The Oyo Empire was a monarchial one and ruled by an Alaafin (King), (Alaafin means ‘owner of the palace’ in the Yoruba language). However, an administrative and governing body, made up of chiefs (Oyo Mesi) served to maintain a balance in power. They were headed by a Prime Minister called Bashorun and could request the king’s suicide by sending him a calabash of parrot’s eggs.
The Oyo Mesi
The Oyo Mesi were the seven principal councilors of the state. They constituted the Electoral Council and possessed legislative powers, similar to today’s Nigeria’s National Assembly.
Led by the Bashorun, acting as Prime Minister, who was assisted by the Agbaakin, Samu, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku and Ashipa. They represented the voice of the nation and had the chief responsibility of protecting the interests of the empire.
The Alaafin was required to take counsel with them whenever any important matter affecting the state occurs. Each man had a state duty to perform at court every morning and afternoon. Each member also had a deputy whom they would send to the Alaafin if his absence was unavoidable.
The Oyo Mesi acted as a check and balance on the Alaafin’s power, preventing the king from being an autocrat; the Council forced many Alaafin to commit suicide during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The head of the council of Oyo Mesi, the Bashorun, consulted the Ifa oracle for approval from the gods. New Alaafins of Oyo were seen as appointed by the gods. They were regarded as Ekeji Orisa (companion of the gods).
The Bashorun had the final say on the nomination of the new Alaafin, his power rivaling the king himself. For example, the Bashorun orchestrated many religious festivals; in addition to being commander-in-chief of the army, which gave him considerable independent religious authority.
The Bashorun was also the chief authority of the all important festival of Orun. This religious divination, held every year, was to determine if the members of the Oyo Mesi were still in good graces with the Alaafin.
If the council decided on the disapproval of the Alaafin, the Bashorun would then present the Alaafin with an empty calabash, or parrot’s egg as a sign that he must commit suicide.
This Bashorun Gaa was remarkable because he successfully enthroned four Kings, deposed all four of them and was murdered by the fifth.
This was the only way to remove the Alaafin because he could not be impeached or legally deposed.
Once given the parrot’s egg or empty calabash, the Bashorun would proclaim, “the gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you.” The Alaafin, Aremo, his eldest son, and the Samu, his personal counselor and a member of the Oyo Mesi, the Asamu, all had to commit suicide in order to renew the government all together. The process and suicide ceremony took place during the Orun festival.
Bashorun Gaa was born at the time the Oyo Empire was ruled by Bashoruns ((1692–1728) as the throne had been vacant since Alaafin Osinyago was poisoned in 1692. By my calculations, Gaa must have been born in the late 1690s or early 1700s.
Notwithstanding, Gaa was a notable nobleman and leader of the military in the old Oyo Empire during the reigns of Alaafin Gberu (1732–1738), Amuniwaye (1738–1742) and Onisile (1742–1750). He was instrumental to the military conquests during his time as a military leader.
In 17th Century Oyo, the monarchical failings came as a succession of cruel kings to the exalted throne of the Alaafin.
According to oral history, Alaafin Odarawu (1658–1659) was bad-tempered; Kanran (1659–1665) was an absolute tyrant; Jayin (1665–1676), effeminate and immoral; Ayibi (1676–1690) cruel and capricious; and Osinyago (1690–1692), insignificant and hollow.
The Rise of Gaa
Gaa became Prime Minister and the head of the Oyo Mesi during the reign of Alaafin Onisile.
Onisile was a great warrior and of great courage. He was brave and warlike, and he was also very artistic. His rashness was the cause of his death. He was struck by lightning and was incapacitated, before being deposed and allowed to die peacefully.
Bashorun Gaa himself was a brave and powerful man who was respected and feared by the people of Oyo-Ile for his potent charms and supernatural strength. It was said that he had the powers to transform into any animal he wished.
Gaa was feared to the extent that he became more authoritative than the Alaafin who made him the Bashorun.
