Pre-Colonial Relations Among The Yorubas’ In Nigeria

Project and Seminar Material for International Relations

Pre-Colonial Relations Among The Yorubas’ In Nigeria

Chapter One


The Yoruba stretch on the West from around the area of Badagry to Warri and Inland until they almost reach the Niger around latitude 9oN. Indeed, certain parts of the Niger formed the boundary between it and Nupe. Around latitude 5oN, they spread Westwards cutting across the whole of Dahomey and reaching into the East of Togo. From the coast, the country rises gradually from low-lying swampy regions with thick undergrowth to forest belt and finally semi or derived Savannah, which in Port Novo (Ajase) reaches almost to the coast. The weather is fairly stable, with two clearly defined seasons in the year, the rainy season and the dry season. The Yoruba must be one of the largest homogenous groups among Africans. Those of them living in Nigeria are currently numbered around fifteen million, when those in Dahomey and Togo are added, they are more.

The Yorubas are composed of several clans of which the chief are the Oyos, the Egbas, the Ifes and the Ijebus, while others of less importance are the Owus, the Ijeshas, the Ekitis and the Ondos. The inhabitants of Lagos, the chief town of Nigeria are also of Yoruba origin.

As far as it is known, the Yoruba didn’t in the past come under one centralized political authority. Rather, they existed (and still exist) in different groups and organized themselves, in the pre-colonial period, in separate kingdoms of varying levels of centralization and degrees of autonomy. However, they were bound together as a people by a number of factors. Firstly, in their tradition of origin, common descent from Oduduwa, a mythical personage who they regarded as their eponymous ancestor, secondly the ruling dynasties of most of their kingdoms derive origin and the provenance of their beaded crown and symbol of authority from Ile-Ife popularly acclaimed as the citadel of Yoruba culture and civilization and also a centre of dispersal of the Yoruba race. Thirdly, they share a common language which is widely understood by the different groups of people and recognizably the same despite dialectical difference. The Yoruba share a common cultural trait which makes them form a distinct cultural group in Nigeria.

The Yoruba origin has two version, one tradition of origin is a mythical creation which intimates that the Yoruba were the original inhabitants of the Ife area. At the dawn of time, the whole world was a watery waste. On the orders of his father-the Supreme God, Olorun – Oduduwa climbed down a chain from the sky. He brought with him a handful of earth, a cockerel and a palm-nut. He scattered the earth upon the water and it formed the land at Ile-Ife. The cockerel dug a hole in which Oduduwa planted the palm nut, and up sprang a mighty tree with sixteen branches, each the ruling family of an early Yoruba state. To this day, Oduduwa’s chain is preserved among the sacred relics of the Yoruba.

Another tradition indicates that the Yoruba people were produced by inter-marriage between a small band of invaders from the Savanna and the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. The story is that Oduduwa was the son of Lamurudu, sometimes described as a ruler from the east, sometimes as a prince of Mecca. When Islam was introduced into his homeland, Oduduwa refused to forsake the religion of his ancestors and he and his supporters were expelled from their native land. After long wanderings, they settled among the forest people and founded the state of Ife. Oduduwa had seven close descendants. Some traditions say they were his sons; others call them grandsons. These seven young men moved out to found the ruling families of seven new Yoruba states.

The Yoruba were also expert in their art, as far back as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were expert in the use of wood, ivory and terracotta or baked earth, and hundreds of thousands of their carvings and models are still extant in Yorubaland. The art of the Yoruba is closely connected with their religion, for most of their art pieces were produced for the temples. In the first place, like most African peoples, the Yoruba believe in the existence of an Almighty God whom they call Olorun and in a future state. Hence they worship the dead, believe in a future judgment and in the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul.

The Yorubas were also known for their cloth weaving, dyeing, iron smelting and trading. “The Yoruba caravan system” shows that despite inter-state warfare and competition, Yorubaland was integrated through commerce and long distance trade was important to the economy of Yorubaland despite the pervasive insecurity in the region during the nineteenth century.

The Yoruba political system was a centralized one in which the headship was retained in the king. The government in each Yoruba city was an intricate system of power relations, a complex web of checks and balances. Although, the executive and judicial functions were often invested in the Oba and his council alternative. Institutions were often established to check the powers of the Oba and his council.

By the end of the 16th century the political organizations of most of the Yoruba kingdoms were probably complete and broadly similar. Each kingdoms consisted of a capital town, a number of subordinate towns, villages, markets, and farmlands. Each of the major kingdoms whose rulers claimed descent from Oduduwa ruled a clearly recognized (probably not too well-defined) territory.

The nineteenth century Yorubaland witness protracted internecine wars. These wars were accompanied by monumental changes, first was the emergence of refuge towns and the second was related to the first, it was the evolution of new forms of government in these refugee towns. These demographic and political changes took place in the first half of the century, and were sequel to the fall of the Old Oyo Empire. The wars leading to the fall of Oyo brought about a large-scale migration of people from war-torn areas to relatively peaceful places. Consequently a number of towns in the south became hosts to these refugees who moved in large groups and carried with them their corporate identities. The refugees founded new settlements as well. Ibadan, Ijaye and Abeokuta were notable examples.

Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives of this research project include:

  1. To examine as starting point the origin of the Yoruba.
  2. To examine the growth and development of the Yoruba in the pre-colonial period.
  3. To examine the nature of relations among the Yoruba in the pre-colonial period.
  4. To look at the various Yoruba sub-groups and the basis of their relations.


This research study intends to give a detailed analysis of the pre-colonial relations among the Yoruba. Although, it is claimed that there existed a series of autonomous but independent mini-states in parts of Yorubaland before the coming of Oduduwa migrants.

The origin of the Yoruba will mark the starting point of this research work. The work will terminate in the 19th century with the collapse of the Oyo Empire and the rise of new states.

Also, this study will cover the political, social and economic relations of the Yoruba people. This will enable us to understand the relations among them.


The method of research used in this study is based on relevant data and information obtained from one main source: The secondary sources. These secondary sources are consulted in universities and public libraries. They are textbooks and journals, they are used to obtain standard and accurate information for an analysis of the pre-colonial relations among the Yoruba.

Literature Review

There are several literatures that have tried to provide an understanding of the Yoruba people starting from their origin to the coming of the Europeans. These literatures deal on relevant aspects of the Yoruba. There are however, certain literatures that give account of the origin of the Yoruba. I.A. Akinjogbin and E.A. Anyadele, “Yorubaland up to 1800”.11 According to them, there are two traditions of origin, the migration version which says that the Yoruba originally came from the north-eastern area of Africa, variously supposed to be Egypt, Yemen, ancient Meroe and Arabia, and settled in Ile-Ife after a journey. The other version, which is increasingly becoming more known in scholarly circles, relates that Ile-Ife was the centre from which the world was created. Both stories have one point in common. Oduduwa is remembered in both as a leader.

In the aspect of economic development of Yorubaland,.. Akinjogbin, “the economic foundations of the Oyo Empire,12 among the foremost industry of the Yoruba, was cloth weaving, which appeared to have reached a very high degree of craftsmanship by the beginning of the eighteenth century, possibly earlier. Also, dyeing and then carving which took the form of making drums, mortars, pestles, door post and panels, also carving of images. Also, there was the iron smelting and iron industry it was equally widespread and basic to most of the industries. There are a number of relevant literature on the Yoruba political system. These include, S.A. Akintoye, Revolution and Power Politics in Yorubaland 1840 – 189313 and Adu Boahen, Topics in West Africa History14. S.A. Akintoye asserts that the Yoruba political system varied from place to place.

That it is expected that in a country as extensive as that of the Yoruba, differences in environment and historical experience would result in the political institutions varying from area to area. He also said that it is reasonable to suggest that political institutions varied from time to time in each place, both in their structures and relative importance in the whole system. Adu Boahen, in his book titled, Topics in West Africa History, examines the central administrative system of Oyo, the Alafin who was the ruler, ruled with the advice of a council of about seven notables known as the Oyomesi, led by the Bashorun or Prime Minister. The Ogboni controlled the Alafin and the Oyomesi. Also, Oyo had unwritten constitution and a system of checks and balances.

Also, in the social system of the Yoruba, Adu Boahen, Topics in West Africa History,15 he stated that the art of the Yoruba is closely connected with their religion, for most of their art pieces were produced for the temples. The Yoruba believe in the existence of an Almighty God whom they call Olorun, and also in a future state. Hence they worship the dead, believe in future judgment. E.B. Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief, 16 he stated also the fact that Yoruba art is dominated by music. The Yoruba are a singing people. In their singing, which comprises songs, lyrics, ballads and minstrelsy, they tell stories of their past, the circumstances of their present and their hopes and fears of the future.


Chapter One; Introduction

This chapter provides a brief overview of the Yoruba. It shows that the Yoruba people are one of the largest group in Africa and that they originated from Oduduwa.

Chapter Two; Historical Background Of The Yoruba

This chapter examines the history of the Yoruba and how they developed as a people in the pre-colonial periods.

Chapter Three; Political Relations Among The Yoruba In Pre-Colonial Period

The Yoruba had a centralized government. This chapter will examine the Yoruba political system, which was based on checks and balances.

Chapter Four; Economic Relation Among The Yoruba

The Yorubas were known for their economic activities. This chapter will cover how these activities which were based on agriculture, trade, iron smelting and cloth weaving, craft.

Chapter Five; Social Relations Among The Yoruba

The Yourba had a rich art which was closely related to their religion. This chapter will cover their religion and arts.

Chapter Six; Conclusion

This chapter summarizes the entire work as enumerated from chapters one to five.

Pre-Colonial Relations Among The Yorubas’ In Nigeria

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