Old Oyo Empire

Oyo Empire in map showing its extent
Map showing the approximate reach of the Oyo empire. Source: Wikipedia

Oyo in pre-annexation times, have had its people organized into a complex, highly structured society, having rules and unwritten constitutions. Had the British met them in this state, they would have marveled on how this people, considered to have lived in the Dark Continent could have evolved a system so pragmatic. The truth lives one with little to wonder about, for it is documented that the people once shared the culture and even the language of a country that was once the greatest in the ancient world. The Phoenician heritage of the Yoruba people who built this massive, flourishing empire is evident in their linguistics and in the most important art works of the nation’s forbearers. An example is the Opa Oranyan, which appear to have unmistakable look alikes among ancient Egyptian artifacts.

Available history would make it appear like the history of this Sudanic speaking black Africans emerged in the years after Christ, many hundred years after, for that matter. This may not be the entire truth, for the records of the ‘pre-founding’ kings abound in few archeological findings and from other extrapolations. How the people faired at this time, one can easily imagine, for it is their wish to negate the memory of this history and take the beginning of their civilization as the beginning of their entire history. “Oduduwa,” the founder of the Oyo empire has a name that easily expose the people’s most priced value; “the container of good behavior”. So, while it may be said that the Yoruba people before Oduduwa’s advent were forest dwelling brutes, it is also clear that they intrinsically hold good manners in high esteem even more than material acquisition. This deeply ingrained culture remains in the people till modern times, making it possible for them to vacate good paying jobs on occasions, to go seek for more education, or to suffer constraints in displaying unfairly gotten wealth before families, who care above everything to know how the wealth was attained.

Now, Oduduwa, fully armed with the knowledge of the world, diffused among the people the life they desired. The highest possibility is that Oduduwa did not come to total strangers when he fled from the religious crisis that engulfed his Middle East home, that he only ran to emigrated people of his own stock. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that this man convinced the people to organize themselves into a proud society. Dissidents were labeled enemies of civilization, and when these conservatives were conquered through the heroic act of Moremi, the empire was ushered into a period of peace. Providence, it appears, wished the people a greater destiny than having a single city-state. The famine that engulfed Ife at the beginning of its civilization led to a sober gathering, Ita Ijero, in which it was decided that families should spread along different directions to increase their chances of survival. The people dispersed with nostalgic memories of Oduduwa, and the chance of having a single authority in the nation was at once created.

Beginning of the Oyo Empire

The newly formed empire did not come under the illusion that civilization was all that was needed to forge a decent society. They knew there would be threats and chose the bravest son of Oduduwa as their leader. Their choice, as explainable as it may seem, opened a new era, from the very prime of the empire, where might was given precedence over grace or “Iwa” meaning “behavior” that they, not long before, highly celebrated. Oranyan had a mix of both Iwa and might, at least if there is truth in the story of his retirement from public life presumably done in the interest of his son and the entire empire.

Like some of the glowingly ambitious kings of world history, Oranyan ruled three kingdoms and attempted to raid a far off territory. His repentance was not of weakness but reason; it was no use to pursue a war that one cannot begin to understand. He converted this eagerness for war into the building of the empire, moved his capital northward possibly to keep the gate of his territory which by then extended to Dahomey, Benin, and areas of the Niger. He relinquished authority when on the occasion of his approaching Oyo capital, after a long journey to Ife, learnt that his son, Ajaka, has been elected King by the King Council called Oyomesi. History had it that he did not even seek glory from this till he died. Ajaka, showing a sense of glory and pride, built an obelisk in his father’s memorial. Seeing Ajaka, the third Alaafin understand this much about virtuous glory, it becomes amazing what it was that led to his despotism.

The reason for Ajaka’s change of orientation is clear. He was outrightly rejected by the people for his love for tranquility. When he had a second chance at leadership, he followed the examples of Sango who temporarily succeeded him, but he forgot the omen that would be for all Oyo emperors who pursued might above Iwa.


ancient Alafin palace
Alaafin Oyo’s palace. c.1890 Source: TUCKDB



Two were the objects of worship in the days immediately following the advent of Oduduwa; the Idi, and Orisa Osi, but it is the former that presents itself as a peculiar interest. Idi, according to tradition, was a copy of the Koran that was retrieved from purported Moslem enemies who pursued Oduduwa down into the hinterland of Africa. It seem however, more logical to think that Idi was a common object of veneration for both enemies. The Idi is more likely to be a Bible, for the standard of Islam was sure on the use of Image and Oduduwa was clearly not one of them. Any object retrieved from them, if that was the case, would not have been venerated. Oduduwa therefore, could have been a Catholic prince who lived, together with his clans in Upper Egypt, dominating with the help of imperial powers, the majority of that enclave. It is conceivable that Oduduwa made attempts at making the people worship his God.

The Trinitarian theology of the Yoruba indigenous belief in Olodumare, Olorun and Olofin is a striking testimony that he did not do badly in importing the Trinitarian concept of his faith to these unusually dispassionate Africans. The role ascribed to Olodumare, who present day people of Abrahamic religions accept as the same God of theirs, is quite limited. The understanding of Him is elusive, and this is curious, for there is a high interest in lesser gods, but the ultimate, they seem to speak less of. It is probable that the word Olodumare itself means, “Olu-oduduwa-Mare” meaning “The Lord of Oduduwa to whom I will return.” Who this lord of Christian Oduduwa is, they do not understand, but the least they could do was to demote their own gods and exalt the unknown God of the man they heartily cherish.

