The oyo empire was the most distinguished political achievement of the Yoruba speaking people. The Yoruba has two main traditions of origin which showed many features also found in the traditions of origin of the neighbouring Benin Kingdom.
They have a tradition which claims that the ” world was created in the heart of the region occupied by them at ile -ife “.
They also have another tradition which traces their origin to A wave of migrations from an unspecified place in the far East.
In both traditions, however, the position of the hero is often assigned to a mythical figure known as oduduwa whose seven children are believed to have been the founders of different Yoruba culture groups.
Many Yoruba historianss have been greatly impressed by these traditions. For instance, Rev. Johnson, the doyen of Yoruba history. Rev. Lucas and prof. S.O Biobaku have mounted no strong opposition to the tradition which holds that the yoruba originated from the east . But this tradition which seeks to find a noble ancestry for yoruba people’s have recently become suspect among scholars .
In the first place, the tradition of Eastern origin is too widespread in West Africa. in the second place much of the reasons for this hypothesis are derived from the resemblances between religious and cultural practice of West Africans and those of ancient Egyptians.
Even if such cultural similarities did exist, they could not be concrete proof of direct descent of one people from another since the two groups could have borrowed these traits from a third source or from one another.
Thirdly , linguistic and archaeological evidence tends to show that these different groups which claims Eastern origin are of the true negro stock and must have evolved originally from the savannah lands of west africa from where they migrated to the forestlands.
Whether they came from the east or from just a point north of the forest zone, it is not clear when the yoruba first occupied their present homeland at about 1000 B.C . The Yoruba claim that on entering the forest zone they first settled at Ile-Ife ,hence the ritual , religious and social pre-eminence southwest and southeast , this bringing about the present distribution of yoruba cultural groups known to us today.
The Emergence Of Oyo Empire
One of the secondary waves of these migrations subsequently retraced it’s steps to the north , that is , to the borderland between the forest and the grassland zones , with dramatic political consequences.
The exact time of this migration is not properly known but evidence suggests that it happened between 1388 and 1431 A.D . This migration to the north led to the birth of the OLD OYO EMPIRE whose foundation is attributed in yoruba myths to Oranmiyan. These immigrants to the savannah fringe Within a few centuries achieved the virtual political domination of yorubaland . The reasons for this can easily be told.
The foundation of oyo empire was strategically located from the economic and strategic stand -point . On the economic front , the soil of this zone was fertile , this it encourage farming on a large scale. Also, the people were well placed to play an important part in the trade between the forest lands to the south and the savannah to the north. This trade was very lucrative and made oyo wealthy. It also brought oyo traders and political elites into close contact with the civilisation which came from such commercial and intellectual centres as Jenne , Timbuktu , Gao , Kastina and Kano . The oyo people also learnt the use of calvary in warfare . The trade also enabled oyo to obtain horse from hausaland.
The rise of oyo as an imperial state owed much to the use of calvary and that alone explains why oyo empire did not embrace the Yoruba who lived in the thickly forested lands of the South and east of the yoruba cultural area.
The exact circumstances and processes leading to the creation of oyo Kingdom are unknown but it has been suggested that this probably began about the 14th century A.D . It has also been suggested that for a century or so after that date, oyo kingdom remained a very small establishment and that it was involved in a fierce struggle with the Bariba of Borgu and with the Nupe for the control of the niger trading areas.
Sometime around the middle of the 16th century this rivalry brought oyo a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Nupe . The defeat forced the Alafin and his household to flee to igboho and for a time they used that town as their capital . When eventually the oyo learnt the use of calvary , they were able to win their ancestral home back and embarked on imperial expansion.
The Government And Administration Of Oyo Empire
At the head of the imperial government was the priest monash known as Alafin , a monash who, according to Rev. Johnson, was more dreaded than even the gods.
The Alafin was the supreme political head of all kings and kinglets in the north and western yorubaland but in ritual and religious matters he was subordinate to the Ooni of Ife .
According to the theory of the constitution, he was an absolute monarch whose will was law, but according to the practice of the constitution, he was a limited monarch whose political actions were regulated by a body of customs and conventions which were regarded as secret, unchanging and covering all conditions.
