History, they say often repeats itself, especially when we fail to learn from it. I am often fascinated about how much illumination our pre-colonial history can bring to our present issues, hence I study it earnestly. Recently, I was studying the collapse of the Oyo Empire, and it would seem that the consensus was that the empire more or less imploded, due more to internal collapse in administration, that to external threats.
As a background, one needs to understand the way the Yoruba governed themselves. Ife is the ancestral home of the Yoruba and all the subsequent Yoruba states are believed to have been dispersed from there. Irrespective of size, the subsequent Yoruba states followed a model that was remarkably similar for governance, buttressing the point that they must have dispersed from some central point. There was usually a king (an Oba or a Baale), and a council of chiefs, the ijoye, who had great influence and counterbalanced any despotic tendencies in the king. The council of chiefs selected the Oba from any of the ruling houses. The powerful Ogboni cult played a significant role in governance and gave the general populace a say in how they were governed. If the Oba was one of the primary children of Oduduwa, he was entitled to wear a beaded crown and had his kingship confirmed by Ife.
The Oyo adapted this model and fine tuned it to suit their imperialistic/militaristic tendencies, with the Alaafin as king, the Oyo Mesi as ijoye/kingmakers and there was the Ogboni cult for the young and old, with the leader of this cult being a part of the Oyo Mesi. The Alaafin had to be selected by the Oyo Mesi and could be removed if he was presented an empty calabash, thus balancing power.
Inter and intra group relationship amongst Yoruba states were governed by powerful taboos known as eewo, and no matter how powerful a ruler was, if he contravened an eewo, he was a goner. Examples of the eewo include the fact that no Yoruba state was allowed to destroy a market or market town, no matter the provocation. Any of the other states were forbidden from attacking Ife or any of its holdings. This collective formed the constitution by which the Yoruba governed themselves, and though it wasn’t written down, it was just as binding on the Yoruba as our current Nigerian constitution is expected to be binding on Nigeria
This constitution worked for non-imperialistic Yoruba states. But as soon as Oyo began its conquests, the system that was put in place to govern the conquered territories was the first contravention of this constitutional order. Oyo placed Ajeles in conquered Yoruba states, outside of constitutional precedents. Now, this in itself was not what affected Oyo constitutionally. However, the fact that the Ajeles were appointed unilaterally by the Alaafin, and that the economic wealth of the empire came from those conquests upset the balance of power the constitution provided. Alaafins became increasingly despotic. But rather than attempt to tackle the constitutional issues that caused the problems, each of the Oyo Mesi members went into a deposition spree, attacking the office of the Alaafin. But opposition without deep thinking to solve fundamental problems does nothing different. It only replaced the Alaafin with an even more despotic Bashorun Gaha. Eventually, the royalists under Alaafin Abiodun fought back and destroyed Gaha and his associates, but by then, the problems were at a head – the constitution which worked well when Oyo was a merely metropolitan state could not be used to administer the empire properly without making fundamental changes, which none of the its administrators were willing to make. After Abiodun, his successcor, Awole tried to assert himself and went on to commit the eewo of destroying the market town of Apomu. His chiefs refused orders from him after this and Afonja in Ilorin led what was essentially a peasant rebellion against him, rallying Yoruba and the Hausa who had been slaves and skilled workers in service of the Yoruba. The implosion was on the way, and it was so devastating when it finally happened that Oyo ceased to be, many of the Yoruba towns were obliterated and totally new ones came into being. Ilorin became a Fulani dominated state and the fragmented Yoruba states fought amongst themselves for decades, culminating in the sixteen year Kiriji War.
Nigeria is in the same conundrum. There are fundamental issues, around how we govern ourselves, which if we do not think deeply collectively and agree on solutions now will lead to an implosion greater than that of Oyo and of course much more devastating. Today, we have a constitution that both the leaders and citizens do not respect or do not obey. The very thing that should be the basis of governance is not working for us. We have refused to define a Nigerian identity, and the state is organized around access and control to the oil in the Niger Delta in much the same way the Oyo became towards the end – a struggle between the elite to control what had become its mainstay, the slave trade. However, like the slave trade, oil wealth is one that is not replenishable, doesn’t build the state and that doesn’t last indefinitely. In the same way that the choke in the supply of slaves affected the Oyo economically, a choke in the flow of oil affects us economically (the Niger Delta Militants have learnt this fact well). The same way Oyo depended on external supply of horses to remain a sustainable empire, we depend on the import of virtually everything to keep us running. The moment the Nupe cut off the supply of horses and the economic situation of the Oyo was such that they couldn’t afford sourcing horses elsewhere. Sounds like what could happen to us? Ponder this. The same way Awole lost legitimacy before his people by executing an eewo in destroying Apomu, our leaders continually cut off their own legitimacy by their actions. One day the people will react like the Oyo did and refuse to listen or obey leaders they consider illegitimate. And the same way when the opposition to the Alaafin came into power and turned out to be just as despotic as the Alaafin they replace, events in places like Edo Gubernetorial elections show us that opposition merely kicking PDP out will remedy nothing.
The only way is to address these fundamental issues as to how we want to be governed as a people, and then adhere to it, from leadership to bottom, the kind of deep thinking that happened in places like Ibadan and Abeokuta after the Kiriji war, where each Yoruba state evolved models that worked for them – the Ibadan, a type of republican government and the Abeokuta, a confederation. The model where the Niger Delta subsidizes the rest of the country apart from Lagos needs to stop. It is unsustainable and creates a potentially implosive situation. The constitution needs to be critically looked at and reviewed to reflect the realities of our specific Nigerian challenges, and handle them; that after all is what a constitution should be. Not an idealistic quixotic document, but one which addresses the issues that our coexistence raises and is updated as new issues come, a la all the amendments of the American constitution.
Finally, I’m not one of the advocates of separation in the Nigerian state. Let’s imagine we separate into the West, East and North. The same issues that Nigeria as a whole have now will crop up amongst the various Yoruba sub-groups and it will be even more vicious (fights between neighboring and closely related ethnicities are usually more terrible than amongst distant enemies). And no matter how much the fragmentation happens, we will still need to deal with the issue of living together. Hence, the way I believe would work is for us to identify the issues, and address them. Or we will implode.