In the Chapter entitled “The Aftermath of the Fall of Old Oyo” in Vol.11 of the LONGMAN History of West Africa(ed. Ajayi and Crowder), it was suggested that although Yorubaland did not constitute a single political entity, it constituted a political system built around the ideology of a common origin of all Yoruba Obas at Ife, and the military power of the Old Oyo Empire; that the 19th century wars were essentially a chain reaction following not only the military decline of the Old Oyo Empire but the total collapse of the Old Oyo monarchy; and that the fundamental issue that needs to be explained is this collapse of the monarchy that had lasted some three centuries. It was this collapse that can explain why the revolt of kakanfo Afonja became uncontrollable, why the ritual suicide of Awole, Adebo and Maku in quick succession led to an interregnum of almost 20 years after which the restoration of the monarchy became virtually impossible.
I have suggested that the external factors which used to form the basis of explanation—the involvement of Oyo chiefs in the slave trade and the intervention of Fulani Jihadists—cannot fully explain this internal collapse of the Old Oyo monarchy; that the collapse was not sudden and that a careful reading of Samuel Johnson’s narrative shows that no Alaafin of the 18th century died a natural death; that only Ojigi at the beginning of the century and Abiodun at the end can be regarded as significant rulers; that gradually the real military and political leaders became the Basorun such as Yau Yamba, Jambu and Gaha, and the Kakanfo and other Eso such as Oyabi and Afonja; and that the effort of Abiodun to stem the tide proved worse than unsuccessful.
The challenge in this paper is to attempt to go beyond the main historical events and try to identify fundamental issues that might explain the chain of events . That leads us into speculative and philosophical expalnantions which some will regard as outside the purview of hisotrians and others will hail as the only effort worthy of the attention of serious hisotrians. The inevitability with which one war provoked another, the helplessness of mortals as they wished to retian control ovet the events and yet saw again and again their hopes on lasting peace come to naught until the external power of the new gods, foretold in fables and ifa prescriptions, had to be invoked. Such events certainly call for a search for fundamental causes. A few lines of inquiry are suggested.
That perhaps in spite of the slave trade, the population of Yorubaland had been rising to a point of explosion relative to available agricultural technology, of slaves from outside, and a century or more of absence of devastating internal wars; that this increased the tension in the metropolitan province of Oyo and other places, and helps to explain the degree of urbanization, the resulting population explosion, the pressure of desperate migrants on settled communities, the rise of total warfare, destruction and abandonment of some sites and the cultivation of other larger areas hitherto neglected for settlement purposes.
Until the 18th century, politics in Old Oyo was in terms of competition between the major families(principally those of the Oyo Mesi) severally and collectively, and with their allies in the provinces against the families of the Alaafin. The rise of the cavalry force, and the professionalization of the military which it encouraged, deepened class distinctions that cut across the old family rivalries. The rivalry between supporters the power that was based in the old established families, and supporters of the shift of power to the hands of the new professional warriors had an economic dimension, but in no clearly specific manner some of the warriors were more interested in a northern policy protecting the sources of the horse, while others were more interested in the southern trade and access to European goods.
MODE OF PRODUCTION
Perhaps the growing pressure of population and the increasing class distinctions were further complicated by the growing inadequacies of the political economy based on household production and the export slave trade. The clear trend in the 19th century was for the warrior to keep his slaves as cheap labor for farming, and for producing and transporting palm oil and kernels. The transition from household as the basic unit of production to capture slaves for export, to one in which every household aspired to own slaves or be part of extended families that owned slaves was a feature of the 19th century wars.
From time to time, societies seek rebirth and restructuring. This starts from widespread disillusionment in the existing religious, social, economic and political arrangements. Internal population pressure, external threats or interventions suggesting alternative routes and new models could produce revolutionary factors which became uncontrollable and gather momentum of their own. A society that retains control of its own destiny would still emerge from such turmoil with major structural changes and some new consensus as the basis for social interaction in the future.
The Yoruba in the 19th century were in such a ferment of revolution that the old norms and consensus were being challenged; Ifa was in certain cases advising conversion to Islam and predicting the coming of the white man. However, before resolving the crisis and evolving a new consensus, they temporarily lost control over their destiny. They appear to have been caught up in a cross current of ideas and pressures which ultimately frustrated this chance for a new rebirth and ended in an internal stalemate under a colonial regime.
Detailed research along some of these paths might reveal new data and deepen our knowledge. However, speculative history always leaves the little corner of doubt in the mind of the historian: what produced the collapse of the fabric that held the Oyo monarchy together, and led to such hatreds and bitter wars that even now, a century of peace later, the echoes of discord and rivalry can hardly be said to have died down? We may never know for certain.
Professor J.F. Ade Ajayi (pages145-147) in “War and Peace in Yorubaland, 1793-1893”, edited by Adeagbo Akinjogbin.