In his essay ‘Fate of Empires” soldier, diplomat, and traveler LT-General Sir John Glove analyze the life cycle of empires; he found remarkable similarities between them all. From the early founding fathers who worked to develop the state to the final corrupt over-ambitious leaders who become a burden on the state. It must be noted that all living things grow, flourish, withers, and die and of course; an Empire is a living organism. That is the fate of the Oyo Empire when it was at its greatest power; strength and glory found it crashing down on its own self due to many internal contradictions and external influences. The question, this paper aim to answer is, does it die a cascading or sudden death, and what lessons it offers to modern Nigeria.
Oyo Empire is one of the greatest empires around the West Africa sub-region in the 19th century; some writers are even of the opinion that it is comparable to the British Empire when it was at its peak. I leave you to be the judge of that? Its rise was attributed to a mystical god-king and it use of brutal military campaign to suppress it, neighbors, at its zenith, it encompasses the whole of the modern-day western Nigerian “predominately Yoruba speaking areas”, conquered and subjected a number of smaller tribes as tributaries and even extended into Dahomey in present-day Benin republic.
However, it may seem nonsensical and trivial, what lessons can be learned from the fall of the Oyo Empire and how it can be beneficial to a multi-ethnic modern-day Nigeria. But I tell you this; if the study of the past has no lessons for the present or future, then history will be the most absurd subject ever studied by man. History is wise and brainy but it depends on how man searches and uses the great secrets of the past to influence and make it present better.
The first part gives a brief introduction of the Oyo empire, the founding, and rise of the Oyo empire is outlined in the second part, the third part examines the causes of the Empire collapse, the fourth part sheds light on the consequences and effects of the Oyo empire collapse on it people and surrounding areas and the last part look at some of the lessons it has for Nigeria.
Oyo Empire was a socio-political entity that existed in pre-colonial Nigeria, particularly in the southwestern part of Nigeria and beyond. It was a Yoruba Empire that consists of what is today Benin and western Nigeria, including the “southwest zone and the western half of north-central zone”. At its prime, the Oyo Empire grew to become the largest Yoruba state. Historians and writers have attributed it rise to the superior organization and administrative skills of its inhabitants, fortunes and wealth gained from regional trade, and vast fearsome powerful army. No doubt; the Oyo Empire was one of the most important states in the entirety of western Africa from the mid-17th century to the late-18th century, as its power and influence were felt all over the kingdoms in Yoruba lands and also over other African states notably the “Fon kingdom” of Dahomey in the modern republic of Benin to the west.
The Oyo Empire with it capital at the old Oyo-Ile near the Niger river flourished and prospered on regional trade and became the hub for moving slaves from the interiors and hinterlands to the coast and waiting for European slavers ships. Due to the active involvement of the Oyo Empire in human trade, it was called the Slave Coast. However, with time, Oyo Empire became weakened due to frequent internal wrangling by different factions, former vassal’s states reasserted their independence that by the mid-19th century, the Oyo Empire has become sacked and abandoned with the Empire disintegrating into small rival’s chiefdoms and eventually falls to the expanding Islamic states to the north.
Origins and Formation of the Old Oyo Empire
The old Oyo Empire was a vast and powerful entity in the history of the Yoruba’s and the western Africa region. This great Empire was established in the 15th century and there are many myths and legends associated with the foundation of the Empire. The Oyo Empire was a large West African Empire founded in approximately 1300 C.E. it is one of the largest Empires to exist in the region and also the most important and authoritative of all the early Yoruba principalities. The Oyo empire as with other states of the Yoruba people in the southern coastal areas of West Africa (modern-day Nigeria) traced their origins and descent from “Ile-Ife”; the mystical center of Yoruba cradle of civilization. However, the origins of the Oyo Empire began with Oranyan (also known as Oranmiyan) who is believed to be the last prince of the Yoruba kingdom of Ile-Ife. According to tradition, the name Oyo was named by the great Yoruba ancestor hero, Oduduwa, who migrated to Ile-Ife with his followers and whose son became the first Alaafin (alafin) or ruler of Oyo. Linguistic evidence suggests that two waves of immigrants came into the land and settled in the open country north of Guinea.
