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The Oyo Empire

Celebration at Abomey, 1908.Celebration at Abomey, 1908.

The Oyo Empire was a West African empire that thrived in the middle to later part of the last millennium. The empire was the largest in present day Yorubaland and one the largest west African empires encountered by colonial explorers. What was to become the Oyo empire began as the state of Oyo, founded sometime before 1400, with its capital at Oyo-Ile, (also known as Katunga or Old Oyo or Oyo-oro). Rising to preeminence through wealth gained from trade and through the possession of a powerful cavalry, the Oyo Empire was the most politically important Yoruba state from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over other Yoruba states, but also over the Fon kingdom of Dahomey (located in the state now known as the Republic of Benin).

Due to the prevalence of oral history in old Oyo, the factual origins of Oyo is nebulous at best. However, the mythical origins of Oyo also has a spiritual importance to the Yorubas in general due to the predominant role an earlier kingdom at Ife played in influencing Yoruba history. According to accounts stated by some Oyo kings and the respected historian Samuel Johnson. Old Oyo origins can be traced to Ife, the spiritual city of the Yarubas or Yorubas. Oranmiyan, a son of Oduduwa was the founder-king or first Alaafin of Oyo. Oranmiyan was also a military leader who waged an excursion heading towards North-east. He was stopped by the empires of Borgu and Nupe before settling at a site known as Ajaka. The convention among ancient Yoruba kings to link their ancestry to Ife has led many historians to believe the existence of a conquering kingdom at Ife or an earlier empire born from Ife.

Oyo Ile

Layout of the town

A Survey of Old Oyo Palace Compound A Survey of Old Oyo Palace Compound

The two most important structures in the capital city of Oyo Ile were the Alaafin's palace and his market. The palace was at the center of the city close to the king's market called Oja-oba. Around the capital was a tall earthen wall for defense with 17 gates. The importance of the two large structures (the palace and the Oja Oba) signified the importance of the king in Oyo.

Political structures

Limits on the power of the Alaafin

The Alaafin was in theory the absolute king of Oyo Ile, but in practice his powers were constrained. Firstly, he had to consult with the Oyomesi, which was composed of the heads of the 7 non-royal wards of the city. They advised the king on all important matters and controlled the military as well as some religious festivals. Especially the leader of the Oyomesi, the Bashorun (Bashorun is like a Governor. Every town that does not have an Oba i.e. king will have a Bashorun), was a powerful figure. He was the commander in chief of the army and lead a few religious festivals, among which the all-important festival of Orun. Halfway the eighteenth century the Oyomesi also acquired the power to depose the Alaafin by forcing him to commit suicide during the festival of Orun. Secondly, the Alaafin had ritual constraints imposed upon him. For instance, he could not leave the palace, except during the important festivals, which curtailed his power in practice. By contrast, the crown prince, the Aremo, was allowed to leave the palace. This led Johnson to observe: 'the father is the king of the palace, and the son the King for the general public'. Lastly, even among the royal wards, the Alaafin was sometimes undermined. For instance, on some occasions, the Aremo, hastened his accession to power by killing the Alaafin. In addition, of the three royal wards, the king was always chosen from one of them, the Ona Isokun, leaving the other two royal wards sometimes with little incentive to help the king.

The Alaafin and the divine

The king is regarded as representative of spirits (Orisa) and he must devote himself to worship of Orisa. Sign of successful reign is celebration of various Orisa festivals.

The chief priest, sometime referred to as Babalawo (baba lawo, baba which means father and Awo is oracle which can see vision for the individual or the nation. In this regard, 'baba' actually means 'grand' and not 'father'). The chief priest is not required to be at the king's council but can be summoned to appear before the king in order to give guidance or advice. He communicates with the spirit (Orisa) and his advice is thus deemed valuable.

The functions of government

The legislative function could be considered to be in the hands of the king together with the Oyomesi. The word of the king was law, but he had to take account of the Oyomesi. The leader of the Oyomesis is call Ashipa(Speaker).

Regarding the judicial function, the Alaafin acted as the supreme judge. Disputes were however first ruled on by lesser kings or local chiefs.

The executive function was in the hands of the king (but again he had to take account of the Oyomesi), but he was assisted in this by palace officials, many of which were slaves, which could number up to a few thousand.


Oyo was particularly known for its use of cavalry. The origin of the cavalry is disputed; however, the Nupe, Borgu and Hausa in neighboring territories also used cavalry and may have had the same historical source.[3] The army was commanded by the Oyomesi, with the Bashorun as the commander-in-chief. Some authors even assert that during wartime, the position of the Bashorun was higher than that of the Alaafin as he then sat on a higher stool and was allowed to smoke in the direction of the Alaafin (normally strictly forbidden).

The fall of Oyo Ile

In 1796, an Ilorin-centred revolt against Awole, the then-reigning Alaafin, or chief-ruler of Oyo, was initiated by Afonja, the Aare Ona Kakanfo, or chief military commander of the provincial army. The internal power had been weakened since the beginning of the 18th century by a struggle for power between the Alaafin and the Oyo Mesi, a council of the seven principal non-royal chiefs. The revolt, which led to the secession of Ilorin, marked the beginning of the disintegration of the Oyo empire, as other vassal states soon began to follow Ilorin's example. In the hope of securing the support of Yoruba Muslims (mainly slaves taking care of the Empire's horses, the main military strength of Oyo) and volunteers from the Hausa-Fulani north, Afonja had enlisted an itinerant Fulani scholar of Islam called Alim al-Salih to his cause, but this eventually led to the razing of Oyo-Ile by the Islamic Fulani Empire in 1835, once Afonja had himself been killed by Fulani.Up to this day, the Illorin traditional ruler is an emir, whereas in the rest of Yoruba towns the kings are called 'oba' or 'baale'. (Baale, Baba Onile, is the title given to Leaders of villages or boroughs. Baale means father of the land or Lord of the land).

After the destruction of Oyo-Ile, the capital was moved further south, to Ago d'Oyo, and the center of Yoruba power moved further south to Ibadan, a war-camp settlement of war commanders. Oyo never regained its prominence in the region. It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888.


After fleeing the Fulani jihad, many concentrated around hills for military purposes. During the colonial period, the Yorubas were one of the most urbanized group in Africa. Defining being Urban as living in city like areas. About 22% of the population lived in large areas with population exceeding 100,000 and over 50% lived in cities of made up of 25,000 or more people. The index of urbanization in 1950 was close to that of the United State excluding Ilorin. Old Oyo linked cities such as Ibadan, Osogbo, Ogbomoso, were some of the major cities that flourished after the collapse

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This article was published on Sunday 26 August, 2007.

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