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The checks and balances under the Yoruba political system before colonial rule

Gbagyi Woman, Farmer, Abuja, Nigeria

The Oyo Empire was based on a complex system of checks and balances. It was structured in layers of traditional rulers and almost every layer of authority served as a check on the other.

Control of the King
At the top of the Yoruba political structure was the king, called the Alaafin. He was vested with most of the powers of the state and this included both the political and spiritual powers. There were three assistants who were in charge of the king’s administration. They were, Ona Efa, the Empires Chief Justice, the Otun Efa, the head of the Sango shrine and the Osi Efa, the controller of the palace finances. The head of the Council of Chiefs, the Bashorun, had the power to dethrone the king if the people lost confidence in him.

Control of the Aremo
The Aremo was the first son of the king. In the event of the demise of the Alaafin, the Aremo was the one to step into his shoes. At a point in the history of the Yoruba, it was realized that the Aremo were assassinating their fathers so that they could sit on the throne. It was, therefore, decreed that whenever the king died the Aremo must commit suicide. This was the check the killing of the kings before their natural term.

Control of the Bashorun
The Bashorun was controlled by the Ogboni which was a gathering of the representatives of the various lineages. The Bashorun was appointed upon the approval of the Ogboni. The king or Alaafin could use the Ogboni to control excesses of the Oyomesi (Council of Prominent Chiefs) headed by the Bashorun.

Control of the army and their Commander
The Army Commander was answerable to the Alaafin and the Bashorun. The army officers were appointed by the Alaafin but their promotions were carried out by the Oyomesi. If the army commander lost a war, he was expected to commit suicide or go into exile.

Control of Obas and Councils of Elders
The Obas were heads of communities of the empire. They functioned with their Councils of Elders. As a control mechanism, there was an Alaafin supervisor, resident in the community called Ajale. The king appointed very special messengers called Ilari. They supervised the different Ajale under their jurisdiction so that they did not become corrupt and oppressive.

Control of the Alaafin through succession
Where the kingdom had experienced the passing away of a dictatorial Alaafin or king, the tendency of the Oyomesi is to select a weak person as the next Alaafin to keep the office from becoming too powerful

1. Describe the checks and balances inherent in the pre-colonial political system of the Yoruba.

2. How were the various levels of authority controlled under the Yoruba pre-colonial era?

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