Early in the sixteenth century, Oyo was a minor state with little power against its northern neighbors. The state was led by Oranmiyan, the Founder-king or first Alaafin of Oyo, who gained his position based on a strong reputation as a military leader who waged an expedition heading towards the north-east. He was stopped by the kingdoms of Borgu and Nupe before settling at a site known as Ajaka. Oyo’s earlier attempts at expansion were met with resistance, culminating in its being conquered by neighboring Nupe around 1550. When conquered by Nupe, the king (alafin) of Oyo and his senior chiefs sought refuge in Borgu, but soon returned to Oyo. The power of Oyo began to grow by the second half of the century when the alafin Orompoto began using the wealth derived from trade to establish a powerful cavalry force and to maintain a full-time standing, trained army. In addition to the militaristic expansion, the Oyo Empire expanded based on its convenient trade location and ability to manipulate the markets. Located just south of the middle Niger River, the Oyo Empire was in a prime position from which to control the prominent West African trade routes to Hausa land, Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne, and use this position to flood those areas with significant amounts of Oyo textiles that were always a precious commodity, as well as with iron goods.
In his book “history of the Yoruba”, Reverend Samuel Johnson described the system of the Oyo Empire and the various laws and traditions upon which the Empire stands. Just like any typical Yoruba kingdom, the Alaafin “igba-keji orisa” was regarded as the representative of the gods on earth and therefore unquestionable in all his decisions. However, in theory, the Alaafin was an absolute ruler but in practice, his powers were limited through taboos, conventions, rituals, and by the Oyemesi; the legislative council who traditions required must be consulted on important state matters. The Oyomesi council was led by the Bashorun who also doubled as the prime-minister, memberships of this council were made up of seven non-royal wards in the capital and they performed the legislative functions and also act as checks on the excesses on the powers of the Alaafin, who they could dethrone by sending an empty calabash. The empty calabash represents rejection by the people and by law, the Alaafin must commit suicide. While the Oyo Empire was particularly known for its use of cavalry, the origin of the horses is disputed, as the Nupe, Borgu, and Hausa in neighboring territories also used cavalry.
The army was commanded by the Oyomesi, with the Bashorun as the commander-in-chief. From 1650 onward and with the formation of an all-powerful cavalry, the Oyo Empire entered a period of expansion, where it achieved dominion over most communities between the Volta River in the west of Benin and the Niger River in the east. The apex of the Oyo Empire war campaigns was in 1748, following the subjugation of the kingdom of Dahomey, which occurred in two phases (1724, 1738-48). From then on, the Empire has access to the coast and began trading with European traders through the port of Ajase (Porto-Novo).
Oyo Empire’s rise and success as the preeminent kingdom among the Yoruba states and in the sub-region has been attributed to its favorable trading position, its natural resources, fertile farmlands, and the industry of its inhabitants. Beginning as simply the city of Oyo, it rose to prominence through wealth gained from trade with both its African neighbors as well as European nations such as Spain and Portugal. Because of its wealth of military skill, the Oyo Empire was the most politically important Yoruba state from the mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth, exercising control not only over other Yoruba states but also over the Fon kingdom of Dahomey.
Decline and eventual Collapse Of The old Oyo Empire
Like all powerful kingdoms and empires in history, the Oyo Empire from the middle of the 18th century began to experience both internal and external crises which eventually to the breakdown of central authority. Some scholars and historians like G.O Oguntomisin have argued that the fall of the Oyo empire was as a result of the weakness of the constitution; as the unwritten constitution conferred so many powers on certain state officials who themselves exercised the powers in ways and manners that were against the interest of the Oyo empire. However, some are of the view that the empire grew so large and vast that it became too difficult to govern.
In the points below, we are going to be looking at the reasons and factors responsible for the collapse of a kingdom so powerful that its influence and authority extended as far as Nupe land, Dahomey (Benin Republic), Porto Novo, etc. at the apex of its power.
- Size of the Empire:- though there is still some debate about it, some scholars have attributed the fall of the empire to the sheer vast and diverse entities under its control which made it difficult to govern. Moreover, the problem of size got compounded by difficulties in communication
- Constitutional crises: – as already pointed out above, some scholars have also argued that the fall of the Oyo Empire was as a result of the weakness of the constitution. The unwritten constitution granted so many powers to certain state officials and dignitaries, unfortunately, some of these officials exercised the powers and authority in ways and manners that were against the general interest of Oyo. Some attempts to carve out small domains for themselves, for instance, between 1754 and 1774, the prime minister Bashorun Gaha, the head of the Oyomesi used his power to enhance his own influence and authority. As the head of the Oyomesi, he condemned about nine successive Alaafin (the king) to death and upset the balance of power in the Empire.
- Weak leadership: -the end of the 18th century saw the emergence of weak leaders Alaafin, who lack the proper skills and tack to lead the Empire at it most trying times. The period also witnesses the arbitrary rules and decisions taken by these Alaafin, a case in point is the command of Alaafin Aole to the Aare-ona-kankanfo, his army chief to attack a city Ile-Ife which is considered sacred by the whole Yoruba race. He also failed to contain the excesses of the power-seekers and opportunists within the Empire.