Africans have often been categorized as originally animistic. This is not true for all nations of the entire continent, not the people of the Oyo empire, as they have shown strong affinity for taking a dim view of whatever does not add up. An example of this is the Kori, which was the only object of worship at a time. Kori did not survive for long and it was eventually left to the children to use as toys. There is an adage in the empire that says “the idol that overreaches itself must find a way to tidy up its own shrine.” Such was the humanistic worldview of the Yoruba that was intermittently corrupted by individuals who wanted powers to enjoy undue advantage over others.

It is interesting to note that many of the magic that became the mainstay of what evolved to be Yoruba religion did not originate from the people themselves. Oduduwa, for example, met Agbonniregun after his long journey from the East, a Tapa man who later gained reputation as the founder of Ifa worship. When Arugba, the mother of Alaafin Onigobi attempted to introduce Ifa worship in the empire, the people replied they cannot worship Palmnuts, thus the worship of Ifa was cancelled. It was the subsequent military depression suffered that made the people reconsider it. The rascality displayed by nobles in attempting to subvert the will of Alaafin Abipa through the manipulation of what was supposed to be paranormal is an indication of the detachment of the Yoruba to the ethereal. This natural inclination has passed through generations to produce the religious tolerance for which they are renown.


Photo showing a scene in Oyo. The people of Oyo, once exclusively called the Yoruba, offers the standard in language and culture for the nation today.
Photo showing a scene in Oyo, c.1890. The people of Oyo, once exclusively called Yoruba, are granted the standard in language and culture for the entire Yoruba of today. Source: TUCKDB

The Yoruba happily happen to lack defenses against ‘reason’. When a young Moslem confronted Ajiboyede with reason, he listened and soberly mended his actions. It is noteworthy here that Ajiboyede was not a believer, yet he was moved by the young man’s call, “fear God.” Towards the close of the Empire, the people of Ilorin had prevailed on Alimi, the Muslim cleric to stay so as to continue to be the conscience of Afonja, the military lord who was fast attaining primacy within his province.

This is not to say however, that the Oyo Empire was altogether free from the inhumane practices that characterized African indigenous beliefs. Human sacrifices were common, eventhough the people contradict themselves by showing solidarity for who escapes the nest of the gods. Rites had different features of horridness, even cannibalism. The people nevertheless developed through their experiences, the model by which they would embrace future religions. What armed war could not achieve, the friendliness and preaching of traveller Muslims had accomplished. When Christianity too came, there was not much resistance for the tranquility of the gospel seemed obvious. They found it attractive on the merit of its message. It is not unusual to find among the breakaway states of the former Oyo Empire today, a family of Muslim father and Christian mother.


Oyo diplomacy was unique in many respects and this has been widely acknowledged. The Oyo were known as sticklers for protocol. In their palaces, Kaakaki players, asunrara (praise singer) and drummers played an important role in their diplomacy. They served as heralds for visiting dignitaries, providing pomp and ceremonies. They would announce the arrival of visitors to the Oba (king) by reciting the visitor’s oriki (cognomen), thus preparing the king against the arrival of important visitors.

Pre-colonial Oyo conducted her foreign relations in the best atmosphere favourable to her foreign policy, which was predicated on her national interest. Her relations with Dahomey, for instance, portrays Oyo as a power whose foreign policy was firmly rooted in her national interest from which she was unwilling to bend no matter the conditions of the international environment. In her period of glory Oyo was in total control of the government and economy of Dahomey. She was able to utilize the period effectively to maximise the elements of national power such as military preparedness, the tradition of diplomacy, and quality of leadership, to her advantage. The use of gifts was an important aspect of Oyo diplomacy, and gifts such as beads, kolanuts, cloths, cowries, animals, or even marriages may be interpreted to mean an expression of friendliness, reconciliation, or to indicate a peace settlement.

In Oyo-Dahomey relations, Agaja in 1730 arranged for gifts to be sent to Alaafin Ojigi as gesture for wanting peaceful settlement and the treaty that emerged was formalized by an exchange of royal marriage. Likewise, in the 1780s when the news of Alaafin Abiodun’s victory over Basorun Gaha got to Dahomey, Kpengla, the king of Dahomey sent a rich diplomatic present to Abiodun. Apart from Oyo-Dahomey, there were als diplomatic marriages between Oyo and Nupe and Borgu.

The Oyo kingdom, like Hausa states had trade links with North Africa. The goods exchanged comprised kolanut, textiles, and steel work from Oyo weavers and blacksmiths. In return, such cultural items like glassware, leather goods and sacs were imported from the north of the Niger to Oyo. Oyo rulers also imported horses from the north of the Niger to prosecute their wars[i].



Ancient Oyo city excavations

The find was made by a team of staff and students from the Department of Archaeology, University of Ibadan, during a excavation at Oyo in 1975. Once a great city with walls nearly 20 kilometres in circumference, it was abandoned in 1837 when it was conquered by Ilorin, and is now part of a forest and game reserve. The archaeological team, directed by Senior Lecturer Robert Soper camped in the centre of the old city to which they cleared an eight kilometre track through the dense bush. The research was carried out in the area where the Alafin’s palace once stood. A complex of courtyards can still be seen as low rectangular banks. The size of the Afin (palace) was estimated at about one square mile by Clapperton, an explorer who visited Yorubaland in 1826, but this may have included several rocky hills as well as the occupied area. The excavation revealed a large courtyard with many rooms and in its centre, a rectangular building thought to have been a kitchen. Several complete and broken pottery vessels were found In one corner, and in another two fire places with a broken conking pot still in position.

Apart from the excavation, the team made an outline of the wall entrance to the palette which is now a large expanse of collapsed walls.  Archaeologists believe there were two or three archways with a gate at each end. A wooden post also once supported the overhanging roof the gateway. It had survived decades of storms, and termite damage, indicating an exceptionally quality material had been used[ii].

[i] History of the Yoruba, Samuel Johnson, 1920

[ii] Daily Times, April 17, 1975