Lojo’Joun: Causes of the 19th Century Yoruba Civil Wars


excerpts from War and Peace in Yorubaland 1793-1893 by Prof Adeagbo Akinjogbin


The question is why and how did the essentially Oyo conflict become a Pan-Yoruba problem leading to incessant civil wars throughout the 19th Century?

The major explanation hitherto proffered as an answer to this question has been that with the collapse of Oyo, other kingdoms started competing among themselves to succeed to the power and influence of Oyo. This might be an adequate explanation at the initial and later post 1840 stages of the problems and if these “other kingdoms” are understood to refer strictly to those principalities within the limit of Oyo imperial authority.

It is an inadequate explanation for the involvement of such other kingdoms as Ijebu, Ijesa, Ife, Owu and Ekiti kingdoms. For there is no evidence that any of these kingdoms, some of them immediate neighbors of Oyo, sought to benefit from the Oyo misfortunes by seeking to appropriate its land or declaring war on its citizens. It would probably be more accurate to say that it was the Oyo leaders who externalized their quarrels and exported their chaos to other Yoruba kingdoms.

Between 1816 and 1825, the Oyo leaders, notably Toyeje, the Otun Kakanfo  and the Onikoyi  took two steps in that direction. First, Afonja invited the Fulani to Ilorin and secondly, both Afonja and Onikoyi instigated a destructive war between Owu and its neighbors.

Let us take the Fulani issue first. It has long been recognized that Fulani Jihadists contributed to the Yoruba civil wars of the 19th century. What has been confused is the nature and date of their intervention in Oyo. There is evidence now to correct an earlier impression that Afonja declared for the Fulani thereby giving an impression of a Sokoto-directed Fulani attack on the Oyo Empire after they had successfully taken over the Hausa kingdoms.

What really happened was that up to 1816, the Fulani were not involved in Oyo troubles, which had been limited to Oyo elites only. However, in that year, Afonja invited to Ilorin, an itinerant Fulani preacher, Alimi, who had been intending to settle in Kuruwo after having gone round northern Oyo area for three years, preaching.

Kuruwo may have been a Yoruba Islamic center, from where Solagberu (or Solagbemi) went to join Afonja at Ilorin where he established a separate Muslim quarters, Oke Suna. Afonja was not a Muslim and probably saw Alimi as someone who could give him potent medicine for greater successes in the wars he was fighting to bring parts of former Oyo Empire under his authority. Alimi however, saw the situation differently and he worked assiduously but gradually to establish a foothold for the Fulani in Yorubaland starting with Ilorin.

Despite warnings from discerning lieutenants, Afonja refused to believe that Alimi could contemplate such a scheme or that he could succeed, even if he did. However, by consummate diplomacy, Alimi created distrust between Afonja and his friend, Solagberu, who were then destroyed one after the other. With the connivance of Solagberu, Afonja was killed in 1824. And with Afonja out of the way, Solagberu himself was killed about a year later. The leadership of Ilorin thus passed into the hands of the Fulani.

The second step that the Oyo leaders took was that they exported the chaos into the central and sensitive areas of Yorubaland. About 1817, on the instigation of Adegun, the Onikoyi, a powerful ruler in the metropolitan district of Oyo, regarded as ranking next to Alaafin  and Toyeje of Ogbomoso, the Otun Aare-Ona-Kakanfo, the rulers of Owu attacked the kingdom of Ife. The rest of the story is so well known that it needs not delay us here. The relevant question is why, in an attempt to prevent the Oyo from being kidnapped, did the Olowu invade Ife territory so massively that he only stopped short of taking Ife itself in spite of the respect for Ife’s sacredness?

Perhaps, part of the explanation might be that the Owu no longer seriously accepted the sacredness of Ife. Concretely, it might lie in the fact that the Owu were still smarting under the slight they suffered during the Apimo episode, and saw the instigation by the two powerful Yoruba leaders as an opportunity  to revenge on Ife. One might add that the concern of those powerful Oyo leaders for the safety of the Oyo rings hollow because they had not been able to guarantee that safety since 1796. However, one of the consequences of Owu’s action was that the sacredness of Ife which made it immune from attack by other Yoruba kingdoms was badly dented if not destroyed. The failure of Ife to take a quick revenge did not help that image. The undermining of the belief in the sacredness of Ife had grave consequences for stability in Yorubaland.

Under the circumstances, it was left to Ijebu which was a party to the Apimo agreement, in addition to its feelings on the sacredness of Ife, to come to the aid of Ife. Other reasons were soon found to concretize the Ife/Ijebu Alliance against Owu which was besieged in 1821. Surprisingly, the Oyo authorities on whose behalf the Owu brought war on themselves did not come to the aid of Owu. Instead, the roaming Oyo refugees joined the Ife/Ijebu alliance. The point to note here is that the beginning of civil wars in the central kingdoms of Yorubaland outside Oyo was caused by some Oyo authorities instigating civil wars in other Yoruba kingdoms rather than by Owu’s or Ijebu’s or Ife’s ambition to succeed to Oyo imperial authority.

As is well known, the Owu and the Egba kingdoms were destroyed in the process and the consequent increase in the refugee problems spread chaos to a much wider area. The combined effects of the Owu, Egba, Ife and Ijebu involvement and the loss of Ilorin to the Fulani released latent negative behaviors in the society, such as normal during wars.