Gaa’s tyranny started in the days when Labisi was being prepared for the throne of Oyo. He killed the prince’s friends and silenced his supporters, thereby starting his own rule, which he surreptitiously did with the installation of puppet kings from whom he demanded homage.
However, it was impossible for him to become the Alaafin as he bore no blood of Oranmiyan to claim the throne.
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So, as Prime Minister for 24 years (1750–1774), Bashorun Gaa supervised the dethronement and execution of four successive Alaafins as follows:
Crown Prince Labisi (1750) – Alaafin Labisi remains the shortest-reigned Alaafin of the Oyo Empire till date. He spent only 15 days on the throne. He committed suicide because of pressure from Bashorun Gaa. This unfortunate king was elected to the throne but not allowed to be crowned. His Bashorun, Gaa, became very powerful, conspired against him and killed all his friends. Labisi eventually committed suicide when he could not rule.
Alaafin Awonbioju (1750) – Succeeded Labisi but lasted a mere 130 days because he refused to postrate before Gaa.
Alaafin Agboluaje (1750–1770) – He was a very handsome prince installed by Gaa. His reign was peaceful and the kingdom was big and prosperous. The Bashorun made him fight the king of Popo who was his friend and destroyed his kingdom. In frustration, the king committed suicide before the expedition arrived.
Alaafin Majeogbe (1770–1772) – Agboluaje’s brother who succeeded him. Alaafin Majeogbe tried to defend himself against Gaa whose sons were now too powerful. They collected all the tributes and were cruel. The king eventually died in frustration.
Alaafin Abiodun (1770–1772) – Abiodun wasn’t about to suffer the same fate as his predecessors but his daughter Agbonyin was murdered by Gaa. To take down Gaa who had many powerful friends and connections, he lied to Gaa about being ill, disguised himself as a commoner and went to rally for external help from the Onikoyi and the Aare Ona-Kakanfo, Oyabi from Ajaseland, on how to send Gaa to the grave.
The Fall of Gaa
For the first time in Oyo history, the Aare Ona-Kakanfo, head of the Imperial Army, marched with his troops to the capital of the Oyo Empire to end Gaa’s tyranny.
On the appointed day in 1774, Oyabi’s soldiers overwhelmed Gaa, murdered his children including his pregnant wives and captured him alive.
He was tied to a stake at Akesan market and Alaafin Abiodun ordered that every citizen cut a pound of flesh from his body and drop it in a huge fire in front of him. He was made to smell the odour of his own flesh, his nose was not allowed to be cut and flesh from his left part of the chest was excluded too (to prevent him from dying quickly).
He died a slow death as he begged for mercy but his pleas fell unto the deaf ears of angry citizens.
His remains were later burnt in fire to prevent his re-incarnation.
Gaa’s downfall and death killed the Old Oyo Empire and the power of civil authority that had checked it.
Firstly, it decreased the military and political strength of the Empire; this was due to the destabilization of the Oyo Mesi after Gaa’s death.
The Oyo Mesi was never itself as it slipped into oblivion. The Oyo people were subjected to giving in to the triumphant princes and provincial kings.
Secondly, the political unrest the Empire witnessed after Gaa’s death made some kingdoms who had been paying tributes (like Dahomey) declare their independence. All these were undoubtedly among the factors that led to the subsequent fall of the Old Oyo Empire in 1837.
The Alaafin had won in crushing Gaa and the old order, but his victory would prove pyrrhic for the royal line in the long run.
In fact, just five years after Gaa’s death, Abiodun’s son, Awole, poisoned him and succeeded him as Alaafin.
Interestingly, the next time the imperial army would march on the capital, this time led by Afonja, (Aare-Ona-Kakanfo who succeeded Oyabi) it would come not to support the king nor to protect the empire, but to claim his head and desecrate the vestiges of royalty.
The revolution had begun!
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Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.