Chronicles of the Yoruba Revolutionary Wars

  • Causes of the War

The disintegration of the Oyo Empire and kingdom destroyed the pre-existing system of order and security in Yorubaland and created a situation whereby all centers of power, old and new, had to scramble to establish new systems and patterns that would guarantee order and security. Those efforts created conflicts and wars which the Yoruba people were not able to put an end to until European powers intervened and imposed their own system of order, security and peace. For two full centuries prior to the nineteenth century, the Oyo Empire had exercised powerful influences for peace in Yorubaland — both indirectly and directly. Indirectly, the Oyo kingdom, plus the Yoruba provinces in the Alaafin’s empire, amounted to a very substantial part of Yorubaland — about half of its land area and probably more than half of its total population.

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For two centuries, this large area under the Alaafin’s rule enjoyed orderly government, peace, prosperity and pride. The Alaafin’s Yoruba domains were like a wide umbrella of peace and order, shielding and transmitting peace to the rest of Yorubaland. In short, in an indirect, intangible, but very real way, the Alaafin’s domains laid down the standard of order and peace, and thus encouraged and guaranteed order and peace in the rest of Yorubaland. Directly, widespread Yoruba traditions attest to the Alaafin’s interventions in disputes within and between Yoruba kingdoms beyond his own domains — interventions that usually succeeded in maintaining or restoring peace. The Alaafin’s name and aura were great, and he employed them directly to uphold order and peace in the Yoruba homeland.

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When, therefore, in the course of the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Oyo Empire disintegrated, as also its base (the Oyo homeland), and the once proud state of the Alaafin’s fell into dissolution, a major pillar of peace in Yoruba- land crumbled. It is not difficult to imagine the sort of effects that the disruptions and violence in the Oyo homeland would have produced in the rest of Yorubaland — reports of terrible conflicts among princes of the Oyo country; of blasted towns and villages; of massive flights of people from their homes and their towns; of Alaafin after Alaafin isolated and helpless in his palace while Oyo princes destroyed their country; of an obscure resident foreigner at Ilorin taking advantage of the mess created by Oyo leaders to become a terror to the whole land; of countless towns shattered before the Ilorin cavalry and of endless crowds of destitute refugees in desperate flight for dear life.

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But much worse was soon to follow, as the reports ceased to be merely reports. By the middle of the second decade of the century, the refugees from the Oyo country began to arrive in the rest of Yorubaland, especially in the Yoruba middle belt — frightened, many of them detached from family and loved ones, destitute, having lost all the substance of their earthly labor, often made violent by desperation, in their thousands and tens of thousands. The well-to-do or highly placed Oyo citizen might be able to flee in some order, but that was beyond the overwhelming majority of poor and vulnerable folks. Their numbers increased exponentially in the two decades that followed, and probably did not begin to decrease until the last years of the 1830s. For the people of the towns and villages to which they came, these must have been very traumatic times. At least in one area of the Yoruba midlands, in the Egba and Owu countries, their coming turned out to be much worse than traumatic; it became unbelievably destructive. Many towns and villages in those parts suddenly found themselves under vicious attacks by crowds of people too desperate to talk accommodation or hospitality.

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Dado

The story of a man named Dado, though by no means typical of most, is illustrative of what these terrible times could do to a person. Dado was a man of some reputation and of strong military credentials from the Oyo homeland. He did his last military service as a member of a company of valiant men who, determined never to stop resisting Ilorin, kept fighting in engagement after engagement until their number dwindled close to zero. Kurunmi, later ruler of Ijaye, belonged to this company.

The survivors retreated to the small town of Ika-Odan near Ijaye. Having lost wives, children and all earthly belongings, they had become so brutalized and calloused by their experiences that most of them were in no mood to wait on the good will and hospitality of the Ika-Odan people, but turned their military power on their hosts. So they violently seized homes, belongings, farms and wives and turned their hosts who would not run away into menial servants.

