Nigerian History in Pre-colonial times – Oyo empire
The Yoruba origin
Just like other ethnic groups in Nigeria, the history of the Yoruba people is still a subject of controversy. There are, however, several versions of the origins of the people. The most contentious is the one that traces the origin to the “East”. This is basically due to the similarities between the cultures of the Yoruba and the Egyptians, in terms of religious observances, work of arts, burial and other traditional practices. In this regard, it is believed that the Yoruba probably migrated from Egypt to their present location at about 2000-1000 B.C. This version was popularized by Rev. Samuel Johnson in his book, History of the Yoruba (1950). According to him, the Yoruba originally came from the North-Eastern area of Africa (variously supposed to be Egypt, Yemen, Ancient Meroe and Arabia). After a journey that took them several years, they finally settled in Ile-Ife. In the course of the journey, they founded a number of colonies one of which was Gogobir (Gobir) in present Northern Nigeria. The party that eventually got to Ile-Ife was led by Oduduwa who eventually established a flourishing kingdom at Ife and subsequently sent his sons and grandsons to find other Yoruba kingdoms. According to Johnson “that the Yorubas came originally from the east, there cannot be the slightest doubt, as their habits manner and customs etc all go to prove. With them the east is Mecca and Mecca is the east. Having strong affinities with the East, and Mecca is the east looming so large in their imagination, everything that comes from the east, with them, comes from Mecca; and hence it is natural to represent themselves as having hailed originally from that city”. Historians and other scholars have since questioned this claim which they believe represents a version of the now-discredited Hamitic hypothesis.
Another YORUBA origin story
Another tradition has it that Ile-Ife was the centre in which the world was created. The legend tells of a period when the world was covered by water (probably the pluvial). The almighty God then decided to send some of his messengers to the world and they included Obatala or Orisa Nla or Orisa Alase (as the leader), and sixteen Oye (immortals). They were given five pieces of iron, a lump of earth tied to a white piece of cloth and a cockerel. Somewhere on their way to the world, the leader, Obatala got drunk with palm wine and Oduduwa seized the symbol of authority from him and he eventually led the party to the world. The site in which they landed is traditionally known as Oke Oramfe in Ife. On arrival at the site, Oduduwa set down the five pieces of iron and the lump of earth placed on them. The cockerel then spread the earth with its toes. Consequently, the earth was formed and Oduduwa thus became the ruler. It was from this base (Ife) that he extended his authorities to other Yoruba towns and villages (Akinjogbin & Ayandele, 1980).
Critics of YORUBA origin stories
Looking at this and other legends, it is obvious that they cannot pass any serious scientific scrutiny as it has not been scientifically proved that at a point in the course of human development that people descended from heaven to earth. These stories may, therefore, have been invented by the people as they may have, as a result of a long period, forgotten the various places where they originated. Scholars, therefore believe that in looking at the origin of the various people of Nigeria and Africa, we should not look beyond Africa. Oliver and Fage (1975) believe that both the migratory myths and legends may not be the case. To them, while tracing the origin of the people of Africa, we should not look beyond the African continent.
The Oyo empire
One major Kingdom that eventually emerged into an empire in Yoruba was Oyo. The empire which emerged in the fifteenth century represents a major stage in the historical development of the Yoruba people. Traditions have it that Oyo was founded by Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa, who is credited to have established the present Bini monarchy.
By the sixteenth century, Oyo was a very powerful empire extending its authority as far as Dahomey and the Alaafin who was the head, was regarded as “Lord of many lands”. The empire was lucky to have been ruled by capable leaders who helped to shape its destiny. Oranmiyan is said to have been brave, warlike and of indomitable courage. Sango reputed to be the fourth king was of a very wild disposition, fiery temper and skilled in sleight of hand tricks. He is also said to have the habit of emitting fire and smoke out of his mouth by which he greatly increased the dread which his subjects had of him. Orompoto was a skilled commander in war who not only regained the lost military fame of the empire but was also a successful statesman.
Ojigi is said to have been a powerful king in whose reign dahomey was brought under the authority of Oyo empire (Aderibigbe, 1977).
