Kingdom of Oyo

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The kingdom of Oyo, also known as the Oyo Empire, is a West African monarchy, that at its peak, covered 270,000 square kilometres (1). It stretched from parts of the Republic of Benin in the west to the southwest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the east. To the north, it bordered the Nupe kingdom and to the east it bordered Ile Ife and the Benin kingdom. It was ruled by a monarch, till today called the Alaafin, who was advised by a Council of seven officials called the Oyo Mesi. The Oyo Mesi had the power to elect each new king by drawing from the pool of people with Royal lineage and also the power to make the Alaafin commit suicide, if deemed unfit to rule the people. Although the kingdom still exists, it no longer has a standing army nor any sovereignty.

The lineage of the Alaafin dynasty

The legitimacy of the Oyo monarchy traces back to a mythical hero of the Yoruba people called Oduduwa, also called Oodua. In the past, Ile Ife (known for the Ife Bronzes) was a confederacy of 13 communities each with its own king (called an “oba” in Yoruba), such as the Oba of Ijio, or the Oba of Iwinrin, etc.

When Oduduwa arrived, due to his talents, he was able to centralise power, merging the 13 communities into one state, to re-organise its society and became the first Ooni of Ife. Presumably he introduced new laws, as one of his titles was Olofin Adimula, and Olofin Aye (the latter meaning the “lawmaker of mankind”).

There are various versions of the origin of Oduduwa, each suiting a particular agenda, such as to demonstrate legitimacy to rule, for patriotism (a love of Yorubaland), the need for an origins story or self-pride, a desire to unite the Yoruba to gain their cooperation, or a desire to control the Yoruba as a voting “bloc”. The result is that certain matters are not agreed, for instance it isn’t agreed how many children Oduduwa had, and if some of his children were actually grandchildren, or great grandchildren.

Whatever, the facts, there were eight key descendants of Oduduwa through his eldest son, Okanbi (commonly called Idekoseroake), and two banished daughters of Oodua. It is believed Okanbi became the father of the eight key descendants, through two women: the “Original Seven” from one woman, and the youngest of the eight from a different mother.

Centuries later, a descendant of Oodua, Alaafin Oluaso had female twins – two daughters – by a wife he favoured, at a time when twins had to be put to death. Oluaso exiled his wife and the twins, sending them with a retinue of slaves and a hunter called Ija. The oldest of these twins and a female, Pupupu, founded the Ondo kingdom, the Osemawe line of Ondo kings.

The eight key children of Okanbi, grandchildren of Oduduwa, founded the following kingship lines:

  1. Olowu of Owu (a line produced from the marriage of Okanbi’s eldest daughter, Iyunade and a priest called Obatala)
  2. Alaketu of Ketu (from the second child, a princess)
  3. Owa Obokun Adimula Ajibogun of Ijesha kingdom
  4. Orangun of Ila (from the fourth child, a prince)
  5. Onisabe of Sabe (from the fifth child)
  6. Olupopo of Popo (from the sixth child)
  7. Alaafin of Oyo, (from Oranmiyan, the founder of the Oyo dynasty of Alaafins and progenitor of the current Benin dynasty; and
  8. Orunto, a future Ooni of Ife

The Obas of the Owu, Ketu, Ijesa, Ila, Sabe, Popo, and Oyo all wear crowns, while all other kings are considered vassals and, traditionally, have to wear coronets.

The First Alaafin

There are two or more stories relating to the life of Oodua and Oranmiyan before Oranmiyan founded Oyo.

One is the origin story which claims that Oduduwa was a talented leader because he was an exiled prince from the Benin Kingdom, the crown prince Ekaladerhan. The king of Benin, Ogiso Owodo, feared that if his only son prince Ekaladerhan fell ill and died, his lineage would perish. Ogiso Owodo had many wives and wanted to ascertain the cause of his failure to produce many heirs. After receiving bad advice which he believed, he was persuaded that if he sacrificed his only son prince Ekaladerhan by sentencing him to die, it would result in his wives bearing more heirs. Prince Ekaladerhan was popular. Rather, than carry out the king’s order, palace officials helped prince Ekaladerhan escape to Ile Ife, where he founded a new kingdom and took on a new name, Oduduwa, according to the Benin language meaning “I did not misplace my royalty”.

