Shortly after Oyo Empire expanded her influence westwards, capturing Port Novo and making Dahomey (present-day Benin Republic) a vassal state pay tributes of 40 guns and 400 loads of cowries and corals regularly to Oyo, of course after phases of wars that made Oyo army a dread to the Dahomeyans, Alafin (Emperor) Labisi appointed a new Basorun (Prime Minister).
To check the Alaafin from becoming too dictatorial, the Prime Minister according to the constitution could pass a vote of no confidence that would turn the Oyo Mesi (Legislators) against the Alaafin and an empty calabash would be handed to the emperor signaling that he was required commit suicide and pave way for a new Alaafin since the Oyo Mesi had lost confidence in his rule.
The Basorun was a high priest controlling all the cults except Sango and Ifa, so this could make him declare that the ancestors and Heavens had lost confidence in an Alaafin. Prior to the appointment of Ga, the unwritten constitution of the empire had been amended from the more ancient style that the Aremo (heir apparent) ruled after an Alaafin passed on.
The new constitution demanded that the heir apparent died with the Alaafin so as to pass on succession without disputes and in a way make the monarchical system a sort of republic. This made Basorun Ga more powerful. Ga became despotic and power drunk and from the slightest accusation that an Alaafin or his Prince disrespected the Oyo Mesi to the accusation that an Alaafin was assuming airs of superiority, Basorun Ga raised five Alaafins to the throne and successively destroyed four of them.
He and his family ruled despotically for twenty years, almost as if they were the Alaafins. By the reign of the fifth emperor, Alaafin Abiodun, the people were fed up of Ga’s dictatorship. On an appointed day, with the support of Are-Ona Kakanfo (Military Commander of Oyo army) Oyabi, the Alaafin and the people broke the jinx of Ga’s powerful magic and rounded up all his family (except Ojo, Ga’s first son) and were seized and killed, Ga himself was burnt to death in his house.
Abiodun’s reign then went on peacefully and lasted from 1774 to 1789, his was a golden reign. However, the center was no longer holding the seams of the Empire together after 20 years of internal imbalance triggered by Ga. Taking advantage of the lawless years, Egba province under the warrior, Lishabi, had proclaimed their independence and migrated towards their present location in Abeokuta. The Egbas had been aggrieved by the oppression of the resident Ilaris (governors) in their three provinces within the empire and the absence of any authority to hold them in check.
When authority was installed by Abiodun, he sent a punitive expedition against the Egbas, but the rocky hills of Abeokuta made the Oyo cavalry failed woefully in subjecting the Egbas. This triggered a domino effect of provinces declaring their independence from Oyo. Even Dahomey had the effrontery to assault Ketu, a westernmost Yoruba district, without fear of the Oyo imperial army. As far as Ewe (in today’s Togo), Oyo began to wane.
But within the city, Abiodun restated law and order but his reign came to an end with his death in 1789 and a new Alaafin was crowned, Alaafin Awole who reigned between 1789 to 1796). Alaafin Awole did not help matters he could have consolidated Abiodun’s effort to keep the empire together, but he did not. Under Awole, Afonja was the Are Ona Kakanfo (Military Commander), though the two of them had vied for the throne.
It was a taboo in Oyo constitution for the Alaafin and Are to live in the same city, so while the emperor resided in the capital, the Are must reside elsewhere, especially a town where enemy threat is imminent. Afonja was also from a royal family but he was slave-born and it was probable this that played against his becoming emperor, though some chiefs of the Oyo Mesi sympathized with him. Afonja’s great-grandfather had been the founder of Ilorin.
Alaafin Awole began to lose the Oyo Mesi’s confidence when he firstly requested Afonja to attack Apomu as part of a yearly military exercise the Alaafin must order the Oyo army to revive its strength, but Awole’s omission was that Apomu was an Ile Ife town and it is contrary to the “Coronation Oath” of the Alaafins who all received their royal swords from Ife and sworn never to raise sword against Ife. Secondly, Awole again ordered Afonja to attack Iwere town, which was a fortified fortress impregnable to Oyo army’s weapons of swords and arrows.
