[Guest Blog Post – Akinyode Soyoye] Governance in the Old Oyo Empire

By Akinyode Soyoye

At the apex of the administration of the government was the king who was known as Alaafin. He was usually referred to by his subjects as Kabiesi – Alaseikeji Orisa meaning one who no one dare questioned – authority next to the gods. Despite this divine tag, the Alaafins were not autocratic. This was because their position and activities as king was checked by some council of chiefs known as the Oyomessi.

The principle of checks and balances is not alien to African culture and tradition. Available historical evidences abound on societies in Nigeria that had maintained a sophisticated government with the adherent pecks of principle of checks and balances before the emergence of the colonial era. Ignorance and insolence (or both), that must be responsible for the much trumpeted ‘homegrown democracy’ by Nigerian politicians.  Most times these politicians give impression that Africans are modeled to be tyrants. History shows that we are no strangers to checks and balances; it is ingrained in our political-social system of governance.

Now the question; are these measures still alive in African societies? Do African societies still have some measures they respect and that makes them accountable, just and fair in administering their people and society? Is it a “taboo” if we go back to the root and revive some measures which are part of our culture and tradition that can bring development to our societies in Nigeria and Africa at large? Let us go back to the roots, by peering at the system of government of some societies in Yoruba-land.

HRM Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III,  Alaafin of Oyo

HRM Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III, Alaafin of Oyo

Historically speaking, old Oyo Empire grew to be the dominant power and a wealthy kingdom among other kingdoms in the Yoruba-land in the 16th century. The principal factor that made Oyo supreme was its centralized system of government. One of its paramount features was the “principle of checks and balances”. This made old Oyo empire to be referred to in history as one of the centers of African civilization in the 15th and 16th century A.D.

At the apex of the administration of the government was the king who was known as Alaafin. He was usually referred to by his subjects as Kabiesi –Alaseikeji Orisa meaning one who no one dare questioned – authority next to the gods. This impression given to the king by his subjects made the position of the king divinely. Despite this divine tag, the Alaafins were not autocratic. This was because their position and activities as king was checked by some council of chiefs known as the Oyomessi.

The Oyomessi were saddled with the responsibility of enthroning a king after the demise of the incumbent and also, dethroning any king that was not responsible and violated the regulations attached to his position as king of empire. Also the Oyomessi had the authority to dethrone any king that reneges on the being of his sovereignty which included peaceful co-existence in his realm and defending the empire from within and without. Any breech in these sacred functions by the Alaafin signifies the beginning of the end of his reign.

The Oyomessi dethroned the kings by sending an empty calabash to the king, with some incantation that “the people reject you, the earth reject you.” On receipt of this gift, the king is expected to commit suicide. This was the case of Alaafin Odarawu and Alaafin Jayin in the 17th century when they violated the regulations attached to their positions as kings. They took their rejection mildly and committed suicide. The council of the Oyomessi was headed by Bashorun.

The Oyomessi on the other hand were not unchecked or arbitrary. They dethrone kings based on concrete reasons and were no slave to whims. They had too as their heads could be called for by a council of chiefs known as Ogboni. The Ogboni was a cult saddled with the responsibility of performing rituals to the gods and checking the activities of the Oyomessi. If the Oyomessis erred, they were sanctioned by the council of the Ogbonis. In this view, the Ogboni served as a watchdog to the Oyomessi. As a result of the strong measure of checks and balances that was present in the system of government of Old Oyo empire made the activities of the people in governing council to be just and fair which brought development of the kingdom and made it grew large to become an empire and a dominant power in the Yoruba land in 17th century A.D.

With the knowledge of the role the principle of checks and balances played in the development and growth of Old Oyo Empire, why can we not learn from history? Why can’t we go back to the root and revive some dead principles that brought growth and development to our societies in the past?  This principle served as a watchdog that checked the activities of the people in the governing council of these societies. People in the governing council been aware of this measure and the penalty they will face if they violate the regulations attached to their positions as members of governing council made them to be just, fair, and accountable to their subjects and also engaged in any activities that will bring satisfaction to the interest of their subjects.

Taking a cursory look at the situation of leadership and act of governance in Africa and Nigeria to be specific, could it be said that there are measures that check the activities of our leaders in Nigeria? The absence of institutional lids on governance in our democracy is certainly unAfrican. Never has power revolved around one person or a group of vested interest.  Who are the ‘Bashoruns’ in our government today? Who are the ‘Oyomessi’? Who plays the role of ‘Oluwo’ in the process of checks and balances in our government today?

If Nigeria will be a nation bound with freedom peace and unity as postulated by our past heroes, if we do not want the labour of our past heroes to be in vain, then we need to go back to the root, we need to revive our past and learn from history.

 

 

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