Due to misrule, the Edo people later banished Ogiso Owodo and sent officials to track down Prince Ekaladerhan, now the First Oni of Ife, to ask him to come and rule Benin. Oduduwa was too old to start “ruling” again. Instead he sent grandson Oranmiyan to rule over the Benin.

Oranmiyan married a Benin woman Erinmwinde and fathered a son whom the Edo people called Eweka around AD1200. Although he was now an Oba, not merely a prince anymore, he found the people strange and never settled in. He left Benin, his wife, his son to rule the Edo people and returned to Ife.

As king of Benin, Oranmiyan is said to have named the kingdom Ile Ibinu (in Yoruba, meaning “a place that makes one angry”). It is said the Portuguese changed Ibinu to “Benin”.

Most Yoruba historians acknowledge that Oranmiyan replaced the Ogiso kingship line with the current Oba dynasty, perhaps to restore rule of law on the border of Ile Ife, but reject that Oduduwa was the exiled prince Ekaladerhan. Rather, it is believed that Oduduwa was an indigen of Ile Ife that was talented and rose to historical significance, due to his achievements of creating the first centralised state in Yorubaland around the divine king concept.

In the Yoruba language, it is common to contract nouns when speaking, so in Yoruba, Oduduwa is believed to be a contraction of Odu ti o da Iwa, meaning “The container with the author of existence” (2), instead of the Benin meaning. Oduduwa was post-humously deified and given a divine origin, becoming the son of Olodumare, the creator of Heaven, and Oranmiyan consequently became an orisa, a god.

After leaving Benin, Oranmiyan returned to Ife to become the sixth Ooni of Ife, but was eager to expand the size of his kingdom. To embark on a military expedition he left his palace, taking with him his brothers and their armies.

According to Samuel Johnson, Oranmiyan led a failed military expedition to attack the regions north of the River Niger. He fell out with his brothers on route to his target, resulting in depleted numbers. He was then prevented from crossing the River Niger by the Nupe. Rather than return to Ile Ife in defeat, he chose to found the Oyo kingdom at Oyo Ile, becoming the first Alaafin. Alaafin means “the person who owns the palace”.

A second story (put forward by Samuel Johnson) claims that another descendant of Oodua became the first Oba of Benin, while yet another story claims that Oranmiyan sent his son to rule Benin without first going there to try to rule it himself.

Notable Events

Oranyan was succeeded by his son Ajaka. Ajaka was overthrown by the people to install his brother Sango. After a string of calamities and unlucky events, Sango was abandoned by his people and Ajaka was invited back to rule. Due to the dishonourable way in which Sango was abandoned, an ancestor cult was established by later Alaafin’s requiring all future kings in perpetuity to appease Sango as part of their coronation ceremony. Sango became the god of vengeance and thunder.

In the reign of Alaafin Kori, the 7th Alaafin, under Basorun Eran-ko-gbina, Ede and Osogbo were built. Under Alaafin Kori, the town of Oyo Ile, expanded to include the region referred to as metropolitan Oyo.

Sometime after the 7th king, either in the reign of the 8th or 9th king, around 1535 AD, Oyo Ile was sacked by the newly created Nupe kingdom, who the Oyo called the “Tapa”. The Oyo refugees had to seek safety in the Borgu kingdom. Under the 10th Alaafin Ofiran, the area lost to the Nupe was recaptured, although Oyo Ile was not rebuilt. Saki was built by Alaafin Ofiran.

In the reign of Eguoju, the 11th Alaafin, a new capital Oyo Igboho was built and much of the rest of Yorubaland was conquered, resulting in the losers having to pay annual tribute and send gifts at every new coronation. The resulting landscape gave rise to the common saying “Alaafin lo ni ile” – meaning the Alaafin is the landlord, by inference everyone else is his tenant.

Oyo and its environs, 1625 AD

The 13th Alaafin, king Abipa, introduced the Bebe festival. The 14th Alaafin rebuilt the old capital. The 15th Alaafin, Obalokun introduced salt.

The 22nd Alaafin Ojigi was the first to make Dahomey a tributary of the Oyo kingdom. During his reign the river Niger was circumnavigated. Due to the cruelties of his heir, the Crown Prince, pretext was found to make Alaafin Ojigi commit suicide and the Crown Prince along with him.

