Chronicling Our History: Yoruba Mythology
Adeolu C Alupogun-Iran
Africa is a continent endowed with a rich cultural heritage with diverse ethnic groups. However, with the current generational trend of wholesale adoption of western and even eastern cultural norms and values, the average Nigerian youth could care less about what’s not being aired on MTV or Movie Magic.
And particular things one would be hard pressed to find on DSTV include an accurate record of African history. This could be hinged on the lack of preservative measures we as a nation take towards our rich history, particularly that which addresses the origin of the various tribes. History is a veritable tool for both national and capital development but unfortunately most African countries particular Nigeria have failed woefully to take advantage of her rich culture.
One major factor that catapulted the growth and development of China, Malaysia and the oriental nations is the unusual awakening of the nations to their cultural heritage and uniqueness. Like a contraction that came suddenly upon a women heavy with child, our cultural terrain was besieged by a western whirlwind of civilisation. No wonder a government like ours will formulate her policy without culture being accorded its rightful place.
As a nation it behoves on us to halt this decline as fast as possible. Let’s take a tribe and make a case study: in order to educate virile and brilliant Yorubas that are daily bombarded with a barrage of contorted views about African tribes, it is important to put the origin of the old Oyo Empire in perspective as presented by notable historians in the mould of Prof. S.O. Biobaku, Prof. Ade Ajayi and Prof. S Banji Akintoye.
The history of the Yoruba speaking people is such that has come under heated scholarly debates. The weakness of oral tradition, upon which most of the accounts relied, came under taut scrutiny. That notwithstanding, historians do not agreed on any account as authentic and original. There are different accounts on the origin of Yoruba people; however, S.O. Biobaku’s account has enjoyed widespread acceptance by scholars overtime. According to him: the Yoruba people is said to have originated from Mecca. In the course of a monotheistic uprising the king Lamurudu is said to have been slain by the people of Braima. However, the crown-Prince Oduduwa was able to flee with numerous followers and to find his way to the region of Lake Tchad, to Gobir and then to a spot further south where he founded the city of Ile-Ife. Nearly all Yoruba speaking people refer to Ile-Ife as their cradle and claim ascendency from it, although it is some times clear that these claims are made to derive from Ile-Ife political power, recognition and favour.
The Old Oyo Empire was one of the earliest and probably, the greatest independent race in West Africa, South of the equator. Old Oyo Empire was located on the Northern fringes of Yorubaland in the savannah plains between the forests of present Southwest Nigeria and the Niger River. Its territory covered a substantial part of yorubaland and extended to Dahomey [the present day Republic of Benin] and part of Togo and the present day Ghana. The legendary origin of the Oyo Empire lie with Oranmiyan, the second Prince of the Yoruba Kingdom of Ile-Ife.
Oranmiyan made an agreement with his brother to launch a punitive raid on their northern neighbours for insulting their father Oduduwa, the first Ooni of Ife. On the way to the battle, the brothers quarrelled and the army split up. Oranmiyan’s force was too small to make a successful attack, so he wandered the southern shore until he got to Bussa. There the local chief entertained him and provided a large snake with a magic charm attached to its throat. The chief instructed Oranmiyan to follow the snake until it stopped somewhere for seven days and disappeared into the ground. Oranmiyan followed the advice and founded Oyo where the serpent stopped. The site is remembered as Akaja. Oranmiyan made Oyo his new kingdom and became the first Oba with the title of “Alaafin of Oyo”.
The reign of Oranmiyan marked a new phase in Yoruba history as it witnessed the executive transfer of political power from Ile-Ife to Oyo at the time, thereafter, Oyo became the political headquarters of the Yoruba race, and that is where the Alaafin presides from. The heart of metropolitan Oyo was its capital at Oyo-Ile, [also known as Katunga]. The two most important structures in Oyo-Ile were the ‘Afin’ of the Oba and his market. The Palace was at the centre of the city close to the Oba’s market called ‘Oja-oba’. Around the capital was a tall earthen wall for defence with seventeen  gates. The importance of the two large structures (the Palace and the Oja Oba) signified the importance of the king in Oyo.
By the 14th century Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power. For over a century, the Yoruba state had expanded at the expense of its neighbours. The Aare Ona Kankanfo as the generalissimo of the military led the Oyo warlords successfully to many battles between the 13th and 16th century that preserved the territorial integrity of the Yoruba race, and during this time, Oyo extended its territorial limits to Nupe, Dahomey, Abome, Weme, and other parts of Togo and Ghana, and today, these people are off-shots of the great Yoruba kingdom.
