Before the advent of the British in Yoruba land, Yoruba kingdoms maintained an orderly and unified political system which is still in effect till today. A Yoruba kingdom (e.g. the Oyo kingdom) was made up of a headquarter (i.e. Olu-Ilu) and other local towns and villages. However, its political administration consisted of a central level and subordinate units. The central level was headed by the Oba (king) and assisted by a handful of chiefs and other political figures in the administration of the kingdom, while the subordinate units, headed by Baales, concentrated only on the administration of the towns and villages in the kingdom. Like the Oba, the Baale also had a group of chiefs that assisted him in his area of jurisdiction.
However, the Baale of each town and village is entitled to pay annual homage (isakole) to the Oba at the central level. Any erring Baale can be relieved of his post or sanctioned to certain punishment respective of his offense since all Baales were responsible to the Oba at the central level, but this must have the consent of some offices in the administration.
The Yoruba political administration had a decentralized structure i.e. power was constitutionally shared among all political levels/sections of the kingdom ranging from the highest to the lowest unit unlike the Hausa political system which was highly centralized.
The Yoruba political administration was also based on the ultimate principle of ‘check and balance’ which implies that each of the administrative levels can check, challenge or nullify actions of other levels irrespective of their administrative hierarchy, for example, in the political system of the Oyo empire, the Oyomesi (the 7 hereditary kingmakers headed by Bashorun) and the Are-Ona-Kakanfo (head of the army)acted as checks to the Alaafin who can be deposed by being presented an empty calabash or parrot’s egg if found incompetent or guilty of impeachable crimes, for example, Are-Ona-Kakanfo Afonja, with the help of some of the Oyomesi, presented an empty calabash to Alaafin Aole signifying his rejection as the king which was to be followed by his suicide. However, it can be safely concluded that the Yoruba political system had a semblance to the modern federal system of government.
The Yoruba political structure revolved round many figures starting from the Oba, the political head, council of chiefs (Ijoye which consisted of Iyalode, Otun, Osi, Iyaloja etc.), the kingmakers (Afobaje, part of whom might be the chiefs), the Baale, the army (Esho) and the religious cult. It must be noted that the titles of some of these figures vary in each Yoruba kingdom, for example, the Oba is known as Alaafin in Oyo while in Ife, he is referred to as Oni. The kingmakers are also known as Oyomesi in Oyo while the Ijebus call them Osugbo.
It must also be noted that succession to the throne of some, if not many kingdoms in Yorubaland was not hereditary. The Aremo (prince) can only help his father in administering the kingdom or empire but cannot succeed him after his death. After the demise of a king, a new one is chosen from the same or another household by the kingmakers with the help of the religious cult.
Of all the kingdoms and empires in Yorubaland, the Oyo political system was the most popular and outstanding as it was able to influence issues in other kingdoms like Ijebu, Ife, Dahomey (now Republic of Benin) and so on.
Below is the political administrative structure of the Oyo Empire.
The vast Oyo empire was known to be the largest and the most powerful of all Yoruba empires.
Here is the pre-colonial political administration of the Oyo empire–
THE ALAAFIN: The Alaafin was seen as the political head of the empire. He was chosen by the Oyomesi. It was claimed that he could only appear three times a year in public and that was only during some historic festivals.
THE AREMO: He is the eldest son of the ruling Alaafin but cannot succeed his father at his demise. He can only help his father in the administration of the empire.
THE OYOMESI: These are the seven hereditary kingmakers in the Oyo empire. Their leader was Bashroun. They were responsible for installing a new Alaafin.
BAALE OR OBA: Each province was administered by Ajele or Oba. They guaranteed the payment of tribute and homage to the Alaafin. There was the claim that this rulers had the power to threaten any hardened Alaafin or chief by invoking the god of thunder and lightning through the cult of Sango, a deified Alaafin.
THE ARMY (ESO): Are- ono kankanfo was the head of the army. Oyo had for long maintained a strong army that had been used in winning different wars. It was claimed that if the army should suffer any defeat, the Are- ona- kankanfo was to commit suicide or go on exile.
THE OGBONI SOCIETY: This society posses judicial powers and was involved also in policy making. The maintenance and preservation of the cultural values of the people were also delegated to them. They influence a lot of issues in the society.
THE THREE ENUCHES: They were also involved in the administration of the empire. They were:
1. The Osi Efa: He was in charge of political affairs, he has to die with the Alaafin. He was also called ‘Abobaku’.
2. The Ona Efa: He was for judicial purpose
3. The Otun Efa: His function was to perform religious duties for the Alaafin .
Pre-colonial systems in Nigeria witnessed a lot of alterations at the advent of the British colonial masters. Several traditional rulers tried to protect and preserve the political organisation of their kingdoms or empires but later gave up after much pressure and threat from the colonial masters. Colonialism had a great impact on every pre- colonial systems in Nigeria, even till today.
* C. C. Dibie; Essential Government for Senior Secondary Schools; 3rd edition; Lagos; Tonad Publishers; 2008
* A Textbook Of West African History; E. Ola Abiola- May 1974