In the reign of the 34th Alaafin, Ilorin was lost to the Sokoto caliphate, due to a rebellion gone wrong, started by the head of the army, Ajona the Aare Ona Kakanfo.

The Evacuation of Oyo Ile, “Old Oyo” (1535)

12 villages of the Nupe people – Tafie, Bida, Doko, Esa, Nupeko, Eda, Towagi, Egbe, Ewu, Yesa, Gaba and Panjuru – used to be a loose federation, only coming together for military support and to settle disputes. The villages were vassals to the Igala kingdom and had to send annual tribute in the form of people and resources to the capital of Igala, in Idah. One tribute, a Nupe woman, became the wife of the king of Igala, the Atta, and gave birth to Tsoede in 1465. As Tsoede grew, he found favour with his father, became a warrior, and started to become a likely candidate to succeed the Atta. Due to a conspiracy by his half brothers he decided to leave and return to Nupe, where he consolidated the 12 villages into a kingdom and instituted reforms based on his experience of the inner workings of the Igala Royal Court.

The military reforms he introduced allowed the Nupe kingdom to throw off the yoke of the Igala kingdom, and also to expand south in the 1530s sacking Oyo Ile, the capital of their southern neighbours, the Oyo kingdom. Either it was opportunistic, or the attack on Oyo Ile may have been defensive, as one origin story of Oyo claims Oranyan created a Oyo Ile as a military camp after failing to cross the River Niger to take his army through the region north of the river for conquest.

The Nupe had at least 16 royal titles, 17 civic titles, 16 military titles and their economy covered over thirteen trades. Their trades include brass-working, hair-cutting, butchers, hunting, carpentry, glass-working, leather working, fishing, wood-working, other metal-work, medicine, bead working, and farming.

Resurgence of the Oyo kingdom (1550 AD to 1823 AD)

Under subsequent Alaafins the kingdom of Oyo was able to regroup and re-organise the kingdom for a fight-back and expansion. Oyo expanded its use of armour and cavalry by importing horses from Arab traders allowing it to recapture Old Oyo from the Nupe under Alaafin Ofiran. Cavalry men carried two to three spears, either the javelin called esin or a thrusting spear called oko.

Along with the cavalry, the armed forces of the Oyo kingdom included Royal Ilari slaves, directed by 70 Eso war chiefs, foot soldiers provided by provincial commanders and archers with poisoned arrows. The 70 war chiefs were split into 16 senior war chiefs and 54 junior war chiefs. The armed forces of the Oyo kingdom were all led by a Commander-in-chief with the title Aare Ona Kakanfo, written as follows in Yoruba:

In the 16th century muskets were yet to be introduced.

The Oyo kingdom was critically involved in the Trans-Atlantic trade, including the Slave Trade. When the kingdom of Dahomey located in the north of present-day Republic of Benin expanded into the south of present-day Republic of Benin (conquering the kingdom of Allada in 1724 and Whydah in 1727, controlled by the kingdom of Hueda) Oyo, confident of its strength, attacked Dahomey in 1726-1730, then twice again in 1742 and 1748 to gain control of the coastal ports, through which its slaves and goods were sold. For the next one century, Dahomey were required to pay tribute to the Oyo kingdom.

At its peak, the Oyo kingdom stepped into the realms of being an empire.

In 1764, a joint alliance of the Akan, Dahomey and Oyo defeated the Ashanti kingdom in battle.

Kingdom of Alladah

Alladah controlled a major trading port in the Bight of Benin, from which enslaved Africans, cloth and ivory were sold to Europeans – the British, French, Portuguese and Dutch (the major slave trading powers during the 16th to 17th centuries). The king of Alladah had embassies in Spain by 1658 and France by 1670, although probably due to expensive prices for slaves, Alladah lost market share to the port of Whydah. During the 1680s, the English moved their forts to Hueda in 1683, the Dutch earlier in 1682, and the Brandenburgs in 1684.

Kingdom of Dahomey

Dahomey had many similar features to the kingdom of Oyo. Like Oyo, it was an inland kingdom, safe from coastal raids by Europeans. Like Oyo, to the north of it, there were Islamic rulers and the Sahel. Like Oyo, Dahomey was located in a savannah grasslands region which suited having a cavalry, military control, mobility, and efficient tax collection. Like Oyo, Dahomey was protected from the coast by thick forests and swamps. Like Oyo, Dahomey left the roads between the coast and its main cities in bad repair to make it difficult to bring an army towards them from the coast. Dahomey had markets, trade networks, an organised society, gender equality in government and rule of law. Dahomey arose later than Oyo around 1620.

