Monday 10 August 2015

Nigerian Empires: Oyo Empire (1400 - 1896)

The Oyo Empire was a Yoruba empire of what is today western and northern Nigeria. Established in the 14th century, the Oyo Empire grew to become one of the largest West African states. It rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, wealth gained from trade and its powerful cavalry.

The Oyo Empire was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th to the late 19th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yorubaland, but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the modern Republic of Benin to the west.

According to traditions, Oyo derived from a great Yoruba ancestor and hero, Oduduwa, who came from the east to settle at Ile-Ife and whose son became the first alaafin (alafin), or ruler, of Oyo. Linguistic evidence suggests that two waves of immigrants came into Yorubaland between 700 and 1000, the second settling at Oyo in the open country north of the Guinea forest. This second state became preeminent among all Yoruba states because of its favourable trading position, its natural resources, and the industry of its inhabitants.

Early in the 16th century Oyo was a minor state, powerless before its northern neighbours Borgu and Nupe—by whom it was conquered in 1550. The power of Oyo was already growing by the end of the century, however, thanks to the alaafin Orompoto, who used the wealth derived from trade to establish a cavalry force and to maintain a trained army.

Oyo subjugated the kingdom of Dahomey in the west in two phases (1724–30, 1738–48) and traded with European merchants on the coast through the port of Ajase (now Porto-Novo). As Oyo’s wealth increased, so did its leaders’ political options; some wished to concentrate on amassing wealth, while others advocated the use of wealth for territorial expansion. This difference was not resolved until the alaafin Abiodun (reigned c. 1770–89) conquered his opponents in a bitter civil war and pursued a policy of economic development based primarily on the coastal trade with European merchants.

Abiodun’s neglect of everything but the economy weakened the army, and thus the means by which the central government maintained control. His successor, Alaafin Awole, inherited local revolts, an administration tenuously maintained by a complex system of public service, and a decline in the power of tributary chiefs. The decline was exacerbated by quarrels between the alaafin and his advisers; it continued throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, when Oyo began to lose control of its trade routes to the coast. Oyo was invaded by the newly risen Fon of Dahomey, and soon after 1900 it was captured by militant Fulani Muslims from Hausaland in the northeast.

The Yoruba of Oyo went through an interrugnum of 80 years as an exiled dynasty after its defeat by the Nupe. They re-established Oyo as more centralized and expansive than ever. The people created a government that established its power over a vast empire. During the 17th century, Oyo began a long stretch of growth, becoming a major empire. Oyo never encompassed all Yoruba-speaking people, but it was the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history.


Many believe the decline of the Oyo empire had started as early as 1754 with the dynastic intrigues and palace coups sponsored by the Oyo Prime Minister Bashorun Gaha. Gaha, in his quest for absolute power, conspired with the Oyo Mesi and probably to some extent the Ogboni to force four successive Alaafins to commit ritual suicide after they had been presented with the symbolic parrot's egg. Between June and October of 1754 alone, two Alaafins had been forced to commit suicide by Gaha. Because of this, Alaafin Awonbijou spent 130 days on the throne, while Alaafin Labisi only spent 17 days on the throne. Gaha's treachery was not ended until 1774 during the reign of Alaafin Abiodun, the fifth Alaafin he served with. Gaha was subsequently executed by Abiodun but the instability that had been brought about by these intrigues had further weakened and impoverished Oyo.

Alaafin Abiodun during his reign had also conducted failed campaigns against Borgu in 1783 and Nupe in 1789, losing the equivalent of 11 and 13 Generals and their men respectively. Abiodun was subsequently murdered by his own son Awole who subsequently ascended his father's throne.

The events that led to the secession of Ilorin began in 1793. Ilorin was a war camp headed by the Are-Ona Kakanfo Afonja, it had a large population of Hausa, Borgu and Nupe slaves who were principally in charge of the king's horses and cavalry. Afonja took cause with Awole when the latter had commanded him to attack Alaafin Abiodun's maternal home, Iwere-ile. Afonja being bound by an oath and also desirous not to fall under a curse from a previous Alaafin made to the effect that any Aare Ona Kakanfo who attacked Iwere-Ile (his paternal home) was to die miserably; this order Afonja ignored.

