Oyo was founded about fourteenth century by Oranmiyan, an adventurous war-like Ife prince, who is also regarded as the founder of the present dynasty in Benin. Hence the Oyo people traced their lineage to Oduduwa through his son Oranmiyan. The first location of Oyo was situated at Ajaka (Oyo koro), a grassland south of river Niger. This site was strategic for a number of reasons. In the first instance, it was very suitable for agriculture and hunting, thus making food production quite easy. The site was also located on a major trans-sahara south route. Hence, the people of Oyo participated actively as the middlemen between their neighbours to the north and their kinsmen in the forest in the trans-sahara trade. However, the geographical features of the area made the site vulnerable to attacks from their war-like neighbours (such as the Bariba) to the north.
Shortly before his return to Ile-Ife, Oranmiyan had moved the capital of Oyo to Oko. He left behind his two famous sons, Ajaka and Şango. At the departure of Oranmiyan to Ile-Ife, Ajaka (the real name being Ajuan) first became regent and later king (Alaafin). The young Ajaka was a weak Oba who devoted his time to husbandry. He could not provide the required warlike spirit and protection much cherished by his people. Consequently, he was deposed and replaced by his more belligerent brother, Şango. It should be noted that, Alaafin Ajaka cannot be ruled as a man of straw. He was only of a peaceful disposition.
ORGANISATION AND STRUCTURE
The political system of Oyo was constitutional monarchy. Monarchical system is a system of government in which king or queen rules the state. The Oyo monarchy was essentially based on the system of check and balances. At the head of the Oyo monarchy was the Alaafin who was semi-divine king. Alaafin was a paramount but not an absolute ruler. Because of his direct lineage from Oranmiyan, he was the head of all the Yoruba kings. The office of Alaafin was hereditary. Candidates were first nominated from the royal family before suitable one was elected the king. Elaborate rituals and ceremonies preceded the coronation of Alafin. Having been crowned, the king was a different personality. He was kept secluded in his palace. He was not to walk the street during the day except on a special day. He was also forbidden to eat in the public. In addition, his public appearances were reduced to three times in a year i.e. the three great festivals, the Ifa festival, the Orun and the Bere. The Alafin ruled with the consultation of his senior chiefs, the Oyo Mesi. When an Alaafin died, he was not literally declared died, but euphemistically passed away, kicked the bucket or gave up the ghost (Oba wo Aja or Oba wo Bara).
The Oyo Mesi
The Oyo Mesi were the first class noble men and chiefs. They included in order of seniority: the Osorun; Agbakin; Samu; Alapini; Laguna; Akiniku and Asipa. The Oyo Mesi was headed by Basorun whose title is equivalent to the modern day prime minister. He was a very powerful person next in authority to the king. Where the Alaafin was weak, the Basorun might be more powerful. Historically, there were cases of Basoruns who were far more powerful than the king himself. Perhaps, the most tyrannical Basorun in the history of Oyo Empire was the one called Basorun Gaha. So powerful was Basorun Gaha that he requested Alaafins to prostrate for him as homage. He was also notorious for putting to death four of the five of the Alafins he enthroned. The four Alaafins were either frustrated to commit suicide or beheaded by Basorun Gaha. It was the reign of Alaafin Abiodun Adegoolu that the tyranny of this despotic Gaha was put to halt. The comely and easy going Abiodun enthroned by Gaha was first reduced to a mere puppet. This was followed by the cold murder of the only daughter of Abiodun, Agbonyin, by Basorun Gaha. The clever Abiodun fled the country to return with his loyal warlords who overwhelmed the arrogant forces of Gaha. He was burnt alive. Up till today, it is customary among the Yoruba to use Gaha as example for any arrogant wicked or despotic person. This has been composed into a proverb: Bi o laya kio sika, bi o ba ran ti iku Gaha ki o so otito. Meaning, if you have courage to be cruel, learn from Gaha’s death and be true.
The responsibility of the Oyo Mesi was to discuss and decide the affairs of the state. They made laws in the name of the king and also ensured the execution of the laws. They represent the voice of the people. The y also checked the arbitrariness of Alaafin. Where Oyo Mesi or Basorun was growing too powerful, it was the responsibility of another institution called the Ogboni to check. The Ogboni was a very powerful society composed of freemen noted for their age, wisdom, religious and political commitment. Their roles were to dispense justice and to act as check on the Oyo Mesi.
The lineage system in the old oyo kingdom was patrilineal as the manhood was consider important especially for the defence and protection of the empire.
The age grade system follow a definite process of initiation into manhood and the various chiefs that are arranged into grades and level base on household and seniority.
TITLE HOLDING AND CHIEF DOMS
Yoruba towns were ruled by their own obas chosen from the local ruling lineages and their policies had to be confirmed by local councils made up of heads of non-ruling families and local societies. Yet even with the full force of local opinion behind him, it would be a brave oba who dared offend the imperial government at Oyo (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.297).
As the head of government, the oba was politically supreme, and as the executive head, he exercised considerable powers: he could arrest, punish or reward any of his subjects.
Status differentiation or Social stratification is a society’s categorization of people into socioeconomic strata, based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political).The stratification in the old oyo empire follow a system of checks and balances, where respect is accorded to elders. The political stature of the kings, called Alafin, in Yoruba historiography was large. The Yoruba describe their kings as alase ekeji orisa, meaning “the one with authority, second only to the orisa” (spirits); the Alafin lived this dictum by wielding tremendous powers. There were, however, traditional provisions for checks and balances within Yoruba social structures; for example the king ruled in consonance with a council of male and female chiefs. The palace of the Alafin was and is an empire within an empire that comprised freeborn, servants, and slaves. The practice of celibacy was found among specific groups of slaves and servants of the Alafin. It seems apparent that the practice of celibacy in any form within a culture that prioritizes procreation as the Yoruba do cannot be separated from issues of class and consequently power.
The socio-political and economic stability of Oyo was aided by the complete reorganization of the army. An important institution, the Eso, or society of war chiefs, was charged with the defense of the city. The Eso was headed by Are Onakakanfo. Members of Eso were appointed based on their military prowess. By the 17th century, Oyo began to exert its military authority on its neighbours by inflicting crushing defeats on the Bariba and the Tapas (Nupe) who had constituted threat to the existence of Oyo. In its imperial mission, Oyo pushed its frontiers as far as Porto Novo. It imposed its suzerainty on the Egbado, the Egba, the ketu, the Weme and the Ajase on the Coast. The Fon kingdom of Ghana also felt the might of the Oyo army. Borgu (bariba) and the Nupe were reduced to tributary. Colonial representative were sent to these conquered areas as governors and to collect taxes and tributes.
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