One key difference between Oyo and Dahomey is that Dahomey’s kings had absolute power. Oyo had a federal system and as long as the provincial rulers showed deference, paid their taxes or tribute and sent gifts at new coronations, the provincial rulers had autonomy. Also, sometimes the Alaafin had power struggles with either his councillors, the Oyo Mesi, or one or more of the provincial rulers.

After the conquest of Dahomey during 1726 to 1748, Oyo gained access to the ports of Alladah, and Whydah (also called “Ouidah”) for trade with Europe.

Kingdom of Dahomey and its environs c.1793

Loss of Ilorin

At some point during the 19th century Afonja the Aare-Ona Kakanfo, the provincial ruler of Ilorin and head of the Oyo armed forces, had welcomed a Fulani cleric named Shehu Alimi into his territory. After a while, a conflict broke out between Awole the ruler (Alaafin) of the Oyo and Afonja over attacking a town.

Afonja arranged for Awole to commit suicide. With a power vacuum created, Afonja hoped that the Oyo Mesi would elect himself the new Alaafin. Instead they elected Adebo the new Alaafin.

In protest Ilorin declared itself an independent kingdom and numerous campaigns failed to recapture Ilorin. To further undermine the new king and also swell the numbers of their fighting men, Shehu Alimi and Afonja invited the Jamas, the Hausa and Fulani slave soldiers fighting for all other territories of Yorubaland to Ilorin promising them freedom of religion, riches and more liberty.

In return for his loyalty, Afonja allowed many of Alimi’s men into the army and into important positions, implicitly trusting the man. By the time he realized that he had let too many of the Hausa and Fulani into his army, it was too late, and the number of Hausa and Fulani men outnumbered the number of Yoruba fighting men. His own men turned on him after he realised they only listened to Shehu Alimi and that he had lost authority amongst his men. The new ruler of Ilorin Shehu Alimi pledged fealty to the Sokoto Caliphate to secure a powerful military ally, and became the first Emir of Ilorin.


Source: Michael Crowder, The Story of Nigeria, London, 1978, p85 (No scale mentioned in the original map)

The kingdom was divided into a metropolis (of six districts and the capital), provinces outside the metropolis, client states, tributary states, absorbed kingdoms and junior “gifting” partners. At its peak, it covered 270,000 square kilometres (1), it stretched from parts of the Republic of Benin in the west to the Southwest of Federal Republic of Nigeria in the east.

Administrative Structure

Basic Political Diagram of the Oyo Kingdom

The Alaafin was advised by a council of seven chiefs, the head of which was the Basorun, a sort of “Prime Minister”. The other six, in order of rank, were: the Agbakin, the Samu, the Alapini, the Laguna, the Akiniku, and the Asipa. These chiefs held religious and political roles. Some of them were heads of certain shrines. They elected new Alaafins, either by approving the candidate submitted from Royal lineage or withholding their approval. They had the power to make the Alaafin commit suicide if deemed unfit to rule the people due to foolishness, weakness or cruelty. A power that was famously abused by Basorun Gaha, who forced no less than 3 kings to commit suicide.

The Oyo Mesi pronounced new laws on behalf on the Alaafin and throughout the year were mainly his spokespersons. Due to the divine king nature of the Oyo monarchy and the protocols around how the Alaafin could appear in public, the Alaafin only left the palace about 3 times a year for key annual ceremonies. This allowed the rest of the kingdom to conduct business un-interrupted for most of the year.

When the Alaafin passed away, retainer burials were practiced, including certain royals and certain officials closest to the Alaafin, paving the way for new appointments when a new Alaafin was elected. Officials who had to die at the passing away of an Alaafin were allowed to set their house in order before going home to die among their family.

The Royal Court included titled officers, eunuchs (the Iwefa), devoted slaves (the Ilaris), Titled officers included the master of the horse (Ona Olokun esin), the chief Ifa priest (Ona Ile Mole), the King’s executioners (the Tetus), the palace surveyor (Ile male), an orchestra of over 200 persons (the Isugbins), national historians, the police (the Ona-Modeke), and various positions.