- Restive vassal states: – the fall of the Oyo Empire can also be attributed to the numerous subjugated states under its control, who are trying to regain their independence. Oyo was also constantly troubled by some of its neighbors. Their neighbors such as Borgu, Nupe, and Dahomey, etc. which constitute parts of the areas under the influence of Oyo Empire organized hostilities and raiding parties on several occasions against the Empire in order to reassert the freedom and push for more territory.
- Demoralized army: – the Oyo Empire once boasted of a powerful cavalry force that was greatly feared by neighbors. With its army lead by powerful leaders, the empire was able to expand its powers, conquer new lands, and defend the empire from aggression. But it became clear from the end of the 18th century, that the once cavalry force has become a shadow of itself. This deteriorating state happened under the leadership of Alaafin Abiodun who favor building wealth and engaged in the slave trade to the neglect of the army. This greatly affected the fighting morale of the army and from then on, were able unable to defend the empire from external aggression and also marked the end of their war expeditions.
- Slave trade: – it is safe to say that with the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807, the Oyo Empire suffers a terrible blow to its source of economic revenues. Some Alaafins, like Alaafin Abiodun, so much put much emphasis on trade that, the Empire coast simply referred to as the Slave Coast. By the time, Britain began to enforce its no slave policy in West Africa, the economy suffers terribly and let state officials scramble for resources which led to tensions and disunity among them, setting the perfect opportunity which external aggressors can exploit.
- The Ilorin factor: – by the time, the jihadists attacked, the Oyo Empire was already weakened by internal contradictions which gave rise to instability and lack of a united front against the invaders. The Ilorin outpost was a border town, where the Aare-ona-kankanfo Afonja was supposed to use and defend the Empire from external aggression. But because of his own personal ambitions, he rebelled against the central government and attempt to carve out his own domain. To achieve his aim, he invited an itinerant Fulani preacher and his followers to help him, however, the jihadists eventually killed Afonja, took over power in Ilorin, and continued their drive into Oyo. Again instead of fighting to protect the integrity of Oyo, ambitious elements were preoccupied with the interest of carving out centers of power for themselves. As a result, the Empire could not provide a formidable defense against the Fulani forces and by 1838, the jihadists forces conquered the Oyo empire.
Consequences of the fall of the Oyo Empire
Before the collapse of the empire, the vast area that was under the influence and jurisdiction of its authority had relative stability because of its strength and power; with the loss of that power, wealth, and prestige, the area also lost stability and consequently plunged the whole Yoruba’s area into civil war.
Firstly, one of the most obvious consequences is the disintegration and dismembered of the Empire into smaller chiefdoms and also led to the rise of former protectorate states such as Ibadan, Oshogbo, and Ijaiye, who strived to fill the vacuum. Also, the fall of the Oyo Empire affected the demographic spread of the area. Not only did it generate a southward movement of people who are fleeing as refugees to other towns but it also creates a new demographic structure in the affected areas.
Secondly, the fall of the Oyo Empire also led to the introduction of cultural changes. This is due to the fact, that as the displaced persons who are fleeing the war in the Empire were moving into new areas, they modified and even in some cases displaced the indigenous peoples. These changes were quite noticeable in the areas of languages, music, dance, arts, dressing, etc. generally, Oyo cultures and traditions were practiced in the areas where people immigrated to. Even in some extreme cases; the immigrant’s languages altered the languages of the recipient towns.
Thirdly, the fall of the Oyo Empire led to the development of a new system of government. Politically, it led to the replacement of the traditional Obaships system in place to a new form of governance, like the military autocracy in Ijaiye led by Kurumi, the warrior class ruling system in Ibadan, and the rotation systems of Abeokuta. These arrangements were made due to the excesses and weakness of the former system of government.
Lastly, it must be noted that one of the major consequences of the fall of the Oyo Empire in the 19th century was the emergence of tremendous political instability in Yoruba land. The evidence is seen, as the history of relationships that exist among the new states that emerge from the collapse of the Empire was largely a history of war. This is interesting because, even before the fall of the Oyo Empire, there has been an internecine crisis which the Oyo Empire has been able to a large extent, to manage and control. So it only took the fall of the mighty Empire to increase the frequency and tempo of the wars that changed the map of the Yoruba land.
