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The Frontier States of Western Yorubaland

Biodun Adediran


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1The Yorùbá are one of the peoples of West Africa affected by the demarcation of territories by European powers at the close of the nineteenth century. Although the bulk of the people are now found in South-western Nigeria, impressive indigenous Yorùbá communities are in the neighbouring Republics of Benin and Togo. This book is primarily concerned with the Yorùbá sub-groups in the latter two countries. The intention is to trace, with the aid of verbally transmitted historical source materials, supplemented with available written data, the pre-colonial socio-political developments of the subgroups.

2The idea of the book was first conceived in 1980 when the author submitted a Ph.D. thesis to the then University of Ifè (now Qbáfémi Awólówò University). It was evident then (as it still is) that little work had been published on the communities outside Nigeria; and that it was desirable that some account of what was known about these groups should appear in print. Since then, the author has been involved in carrying out field research, collecting oral and ethnographic data in some Nigerian communities adjoining the Republic of Benin as well as in the Republics of Benin and Togo. Although most of these research findings have been published as articles in various academic journals, the need to have a full-scale comprehensive synthesis continues to be strongly felt.

3The major concern in the book is the process of state-formation in the area which is designated as western Yorùbáland. Starting with an appraisal of the traditions of dynastic links with Ilé-Ifè), the accredited source of dynastic kingship among the, it reinforces the now widely accepted thesis that there was an indeterminable period during which the western Yorùbá country was inhabited by ‘pre-dynastic’ inhabitants and during which the foundations of various kingdoms were laid. Furthermore, the book examines the claims of the western Yorùbá sub-groups to belonging to the mainstream of Yorùbá history through dynastic links with Ilé-Ifè and concludes that the three major kingdoms in the region (Kétu, Şábę and Ìdáìşà) were ‘secondary’ states having their immediate origins in the troubles that gripped the region in the sixteenth century, when Òyó-Ilé was evacuated and at least six Aláàfin had to live in exile, rather than in Ilé-Ifè as hitherto assumed.

4The book identifies three major phases in the political development of each of these kingdoms: the period of lineage settlements when political authority did not exceed that exercised by a lineage head, the period of fusion of many lineage settlements into ‘city-states’ in which a single lineage head was recognized as overall head on the basis of his being a descendant of the first settlers (onílè); and finally the installation of dynastic groups made up of refugees fleeing from the menace of the Nupe and Íbààbá (Borgu) in the sixteenth century. The arrival of these refugees led to the integration of many ‘city-states’ in the three kingdoms whose developments are discussed. The process of consolidation and constitutional adaptation in the kingdoms was still going on when, at the end of the eighteenth century, the western Yorùbá sub-groups were drawn into conflicts with the Fon kingdom of Dahomey. With the rapid decline of Òyó after c. 1789, western Yorùbáland became a theatre of wars for the whole period before the imposition of European colonial rule, which in fact was facilitated by the collapse of the state systems that had been built in the area between 1600 and 1800.

5The primary objective of this book is to build a coherent narrative, tracing the internal histories of the kingdoms from the period of their emergence until the time they were brought under European rule c.1889. It is, in this sense, conceived as a prelude to Professor A.I. Aşíwájú’s work in the same area, Western Yorùbaland Under European Rule 1889-1945 (Longman, 1976).

6As with works of this nature, based substantially on verbally transmitted data, many of the deductions are conjectural. Therefore, this work is being published to allow for further research and provoke discussions that would bring about a better understanding of the western Yorùbá sub-groups and further clarify the state-formation process in Yorùbáland. The period covered by this study makes the collection of oral traditions on a fairly extensive scale necessary. However, a few printed materials, including field reports, missionaries’ journals and travellers’ accounts, covering the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were found useful. The source materials used can be classified into three types: oral traditions, primary written materials and secondary written materials. The paucity of written data made oral sources the most abundant materials used in this work.

7The usefulness of oral traditions in the reconstruction of the history of western Yorùbáland has been discussed elsewhere (Adédiran, Anthropos, 1985, pp. 545-554). Interviews were conducted in Yorùbá using a battery-operated cassette recorder. The method was first to obtain from an informant a ‘text’ on which subsequent interviews were based; thus most informants were met on at least two occasions. Recordings were later transcribed and translated into English. Although the translation was based on a free approach, it was not entirely literal and an attempt has been made to keep to the Yorùbá original as much as possible. In most places (especially in the Republics of Benin and Togo), the services of interpreters were engaged to overcome dialectal difficulties. Fieldwork was executed in five major phases.

8Phase I: This started in July 1977 and lasted till January 1978. The main aim was to discuss aspects of Yorùbá civilization with selected scholars and to collect oral traditions on the early period of Yorùbá history. Some ritual festivals were observed. These included Odùduwà, Ìtàpá, Ǫlójó and Edì all of which are re-enactments of events which connect major Yorùbá kingdoms with Ilé-Ifè. After January 1978, occasional visits were paid to informants to clarify issues that came up at various stages of the project.