The empire was very prosperous. It derived its revenue from agriculture and trade in agricultural and craft products. The people were engaged in long-distance trade with other people as far as Hausaland. For example, the kola nut popularly known as “Hausa kola” which is sold in Hausaland is not produced in Hausaland but in Yorubaland and it was through trade links that they took the kola there. The empire had a powerful army which was headed by a general with the title of Are-Ona-Kankanfo. The Are was expected to live at the outskirts of the city. The army consisted of the infantry and cavalry, and it helped in bringing neighbouring cities under the control of Oyo empire.
A distinctive feature of the empire, which was made up of the metropolis and provinces was its system of government, which had inbuilt checks and balances and this helped to sustain the empire for centuries. At the head of the empire was the Alaafin who was resident in the capital. The Alaafin had an elaborate court and was assisted in his administration by a retinue of officials made up of priests, officials and eunuchs.
In theory, the Alaafin was the fountain of authority and “companion of the gods”. He could therefore be an autocrat, but in practice, his powers were regulated by the Oyomesi (a council of seven members headed by Bashorun who acted as the Prime Minister). Members of this council were also leaders of the seven wards into which the metropolitan city was divided. They were the kingmakers. When an Alaafin died, the ruling houses sent nominees to the council. Members of the council considered the candidates and selected one as the Alaafin. The Oyomesi also had the power to depose the Alaafin when he became dictatorial or transgressed against the laws of the land. This they did by asking him to commit suicide by giving him an empty calabash and parrot eggs and declaring that “the gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you”. If this is done, the Alaafin was expected to commit suicide.
Members of the Ogboni cult constituted another arm of government. This was a very powerful cult and was made up of free and prominent members of the society, including members of the Oyomesi. The cult played a mediatory role in any conflict between the Oyomesi and the Alaafin. Major decisions taken by the Oyomesi were subject to the ratification and approval of this cult.
The army was another arm of government. The army which was well organized was made up of infantry and cavalry. It performed important functions which included sustenance of the empire, expansion as well as keeping dissident territories in check. The head of the army was conferred with the coveted title of Are-Ona-Kankanfo and was expected to live outside the capital.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were very significant in the history of the Oyo empire. These were the periods of expansion in which the empire made incursions into the north of Nigeria and other neighbouring territories. At its apogee, the empire stretched from the Niger westward to Pop and Dahomey.
The provisional governments were also modelled after the metropolitan government, and they were administered by princes, minor kings and “bales” (provisional governors) and were all subject to the overlordship of the Alaafin. The provincial governments enjoyed considerable autonomy so long as they met their obligation to the metropolitan government, such as payment of taxes and tributes. The Alaafin had personal agents “Ilari” in the provinces.
The “Bere” festival which took place annually, was used as a period of renewal of allegiance of the provincial governments to the central government. It was during this festival that the provinces sent tributes and other gifts to the Alaafin as assign of loyalty.
The empire which attained remarkable artistic excellence, whose work of arts still survive, had by the 18th century, completely declined. One of the factors that led to its decline could be traced to the vastness of the empire and the autonomy granted to the provinces which they easily exploited to achieve their independence at the slightest sign of weakness at the centre. The constitution (with its checks and balances) which helped to sustain the empire for centuries was later exploited by some ambitious officials, such as the Bashorun to the detriment of the empire. One of such Bashorun was Gaha (1754) who usurped the throne by causing the death of about four Alaafin in quick succession. This unfortunate situation at the centre was capitalized upon by the provinces to extricate themselves from the clutches of the empire by declaring their independence. In spite of concerted efforts made by Alaafin Abiodun (who eventually eliminated Gaha and members of his family), to revive the empire, its decline and disintegration were irreversible. Lasisi used this opportunity and the eventual weakness of the army to free the Egbas from Oyo’s suzerainty. Geze, the king of Dahomey also stopped the payment of tributes to Oyo. The Bariba revolted and subsequently defeated the Oyo army sent against them. This trend continued until the nineteenth century when Oyo empire was attacked and sacked by Muslim Jihadists operating from Ilorin area.