It was a calculated attempt by Awole to get rid of Are Afonja since the Are must kill himself if he ever failed to win any battle (this had also been the secret of the Oyo army’s strength in its heydays, asthe Are must fight to be killed or fight to win resulting, making his army fight to the finish without option of retreat).
Afonja sensed this and rather than launch a battle he would not win he refused on the pretext that the town, Iwere, was the maternal home of Alaafin Ajagbo. Ajagbo was Alaafin in 1587 to 1624 and had created the Are Ona Kakanfo, Basorun, Agbakin and Asipa titles, which were military titled except Basorun and Asipa which were administrative. The third reason that Oyo Mesi lost confidence in Awole was trying to introduce Islam into Yorubaland.
Yorubas generally distrusted Islam in the polity and it is unacceptable according to the constitution for the Alaafin to accept the religion because of its male dominance and autocratic nature of the emirs. Note that women make up part of the Oyo Mesi (Legislators) and there were powerful women like Efunsetan Aniwura who had their say in the polity for Oyo was not totally a male dominated society. Besides, the Alaafin was not allowed to wield total power like the emirs did in the north.
Soon the Oyo Mesi sent the empty calabash to Awole and he had to commit suicide. Awole was not missed for his reign further declined the empire and left the bullying ilaris unchecked in their districts. The center no longer held and even the next Alaafin’s reign were so short as people became disillusioned and in want of effective leadership. Adebo ruled for 130 days, Maku was next and was there for only two months thereafter an inter-regnum lasted in the capital from 1797 to 1803.
Afonja’s influence thus began to grow. Afonja tried to become emperor, but some chiefs opposed this. Thus in 1817, he declared Ilorin also independent just as other provinces were also doing. Afonja had a Fulani adviser, Mallam Alimi, and he encouraged dan Fodio jihadists warriors to support Afonja.
Meanwhile, Fulani/Hausas were popularly used in Yorubaland as cheap labors and servants, they were so popular that looking down the nose upon the northerners continued well into post-colonial years in Nigeria. So with the call to arms, Hausa/Fulani laborers in the Oyo underground economy swelled the ranks by fleeing to Ilorin. Ojo, the only surviving son of Ga, along with the Onikoyi of Ikoyi, which was then the largest provincial town of Oyo hence marched against Ilorin.
The Ikoyi’s were the royal battalion of the imperial army and were also known as Ikoyi-Eso (Guards Battalion). When the war began and Hausa/Fulani ex-laborers roamed the country pillaging and selling their former Yoruba aristocratic masters as slaves to white slave buyers (as happened to Ajayi Crowther and his mother who were sold to Portuguese when their village was sacked by the Muslims later in 1821: read earlier post of Eshu and Christian Devil on this blog), Afonja became displeased with this.
And since he was still suspected of being loyal to Yoruba than Islam, Alimi had Afonja killed and his son, Abdul Salami took Ilorin throne as emir, giving allegiance to the Sokoto caliphate. Thus Ilorin became a part of the Sokoto caliphate. There was no central authority anymore in Oyo and a lot of the provinces kept breaking away and the disunity did not give a common cause to the Yorubas to fight and retake Ilorin.
Some Yorubas by this time living in Ilorin had also accepted Islam and thus while Ilorin swelled with a platform for its warriors to fight on in one cause, there was no single cause the Yorubas stood for a united fight. The center no longer held and things badly fallen apart. There was no more cavalry for the Oyo army since horses were before bought from northern trade routes which were now closed because of the war against Fulani/Hausa.