Further cause was also given in 1795 when Awole again asked Afonja to attack the market town of Apomu which was a part of Ile-Ife. All Alaafins due to the Yoruba belief that Ife was the spiritual home of the Yorubas were made to swear an oath never to attack Ife. Afonja carried out Awole's order and sacked Apomu but on the return of the army from Apomu Afonja marched on the capital Oyo-Ile (which was a taboo), and demanded that Awole abdicate. Awole eventually committed ritual suicide.

After the death of Awole there was a scramble for the throne by numerous contenders; some were reported to have spent less than six months on the throne; there was also a period of interregnum of almost twenty years where the various factions could not agree on a candidate for the throne. This period of vacuum led to the rise of powerful military and regional commanders like Adegun, the Onikoyi and others like the otun Are-Ona Kakanfo, the Are-Ona kakanfo Alimi and Solagberu, who was the leader of a growing Muslim population in Oyo. These new powers had lost regard for the office of the Alaafin due to the various political wranglings and the lack of a central authority at the time; this situation eventually led up to Afonja seceding Ilorin from Oyo in 1817 with the help of Oyo Muslims.

In 1823, after Afonja had been killed by his allies, Shehu Alimi and Solagberu (Solagberu was also later killed by Alimi's son), Ilorin became part of the Sokoto Caliphate. By the time Captain Hugh Clapperton visited Oyo-Ile in 1825 during the reign of Alaafin Majotu, the empire was already in a state of decline. Clapperton's party recorded passing numerous Oyo villages burned by the Fulani (Ilorin) while Majotu had also sought the help of the English king and the Oba of Benin in putting down the Ilorin rebellion. Clapperton also noticed a shortage of horses, even though the Oyo were renowned as a great cavalry force; this might have something to do with the fact that most of the empire's soldiers and cavalry were stationed at Ilorin under the command of Afonja and later on Alimi's successors.

Ilorin then besieged Offa and started raiding, burning and pillaging villages in Oyo, eventually destroying the capital Oyo-Ile in 1835.

Loss of the Egbado Corridor

As Oyo tore itself apart via political intrigue, its vassals began taking advantage of the situation to press for independence. The Egba, under the leadership of Lishabi, massacred the Ilari stationed in their area and drove off an Oyo punitive force.

The Dahomey Revolt

In 1823 Dahomey was reported to have raided villages that were under the protection of Oyo for slaves due to the high demand for them. Oyo immediately demanded a huge tribute from King Gezo for the unauthorized incursion, to which Gezo dispatched his Brazilian agent, Francisco FĂ©lix de Sousa, to the Alaafin at Oyo to make peace. The peace talks eventually broke down and Oyo attacked Dahomey. The Oyo army was decisively defeated, ending Oyo's hegemony over Dahomey. After gaining its independence, Dahomey began raiding the corridor.

The Fulani Jihad

After Awole's rejection, Afonja, now master of Ilorin, 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. Oyo-Ile was razed by the Fulani Empire in 1835 and the Oyo Empire collapsed in 1836. To this day, the Ilorin 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").

Ago d'Oyo

After the destruction of Oyo-Ile, the capital was moved further south, to Ago d'Oyo. Oba Atiba sought to preserve what remained of Oyo by placing on Ibadan the duty of protecting the capital from the Ilorin in the north and northeast. He also attempted to get the Ijaye to protect Oyo from the west against the Dahomeans. The center of Yoruba power moved further south to Ibadan, a Yoruba war camp settled by Oyo commanders in 1830.

Final demise

Atiba's gambit failed, and Oyo never regained its prominence in the region. It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888 before further fragmenting into warring factions.

The Oyo state ceased to exist as any sort of power in 1896. Oba Atiba otherwise called Atiba Atobatele died in 1859; His son Adeyemi I and the 3rd Alaafin to rule in the present Oyo died in 1905.

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 index of urbanization in 1950 was close to that of the United States, excluding Ilorin.

The Yoruba continue to be the most urbanised 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.

Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica/Wikipedia

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