Lessons from the Old Oyo Empire
At the beginning of this paper, I said, if history has no lesson to teach us, then the study of the past is the most useless academic discipline embarked upon by humans. The truth is, there is a lot we can learn from history. E.H defined history as the “continuous interaction of the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present”. This simply means, the more we study the past, the more we uncover new secrets and knowledge to make today better. Thus as human beings, we cannot do without the past and no matter how insignificant the past may seem, it always has a lesson to teach us if study carefully.
Thus, the Oyo Empire though is in a different era and under a different system, it has a lot of lessons to teach modern-day Nigeria, particularly as it grapples with the fallout of the Boko-harm insurgency, slow economic growth, high numbers of unemployed youths, corrupt and selfish state officials and lack of rule of law, etc. Over centuries, systems have been created to cater to the people at a time, but most often, they usually modified, corrupted often for the interests of the few. But when the people began to feel they are not been represented well, they revolt, leading to a new system being created. And because man can live and adjust under any living conditions, the traits that have helped us to survive are the very traits that have suppressed us. While the world has moved on from the empire’s building age, it must be noted that modern states do die and wither and they have been referred to as failed states. A country is considered a failed state if it can no longer protect the lives and properties of its citizens and is often characterized by low-intensity enduring conflicts. Scholars and writers both agreed that Libya and Syria are a good example of failed state.
There are common features and signs of a failed state, massive displays of wealth by corrupt officials, the brutality of the rulers, a huge gap between the rich and poor, a desire to live on bloated state and steal from the commonwealth of the nation instead of adding to it and an obsession with sex. In the midst of all this, Nigeria has not yet term with its fading grips on power, and under the guise of renewal; it has witnessed the rise of several organizations, groups, and tribal entities that are devouring its heritage from within.
Firstly, just like the old Oyo Empire, the first sign of impending downfall; was the misinterpretation of its constitution by some selfish leaders who manipulated the system to favor themselves and their cronies, Nigeria is no different today. The Nigeria state has witnessed several constitutional challenges in time past, but it has never gotten worse as it is today. Despite being a federal state, its power-sharing formula has been concentrated at the center with a few elites taking the shots and directions of the nation, no doubt this has led several international pundits and intelligentsia to predict the break up of Nigeria back in 2015. Though the break-up was averted, it is a tell-tale sign of what is coming as the same discontent that generated issues and constitutional crises in the past have not been addressed nor solved. The Oyo Empire was not different, as it was due to the internal contradiction that makes it weaken and subtitle to external attacks. Now the nation is battling with various forms of crises and criminality, like Boko-Harm insurgency in the Northeast, banditry in the Northwest and North Central, while kidnapping and cattle rustling has become the order of the day in the Western parts of the country. I am not a prophet of doom, but the various challenges facing Nigeria today can lead it to become a failed state.
Secondly, corrupt and over-ambitious public leaders. No doubt, one of the criteria in order for a nation to develop is to have good law and enforcement and most importantly, honest leaders. Leaders who will be able to take an initiative that will translate into tangible benefits for the people. Also like the old Oyo empire, Nigeria leaders have become enriched by the oil boom and wanted more, with more money, they wanted more power which they acculturated to serve their own personal interests while subverting the will of the state to suit their interest. Numerous cases of government officials stealing from the national treasury to line their pockets have become a common reoccurring in the Nigeria polity. Hence instead of leaders working for the general interest of the people, they pretty much after how much they can steal and keep for their own personal use. This attribute is found in the activities of Bashorun Gaha who arrogated the power of the “Alaafin” to protect strangers in the capital to himself, when any king dares try to oppose him, he condemned him to death. Thus, to avoid the fate of the Nigerian state, government officials’ roles, responsibilities, and power must be clearly spelled with a check and balance system put in place.
Thirdly, people are supposed to be at the center of any policies enacted by the government of the day. When the Oyo empire begins to conquer new territories, it overextended it militarily and suffer its consequences, as the once-powerful military became a shadow of it former self. Today, the Nigerian military is involved in numerous counter-insurgency operations and peace operations within the country due to the inability of the police force to protect the lives and properties of the citizens. However the military is trained for war not to maintain internal peace and order, hence there had been numerous reports of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian army. Voltaire once said, “all a great nation has to do to destroy itself, is too overworked its military”.
Lastly, the Nigerian state can still re-trace its step before it is too late, by learning from the downfall of a once-mighty empire.
While this paper did not aim to create fear and disunity in Nigeria today, it aims to question the system we have created using lessons from the fall of a once-mighty empire. Hence I urge you all to re-think how we see the multiple challenges facing Nigeria today and look for solutions using the past “history” as a guide.
Writer Ibitomi Ibiwumi Otunola An undergraduate student of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Abuja
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