The Alaafin had personal representatives in each provincial region (the Ajele).

Role of Slaves

Those taught history through the Western Education system often think that the word “slave” only refers to the status of a chattel slave as it applied in North America or in Europe during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They also imagine a treatment of people under slavery similar to the American or European forms.

In the Oyo kingdom, there were various types of slaves. A reference to being a slave in some contexts was similar to being a loyal subject of the monarch of the land.

Some of the most powerful positions in the Oyo kingdom were entrusted to slaves. It was believed that if a state official had no lineage to bequeath power to or wealth to, such an individual could carry out his role in either the Royal Court or the provinces with integrity.

There was the Ona Iwefa, a powerful slave whose job involved standing in for the Alaafin of Oyo in issuing legal rulings.

There was the Osi Iwefa, another powerful slave whose job involved collecting revenues and to stand in for the Alaafin of Oyo in dealings with lineage heads such as the members of the Oyo Mesi.

The Otun Iwefa was responsible for the cult of Sango, a deified ancestor of the alaafins, which was the source of religious power and mystery of the Alaafin throne.

Slaves therefore were involved in the political backbone of the kingdom.

In the military structure, there were the Ilari (“those with shaved heads”). The Ilari functioned as the soldiers and police force within the capital since soldiers of tributary states, client states and provincial armies were generally not allowed in the capital.

Outside the political, social and military power structure, there were slaves who worked as domestic helpers, farm workers and other forms of labourers, as well as slaves who were slave raiders and slave traders in their own right.

Among the Muslims in the region of present-day Nigeria, Islam had rules governing the taking, treatment and manumission of slaves. Due to the Baqt, earlier dates of trading in slaves across the Sahara and the Sahel, as well as slaves created by wars between Muslim and non-Muslim states, the Hausa states and the Kanem-Bornu empire were big suppliers of slaves both to North Africa and beyond, but after the onset of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trading, also to Southern Nigeria; to the Borgu kingdom, Nupe kingdom, the kingdom of Oyo, the regions of South-south Nigeria and the regions of south-eastern present-day Nigeria.

Sometimes Muslim kingdoms took their fellow Muslims as slaves. Around 1391-2 Mai Uthman ibn Idris complained to the Egyptian government about the enslavement of free subjects of the Kanem-Bornu empire. (see H. R. Palmer, The Bornu Sahara and Sudan, London J. Murray, 1936).

Slavery in the kingdom resulted from being captured in wars, kidnapping, international trade with other states such as the Northern or Eastern states, or punishments for a crime. As a result, slaves often lacked kinship networks. Although through marriage, childbirth, manumission or social appointments slaves could become integrated into the society.

Slaves who were a longer distance from their home country had added value. They could be given as gifts, tribute to imperial overlords, or traded for goods. Slaves were traded across the Sahara because they could also function as labourers to carry cargo. Female slaves had the added value of functioning as sexual providers and could be gifted or sold as concubines.

Slaves tended to learn the trade of their owners so that slaves of Royals received the respect of royals, slaves of artisans became artisans and slaves of farmers learnt farming. The children of slaves were born free and could integrate into the society in which they lived. If a crime was committed against a slave, this could be grounds for freeing the slave.

Amongst Muslim believers manumission of their slaves could be used to achieve alms-giving and express the generosity of God by freeing a slave or some slaves.()

Kingdom of Oyo Slave Ports: Little Popo, Grand Popo, Whyhah, Porto Novo, Badagry and Lagos (Source: Toyin, Falola, A History of Nigeria)

There were types of debt servitude or financing arrangements which had nothing to do with slavery. These loan systems were similar to a mortgage system within a mostly illiterate society. Illiteracy was common in every society around the world between 1200 and 1800. These financing arrangements included the Osomalo loans, Ologo loans and Iwofa loans. These financing arrangements were a form of pawnship, which I will soon explain.

Apart from slavery, and debt recovery systems, the Royal Court of Oyo also had eunuchs, who were entrusted with certain political, social and religious duties. In some cases, eunuchs were the only ones allowed to administer to the Royal family, in the belief that without the prospect of having children they could be trusted to look after wives or children, since they would not dream of killing the heirs to the throne in order to place themselves upon the throne.


