History and Origins of the Yoruba People


History and Origins of the Yoruba People

In a nutshell, the Yoruba can be described as one of the major ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria. Of course, several members of the Yoruba race can be found everywhere around the globe. But the majority of them are found in some Western and Central States of Nigeria stretching across Oyo, Osun, Ogun, Ondo, Lagos, Kwara and Kogi. They practice both Islam and Christianity but most of them are still traditionalist to the core. The Yoruba ethnic group is believed to have come into existence between 2000-1000 BC.

Origins of the Yoruba People 

Till today, the history of the origins of the Yoruba people remains controversial. The Yoruba, as an ethnic group still holds many versions about its origins.

• Rev. Samuel Johnson’s Version

In his book, History of the Yoruba (1950), Johnson traces the origin of the Yoruba to the “East”. According to him, the Yoruba originally came from the North-Eastern area of Africa. The similarities between the cultures of the Yoruba and the Egyptians in terms of religious observances, works of arts, burial and other traditional practices are enough evidence. It is from Egypt, after several years of journey that the Yoruba finally settled in Ile-Ife in Nigeria. Oduduwa is believed to be the first leader that led the Yoruba to Ile-Ife and subsequently sent his sons and grandsons to found other Yoruba kingdoms. Johnson’s conclusion is worth recalling:

That the Yoruba came originally from the East, there cannot be the slightest doubt as their habits, manner and customs, etc., all go to prove. With them the East is Mecca and Mecca is the East. Having strong affinities with the east looming so largely in their imagination, everything that comes from the east with them comes from Mecca, and hence it is natural to present them as having hailed originally from that city.

• The Oke Oramfe’s Version

 Oke Oramfe is located in Ile-Ife. It is believed to be the centre from which the world was created. In their paper Yorubaland up to 1800, Akinjogbin & Ayandele (1980) give us a full picture of what Oke Oramfe’s version is all about. According to the legend, there was a period when the world was covered by water. The Almighty God then decided to send some of his messengers to the world and they included Obatala or Orisa Nla or Orisa Alase [as the leader] and sixteen Oye [immortals].

They were given fives pieces of iron, a lump of earth tied to a white piece of cloth, and a cockerel. Somewhere on their way to the world, the leader, Obatala, got drunk with palm wine. Oduduwa seized the symbol of authority from him and eventually led the party to the world. The site on which they landed is traditionally known as Oke Oramfe in Ile-Ife.

On arrival at the site, Oduduwa set down the five pieces of iron and placed the lump of earth on them. The cockerel then spread its toes on the earth. Consequently, the earth was formed and Oduduwa thus became the ruler. It was from this base (Ife) that he extended his authorities to other Yoruba towns and villages.


The Socio-Political Organization of the Yoruba

Oyo is best known as the major kingdom that eventually emerged as an empire in Yorubaland. Various traditions believe that Oyo was founded by Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa, who is also credited with establishing the present Benin monarchy. Oyo Empire was founded in the middle of the fifteen century. A century later, it became very powerful and prosperous, extending its authority as far as Dahomey.

The Alaafin Administration

Oyo Empire was very unique and exceptional in its system of government. For instance, in the sixteenth century, Oyo was one of the rare empires that had in-built checks and balances, and, this contributed to its stability for centuries. The Alaafin was the head of the empire, and was resident in the capital. He was also regarded as “Lord of many lands”. The Alaafin was assisted in his administration by a retinue of officials made up of priests, officials and eunuchs. He had a well-organized court as well.

Theoretically, the Alaafin was the fountain of authority and was therefore regarded as the “companion of the gods”. Sometimes, he had an autocratic tendency, but in practice, his powers were often limited and regulated by the Oyomesi, a council of seven members headed by Bashorun who acted as the prime minister. The members of Oyomesi were king makers as well. At the demise of the Alaafin, they were the ones to select his successor. The Oyomesi also had the power to remove any Alaafin especially when he appeared dictatorial or transgressed the laws of the land. Usually the deposed Alaafin was expected to commit suicide.

The Ogboni Cult’s Administration

Apart from the Alaafin cabinet, members of the Oyomesi cult constituted another arm of government. It was a very powerful cult. It was composed of free and prominent members of the society as well as members of the Oyomesi. The Ogboni cult had a very vital position in Yoruba society. It played a mediatory role in any conflict between the Oyomesi and the Alaafin. It was a kind of counter power to the Oyomesi as well.


The Army

The Army was another arm of government in traditional Yoruba society. It was very organized. Its head was conferred with the coveted title of Are-Ona-Kankanfo. It was made up of infantry and calvary. The AreOna-Kankanfo was expected to live outside the capital. The Army was credited with performing important functions which included stability of the empire, expansion, as well as keeping dissident territories in check. Oyo Empire also had provincial governments. They were modeled after the central government. They were administered by princes, minor kings and baales [provincial governors]. All of them were subject to the over lordship of the Alaafin. The provincial governments enjoyed considerable autonomy. But the Alaafin had personal agents, Ilari, all over the provinces. The Alaafin used the Bere annual festival periods to acknowledge the renewal of allegiance of the provincial governors to him.

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