The Oyo Empire was a monarchical one and ruled by an Alaafin (King), (Alaafin means ‘owner of the palace’ in the Yoruba language). However, an administrative council 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 National Assembly, Parliament, or Congress.
Led by the Bashorun, acting as Prime Minister, who was assisted by the Agbaakin, Samu, Alapini, Laguna, Akiniku, and Ashipa. They embodied the nation’s voice and had the chief duty to protect the empire’s interests.
The Alaafin was expected to take counsel with them if there was any important matter that affected the state. Every man had a state responsibility to perform in 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 Oyo Mesi was known as the Bashorun who would consult the Ifa oracle for approval from the gods. The new Alaafin of Oyo was 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. The Bashorun, for example, organised several religious festivals; in addition to becoming the commander-in-chief of the Oyo army, which gave him tremendous independent religious authority.
Even the Bashorun was the supreme authority of the all-important Orun festival. 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 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 altogether. 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 Bashorun Gaa
Bashorun Gaa became Prime Minister and the head of the Oyo Mesi during the reign of Alaafin Onisile.
Alaafin Onisile was a great warrior who possessed great courage and boldness. 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.
Bashorun Gaa was feared to the extent that he became more authoritative than the Alaafin who made him the Bashorun.
The Prime Minister’s tyranny started in the days when Labisi was being prepared for the throne of Oyo. Bashorun Gaa 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 Bashorun Gaa to become an Alaafin as he bore no blood of Oranmiyan to claim the throne. So, as Prime Minister for about 24 years (1750–1774), Bashorun Gaa supervised the dethronement and execution of four successive Alaafins as follows:
Alaafin Labisi (1750) – Crown Prince Labisi remains the shortest-reigned Alaafin of the Oyo Empire to 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 Prime Minister, Bashorun Gaa, became very powerful, conspired against him, and killed all his friends. Alaafin Labisi eventually committed suicide when he could not rule anymore. He never ruled anyway.
Alaafin Awonbioju (1750) – This next Alaafin of Oyo succeeded Labisi but he lasted a mere 130 days because he refused to prostrate before Bashorun Gaa.
Alaafin Agboluaje (1750–1770) – He was a very handsome prince who was installed by Bashorun Gaa himself. His reign was peaceful and the kingdom was big and prosperous. However, the Prime Minister made him fight the King of Popo who was his friend and destroyed his kingdom. In frustration, Alaafin Agboluaje committed suicide even before the expedition arrived.
Alaafin Majeogbe (1770–1772) – He was Agboluaje’s brother who succeeded the former king. Alaafin Majeogbe tried to defend himself against Bashorun Gaa whose sons were now too powerful. They collected all the tributes and were cruel. The Alaafin eventually died in frustration.
Alaafin Abiodun (1772–1789) – This Alaafin wasn’t about to suffer the same fate as his predecessors but his daughter Agbonyin was murdered by Bashorun Gaa. To take down the Prime Minister who had many powerful friends and connections, Abiodun 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 Bashorun Gaa to the grave.
The Fall of Bashorun 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.
Bashorun Gaa was tied to a pole at the Akesan market, that was adjacent to the king’s palace, and Alaafin Abiodun ordered every citizen to cut a pound of flesh from his body and drop it in a huge fire in front of him. Gaa was made to perceive the odour of his own flesh and his nose was not allowed to be cut off. The flesh from his left part of the chest was not cut as well in order to prevent him from dying quickly but to “enjoy” a slow death.
The disgraced Prime Minister indeed died a slow death as he pleaded for mercy. However, his entreaties fell on the deaf ears of the angry denizens of Oyo-Ile. Gaa’s remains were later burnt in a fire to prevent his reincarnation as the people were made to believe at the time.
Impact of Gaa’s Death on the Oyo Empire
Alaafin Abiodun 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 allegedly poisoned him and succeeded him as Alaafin.
Interestingly, the next time the imperial army would march on the capital, this time led by Afonja, the Aare Ona-Kakanfo who succeeded Oyabi, it would come not to support the Alaafin nor to protect the capital, but to claim the king’s head and further desecrate the vestiges of royalty.
Undoubtedly, Bashorun Gaa’s downfall and death killed the Old Oyo Empire and the power of civil authority, that is the Oyo Mesi, that had checked it.
First, it decreased the military and political strength of the Empire, as a result of the now rudderless leadership of the Oyo Mesi after the former Prime Minister’s death.
The Oyo Mesi never regained its prestige as it slipped into history. The Oyo people were then subjected to giving in to the triumphant princes and provincial kings.
Second, the political unrest the Oyo Empire witnessed after Bashorun Gaa’s death made some kingdoms, like Dahomey, who had been paying ishakole (tributes), to declare their independence. All these were undoubtedly some of the factors that led to the subsequent fall of the Old Oyo Empire in 1837. That’s a story for another day.
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Further Reading on Yoruba History
Ajayi, J. F. Ade and Smith, R. Yoruba. Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, 1964, 1971.
Ajayi, J. F. A. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1814-1891. London, 1965.
Akinjogbin, I. A. et al eds. War and Peace in Yorubaland, 1793-1983, Conference Proceedings. Ile Ife, 1988.
Akintoye, S. A. Revolution and Power Politics in Yorubaland, 1840-1893. London, 1971.
Akinyele, I. B. Iwe Itan Ibadan. Exeter, 1950.
Awe, B. “The Rise of Ibadan as a Yoruba Power, 1851-1893.” D. Phil, Oxford, 1966.
Ayantuga, O. O. “Ijebu and its Neighbours, 1851-1914.” Ph.D. Thesis, London, 1965.
Biobaku, S. O. The Egba and their Neighbours, 1842-1872. Oxford, 1957.
Falola, Toyin. The Political Economy of a Pre-Colonial African State: Ibadan, 1830-1900. Ile Ife, 1984.
Johnson, S. The History of the Yorubas. Lagos, 1921.
Law, R. C. C. The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-c. 1836. Oxford, 1977.
Lloyd, P. C. The Political Development of Yoruba Kingdoms in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century. London, 1971.
Oguntomisin, G. O. “New Forms of Political Organisation in Yorubaland in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: A Comparative Study of Kurunmi’s Ijaye and Kosoko’s Epe.” Ph.D. Ibadan, 1979.
Oroge, E. “The Institution of Slavery in Yorubaland with Particular Reference to the Nineteenth Century.” Ph.D. Birmingham, 1971.