The domestic economy of Oyo depended on various sectors. 500-600 acres of Indigo was cultivated in Oyo Ile. Oyo Ile, Ijebu and Ila had weaving centres. People combined subsistence farming and commercial agriculture with their various roles in society, so even some officials also had businesses. The kingdom had sophisticated markets and trade networks and was integrated into the global economy. Traders from Europe and Asia stopped off at the coastal forts. Oyo traded not only with Europe but also across the Sahara through the Hausa states to the North and Songhay empire to the West. The kingdom had roads, trade routes and defensive walls such as the Eredo walls.

Financing arrangements

Indebtedness was something that involved all members of the family. In pre-colonial Yoruba society, people tried to be cautious not to incur heavy debt that would put their children’s future at risk. Thus, Yoruba people frowned upon unguided spending and financial indebtedness since not only did it affect the debtor or the parents of the family, but it carried on with the children and it threatened their future with the possibility of poverty. That is why parents made it a priority to pay their debts, and if they couldn’t do it alone, extended family members would assist the family when possible.

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Since credit and debt institutions formed a vital part of the Yoruba culture and economy, many systems of debt recovery were applied among which the following systems were the most common; Osomalo, Ologo and Iwofa.

The Osomalo traditional debt recovery system was a popular system among the Ijesha people (cloth sellers) of Yoruba. The word Osomalo was linked to the debt collection process since it is short for “Osomalogbowomi” which means “I will maintain my squatting position until I have collected my money”. Since it was considered a great transgression for a creditor to die in the house of a debtor, an Ijesha creditor who wanted to get his money from a debtor would compromise his health with different actions such as sitting in a squatting position for lengthy periods while asking to drink water in excessive amounts. Such actions threatened the debtor and would force them to pay the debt by any means possible including asking family members to assist in the payment.

The unpleasant aspects of the Osomalo system of collecting debt were:

  • Time wasting for both the creditor and the debtor.
  • Public disgrace and exposure of the debtor’s personal life and secrets by the creditor.
  • The creditors limited the debtor and disallowed them to work or do other things that could fetch them the money to pay their debts.
  • It caused disturbance and commotion in the community, particularly, in the area where the debtor lived which often led to chaos and uproars.

Another popular system of debt recovery was the Ologo system. It involved the creditor sending a local bailiff (Ologo) to the debtor’s house. The Ologo would then occupy an area in the debtor’s house and live at his expense until he pays off his debt. To ensure this method’s success, the creditor would employ a person with unbearable sight or a person with a contagious disease such as leprosy. The Ologos would use all means they could to irritate the debtors and compel them to make the due payments with means such as forcefully taking the food of debtors or putting on the debtor’s attires without their permission. The debtor couldn’t touch or expel the Ologos from their house because it was considered as a taboo. If debtors were to do such actions, it would be considered as a serious public offence and in addition to making the due payment, the debtor would be purged. Ologos were given license to use extreme measures to make things unbearable for debtors even if Ologos had to harass family members of the debtor, destroy properties or be disruptive so as to deny the household members sleep. This ensured that the debtor or his associates would pay as early as possible.

The unpleasant aspects of the Ologo system of collecting debt were:

  • The involvement of firm physical force. This was applied in seizing the debtor’s food by force, wearing their clothes or any action to basically deprive the household of their peace of mind.
  • The risk of acquiring a contagious disease and thus the spreading of that disease among the community.
  • The constant state of worry and fear that the debtor and his family lived in.

The Iwofa system of debt recovery was another common system in pre-colonial Yoruba. Iwofa system operated in a way that is sort of similar to a mortgage. The borrower received the amount of money that he needed upfront, but they had to work for a pre-determined amount of time to pay that money back. The person doing the work could be the debtor himself or it could be a member of the debtor’s family and they were to do work for the creditor until the debtor made the payment and the pre-determined amount of time is up. The Iwofa system was mostly applied to either punish the rich transgressors by reducing them to pauper status or it could be used to fine committers of serious crimes such as theft or rape. Still, the borrower or the debtor retained their rights of having their own house, their own family, their own wife and children. It was a system which secured the loan in return for the labour of the borrower or of a person associated to the borrower.

