The Yoruba Historical Background
Oduduwa is the found of the Yoruba Kingdom. Oduduwa had seven sons who later founded the first seven kingdoms of the Yoruba land and these kingdoms were united under a central leader known as the Alafin of Oyo misunderstanding, jealousy and hatred made the first seven kingdoms of Yoruba to split into fourteen new kingdoms and the central leadership to change from the Alafin of Oyo to Ooni of Ife.
Oyo kingdom was the most developed kingdom in the Yoruba traditional society and its administration is accepted as a model or representation of the Yoruba land. Generally, the Yoruba kingdom were headed by the Oba who must be a descendant of the Oduduwa. If you are not a descendant of the Oduduwa you cannot be allowed to be an Oba in the Yorubaland. The Oba of the Oyo kingdom has a special name known as the “Alafin”.
We shall discuss the political administration of the traditional Yoruba society with particular reference to Oyo kingdom. The political head of every Yoruba kingdom is the Oba but that of the Oyo and Ife Kingdom goes with the title ‘Alafin’ and ‘Ooni’ respectively.
The Alafin as the political head of the Oyo Kingdom is assisted by his son called Aremo, who is not allowed to succeed him immediately he dies. Oyomesi is the seven kingmakers headed by the Bashorun. The Oyomesi is stronger than the Alafin and can overrule any decision made by the ‘Alafin’ which is not acceptable to it. Bashorun is the chief minister and head of Oyomesi. Ilari is the male and female hereditary chiefs and advisers of the Alafin. For effective government, the Alafin, relied on Bashorun, Oyomesi and Ilari for advice. Other important officials who assisted in the administration of Oyo kingdom were – Kakanfo (Army Commander) Oyo had a standing army, which is ready to commit suicide in case of serious defeat in battle, Eso, (officials who assisted in the Alafin’s court) Palace Eunuchs (Domestic palace official) etc
In the Oyo Kingdom the provinces were headed by officials who had the title of ”Chiefs” or “Obas”. The towns, villages and wards were headed by the Bales. The ward was the smallest unit of administration in the traditional Yoruba-land. The Chiefs or Obas and the Bales are not appointed by the Alafin but should receive his blessings.
There are certain limitations or checks and balances to the power of the Alafin. The limitations include:-
- If Alafin disagreed with Oyomesi and Ilari the only option open to him is to commit suicide.
- Oyomesi could authorise the Bashorun to send empty calabash to Alafin symbolising rejection by the people. Alafin is to commit suicide if this happens.
- Disobedient army commander could revolt. The system of government in the traditional Yoruba society was partially centralised and highly democratic.
Certain offences were regarded as serious offences. These include – murder, burglary, landcase, witchcraft, profaning the deities and homicide. This kind of offences that attract capital punishment is usually tried in the Oba’s palace or court. The Oba’s court is constituted by the Oba himself and members of his cabinet or council of chiefs. It is these people that adjudicate over the serious offences and punish the offenders.
Furthermore, minor offences such as family quarrels, exchange of abusive words, owing of the debt were handled from the family level to the level where the parties involved feel satisfied with the justice they have obtained. This however does not go beyond the Oba’s court, which is the supreme court or the highest court in the land.
The age-grades usually referred to as the “Elegbe” has the responsibility of implementing the decisions reached in the Oba’s court. For instance, if anybody is to be executed or imprisoned, it is their duty to carry out the instruction or order to the last letter. These age-grades can also be seen as acting as a standing army for the Oba. This was how justice, equity and fair play were maintained or carried out among the Yorubas before the advent of colonialism in Nigeria.
The official religion was the traditional religion. The Oba was to perform sacrifice from time to time or as the need arises. The essence of the sacrifice is to appease the Oduduwa the founder, ancestors and deities. The Oba usually performs the sacrifice through some priests. The performance of this sacrifice is very important because it is the source of the Oba’s power. legitimacy, respect and basis of unity, solidarity and the progress of the Yoruba people. For instance, if the Oba fails to fulfill these religious obligations the deities, ancestors and the Oduduwa might be angry and will cause pestilence, epidemics, drought, famine and calamities among the Yoruba people. To prevent the gods from becoming angry the Oba usually performs the sacrifices. Some part of the Yoruba kingdom like Kwara and some part of Oyo were conquered by the Jihadist of Usman Dan Fodio and were forced or converted from the traditional way of worship to Islam. This was the religious position of the Yoruba people before the advent of colonialism in Nigeria.