The Yoruba people claim to have originated from Ile-Ife. The legend further states that Oduduwa, the father of the race, had seven sons who later became the first set of seven Yoruba Kings (Oba) to rule the various Yoruba Kingdoms.
By procreation and extension, the number of Kingdoms increased, each ruled by an Oba and with largely similar administrative structures.
The Oyo Kingdom had a well-defined structure representative of the pre-colonial political system of the Yoruba.
Political Structure of The Yoruba Land
The Yoruba Kingdom developed an efficient governmental system which existed for centuries before the coming of the Europeans into Nigeria.
The system was based on checks and balances in which the various organs of government checked the activities of one another to avoid dictatorship.
The organs of government were as follows:
1. The Oba
The Oba was the political, cultural and sometimes religious/spiritual head of the kingdom. In most cases, the Oba must be the eldest son of the deceased King and in any case, should belong to one of the Royal families.
The Oba was not the absolute ruler but had Chiefs with whom he held consultations and both of whom served as checks and balances on each other. It was the Oba who appointed these Chiefs following tradition.
For example, by tradition, some chieftancy titles belonged to particular families or wards who always had the right to fill such stools. Such families may propose one of them to the Oba for his ratification and appointment, or the Oba himself (consulting with his council of Chiefs), choose a member of the family he deemed fit.
The Oba with his Chiefs exercised judicial powers especially over serious crimes, allocated land to the people, settled land and other inter-ward disputes and saw to the general welfare of the people.
2. The Council of Chiefs or The Oyomesi
The council of Chiefs (Oyomesi) were also the kingmakers. In Oyo, members were prominent Chiefs drawn from seven notable wards that made up the capital city. The leader of the Council of Chiefs in the old Oyo Empire was the Bashorun who also acted as the prime minister of the kingdom.
The seven kingmakers acted as the organ of checks and balances to the powers and excesses of the Oba. They were not only empowered to elect a new King at the demise of one, but also to remove or impeach an Oba who violated the tradition of the community.
The Chiefs as the Oba’s advisers, met to discuss issues and took decisions which they presented to the Oba, who usually accepted such decisions/advice, but was not bound to accept. Such decisions and others by the Oba were then publicised as the ‘voice of the Oba’ and then became law.
3. The Ogboni Fraternity
The Ogboni fraternity was one of the political institutions of the Yoruba Kingdom. It was a secret society which comprised prominent elders and headed by the Oluwo. The fraternity checked the excesses of the kingmakers in the area of dethronement of the Oba. They mediated between the Oba and the kingmakers wherever there was a disagreement, and performed rituals on behalf of the Kingdom.
4. The War General (Aare-Onakakanfo)
The aare-onakakanfo was a chief appointed by the Oba as a war general, to defend the territorial integrity of the kingdom. The constitution provided that the aare-onakakanfo must commit suicide should the kingdom suffer defeat in the battlefield.
As a result, some aare-onakakanfo never returned to the kingdom after battle defeat, but established new settlements instead of committing suicide.
5. Palace Officials
The Oba had the power to appoint some important officers who could carry out the administration of the palace. They performed and supervised routine functions in the palace, and in Oyo, were called the iwarefa.
6. Village and Ward Heads
The Oba also approved the appointment of village heads called baale and ward heads called mogaji to supervise their communities. The village heads annually brought tributes and dues from their people to the Oba. Generally there was no formal system of taxation among the Yoruba.
7. The Age-grades
These were groups of young men born around the same period. They were organized and given a name with defined leadership, and roles such as police, security and general maintenance of law and order, environmental sanitation, civic duties like building of markets, roads and public buildings, joint planting and harvesting, and mass hunting.