The unpleasant aspects of the Iwofa system of collecting debt were:

  • Sending family members to perform the pre-determined amount of work.
  • The total service rendered plus the amount of money that was to be paid back was usually more than the real value of the principle money owned.
Image result for collecting debt

Knowing how these three debt-paying systems worked make us realize that even though it was pre-colonial times in Yoruba, people managed to structure financial systems and different methods conducting loans so that it would fit different people in different situations. It could be said that these very early forms of loan systems gradually developed and evolved by time in order to reduce their negative aspects. People came to have better knowledge to know both their rights and obligations when asking for or giving a loan, and the process came to be legally documented to ensure that neither party is being wronged until the loan is finally paid back.

Precolonial Achievements

National Historians. Although, Yoruba was not a written language for much of the history of Oyo, there were national historians. These were certain families retained by the Alaafin. They were the King’s drummers, cymbalists and bards. It has been their job to remember Yoruba history through oral tradition, poetry and music devices.

Loans – The Yoruba developed various systems of advancing personal loans, despite th absence of writing, such as the iwofa system. This was a system whereby money was advanced upfront and settled over time through works of service by either the borrower or a member of family of the borrower. The works of service and the length of service was agreed with the lender in advance.

Professional army – The kingdom of Oyo had a standing army and a reserve army (drawn from the tributaries). The head of the army was the “Aare Ona Kakanfo”. Meaning “the man of high rank who goes along the [war] path [directed by the Alaafin] with a swift unstoppable leap”.

Alliance: An Akan-Dahomey-Oyo alliance defeated the Ashanti in 1764 indicating the Oyo kingdom sometimes engaged in combat outside its borders.

Oriki – Oriki is praise poetry. There is no prescribed length for praise poetry. Traditionally, each child would have praise poetry, each kingship line, and each province, capturing their historic achievements or reputation within Yorubaland.

Taxes – This was collected in cowries (money), cattle, beads, garments, drink, gold, agricultural produce, slaves and weapons.

Calendar. The Yoruba originally had a 4-day week.

Facial recognition. The people of Yoruba land used facial scarification to mark the province of origin of their citizens. The naming system then indicated the family or social rank, lineage seniority, or circumstance of birth.

Technology. The army had guns (introduced in the 19th century), cavalry (introduced in the 16th century), archers with poisoned arrows and infantry. Although, due to superstition it was also believed that charms could be used for warfare.

Elections. Each Alaafin had to be elected by the Oyo Mesi based on potential and character.

Government officials. The Ilari had executive powers, such as tax collection, or the power implement state decisions. The Oyo Mesi had the power to check the powers of the monarch and elect the next kings.

Administrative divisions. The kingdom was divided into a metropolis (the capital), provinces, client states, tributary states, absorbed kingdoms and junior “gifting” partners.

Limitations on the length of warfare – The post-holder of the title Aare Ona Kakanfo had to win a war within three months or commit suicide. The head of the army could not return home alive unless victorious from the expedition ordered by the Alaafin. This rule unfortunately didn’t work during periods when civil wars broke out.

A vigesimal (base-twenty) numeral system. In Yoruba, 40 is ogoji (20 multiplied by 2), 1000 is egberun (200 multiplied by 5), 10,000 is egbarun (2,000 multipled by 5) and so on, rather than a base-ten numeral system.

Bronze art. The kingdom of Oyo is a brainchild of the same civilisation that produce the Ife Bronze sculptures. The founder of Oyo was the sixth Ooni of Ife.

Masterpieces of the British Museum: Yoruba Bronze art (made from Brass imported from across the Sahara Desert)

Proverbs. The Yoruba have proverbs on

  • A good person (due to humility, self-control, self-knowledge, self-respect and self-restraint etc.)
  • A fortunate person;
  • Relationships with family, the community, the divine, elders, etc.
  • Human nature;
  • Rights and responsibilities; and
  • Truisms


  1. Thornton, John (1998). Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 340 Pages. ISBN 0-521-62724-9.
  2. Johnson, Samuel and Obadiah Johnson (ed.). The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. London: printed by Lowe and Drydone for C.M.S. bookshops in Lagos, [1966]. Orig. 1921.
  3. Owomoyela, Oyekan, Yoruba Proverbs, University of Nebraska Press, 2005
  4. Allan GB Fisher and Humphrey J Fisher, Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa: The Institution of Saharan and Sudanic Africa and the Trans-Sahara Trade. Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1971.

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Kingdom of Oyo

by Editorial Team time to read: 23 min