The History of Oyo State Nigeria

The Oyo Empire which is now Oyo State, was the most distinguished political achievement of the Yoruba speaking people.

The Yoruba have two main traditions of origin which showed many features also found in the traditions of origin of the neighbouring Benin kingdom.

They have a tradition which claims that the "world was created in the heart of the region occupied by them at Ile-Ife".

They also have another tradition which traces their origin to a wave of migrations from an unspecified place in the far East.

In both traditions, however, the position of the hero is often assigned to a mythical figure known as Oduduwa whose seven children are believed to have been the founders of different Yoruba culture groups.

Many Yoruba historians have been greatly impressed by these traditions.

For instance, Rev. Johnson, the doyen of Yoruba history, Rev. Lucas and Prof. S.O Biobaku have mounted no strong opposition to the tradition which holds that the Yoruba originated from the East.

But this tradition which seeks to find a noble ancestry for Yoruba people have recently suspect among scholars.

In the first place, the tradition of Eastern origin is too widespread in West Africa.

In the second place much of the reasons for this hypothesis are derived from the resemblances between religious and cultural practices of West Africans and those of ancient Egyptians.

Even if such cultural similarities did exist, they could not be concrete proof of direct descent of one people from another since the two groups could have borrowed these traits from a third source or from one another.

Thirdly, linguistic and archeological evidence tends to show that these different groups which claim Eastern origin are of the true negro stock and must have evolved originally from the savannah lands of West Africa from where they migrated to the forestlands.

Whether they came from the East or from just a point north of the forest zone, it is not clear when the Yoruba first occupied their present homeland.

Prof. Biobaku and Dr. P.A Talbolt have popularised the view that the Yoruba came into this area around 1000 A.D but evidence from archeology and linguistics would say that the Yoruba settled in their present homeland at about 1000 B.C.

The Yoruba claim that on entering the forest zone, they first settled at Ile-Ife, hence the ritual, religious and social pre-eminence of Ile-Ife.

The Yoruba fanned out from Ife in all directions to the south, southwest and southeast, thus bringing about the present distribution of Yoruba Cultural groups known to us today.


The Emergence of Oyo


One of the secondary waves of these migrations subsequently retraced its steps to the north, that is, to the borderland between the forest and the grassland zones, with dramatic political consequences.

The exact time of this migration is not properly known but evidence suggests that it happened between 1388 and 1431 A.D.

This migration to the north led to the birth of the Old Oyo Empire whose foundation is attributed in Yoruba myths to Oranmiyan.

These immigrants to the savannah fringe within a few centuries achieved the virtual political domination of Yorubaland.

The reasons for this can easily be told.

The foundation of Oyo Empire was strategically located from the economic and strategic stand-point.

The History of Oyo State Nigeria
Map of Oyo State, Nigeria


On the economic front, the soil of this zone was fertile, thus it encouraged farming on a large scale.

Also, the people were well placed to play an important part in the trade between the forest lands to the south and the savannah to the north.

This trade was very lucrative and made Oyo wealthy.

It also brought Oyo traders and political elites into close contact with the civilisation which came from such commercial and intellectual centres as Jenne, Timbuktu, Gap, Katsina and Kano.

The Oyo people also learnt the use of cavalry in warfare.

The trade also enabled Oyo to obtain horses from Hausaland.

The rise of Oyo as an imperial state owed much to the use of cavalry and that alone explains why Oyo empire did not embrace the Yoruba who lived in the thickly forested lands of the south and east of the Yoruba cultural area.

The exact circumstances and processes leading to the creation of Oyo Kingdom are unknown but it has been suggested that this probably began about the 14th century A.D.

It has also been suggested that for a century or so after that date, Oyo Kingdom remained a very small establishment and that it was involved in a fierce struggle with the Bariba of Borgu and with the Nupe for the control of the Niger trading areas.

Sometime around the middle of the 16th century, this rivalry brought Oyo a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Nupe.

The defeat forced the Alafin and his household to flee to Igboho and for a time they used that town as their capital.

When eventually the Oyo learnt the use of cavalry, they were able to win their ancestral home back and embarked on imperial expansion.

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