Yoruba Pre-Colonial Political Administration

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Yoruba Pre-Colonial Political Administration and the Traditional Historical Society of Yorubaland



The Yoruba live mainly in the SouthWest geo-political zone and parts of Kwara and Kogi states of Nigeria and Benin Republic. Historically, Oduduwa was the founder of the Yoruba kingdom and he had seven notable children who later became kings in several towns. The spiritual capital of the kingdom was at Ile-Ife while Oyo was the political capital.

Originally, the kingdom was divided into smaller states or kingdoms such as Oyo, Egba, Ekiti, Ijesha, 0ndo and Ijebu. Most of these were later brought together under the control of Oyo. After the Yoruba inter-tribal wars of the 19th century, the Yoruba kingdom disintegrated and each of the smaller kingdoms re-asserted its independence and refused to recognize the political leadership of Oyo Empire.

In spite of the existence of these splinter Yoruba kingdoms, the systems of government was essentially the same. It is therefore possible to talk of a largely Yoruba homogeneous political institution.

Structure Of The Yoruba Political Institutions

The administration of the kingdom was divided into two, namely, the administration of the main town and the administration of the subordinate towns and villages. The governments of the main town and subordinate towns and villages are now considered in turn.

1 – Government Of The Main Town

The government of the main town or city was stronger than any other one in the kingdom and this should not be a surprise as the king (Oba) resided in the main city. The following political institutions were important in the government of the main town.

  • The King (Oba)

The Oba [King] was the paramount head of a Yoruba kingdom and he was, at least in theory, responsible for the political administration of the kingdom. The Oba was usually a direct male descendant of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

Oba was usually selected from one of the ruling houses or royal lineages in the city. A ruling house (Idile oba) comprised all the male descendants of the first Oba of the town who was both the founder of the town and a direct descendant of Oduduwa. There might be more than one royal lineage in a town. The Awujale of Ijebuland was, for example, not only the king of Ijebu-Ode, the main town, but also the paramount ruler of Ijebu kingdom.

Qualifications Of the Oba

A prospective Oba must possess the following qualifications.

  1. The candidate must belong to one of the royal families.
  2. He must be a son born while the deceased Oba (his father) had ascended the throne.
  3. The mother of the candidate must be a free person and not a slave.
  4. He must not have a physical blemish. A candidate being considered for appointment as an OBA was, for example, disqualified because he was too tall.
  5. The prospective oba must not be the first born son of the reigning king. The eldest male child could not succeed his father but must commit suicide on the death of his father. This requirement was quite strange especially since the Yoruba kingdom was a patrilineal society.

Selection And Coronation Of The Oba

The prospective candidates were presented to the kingmakers who then selected the most suitable person as the Oba of the town. After his selection, the candidate selected for the throne had to undergo certain traditional rites and ceremonies and must also be trained in the art of governance under the direct supervision of the kingmakers. These activities were meant to prepare him for his role as a king. The installation of the Oba was a big ceremony and it involved the whole commtmity and even people from other neighbouring towns and villages.

The selection progress was usually peaceful and orderly as the decision of the kingmakers was final and could not be challenged. The system was not compromised. The selection and installation of kings in Yorubaland in contemporary times highly political as it may take years (up to 20 years in some cases) in install an OBA.

Powers And Functions Of The Oba

The Oba was very powerful and, in theory, had unlimited powers. He was an absolute sovereign with power to control every aspect of the social life of the people. The Oba had to approve all major decisions in the kingdom, and he maintained his own personal bodyguards. The oba was extremely wealthy.

The major sources of the Oba’s wealth were war booties (one third of all war booties), compulsory labour by adult males on his farm, annual tributes (Isakole), special levies, court fines and death duties on the property of wealthy individuals. When an OBA died, his wealth was transferred to the new king.

The Oba also performed judicial functions. It was only the king that could punish for serious offences such as murder.

The power to appoint, promote, demote and dismiss the senior chiefs was vested in the Oba. The political powers of the Oba were enhanced by religious and magical powers. He was the head of the various cults and secret societies in the city such as the Ogboni confraternity and the ‘Osugbo’.

2 – The Senior Chiefs

The senior chiefs were very central to the government of the principal town. The senior chiefs were called Oyomesi in Oyo kingdom. They were appointed by the Oba and they therefore owed their allegiance to him. The Oba could not exercise his political power without the consent of the senior chiefs. The senior chiefs operated in both advisory and authoritative capacities. The king must accept all or most of their advice.

The chiefs also served as a link between the Oba and the people. They communicated the decisions of the king to the people and brought feedback from them. If the link was severed, then there was no way the Oba could reach the people. This was complicated by the fact that Yoruba customs required the Oba not to go out except on very important occasions such as the celebration of major festivals.

A typical king could only go out about three times a year. Thus, if the Oba decided to rule automatically, the communication link between him and the people would be broken as the chiefs could boycott the palace. The senior chiefs could then force the Oba to commit suicide or abdicate the throne.

The control of the army was in the hands of the Senior Chiefs and one of them, the Balogun was the commander of the military forces.

The powers of the senior chiefs constituted a major restraint on the sovereignty of the king and helped to maintain a balance of power in the system. In other words, the checks and balances in the system helped to prevent arbitrary and autocratic rule in the Yoruba kingdom and virtually turned the king into a constitutional monarchy.

3 – The Army

The role of the army in a kingdom that was constantly engaged in inter tribal wars could not be underestimated. The male adults were, conscripted into the army but were armed with simple weapons. As said before, one of the senior chiefs controlled the army.

4 – The Elders

The family heads and elders settled minor disputes within the families.

5 – The Age-groups

The age groups assisted in the execution of public works and enforcement of decisions reached at town or village meetings. They were not as powerful as the age-grades in the Igbo political system.

6 – The Town Crier

The town crier was like a minister of information in modern times. He communicated the decisions of the king to the people in the town by beating the gong-gong (GanGan).

7 – Secret Societies

There were several secret or religious cults in the town. The Ogboni and Osugbo were some of the most important secret societies in the kingdom. The king and the senior chiefs belonged to these societies, which regulated the spiritual life of the people.

Performance Of Functions Of Government

The legislative, executive and judicial functions of government were performed by several political institutions in the kingdom.

  • Legislative Functions

There was no formal law-making body. The Oba and the senior chiefs made laws for the administration of the town, and the kingdom at large.

  • Executive Functions

The senior chiefs performed the main executive functions. They enforced the decisions taken by the Oba or made in the name of the OBA. The age-groups also assisted in the execution of public projects.

  • Judicial Functions

The senior chiefs settled minor disputes. Nevertheless serious cases such as murder could only be adjudicated by the Oba.

The heads of families also settle family disputes.


Every city had a few subordinate towns and villages. The government of these places was patterned along that of the main town. A village was headed by a Bale (or Baale) who was also assisted by some senior chiefs. The Oba had to approve the appointment of the Bale and his senior chiefs. History had it that the Bale(s) were exiled princes of the main town or the original (first) settlers of the subordinate town or village.

The Bale and his senior chiefs performed the legislative, executive and judicial functions. But important decisions had to be approved by the Oba. The senior chiefs of the main town also controlled a few subordinate towns and villages. The OBA settled disputes between two or more town or village.

The judicial system was also hierarchical in nature. Minor cases were tried at the Bale’s court but serious cases were referred to the Oba’s court, which served as the highest court of the land.

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