9Phase II: This covered the Òyó-north and Ègbá-Ègbádò areas of Nigeria as well as parts of the Benin Republic. Lasting for about six months (January - July 1978), the fieldwork in these areas made it possible to examine the relations that existed between the western Yorùbá sub-groups and their immediate neighbours to the east.

10Phase III: The major area of concentration here was the republic of Bénin. It entailed, initially, an intensive continuous three-month fieldwork (July - October 1978), and occasional visits afterwards. The investigations focused on the origins of the western Yorùbá subgroups, their socio-political organizations as well as their relations with other groups of people in the region. Emphasis was laid on the collection and interpretation of king-lists, oríkì órílè (praise poems) and some place-names.

11The fieldwork was fairly intensive and was executed in two major stages. The first covered the southern part of western Yorùbáland and was directed towards the Ànàgó and the Kétu areas. During this stage, advantage was taken of the opportunity offered by the Commission Nationale de Linguistique, Cotonou, to join a team of researchers collecting oral traditions and linguistic data among the Ànàgó and the Kétu. The second stage covered the northern zone where traditions were collected on the kingdoms of Şábę and Ìdáìşa.

12Majority of the informants in the Republic of Benin do not speak the English language, but the fieldwork was facilitated by the fact that most of them speak the Yorùbá language and the researcher had a working knowledge of French. However, an interpreter was always at hand, just in case.

13Phase IV: This covered the Yorùbá-speaking groups in the Republic of Togo and extended from October to December 1978. It was organized on the same pattern as Phase III with initial focus on the major settlement of Atakpamé and later field trips to the northern groups.

14Phase V: This was extensive fieldwork covering the Republics of Benin and Togo. The aim was to update data collected during previous fieldwork. Between January and June 1981, occasional field-trips were made while intensive fieldwork was carried out during the following four months with locally recruited field assistants and interpreters.

15Overall, three hundred and sixty-three informants were met. A list of the two hundred and twenty-nine informants consulted during the first four phases is in the unpublished thesis (Adédìran, 1980, pp. 323-336). Other informants not on the list are cited in the ‘Notes’ in this book.

16The successful completion of the original study, from which this book derives, was due to the assistance given to me at various stages. First, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to Professor I.A. Akínjógbìn who drew my attention to the area of study. His inspiration and moral support proved invaluable and have been the main prop that brought the work to this stage. The supervision of the study was begun by Professor S.A. Akíntóyè whose comments on my research plans and earlier drafts proved useful during the subsequent fieldwork and revision of the original thesis. I am also grateful to Professors ‘Wándé Abímbólá, A.I. Aşíwájú, Adé Ǫbáyemí, and Ǫlábíyí Yáì, who read all or parts of my original drafts, for their penetrating criticisms and thoughtful suggestions. I am equally grateful to the late Dr. A.O. Àńjorín, Drs. Şégun Òşǫbà, G.O. Ǫlómólà, ‘Bídèmí Ǫkánlàwón, Ogúnsǫlá Igué, B.M. Ìbítókun, Felix Ìrókò, ‘Láyí Ràímì and C.A. Ogan who contributed immeasurably towards the final refinement of the work.

17The extensive fieldwork carried out in the Republics of Bénin and Togo was made possible by many persons and various families who gave me invaluable assistance and facilitated my search. These I have already mentioned in the unpublished thesis; but at the risk of repetition, I must mention Dr. Igué’s family, M. da Silva Guillaume, and M. Tidjani Serpos in the Republic of Bénin; in Togo, Koffi Djeguema, M. Tessi Bello, the family of Lawani Soumaila (Atakpamé), Drs. N.L. Gayibor and M.A. Aduayon, M. Amah, Directeur de la Bibliothèque, Université Nationale du Bénin, Lomé-Togo, as well as M. Sossah Kounoutche, Directeur Général, Institut de la Recherche Scientifique, Lomé. I also wish to place on record, the assistance and hospitality of the District Officers in all the places where I worked, as well as of M. Afouda Laurent, Atty Sabi Akòwé and Obossou Yaôvi my indefatigable research assistants.

18The University of Ife (now Ǫbáfémi Awólówò University) gave me a generous grant for my field work and granted me sabbatical leave for the 1987/88 session to revise the original thesis. I am grateful for these gestures.

19My profound gratitude goes to my mother; my uncle, Chief A. Ǫdékúnbi; and my sister, Mrs. F. A. Ògúnjǫbí; who have had to bear the burden of my academic training for the past two decades. To my wife, Victoria, and my children who provided a congenial atmosphere in which the study was carried out, I am greatly indebted. Finally I would like to express my gratitude to Mr. ‘Sànyà Adéyęyè who typed the whole manuscript with patience and understanding.


21April, 1993

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1994

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