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Structure of the Yoruba Pre-Colonial Political Administration

Structure of the Yoruba Pre-Colonial Political Administration

It was generally believed that the Yorubas migrated into Nigeria from upper Egypt under their powerful father, Oduduwa. They occupied the Western part of Nigeria and the system of government practiced was monarchical in nature regarded as centralized administration ruled by king with the assistance of other chiefs.

It is important to note that Yoruba pre-colonial administration was not highly centralized compared to Hausa/Fulani system. The reason being that the Oba is not an absolute ruler and there is the principle of checks and balance. Examples of Yoruba kingdoms include the Oyo kingdom, Ijesha, Ilesa, Ijebu, Abeokuta, etc. In this case, Oyo empire is normally being taken as case study.

Political Institutions of Yoruba Kingdom/Oyo Empire

The Oba:

The Oba is the highest authority in Yoruba kingdom though not an absolute ruler. He is both political and spiritual head of the Oyo kingdom popularly known as Alaafin of Oyo. Also, the Oba must be the eldest son of deceased king and a member of the royal family. He is well respected by the subject and this explains why some have regarded him to be the ‘working companion of gods’ (Alase Igbakeji Orisa).

Not only that, Oba can be addressed as ‘Kabiyesi- Ka bi o ko si’ (Nobody to challenge your authority), yet, there is the principle of checks and balanc. Oba can checked by other institutions like Oyomesi, Ogboni cult, warlords, etc. The argument is that Oba must always respect the views of the people in the society. This, perhaps made Yoruba kingdom to be more democratic. Oba ruled with the assistance of chiefs called Ijoye like Otun, Iyalode etc. With these chiefs, Oba can exercise judicial, legislative and executive power particularly over serious cases like land dispute, crimes etc.


Oyomesi can be regarded as king makers. They are prominent chiefs comprising seven notable individuals within the community. Specifically, Oyomesi are the institutions charged with the responsibility of appointing the king from a royal family. It is headed by Bashorun. However, the consent of the Oyomesi is required before any reasonable decision could be taken by Oba.

It is important to stress that the principle of checks and balance in Yoruba kingdom makes it possible for the Oyomesi to check the excesses of the king. For instance, the Oyomesi (kingmakers) may compel the king to open calabash (it is an order to commit suicide) if the king is dictatorial and arbitrary in rulling the people.

The Ogboni:

The Ogboni cults on the other hand is often regarded as secret cult because their activities are much hidden to the public. They perform rituals on behalf of the society, and also check the excesses of both the Oba abd king makers. The group of Ogboni therefore is headed by Oluawo.

Aare Ona Kakanfo:

Esos or warlords is a group of people that provides adequate security in the Yoruba kingdom. They helped to protect the life and properties as well as preventing the community from both internal and external aggression. It is headed by ‘Aare Ona Kakanfo’ who provides military support to the king. He is abnormally powerful and that explains why he stays outside the community. More importantly, Aare Ona Kakanfo is expected to commit suicide if he losses any battle which means he must not be defeated at the war front. Nevertheless, he check the excesses of any institutions by withdrawing or neglecting military responsibility.

Yoruba pre-colonial systems, Oyo empire as case study was centralized though with the principle of checks and balance.

Functions of the Oyomesi in the Pre-Colonial Oyo Kingdom

1. Select a new Alaafin

One of the functions of the Oyomesi was to take part in the selection and replacement of the Alaafin or king when he died or abdicated his throne.

2. Installation of a new Alaafin

Another function of the Oyomesi was to take part in the installation of a new king after a candidate was found. The installation of kings was one of the high points in the administration of the empire and the Oyomesi made sure they partook in all its activities.

3. Initiate laws

The Oyomesi had the power to initiate laws for consideration and subsequent adoption if deemed necessary for the efficient administration of the empire.

4. Checks on the powers of the Oba

The Oyomesi served as a check on the powers of the Alaafin or king. Led by the Bashorun, the Oyomesi could dethrone the Alaafin if the people lost confidence in his administration.

5. Ensured policies were implemented

The Oyomesi was tasked with making sure that the policy decisions taken by the state was implemented throughout the empire. This was to ensure that there was full compliance.  

6. Religious functions

It was duty of the head of the council of Oyo Mesi, the Bashorun, to consult the Ifa oracle for the approval of the gods. Though the appointment of a new king was the duty of the Oyomesi, the new Alaafin was seen as an appointment by the gods. 

7. Advised Alaafin on good governance

It was the duty of the Oyomesi to advise the Allaafin on matters of good governance.

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