Another factor limiting the powers of the Alafin was the rights and privileges of his nobility. These limitations were possible because the Alafin had neither a standing army nor a police force with which he could enforce his will on the people. More important is the fact that the Alafin was not a sole sovereign that is , he did not rule alone but jointly with an energetic and tragic figure in yoruba political history known as the aremo or the crown prince . The aremo whose coronation was almost as elaborate as that of the Alafin was usually the eldest son of the reigning sovereign. He exercised almost equal powers with the Alafin . He shared with the Alafin the powers of life and death over the rest of the empire. Earlier , the aremo used to succeed his father on his father’s death but then it was later discovered that most aremo were despotic and tyrannical and it was suspected that they killed their fathers in order to succeed the throne. As a result , it became the rule that since the aremo shared power with the Alafin he should die with him. It is also said that it then became the practice that the aremo committed suicide at the death of the father. Then the right to sit on the throne rotated among the family which constituted the royal lineage.
Apart from the aremo , there was another institution whose rights and privileges further limited the political power of the Alafin. This institution was the Oyomesi which could be regarded as the imperial state council. The title and membership of this council did not descend from father to son but was hereditary in certain families.
The Oyomesi was the watchdog of the nation Against the assumption of dictatorial powers by either the Alafin or the aremo. The leader of this council was an official who bore the title of Basorun.
He was the prime minister and chancellor of the kingdom. He acted as the president of the council and he had the chief choice in the selection of a new Alafin. He could act as a regent in the period between the death of an Alafin and the accession of another. It was his duty to tell the council when the Alafin had broken the laws and the constitution, and therefore deserved to die . It is claimed that in order to prevent the Oyomesi from misusing this power, there was a provision whereby there Alafin had a right to choose any member of the council to die with him.
The Decline And Fall of Oyo Empire
The victories against Dahomey where the last set of victories in Oyo’s imperial record before decay over to the empire. With the conquest of Dahomey, expansion was at an end . One would have expected that peace would help oyo authorities to consolidate their stand and exploit the provinces they had conquered but this was not to be for with peace, they apparently felt that they merely had to focus their attention on certain unresolved constitutional issues at home.
The result of This viewpoint was unfortunate. First, the checks and balances in the oyo constitution were not adequate as there were loopholes. There was always the danger of a clash between the Alafin and his Basorun , the prime minister, especially if the Basorun was a strong and forceful personality.
This was precisely what happened between 1750 and 1774 when that Basorun was a man called Gaha . The struggle for power between the Gaha and the Alafin at this period took the form of a dangerous split in the metropolis between two rival policies for the empire.
These Alafins of this period most of whom were successful traders wanted peace which would allow them to exploit the commercial potentialities of the empire . But another powerful group headed by Gaha wanted the expansion to go on but did not say in what direction this would take place .
The dialogue between these two camps on the issue of the best policy for the empire was conducted in all bitter ways known to political history : intrigues , obstruction and even blood – shedding were used. Between 1750 – 1770 Gaha got rid of four Alafin opposed to him. Then in 1770 Alafin abiodun came to the throne and after four years he succeeded in gelling rid of Haha by killing him and all the members of his family. On the surface , the constitutional crisis was at an end but it had inflicted on the oyo empire an injury from which it never recovered.
The consequences of this crisis were many . For one thing , it would appear that the struggle helped to change the balance of forces in favour of the ancient noble families Against the Alafin. To win the support of the ancient families in their struggle against Gaha , the Alafin used the noble families in some specific Important offices instead of using the slaves. These free birth families came later to claim the throne.
In the second place , the quarrel between Gaha and Alafin affected policy in the areas of economic exploitation of the empire. It also affected the military preparedness of there empire.
The army decayed between 1750 – 1780 . The disastrous consequences of this decay of the army were soon made to manifest in a series of defeat which the oyo army suffered at the hands of dependent provinces : first at the hands of the Egba , next Bariga of Borgu in 1783 ; and then Nupe in 1791 inflicted a crushing defeat on the oyo army.
The Borgu and Nupe rebellions had far-reaching consequences. As soon as these states became independent they were able to cut off oyo from the northern market from which it had got horses for the calvary that formed the backbone of its army . With the decline of the army came the decline in the volume of slaves recruited . What was more , the independence of Nupe , Borgu and Dahomey closed to oyo her traditional recruiting ground. It is known that as a result of this , the oyo empire had to look inward for slaves and this meant that the virile population of the empire on whose labour agriculture depended would be depleted . Internal slave trading also made life unsafe for those engaged in crafts.
Another factor of decline was the shift in the population in yorubaland.
Up till the 18th century, the main population centre lay in the north fringe of the forest because of the northern trade. But from the 18th century , the position had changed. The Hausa state had declined , the wars of independence of Borgu and Nupe had dislocated the trade of the niger bends, and the oyo empire was less than before to maintain law and order.