When they had eaten up everything available in Ika-Odan and its farms, they extended their forays into Ijaye farms. Ijaye farmers rose up and attacked these marauders, and a skirmish ensued. Kurunmi urged a gentler, conciliatory, approach, but Dado denounced him and the rest and led a small group to attack Ijaye. The people of Ijaye were driven from their farms into their town, and then the whole population, unready for war, fled the town — apparently believing that they would be able to return after their desperate guests had gone away. The company then moved from Ika-Odan and took possession of Ijaye, and decided to make Ijaye their permanent home, with Dado as their leader and ruler.

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As ruler, Dado turned out to be a disaster. He had no interest in farming or other civil pursuits. All his thoughts and utterances were about fighting wars. Those of his colleagues who settled down and raised farms he accused routinely of cowardice. At last, his colleagues could no longer stand him, and they drove him and his few adherents from the town, and chose Kurunmi as their ruler. Dado wandered from there with his group until he came to a little town called Tobalogbo.

Frightened by his military reputation, the ruler and chiefs of Tobalogbo came out to meet him and offer their hospitality. But, as they stood before him, he ordered his men to fall on them and kill all of them. He then entered the town and thor- oughly looted it. With the booty from there, he went on to Aborerin near Iberekodo, and built a large compound where he resided for some time with his new wives, his children and his followers.

But he was not able to settle down. The Egba had meanwhile founded Abeokuta and some Oyo refugees and others had established a new large town at the destroyed Egba village of Ibadan, and Ibadan and Abeokuta were engaged in some conflicts. Dado left Aborerin with his family and joined Ibadan in a campaign in which Ibadan was fighting at Oniyefun against Abeokuta. When the Ibadan forces were defeated there, Dado narrowly escaped with his life, but he lost his whole family and all his belongings.

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From then on, lonely and destitute, he wandered from place to place, including even a visit to some relatives in the city of Ilorin, and a short residence at Ibadan as a guest of an Ibadan chief. Finally he wandered back to Ijaye, where Kurunmi had him arrested and executed. No other prominent refugee from the Oyo country is known to have become as dissolute as Dado, but the experiences of Ika-Odan, Ijaye and Tobalogbo were not very dissimilar from the experiences of many other towns and villages in the Egba country at the hands of some of the most desperate refugee groups. Things were extremely hard for the refugees and, for many of them, the temptation to lapse into brigandage was strong. Many small towns and villages in this part of the country were not just violently seized but totally destroyed.

In short, then, the coming of large streams of refugees from the Oyo homeland southwards to other parts of the Yoruba national homeland was, for an initial, fairly long period, productive of much violence and destruction, and very serious deterioration of security, especially in the west-central area of the Yoruba middle belt. In the years that followed, new significant centers of population crystallized in this middle belt area and went through a process of consolidation, a process that occasioned much stress as well as conflicts and wars. Thereafter, the maturing new states went through a period of rivalry amongst themselves, featuring, again, conflicts and wars. From these, one new state emerged the most successful and strongest of all. Back in the shattered homeland of Oyo in the north, one old city under a new, and foreign, leadership and carrying the banner of a new religion, had emerged as the sole powerful successor of the destroyed kingdom of the Alaafins.

From its base in the north, this new kingdom, Ilorin, intent on imposing its own version of order on all of Yorubaland, continued to pursue the refugees south- wards, bringing relentless pressure to bear on the new states emerging in the middle belt. From among the latter, the most successful, Ibadan, stood up to resist the pressure from the north. It succeeded wonderfully; and, because of that success, it developed bigger ambitions, namely, to prevent the northern kingdom from establishing a foothold anywhere in the vulnerable areas of northeastern and eastern Yorubaland.

That ambition, because it met with success after success, became transformed into yet a bigger ambition — to establish control over all (or almost all) of Yorubaland, to build a new empire of the Yoruba people. The empire building venture too, though it encountered varying degrees of local resistance almost everywhere, proved successful, so much so that it looked as if Yorubaland was at last about to find a viable new order. But a major surge of resistance, widespread and considerably unified, then rose to confront the nascent order in a long, final, series of stubborn wars.

While these major wars were in progress throughout the
century, many types of local disputes and hostile relationships were being played out in local wars. Also, while Yorubaland in general was thus preoccupied in wars, foreign neighbors (first the Nupe and then the Dahomey) took advantage and repeatedly invaded Yorubaland.