The Oyo Empire was a Yoruba Empire of what is today western Nigeria, north central Nigeria and Western
Republic of Benin.
Established in the 15th century, the Oyo Empire grew to become one of the largest West African states. It rose through the outstanding organizational skills of the Yoruba, wealth gained from trade and its powerful Cavalry.
The Oyo Empire was the most politically important state in the region from the mid-17th to the late 18th century, holding sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yoruba land but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom Of Dahomey the modern Republic of Benin to the west.
14th Century, Oyo Palace Compound, Oranyan, the first oba (king) of Oyo, was succeeded by Oba Ajaka, Alaafin of Oyo. Ajaka was deposed, because he lacked Yoruba military virtue and allowed his sub-chiefs too much independence. Leadership was then conferred upon Ajaka’s brother, Sango, who was later
deified as the deity of thunder and lightning. Ajaka was restored after Sango’s death.
Ajaka returned to the throne thoroughly more warlike and
oppressive. His successor, Kori, managed to conquer the rest of what later historians would refer
to as metropolitan Oyo. Oyo Ile :
The heart of metropolitan Oyo was its capital at Oyo-Ile, (also known as Katunga or Old Oyoor Oyo-oro). The two most important structures in Oyo-Ile was the ‘afin,’ or palace of the Oba, and his market. The palace was at the center of the city close to the Oba’s market called ‘Oja- oba’.
Around the capital was a tall earthen wall for defense with 17 gates. The importance of the two
large structures (the palace and the Oja Oba) signified the
importance of the king in Oyo.
The Nupe Occupation :
Oyo had grown into a formidable inland power by the end of the 14th century. For over a century, the Yoruba state had expanded at the expense of its neighbors.
During the reign of Onigbogi, Oyo suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe led by Tsoede. Sometime around 1535, the
Nupe occupied Oyo and forced its ruling dynasty to take refuge
in the kingdom of Borge, The Nupe sacked the capital,
destroying Oyo as a regional power until the early 17th century.
The Oyo Empire, like many empires before it, used both local
and tributary forces to expand its domains. The structure of the Oyo military prior to its imperial period was simple and closer aligned to the central
government in metropolitan Oyo.
This may have been fine in the 15th century when Oyo controlled only its heartland. But to make and maintain farther conquest, the structure underwent several changes.
The Eso : Oyo maintained a semi-standing army of specialist cavalry soldiers called the Eso
orEsho. These were 70 junior war chiefs who were nominated by the Oyo Mesi and confirmed by the Alaafin of Oyo. The Eso
were appointed for their military skills without regard to heritage and were led by the Aare-Ona-Kakanfo. After Oyo’s return from exile, the post of Aare-Ona-Kakanfo was established as the supreme military commander. He was required to live in a frontier province of great importance to
keep an eye on the enemy and to keep him from usurping the government.
During Oyo’s imperial period, the Aare-Ona-Kakanfo personally commanded the army
in the field on all campaigns.
Metropolitan Army : Since the Are-Ona-Kakanfo could not reside near the capital, arrangements had to be made for the latter’s protection in case of emergency. Forces inside metropolitan Oyo were commanded by the Bashorun, leading member of the Oyo Mesi.
As stated earlier, Metropolitan Oyo was divided into six provinces divided evenly by a river. Provincial forces were
thus grouped into two armies, under the Onikoyi and the Okere
for the east and west side of the river respectively. Lesser war chiefs were known as Balogun, a title carried on by the soldiers of Oyo’s successor state, Ibadan.
Tributary : Tributary leaders and
provincial governors were responsible for collecting tribute and contributing troops under local generalship to the imperial army in times of emergency.
Occasionally, tributary leaders would be ordered to attack neighbors even without the backing of the main imperial
army. These forces were often utilized in Oyo’s distant campaigns on the coast or against other states.
Commerce : Oyo became the southern emporium of the Trans-Saharan trade. Exchanges were made in salt, leather,
horses, kola nuts, ivory, cloth and slaves. The Yoruba of metropolitan Oyo were also highly skilled in craft making and iron work. Aside from taxes on trade products coming in and out of the empire, Oyo also became wealthy off the taxes imposed on its tributaries.
Taxes on the kingdom of Dahomey alone brought in an amount estimated at 638 thousand dollars a year.