The Old Oyo Empire is sometimes wrongly described as the state of the coastal forest. It was really a northern savannah state, with its capital near Nupe Kingdom. Oral traditions claimed that Ife was the most senior of the Yoruba Kingdoms. The Ife Kingdom was founded by Oduduwa. Later, his sons left Ife and founded a number of Yoruba Kingdoms. At first, the old Oyo seemed to have occupied a fairly junior position. Oranmiyan the last son of Oduduwa founded dynasties in Benin and Oyo. Oranmiyan founded the Old Oyo Empire and established its capital at Oyo-Ile.
It is important to note that the government of the old Oyo Empire changed over the centuries. However, what actually became predominant was the hierarchy of authority in the empire. The Alafin was the head of Oyo’s government, followed by Oyo-Mesi (Council of Chiefs). The Oyo-Mesi consisted of seven chiefs, who were not members of the royal family headed by the Bashorun. Oyo’s military was well organized. The provincial towns of the empire had to supply troops. These troops were commanded by the Are Ona Kakanfo (Generalisimo). The title of Are Ona Kakanfo was created by Alafin Ajagbo in the second half of the 17th century. There were also palace officials and the position of the Ogboni cult.
There were also important royal women officials, the chief of whom was the Iya Oba, (King’s mother) who was really not the biological mother of the king.
FACTORS THAT LED TO THE RISE OF OLD OYO EMPIRE
The factors that led to the rise of Old Oyo Empire included the role of Oyo cavalry, the Atlantic slave trade, the pattern of expansion and geographical location.
- The role of Oyo Cavalry: Oyo developed a formidable cavalry for defensive and expansionist purposes. Oyo imported horses and skilled horsemen from Kanem-Borno and Hausaland. This facilitated the old Oyo Empire to expand its territory.
- Atlantic Slave Trade: The old Oyo Empire derived enormous wealth from trans-Atlantic slave trade. The empire’s control over Dahomey, an important slave port, provided opportunities for the export of slaves. Slaves were exchanged for luxury items such as textiles, firearms, umbrellas, gin and so on.
- Pattern of Expansion: At various times, the old Oyo Empire fought wars in many directions. They fought Nupe and Borgu to the North. It fought wars with Dahomey for the control of coastal trade in the 17th and 18th Oyo conquered Egbado and appointed a governor there. Alaafin Ajagbo, fought wars with Ijebu and Weme. In the second half of the 17th century, Oyo fought wars with Allada in Dohomey. From 1730, Dahomey paid tribute to Oyo.
- Geographical Location: The Empire was strategically located on the savannah belt. This enhanced commercial activities. Oyo’s land was fertile for agriculture and most of its produce were sold to the forest states and neighbouring areas. This was in exchange for products like salt, leather wares and horses.
FACTORS THAT LED TO THE FALL OF THE OLD OYO EMPIRE
The following factors led to the fall of old Oyo Empire. These were revolts of royal officials, Islamic intervention, revolts of subjects in Oyo and the role of the slave trade. These factors could be further explained as internal political crisis, constitutional crisis, weakness of the military, economic reasons and external invasion by Jihadist from Ilorin.
- Internal Political Crisis: After the reign of Alaafin Ojigi, Oyo Empire experienced crisis in its system of government. Between 1754 and 1774, Bashorun Gaha became very powerful and exercised much influence on the political affairs of the empire. For example, he caused the death of four Alafins until he was eliminated during the Alafin Abiodun’s reign between 1774 and 1789. Also, Afonja, the Aare Ona Kakanfo rebelled after his failure to become Alaafin in 1796. He subsequently established an independent kingdom in Ilorin.
- There was Constitutional Crises: The constitutional crisis, which affected the empire between the 17th and 18th centuries, was due to the fact that the Alaafins who ruled at this period behaved as dictators. They did not carry their subjects along and the Oyo-Mesi whose traditional role was to checkmate the Alaafin rebelled against them.
- Weakness of the Military: During Alaafin Abiodun’s reign, there were several intrigues in the empire such that little attention was paid to the military. As a consequence, it was impossible for the cavalry to defend the now large empire against external threat and rebellion from within. For example, such military weakness led to the successful rebellion of the Nupe Kingdom in 1791.
- Economic Reasons: The secession of the Bariba and Nupe contributed to the shrinking of Oyo’s economy. In addition, there was the pressure for the abolition of trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had sustained the economy of the empire for quite some time.
- The External Invasion by Jihadists from Ilorin: Afonja invited the Jihadists to help him carve out Ilorin as an independent kingdom for himself. He was the Aare Ona-Kakanfo of the empire at that time.