and control of the township. At the apex, there was the Ọba who headed the component townships in a vassal under the Oyo Kingdom.
The Alaafin appointed the Ọba of each component township. This was because an Oba’s township was a vassal under the Alaafin (King) himself. The Alaafin collected tributes from these vassals such as agricultural produce and other material things.
The Alaafin, at the apex, chose the Oba from the local ruling lineages. The Oba’s rule was checked by the local councils, secret societies, and age groups who ensured that the Ọba was not high-handed and followed the will of the people he ruled.
These constitutional checks and balances ensured that the Oyo empire functioned under a well-structured system of government. Essentially, it proves a strong existence of democratic rule before the arrival of the colonialist. There were divisions between the executive, judicial, and legislative powers in the empire and this ensured that the vast expanse of land under its control enjoyed peace and stability.
Oyo Empire Today
As with all of the pre-colonial empires, the Oyo Empire collapsed with the incursion of the British colonial rule. The increase in the empire’s wealth led to a steady fall of its influence and internal strife as Bashorun Gaha, a Prime minister, singlehandedly deposed three consecutive Alaafins.
The Oyo empire today is linked to prominent Yoruba cities such as Ibadan, Ogbomosho, and Oshogbo. The monarchy of the Oyo empire still exists in present-day Oyo State in Nigeria regulated by the elected governor of the state.
The culture of the empire is still widespread among the Yoruba. The site of the staff of Oranmiyan is a tourist attraction visited by many. The Ifa, Bere, and Orun religious festivals are still celebrated and the Oyo Empire’s complex political structure and culture continue to be the subject of scholarly discourse.