‘Ibadan mesi ogo
Omo a j’oro sun’
An empire falters
By the late eighteenth century AD, the once mighty Yoruba Empire ruled by the Alaafin of Oyo was beset by external threats and internal dissension. Its great tributary states from which money, goods and people had flowed for centuries, were now, one after their other, declaring their independence from the Alaafin. First the Nupe, known to the Yoruba people as Tapa, one of Oyo’s most important tributary states, stopped paying allegiance or sending yearly tributes to the palace at Oyo. Alaafin Aole sent an army against them, but it was defeated in 1791. Then Dahomey, with its famous female warrior caste, the Amazons, followed suit and declared its independence. A military force sent out against them was repelled in an ignominious defeat in 1823. The Oyo Empire, which at the height of its power had stretched its influence from the banks of the river Niger westwards to the Volta River in present day Mali and Burkina Faso, and which, as late as 1763, had defeated the mighty Ashanti kingdom in the famous battle of Atakpame in present day Togo, was now vastly diminished in size, wealth and influence. No doubt the transatlantic slave trade which devastated its towns and villages and decimated its population, also played a part. Oyo was no longer feared by its enemies or respected by its allies. But instead of confronting its problems with unity and resolve, there were internal squabbles and dissension. The consultative council, the Oyo Mesi, was weak and ineffective, providing little leadership to the people or wise counsel to the king. Local warlords, who were supposed to protect the empire and guard its borders and treasures rebelled and did as they pleased. Chief among these was the Are ona Kakanfo or Field Marshal who rebelled against the reigning Alaafin Aole, who ruled between 1789 and 1796 after succeeding the great Abiodun.
The Fulani threat
A new power now emerged in the form of the Fulani jihadist caliphate established in 1806 with its capital in Sokoto. Under the green and crescent banner of Islam, its renowned cavalry had subjugated most of the ancient city states of the Hausa and neighboring groups until its mandate of religious reform covered the vast grasslands north of the Niger up to the edge of the Sahara and reached the shores of Lake Chad to the east. Their leader, the freshly turbaned Sultan Belo of Sokoto, who styled himself the Caliph and Commander of the Faithful, was himself a brother of the famed scholar and warrior, Uthman dan Fodio. The Sultan’s boast to his people was to make the Yoruba monarch bow to his suzerainty and ‘dip the Koran into the sea.’
Afonja and the fall of Ilorin
Alaafin Aole had appointed one of his favorite soldiers, Afonja, to be Are ona Kakanfo. His role was to protect the borders of the kingdom but not to venture inside or play a role in local politics. However, Afonja became very powerful and had other ideas. Things came to the point that he refused to obey direct orders of his monarch. In 1796, Afonja forced Alaafin Awole to commit suicide by sending him the infamous ‘empty calabash.’ This was after the latter had made the Aare attack Apomu, a city allied with Ife, the sacred home of the Yorubas, and therefore supposedly immune from attack. There was open revolt between Afonja in Ilorin and the new Alafin in Oyo. Cut off from his supplies of weapons and men from the rest of the empire and attempting to consolidate his power in this isolated frontier outpost, Afonja had no choice but to follow the advice of some Yorubas in Ilorin who had converted to the Moslem faith. He therefore formed an alliance with the Moslem Fulanis to the north. But his new friends, notably a converted Yoruba Moslem Solagberu and a fiery Fulani preacher, Shehu Alimi, a descendant of dan Fodio himself, turned out to be his nemesis. On a fateful day in 1826, they murdered him in cold blood and took over the town. Afonja was the thirteenth Are ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland. Since that time, this title has carried a fatal connotation of tragedy and untimely death.
Old Oyo is destroyed
After the capture of Ilorin in 1826, Oyo Ile the capital of the Oyo Empire became very vulnerable. Left to its fate, the Oyo capital was eventually sacked and burnt to the ground by the Fulani’s in 1835. Old Oyo became a ghost town never to be rebuilt or to become a place of human habitation. Those of its inhabitants who could not escape were cruelly cut down, their women ravaged, and their property looted. The survivors were captured and taken away as slaves. The Oyo Empire collapsed completely a year later in 1836, following the death in battle of Alaafin Oluewu, the last emperor of the Yorubas.
A new town, Ago d’Oyo was chosen as the new capital, but it was a shadow indeed of the great and majestic Oyo Ile. But the Fulani army, now in control of Ilorin, did not rest on its newly won laurels. It waited for fresh supplies and men with orders from the Sultan himself to crush the remnant of the confused and routed Yoruba forces, now bereft of their famed cavalry now that Ilorin was lost. Their order was to finish off any paltry Yoruba resistance, and place all the Yoruba city states under the suzerainty of the Sokoto Caliphate. They were not to stop until they planted their banners along the shores of the Atlantic.
ORIGINAL ART: Battle of Osogbo, Acrylic on canvas, Oladele Olusanya
Ibadan, city of refuge
However, help came from a new and totally unexpected quarter. For at this time, a group of wandering soldiers, followed by a multitude of displaced refugees, men, women and children, their household goods, domestic animals and farming implements carried on their heads or strapped to their backs, managed to struggle to a location on the edge of the savannah at a place they called ‘Eba Odan.’ This war camp, for so it was, had been established in 1829 by soldiers returning from the failed Oyo campaigns. The name of this town was later to be contracted to Ibadan, destined to become within a few decades the largest and most important indigenous city in the whole of black Africa. Their leader, the wily and resourceful Lagelu, a veteran soldier from Ile Ife, proved to be a wise leader, both in civil administration and military planning. He shored up his defenses, recruited new men from the stragglers still streaming in from Ilorin and Oyo Ile, and prepared to repel the Fulanis. Lagelu chose as his political advisers and military commanders great men of valor like Bashorun Oluyole, whose names are etched in glory in the legends and lore of Ibadan.
Lagelu’s heirs win a great victory
It became a battle of wits between the opposing forces. On the one side, were the confident and experienced Fulani forces on horseback, backed by their Moslem allies from both outside and inside Yorubaland. On the other side, were desperate fighters from Ibadan under their new leader Bashorun Oluyole, for Lagelu was now dead. Their only ally was the town of Osogbo, itself swelling with refugees with few experienced fighters of its own. Nobody gave them a chance. Then the Fulani cavalry surrounded Osogbo with the plan of sacking that town before turning their attention to Ibadan. The defenders had very few horses, their weapons were old, and their defenses makeshift and rudimentary. But they fought with their backs literally against the wall, and with barely a glimmer of hope but with much determination, won a great victory against the superior Fulani cavalry in 1840. At this Battle of Osogbo after the Ibadan auxillaries broke the siege of the vaunted Fulani, the jihadists turned and fled. The Fulanis never ventured back. This was the turning point in the fortunes of war that secured the future and legacy of the Yoruba people. Had Ibadan warriors coming to the defense of Osogbo not stood up to the Fulanis and turned them back in 1840, Yorubaland would be a puppet state of the Hausa-Fulani hegemony to this day.
Let us today pay homage to Bashorun Oluyole and those Ibadan heroes, heirs to the legacy of Lagelu, who saved the day for Yorubaland almost two centuries ago. The Yoruba nation still exists in our homeland of Western Nigeria. But it will not exist for long if we allow our lands to be taken over by criminals and other hostile elements. And let us remember the popular saying that came into vogue at the time that the Fulanis were turned back at the Battle of Osogbo in 1840. It is a statement of defiance and Yoruba national pride that goes thus:
‘Kaka ki Yoruba dobale fun Hausa, a binu ku.’