The old Yoruba Empire distinguished itself in the world, with three very distinctive and unique models. First, it evolved a wonderfully developed constitution, though unwritten. The average Yoruba man is governed by strong convention. Secondly, the Yorubas evolved a military system that allows them to develop weaponry. The Yorubas are the first to smith iron and thus, they built foundries from where they also produced agricultural implements to boost food production. Thirdly, the Yoruba race, evolved a very practical method of administration, by adopting the cabinet system of governance if you are a good student of the evolution of British Constitution, you’d know that the cabinet system came about in Britain only as a matter of temporal expedience, it was not by design, So, as far back as the 16th Century, the old Oyo Empire developed the cabinet system of government. And from the Prime Minister, to the Alaafin, and the various divisional heads, all tiers have their roles and responsibilities clearly spelt out and adhered to with separation of powers, and inputs for checks and balances.
While the Alaafin of Oyo was supreme overlord of the people, he was not without checks on his power. The Oyo ‘Mesi’ and the Yoruba Earth cult known as ‘Ogboni’ kept the Oba’s power in check. The Oyo ‘Mesi’ spoke for the politicians while The ‘Ogboni’ spoke for the people backed by the power of religion. The power of the Alaafin of Oyo in relation to the Oyo ‘Mesi’ and ‘Ogboni’ depended on his personal character and political shrewdness. It is worthy of note here that, Alaafin of Oyo is not an Absolute monarchy as was the case in Europe during this era, the throne is not hereditary either; however, whosoever ascends must be a direct descends of Oranmiyan.
The Oyo Mesi were seven principal councillors of the state. They constitute the Electoral Council and possess legislative powers. The Bashorun, Agbaakin, Samu, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku and Ashipa are the seven members of this council. They represent the voice of the nation and on them rest the chief responsibility of protecting the interest of the Empire. The Alaafin must take counsel with them whenever any important matter affecting the state occurs. The Oyo Mesi is also saddled with the sacred duty of electing an Alaafin. Each of them has a state duty to perform at court every morning and afternoon, and a special deputy attached to them whom they send to the Alafin at the other times when their absence is unavoidable.
The Oyo Mesi does not enjoy absolute power or influence, and while the Oyo Mesi may wield political influence, the Ogboni represented the popular opinion backed by the authority of religion, and therefore the view of the Oyo Mesi could be moderated by the Ogboni. And most interestingly, there are checks and balances on the power of the Alaafin and the Oyo Mesi and thus no one is arrogated absolute power. The Ogboni was a very powerful secret society composed of freemen noted for their age, wisdom and importance in religious and political affairs. Its members enjoyed immense power over the common people due to their religious status. A testament to how widespread the institution was is the fact that there were Ogboni councils at nearly all sub-courts within Yorubaland. Aside from their duties in respect to the worship of the earth, they were responsible for judging any case dealing with the spilling of blood. The leader of the Ogboni, the Oluwo, had the unqualified right of direct access to the Alaafin of Oyo on any matter.
Oyo Empire operated one of the most complicated constitutions history has ever known. Removing a seating Alaafin is usually a very cumbersome process carried out only during the period of ‘Orun’ festival. Chief among the responsibilities of the Bashorun was the all important Orun Festival. This religious divination, held every year, was to determine if the Alafin still held favour with the members of the Oyo Mesi. If the council decided on the disapproval of the Alaafin, the Bashorun presented the Alaafin with an empty calabash, or parrot’s egg as a sign that he must commit suicide. This was the only way to remove the Alaafin because he could not be legally deposed. Once given the parrot’s egg, the Bashorun would proclaim, “the gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you.” The Alafin, his eldest son, and the Samu, his personal counsellor and a member of the Oyo Mesi all had to commit suicide in order to renew the government all together. The process and suicide ceremony took place during the Orun festival.
Oyo became the southern emporium of the Trans-Saharan trade. Exchanges were made in salt, leather, horses, kola nuts, ivory, cloth and slaves. The Yoruba of metropolitan Oyo were also highly skilled in craft making and iron work. Aside from taxes on trade products coming in and out of the Empire, Oyo also became wealthy off the taxes imposed on its tributaries. Taxes on the kingdom of Dahomey alone brought in an amount estimated at 638 thousand dollars a year. Toward the end of the 18th century, Oyo directed more effort towards trading and acted as middleman for both the Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Tribute from other small towns within the Empire also added a great deal of wealth to Oyo Kingdom.
By 1680, the Oyo Empire spanned over 150,000 square kilometres. It reached the summit of its power in the 18th century. And despite its violent creation, it was held together by mutual self-interest. The end of the 18th century marked the beginning of the Oyo Empire’s downfall. At about 1789, Oba Abiodun is believed to have been killed by his son and successor, Awole. A series of constitutional upheavals, dynastic intrigues and local particularism weakened the empire. In 1796, Oba Awole was ousted by the government in an Ilorin-centred revolt initiated by Afonja, the Are Ona Kakanfo. The revolt led to the secession of Ilorin, a Yoruba state that would play a crucial role in the destruction of Oyo. At his rejection by the council, he is said to have cursed the empire as he prepared to commit suicide. After firing arrows in all directions he proclaimed:
“My curse be 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”
By 1888, Oyo Empire had crumbled to piece and never regained prominence. Ibadan, a settlement of war commanders later became the seat of Yoruba political power.