What can Africa learn from the Old Oyo Empire?

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Africa has it is today – The Alaafin of Oyo plus or minus Sango – Who says Old Oyo Empire is absolute Monarchy?

To be frank, as Africa stands today, it is a huge clutter.

And one bothers to ask, has it always been like this?

Well, no, thanks to history.

As far as we know, the people of the Yoruba Country (now, majorly South-western Nigeria) lived far more prosperously than we do today.

I made this comment publicly once, and a passerby stunned by it, exclaimed “what of the human sacrifices?!”. To which I replied, “more people die on bad Nigerian roads, and far more from poor (and lack of) health programs, thanks to modernized government-inspired human sacrifices”. (To state the obvious, human sacrifices of any version is cruel and none should be permitted).

An element of good governance is omitted in much of the very toxic African government, it is the idea called skin in the game.

I will illustrate with the Old Oyo empire.

The Oyo empire at its acme around the 18th century stretches from all the South-Western Nigeria states, to the Dahomey (now, Benin) and today’s Republic of Togo (traces of the Yoruba culture is still very visible today amongst these people).

It was a vast empire.

The head of the government is the Alaafin (King) of Oyo, and there has been some misconception about his sovereignty. He is often referred to as Ekeji Orisa, meaning companions of the gods, he appears to have unlimited powers, he cannot to be touched, a semi-divine status, etcetera. [1]

Except that, a little familiarity with history will lead us to the Oyomesis, and hence a different conclusion. The Oyomesi is a 7-member nobility council namely Bashorun, Agbakin, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku, and Asipa, who effectively wield the power of the legislative arm of the government, and serves as the electoral council.

In the eventuality that the Alaafin becomes cruel, tyrannical, nasty or extremely irritating, he is gone.

And, unfortunately, there is a little more detail to this – The Alaafin don’t get dethroned.

When the king is deemed irresponsible, a mysterious basket or a parrot egg is presented to him, which symbolizes that he must do the needful i.e. commit suicide (Alaafin Ayibi is a fine example).

Needless to say, it is not hard to conceive a scenario where the Alaafin of Oyo and the Oyomesis will connive together to trample on the masses. Another branch of the government composed of freemen, a powerful secret society, The Ogbonis is also instituted to keep the Alaafin and Oyomesis in check.

When a man arrogates so much power like the Alaafin of Oyo, he, in effect should be able to arrogate a punishment akin to his powers should he, for some reasons, starts to behave very funny.

The skin in the game is not restricted to the Alaafin Of Oyo.

We can go on and on. Another great example is the Aare-Ona-Kankanfo (war general) who is akin to the defense minister-cum-field marshal.

The Aare – who leads a group of 70 Eso (War chiefs) – is mandated to fight in the war front, and he is not allowed to lose any war, failure to win will lead to his demise, as he will be coerced to commit suicide.

To put this in context the Aare-Ona-Kankanfo is (roughly) the number 4 in command in the entire empire. Next to the Alaafin (king), Bashorun (head of the Oyo-mesi, whom we can conformably refer to as the prime-minister), and the Oluwo (Head of the Ogboni).

This skin in the game feature in the political structure inevitably lead to capable and progressive war generals, with the sole exception of individuals who are interested in their own death, suicide.

And this should be a no-brainer, as one cannot possibly imagine a pilot flying passengers over the Atlantic Ocean, while he himself remains in a remote location, say, his bedroom, drinking hot tea.

It’s not a good thing.

In a recent example, Mr Buhari left his home country Nigeria for almost 100 days to be treated in London. Sadly, he wasn’t brave enough to eat his own cooking.

Everyone must be made to eat his own cooking.


[1] To clarify the use of ‘He’: This is not completely true, however for ease, I will continue to use, as the majority of the Alaafin of Oyo are male, the empire was not without a female Alaafin, at least we know of Alaafin Orompoto.

(Photo Credit)


Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas: from the earliest times to the beginning of the British Protectorate, 1921.

Yunusa Kehinde Salami, The Democratic Structure of Yoruba Political-Cultural Heritage, The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol 1, no 6, December 2006.

Oyo Empire, Wikipedia.


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