The Oyo capital city was not destroyed by war, but it was rather emptied by the people who migrated to safer places like Ilorin, Kabba (present day Kogi state in Nigeria), and the forested south. Oyo city was so big with seventeen gates that it was not possible for the Fulani/Ilorin army to siege or take it. A new Oyo city was now found further south in Ago-Oja and a new Alafin, Atiba, was crowned. But by this time, the Alaafin was struggling to maintain a dignity that was lost. Yoruba was now no more an empire but more like the Greek city states of Athens, Sparta, Macedonia e.t.c. Yoruba city states of Owu, Egba, Ijebu, Ondo and Ijesha begun to emerge, with even facial marks emphasizing their differences, no more paying allegiance to a central authority.
Civil wars became rampant, famine spread like wildfire and slave hunting, slavery before this time was totally alien to the Yorubas since Oyo did not allow any Yorubas to be traded as slave. The slave coasts were now overcrowded with Yoruba slaves as Hausa/Fulani armies and slave-hunting warlords fed their armies with the new system of economic trade that coincided with the collapse of Old Oyo that was closer to the River Niger.
A new war brewed when Ijebu (whose reputation as businessmen is known even till today) and Ife also began to sell refugees from old Oyo as slaves. These are the Modakeke, who retraced their way back to Ife where the founder of Old Oyo had come from originally. Owu and these refugees therefore attacked Ife in reprisal, the sacred city. This turned Ijebu and Ife against Owu.
The Ijebus were the first to employ the use of guns in any battle and thus completely destroyed Owu town. Owu people fled to Egba for refuge. Ijebu went further to even attack the Egba for harboring the Owu people. Note that Egba used to be where present-day Ibadan was located. But they were scattered villages and settlements. The Owu warriors and other warriors from other destroyed or sacked provinces migrating southwards found a settlement in Eleiyele, thus beginning what today is known as Ibadan. The new city attracted other warriors who wanted to restore the old glory and because of its position in the rainforest area, Ibadan began to control palm oil belt which was just beginning to replace the trade in human beings. It subsequently grew into the largest city in West Africa. With the arrival of warriors from all over Yoruba country turning Ibadan into a military settlement. The issue of who was what ensued and the Oyo drove out the bullying Ife along with the Egba people. Egba then settled in what is now Abeokuta with the Owu people, while Ife found no love lost with the Oyo people, especially those in Ife, the Modakeke. Note that Ibadan too also became a largely Oyo city.
But still determined to totally expand the Sokoto caliphate downwards by totally conquering the dying embers of the Yoruba influence, the Hausa/Fulani/Yoruba Muslim cavalry in Ilorin relaunched another phase of war as they saw New Oyo and Ibadan rising.
Ibadan knew it could no longer control cavalry which used to be a force to reckon with in the Oyo army (Yoruba kings and chiefs still ride horses in celebration today as remnant of the horse tradition prior to these wars) but with the Sokoto caliphate in the north, Ibadan could no longer get horse supplies.Although, Ijebu first used the guns, but Ibadan, through insistent drills, perfected the use of guns in such remarkable ways.
Oyos were seasoned warriors and thus Ibadan infantry marched out to meet the jihadists who were pillaging villages and towns with impunity from Ilorin southwards. Finally, a decisive battle was fought in Oshogbo in 1839, led by the dreaded new Are Ona Kakanfo, Balogun Latoisha.
The Ibadan infantry were good marksmen and they plucked the jihadist riders off their horses in such a way that many lives were lost on the side of the Muslim invaders and the casualty toll was so high that they fled back up north, ending the prolonged Fulani/Oyo wars and the incursion of the jihadists in a very decisive victory.
Thus Ibadan emerged as the superpower of the Yoruba states. Although, ibadan tried to restore the old glory of Oyo by being the military wing of the New Oyo government, the city states wanted to assert their independence from the Alafina and this led to another protracted war, the 16-Year Yoruba Civil War that saw Ilorin, Egba, Ijebu, Ekiti, Ijesha and Ife fighting Ibadan and Modakeke. For 16 years Ibadan remained unbeaten until the British and Anglican missionaries called for a peace treaty. It was no surprised then that after independence in Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, an Ijebu statesman, made Ibadan the capital seat of the Western region which is in the Yoruba region within Nigeria.