Nigeria Table of Contents
As far as historical memory extends, the Yoruba have been the dominant group on the west bank of the Niger. Of mixed origin, they were the product of the assimilation of periodic waves of migrants who evolved a common language and culture. The Yoruba were organized in patrilineal descent groups that occupied village communities and subsisted on agriculture, but from about the eleventh century A.D., adjacent village compounds, called ile, began to coalesce into a number of territorial citystates in which loyalties to the clan became subordinate to allegiance to a dynastic chieftain. This transition produced an urbanized political and social environment that was accompanied by a high level of artistic achievement, particularly in terracotta and ivory sculpture and in the sophisticated metal casting produced at Ife. The brass and bronze used by Yoruba artisans was a significant item of trade, made from copper, tin, and zinc either imported from North Africa or from mines in the Sahara and northern Nigeria.
The Yoruba placated a luxuriant pantheon headed by an impersonal deity, Olorun, and included lesser deities, some of them formerly mortal, who performed a variety of cosmic and practical tasks. One of them, Oduduwa, was regarded as the creator of the earth and the ancestor of the Yoruba kings. According to a creation myth, Oduduwa founded the city of Ife and dispatched his sons to establish other cities, where they reigned as priest-kings and presided over cult rituals. Formal traditions of this sort have been interpreted as poetic illustrations of the historical process by which Ife's ruling dynasty extended its authority over Yorubaland. The stories were attempts to legitimize the Yoruba monarchies--after they had supplanted clan loyalties--by claiming divine origin.
Ife was the center of as many as 400 religious cults whose traditions were manipulated to political advantage by the oni (king) in the days of the kingdom's greatness. Ife also lay at the center of a trading network with the north. The oni supported his court with tolls levied on trade, tribute exacted from dependencies, and tithes due him as a religious leader. One of Ife's greatest legacies to modern Nigeria is its beautiful sculpture associated with this tradition.
The oni was chosen on a rotating basis from one of several branches of the ruling dynasty, which was composed of a clan with several thousand members. Once elected, he went into seclusion in the palace compound and was not seen again by his people. Below the oni in the state hierarchy were palace officials, town chiefs, and the rulers of outlying dependencies. The palace officials were spokesmen for the oni and the rulers of dependencies who had their own subordinate officials. All offices, even that of the oni, were elective and depended on broad support within the community. Each official was chosen from among the eligible clan members who had hereditary right to the office. Members of the royal dynasty often were assigned to govern dependencies, while the sons of palace officials assumed lesser roles as functionaries, bodyguards to the oni, and judges.
During the fifteenth century, Oyo and Benin surpassed Ife as political and economic powers, although Ife preserved its status as a religious center even after its decline. Respect for the priestly functions of the oni of Ife and recognition of the common tradition of origin were crucial factors in the evolution of Yoruba ethnicity. The oni of Ife was recognized as the senior political official not only among the Yoruba but also at Benin, and he invested Benin's rulers with the symbols of temporal power.
The Ife model of government was adapted at Oyo, where a member of its ruling dynasty consolidated several smaller citystates under his control. A council of state, the Oyo Mesi, eventually assumed responsibility for naming the alafin (king) from candidates proposed from the ruling dynasty and acted as a check on his authority. Oyo developed as a constitutional monarchy; actual government was in the hands of the basorun (prime minister), who presided over the Oyo Mesi. The city was situated 170 kilometers north of Ife, and about 100 kilometers north of present-day Oyo. Unlike the forest-bound Yoruba kingdoms, Oyo was in the savanna and drew its military strength from its cavalry forces, which established hegemony over the adjacent Nupe and the Borgu kingdoms and thereby developed trade routes farther to the north (see fig. 2).
Figure 2. Yorubaland, Eleventh to Nineteenth Centuries established agricultural community in the Edo-speaking area, east of Ife, when it became a dependency of Ife at the beginning of the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century, it took an independent course and became a major trading power in its own right, blocking Ife's access to the coastal ports as Oyo had cut off the mother city from the savanna. Political power and religious authority resided in the oba (king), who according to tradition was descended from the Ife dynasty. The oba was advised by a council of six hereditary chiefs, who also nominated his successor. Benin, which may have housed 100,000 inhabitants at its height, spread over twenty-five square kilometers that were enclosed by three concentric rings of earthworks. Responsibility for administering the urban complex lay with sixty trade guilds, each with its own quarter, whose membership cut across clan affiliations and owed its loyalty directly to the oba. At his wooden, steepled palace, the oba presided over a large court richly adorned with brass, bronze, and ivory objects. Like Ife and the other Yoruba states, Benin, too, is famous for its sculpture.
Unlike the Yoruba kingdoms, however, Benin developed a centralized regime to oversee the administration of its expanding territories. By the late fifteenth century, Benin was in contact with Portugal (see European Slave Trade in West Africa , this ch.). At its apogee in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Benin even encompassed parts of southeastern Yorubaland and the small Igbo area on the western bank of the Niger. Dependencies were governed by members of the royal family who were assigned several towns or villages scattered throughout the realm, rather than a block of territory that could be used as a base for revolt against the oba.
As is evident from this brief survey, Yoruba and Benin history were interconnected. In fact, areas to the west of Nigeria, in the modern Republic of Benin, were also closely associated with this history, both in the period before 1500 and afterward.
Data as of June 1991
Nigeria Table of Contents