The #Oyo People’s #Empire of Old: Part One


Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III. Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III

Oyo Empire was one of the Largest Empire in West African state established by Yoruba people in the 15thcentury. The empire succeeded lle-lfe as the dominant kingdom in the area after 1700 and was the most politically important state in the region from the mid 17th  to late 18th century over most of the other kingdoms in Yoruba land including some nearby African states like Fon kingdom of Dahomey in The Republic of Benin.

The origin of Oyo Empire lies with Oranmiyan, the second prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of lle-lfe. Oranmiyan made an agreement with his brother to launch a punitive raid on the northern neighbors for insulting their father Oba Oduduwa the first Ooni of lfe. On their way to the battle, the brothers quarreled and their armies split up, Oranmiyan’s force was too small to make a successful attack, so he wandered the southern shore until he reached Bussa. On getting to the shore he met their local chief who entertained him and also provided a large snake with a magic charm attached to its throat. The chief instructed him to follow the snake until it stopped somewhere for seven days and disappeared on the ground. Oranmiyan accepted the advice and the snake stopped & disappeared in a place he named Oyo.  He made Oyo his new kingdom and was the first Oba with the title of “Alaafin of Oyo” (Alaafin which means the Owner of the Palace).

Historically, Oranmiyan the first Oba of Oyo was succeeded by Oba Ajaka but was later removed from his post because he lacked Yoruba military virtue and he also allows his sub-chiefs too much independence. The throne was then conferred upon his brother, Sango who was deified as the god of thunder and Lightning. Not so long after Sango’s death occurred Ajaka returned to the throne with more warlike and Oppressive force. However, Ajaka’s successor Kori managed to conquer the rest of what historian’s referred to as the metropolitan Oyo. The heart of metropolitan Oyo was the capital of Oyo-lle (which is known as Katunga or old Oyo or Oyo Oro). The two most relevant structures in Oyo-lle were the Alaafin’s palace and his market. The palace was at the center of the city close to Oba’s market called ‘Ojo-oba’(The King’s Market). Around the capital of Oyo-lle was a tall earthen wall for defense with 17 gates. The relevant of the two structures signifies the importance of it to the king.

Oyo Empire developed a highly sophisticated political structure to govern its territorial domains where the Alaafin of Oyo was the head of the empire and supreme overlord of the people, he was responsible for keeping tributaries safe from attack, settling internal quarrels between sub-rulers and also mediating between those sub-rulers and their people. He was also responsible for appointing certain religious and government officials, who were usually eunuchs. These officials are known as llari or half heads, because of the custom of shaving half of their heads and applying what is believed to be magical substances into it. Hundreds of llari’s were divided among the sexes.

The junior member of the llari did menial tasks while senior acted as guards or sometimes messengers to the other world via sacrifice. All the sub-courts of Oyo Empire have llari that acts as both spies and taxmen. They were appointed to visit and sometimes reside in Dahomey and Egbado Corridor to collect taxes and spy on Dahomey’s military success so that Alaafin of Oyo will get his cut from the spoils of war.

The Oyo Mesi’s were seven principal councilors of the empire (state); they constituted the electoral council and possess the legislative powers to carry out their duty. The seven councilors are the Bashorun, Agbaakin, Samu, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku, and Ashipa. They represent the voice of the nation and also had the chief responsibility of protecting the interest of the empire. Alaafin also takes council from them when matters affecting the state occurs.

Bashorun the head of the council always consult the oracle whenever the new Alaafin is going to be appointed, this is because they believe that Alaafin is appointed by gods.

The Ogboni’s represent the popular opinion backed by the authority of religion and the view of Oyo Mesi which is moderated by Ogboni and most interestingly there are checks and balances on the power of Alaafin and Oyo Mesi. Ogboni was a powerful secret society comprised of freemen noted for their age, wisdom, importance in religious and political affairs.  The members enjoy immense power over the common people due to their religious station.

Many believed that the downfall of the Oyo empire had started as early as 1754 with the coups sponsored by the Oyo Prime Minister Bashorun Gaa. Gaa conspired with the Oyo Mesi’s to force four successive Alaafins to commit ritual suicide after they had been presented with the symbolic parrot’s egg. Gaa’s treachery was not ended until 1774 during the reign of Alaafin Abiodun, the fifth Alaafin he served with who executed him but the instability that had been brought about by these intrigues had further weakened and impoverished Oyo. In 1789, Alaafin Abiodun was killed by his son Awole who subsequently ascended the throne but this brought about a series of constitutional upheavals, dynastic intrigues and local particularism that weakened the empire.

By 1796 Alaafin Awole was ousted by the government in llorin by the revolt initiated by Afonja who was the then Are Ona Kakanfo. The revolt led to the secession of llorin which played a crucial role in the destruction of Oyo Empire.  At his rejection by the council, Oba Awole cursed the empire as he prepared to commit suicide he said

“My curse is on you and your disloyalty and your disobedience, so let your children disobey you. If you send them on an errand, let them never return to bring you word again. To all points I shot my arrows, you will be carried as slaves. My curse will carry to the sea and beyond the seas. Slaves will rule over you, and you their masters will become slaves. Broken calabash can be mended but not a broken dish; so let my words be irrevocable.” 

After Awole’s death, Afonja, now master of Illorin, invited an itinerant fulani scholar of Islam called Alim al-Salih into his ranks. By doing this, he hoped to secure the support of Yoruba Muslims (mainly slaves taking care of the Empire’s horses) and volunteers from the Hausa-Fulani north in keeping Ilorin independent. Torn by internal struggle, Oyo could not defend itself against the Fulani and Oyo-Ile was razed by the fulani empire in 1835. To this day, the Illorin’s traditional ruler is an emir, whereas in the rest of Yoruba towns the kings are called Oba or Baale (Baale or Baba Onile meaning “Father of the land” or “Lord of the land”).

Despite all attempts, Oyo Empire eventually became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888. Its states ceased to exist as any sort of power and never regained its prominence in the region. However, during the colonial period, the Yorubas were one of the most urbanized (living in city-like areas) groups in Africa. About 22% of the population lived in large areas with population exceeding 100,000 and over 50% lived in cities made up of 25,000 or more people. The Yorubas continue to be the most urbanized African ethnic group today. Old Oyo linked cities such as Ibadan, Osogbo, and Ogbomoso, which were some of the major cities that flourished after the collapse.



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