The rump of the Ijebu army that fought in the Owu War went ahead and attacked some parts of Ijebu Remo for an alleged disobedience to the Awujale.  The Ife army attacked the Ondo kingdom over an issue that was purely internal to Ondo and had nothing to do with Ife. The displaced population, in seeking to resettle in new environments engaged in various wars against new neighbors; their main concern was finding secure homes, rather than succeeding Oyo.

Between 1826 and 1840, the causes of the continuation of the civil wars also changed. The destruction of Owu and Egba kingdoms and the coup d’etat at Ilorin leading to the overthrow of Afonja, produced a traumatic effect on Yoruba leaders. At that point, “the fight was tired” as the Yoruba would say and there was a general feeling that the disagreements should be stopped, authority restored and the country united in defense against Fulani invaders.

The peace conference that was summoned in Ikoyi in 1826, comprising largely Oyo speaking groups, thus had two aims: one was to bring the Yoruba together again and the other was to face the Fulani threat in unity. The first could not be achieved immediately partly because the delegates suspected that what the Alaafin meant by unity was a return to the status quo ante 1796 which they were unwilling to accept. But the need to drive the Fulani out of Yorubaland was vigorously pursued.

At the same time the Ilorin authorities under Abdul Salam who became Emir after the death of Solagberu around 1825 decided to take over the whole of Yorubaland and he sent out his armies, which consisted predominantly of Yoruba soldiers, into all directions including the Ekiti country. So, one major cause of the wars during the period 1826 to 1840 was the determined attempt by the Fulani to take over the whole of Yorubaland and an equally spirited attempt by the Yoruba to drive them completely out of Yorubaland.

Between 1826 and 1840, no less than eleven battles were fought between the Oyo and Ilorin armies in pursuit of their various objectives. In the first three, Ogele, Mugbamugba and Kanla battles, the Oyo authorities took the initiative but could not achieve their objective. In the next three, the Ilorin took the initiative and recorded a measure of success. When, however, they spread their activities to Ijesaland in the Pole, the seventh battle, they were badly defeated. The battles went on in a ding-dong fashion, with Oyo defeating the Ilorin in the Otefon battle and the Ilorin defeating the Oyo during the Eleduwe War, a defeat that led to the evacuation of Oyo-Ile. Finally, in 1840, the Ibadan army decisively defeated the Ilorin army at Osogbo.

Perhaps the greatest disadvantage which the Yoruba had during all these encounters was that they were never really united against the Fulani rulers of Ilorin. At every turn, the Fulani were able to befriend prominent Yoruba warriors and to persuade them to fight on their side or at worst remain neutral at critical times. This was in addition to large numbers of Yoruba leaders already permanently in Ilorin. For instance, in the Gbodo battle, waged by Oluewu soon after his accession, the ruler of Ikoyi, the ruler of Ago-Oja(later Oyo) and Atiba (later Alaafin) fought on the side of Ilorin against the Yoruba. And in the Eleduwe war, a substantial portion of Oyo contingents refused to fight at the battle front. The Yoruba started being successful when they came under a unified political and military command in Ibadan.

While these wars to prevent further Fulani penetration in Yorubaland were going on between 1826 and 1840, other local wars continued, specifically by new polities to consolidate themselves in their new environments. Ibadan and Abeokuta that were founded after the destruction of Owu and Old Egba kingdoms had to create safe environment for themselves. Ibadan consolidated early and by 1835 was already settled. Abeokuta took a little more time, fighting the Ijebu and the Egbado. By 1840, they appeared to have settled although they still had the Dahomey threat to contend with. The local wars they fought however constituted part of the pool of Yoruba wars in the 19th century.

From 1840 to 1886, the causes of the Yoruba civil wars were related to the struggle by the emergent polities for hegemony in Yorubaland, the need to prevent the Fulani from further penetrating into Yorubaland, the imperial expansion of Ibadan and the struggle for freedom from Ibadan imperial control. These causes have been exhaustively discussed and can be summarized.

After 1845, Ibadan and Ijaye started to rival each other as to which was going to be the Oyo power. New Oyo joined which ever side appeared willing to serve its interest. Ijaye lost in the struggle and was destroyed in 1860.  Before then, Ibadan had established its presence in most of Osun, Ife and Ekiti areas of Yorubaland. The destruction of Ijaye frightened the Egba, who had joined Ijaye in the final battle, and the Ijebu who had not joined. They therefore started to accuse Ibadan of wanting to be the “master of the whole world”, an accusation that Ibadan’s behavior justified. They therefore sought all means to prevent Ibadan from getting stronger by preventing it from having easy and direct access to the seacoast where it could get firearms. This was why the British administration thought the wars were fought for the control of the road to the coast.

After 1865, the Ibadan dependencies in Ife, Ijesa and Ekiti started to get uncomfortable under Ibadan yoke. What had started partly as an attempt to prevent them from being subjugated by the Fulani at Ilorin had become subjugation to Ibadan which they resented. In 1877, they revolted and fought Ibadan to a stalemate. A peace treaty signed in 1886 brought peace to all sides and independence to the Ibadan tributaries. The war camps were however not broken up until 1893.


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