Oyo Empire was established by Yoruba people in the 15th century and was one of the Largest Empire in West African state. The empire succeeded lle-lfe as the dominant kingdom in the area after 1700. They were also most politically important state in the region from the mid 17th to late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yoruba land but also in some other nearby African states like Fon kingdom of Dahomey in republic of Benin.
Mythological Origin of Oyo Empire
The origin of Oyo Empire lies with Oranyan (who is known as Oranmiyan), the second prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of lle-lfe. Oranyan 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 for the battle, the bothers quarreled and their army split up, Oranyan’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. Oranyan accepted the advice which leads him to find Oyo where the snake stopped. 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).
Oyo in 1300s-1535
Historically, Oranyan the first Oba of Oyo was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, the Alaafin of Oyo. But later Ajaka was 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, Sango’s death occurred which lead to the return of Ajaka to the throne more warlike and Oppressive. 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 palace and his market. The palace was at the center of the city close to Oba’s market called ‘Ojo-oba’. 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.
The Imperial Period 1608-1800
At the end of 14th century Oyo Empire suffered military defeats in the hands of Nupe people led by Tsoede. In 1535 Nupe occupied Oyo and forced its ruling dynasty to take refuge in the kingdom of Borgu. Oyo went through 80 years exile dynasty after their defeat from Nupe. They re-established Oyo Empire as more centralized and expansive than ever. They created a government that established its power over a vast empire. In 17th century they began a long stretch of growth, they never embraced all Yoruba speaking people, but they where the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history.
The major key element to Yoruba’s in rebuilding Oyo Empire was a stronger military and a more centralized government. Taking a cue from their Nupe enemies whom they called “Tapa”, they rearmed with armor and cavalry. Oba Ofinran, Alaafin of Oyo succeeded in regaining Oyo’s original territory from Nupe. When the new capital was constructed (Oyo-Igboho) the original one then became known as old Oyo Empire. The new Oba of Oyo-Igoho Oba Egunoju conquered all the Yoruba land after that, Oba Orompoto led attacks to obliterate the Nupe to ensure Oyo never threatened by then again. During the reign of Oba Ajiboyede he held the first Bere festival an event to celebrate peace in the kingdom and that remained after the fall of Oyo Empire.
Political Structure of the Empire
Oyo Empire developed a highly sophisticated political structure to govern its territorial domains. Historians have not determined how many structures existed prior to the Nupe invasion. Some Oyo institution are clearly derivative of early accomplishment in lfe after reemerging from exile in the early 17th century, they took a noticeably more militant character.
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.
Alaafin was responsible for appointing certain religious and government officials, who were usually eunuchs. These officials are known as llari or half heads, because of custom of shaving half of their heads and applying what is believed to be magical substances into it. Hundreds of llari’s where divided among the sexes, the junior members 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 tax.
Alaafin who was the supreme overlord of the people was not without checks on his power. The Oyo Mesi and Yoruba Earth cult known as Ogboni kept the Oba’s power in check. The Oyo Mesi spoke for politicians while Ogboni spoke for the people backed by power of religion. Alaafin power in relation to Oyo Mesi and Ogboni depends on his personnel character and political astuteness.
Oyo Mesi- They 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. Bashuron 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.
Ogboni- They 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. In a testament on how widespread the institution was, is the fact that there were Ogboni councils in all the sub-courts in Yoruba land
The fall of Oyo Empire
The end of 18th century marked the beginning of Oyo empire’s down fall. In 1789 Oba Abiodun who was killed by his son brought about a series of constitutional upheavals, dynastic intrigues and local particularism that weakened the empire. In 1796 Oba Awole was ousted by the government in llorin that centered on the revolt initiated by Afonja, (Are Ona Kakanfo). The revolt led to the secession of llorin a Yoruba state that played a crucial role in the destruction of Oyo Empire. At his rejection by the council, he 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."
As the empire tore itself apart through political intrigue, its liege began to take advantage of the situation to press for independence, under the leadership of Lishabi they massacred llari station in their area and drove off Oyo punitive force.