Home Opinion From Transition To Transition: Ibadan And Its Obaship System | Toyin Falola

From Transition To Transition: Ibadan And Its Obaship System | Toyin Falola

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Over the course of history, human societies have developed political systems and structures in response to the need to maintain social harmony and preservation, cultural production, economic growth, and, most importantly, social security for their constituents. Across all civilisations, this process has evolved from family and lineage to clusters of these primordial groups formed in communities, kingdoms, empires, and nation-states. The advent of modern states in their Westphalian attributes has not altered this system so much as to deconstruct the relevance of these structures as currently viewed in their traditional pedestal. Thus, human evolution has come and gone for thousands of years, with equally evolving systems of social order and coordination of varying degrees in structure and system, as codified in their political morphologies. These systems of social order and coordination, which are the integral elements for material and immaterial production and the reproduction of civilisations and cultures, constitute the essential foundation for the codification of such a political process.

Even though empires and kingdoms have outlived their glory days and are devalued in their inputs to this evolution, and the role of the family as a political unit has given way to the state/society superstructure, they remain a significant part of this process as a source of the political morphology of modern states. Nonetheless, as it is commonly acknowledged in the case of Ibadan, which appears antithetical to this norm, “Ijagboro l’aarun Ibadan”, violence and strife were not occluded from this process. Since time immemorial, this has been at the core of the considerations for change, transformation, and evolution of the system across human civilisations. Implicitly, the emergence of political institutions has always been a way of reaching political compromises and advancing the course of society in light of new realities and the social climate of the culture. This is evident in the evolution of cultures and civilisations that are considered fluid and dynamic.

Transformation, tolerance, and prudent openness to elements and practices from other cultures have all been premised on the process of cultural reproduction and the maintenance of social harmony. At no other time was this exhibited among the Yoruba as much as in the nineteenth century, when restless and restive warriors settled in the great city of Ibadan from across the country, mostly from Ife and Oyo, with the latter dominating the region after subduing the Egba and other forces within the territory. The political experimentation that percolated the country’s political space at the time attested to the characteristic openness of the people to new realities and social postures, which is always present in informed scholarly comments and documentations.



From pure royalty defined by divine kingship to republicanism, federalism, confederacy, and what could be paradoxically described as democratic militarism, nineteenth-century Yorubaland promised a fundamental alteration of the political landscape of previous epochs. Those familiar with the events of that period would agree that despite the squabbles among the leading political actors in the country, save for the above-stated doses of the qualities that sustain civilisations and cultures, exhibited by these leaders, the Yoruba race, as it is known today, would have been a tale of misery in history. Ibadan, an Egba forest and military camp of Ife-Ijebu-Oyo forces, was particularly reinvented as the dominant state in the West African geopolitical space on the basis of merit, recognition of individual skills and prowess, diversity, commerce, militarism, and eventually, diplomacy.

From its formation around 1829, it fast became what Columbus America was to Europeans of the Modern Age across Yorubaland. Young, viable, and astute men and women with military, economic, artistic, and other skills flooded the emerging settlement to have their share of the freedom and economic pie it offered. Indeed, the political and economic landscape it engineered could be seen as precursor to the subsequent transformation brought about by the Europeans through the promotion of the so-called legitimate trade, which gained momentum from the middle of that century. When one considers this stellar composition of the emerging settlement, it is neither surprising nor out of place to see it develop into what the saying, “Ijagboro l’aarun Ibadan”, succinctly describes. It was simply a composition of ambitious, skilled, and erudite men and women in their respective rights.

Even when the Oyo forces within the camp succeeded in prevailing on other groups, they recognised the need for inclusivity and a rainbowed community (blessings to the soul of the departed great one, Bishop Desmond Tutu) in the prosperity of the political entity. Between circa 1829 and 1893, when the British government in Lagos extended its imperial arms to the interior of that coastal city, which included Ibadan, in the face of the unabated political instability in that century, this political entity was dominated by military lords with staunch support from their civilian counterparts, who dominated its trade and commerce. There is no question about the synergy between military campaigns and commerce, and to the founding fathers of the great city, this reality was never lost on them. Hence, the two-division with which they organised the political landscape reflected on the socio-economic climate.

From its establishment to the British intervention that became decisive after 1893, incessant military campaigns formed an essential part of the revenue generated by the town. This boosted its trading networks and commercial activities and ensured a secured political entity, a gem commodity pursued by all, more than ever at the time. Consequently, because the settlement’s existence was premised on these military forces and their skills and not on peculiar primordial privileges, the military division of its political morphology was given pre-eminence. Divided into three lines, the Balogun, Seriki, and one dominated by the cavalry soldiers known as the Sarumi, and headed principally by the Balogun sphere, they administered the territory alongside the civil division that comprised the Iyalode and the Baale. In respect of the diversity of the territory in terms of people and occupation, included in this political spread were the Ogboni cult, farmers’ guild, and other professional guilds.

The inputs of these bodies were germane to the extent that they represented special interests and sections of the settlement important to its growth. Although the Baale was constitutionally considered the overall head of the political entity, decisions taken by the Town Council, that is, the collective decision-making organ of the territory, must be sanctioned by the ten permanent members of the council, comprising the military chiefs. This was emphasised in studies on this to the extent that decisions during this period were to be left on hold during times of war when these chiefs must have left the town for their military expeditions. Matters that required their urgent decision-making were taken to them in their military camps. Such was the dominance of the military chiefs in Ibadan that the Baale was left occupying more or less a ceremonial seat. The Iyalode and other civilian chiefs, on their part, mobilised the population and resources for these campaigns.

With these combined efforts, Ibadan expanded to become the biggest city in the British West African colony, if not in the whole of Africa, when it came under the influence of Victorian Britain. By the time it receded the advancement of the Ilorin Jihadist forces at Osogbo around 1840, it had emerged as the most formidable Yoruba political enclave close to the pedigree of the Old Oyo empire, which it sought to replace. Therefore, when the British colonial administrators came to revive what the late erudite professor of Yoruba history, J.A. Atanda, described as the “New Oyo,” they were only adding fuel to the already flaming embers of contention, bitter rivalry, and competition reverberating among several political forces within this rainbowed community for political power and dominance.

As in other polities, the expansion of the town reasonably meant the spread of its political influence and the alteration of its landscape. By 1914, when the British colonial administration of the unit referred to as the Southern protectorate took off earnestly, this interest groups had included foreigners, such as the Lebanese, Syrians, and European merchant groups, together with the indigenous educated elite, all of who demanded some form of inclusion or occlusion from the existing political structure and its system. Meanwhile, following the 1886 intervention of the British government in Lagos, in the attainment of peace in Yorubaland, a development which was itself warranted by the exhaustion of the belligerents in the war at its stalemate, military force had begun to lose favour among the people. This marked the birth of more diplomacy and the supremacy of civil authorities over the military.

Consequently, this affected the succession plan and political climate of an entity like Ibadan that relied so much on militarism. By the turn of the twentieth century, the popular debate had been on the relevance of the military chieftaincies in the socio-political climate of the polity. Readily, since the British colonial administrators would not allow any form of unrest in the newly carved British West African colony of the British empire, the cavalry class of Ibadan chiefs and the core strength of the army lost their fervour in the polity. The dominance of the Balogun was questioned, and the Seriki unit dominated by astute young soldiers became irrelevant. Rather than military skills and prowess, what was needed at that time was trade and commercial prudence to engage the emerging market and the free economy, while also facilitating the growth of this city of warriors.

On the one hand, the constitutional rights and privileges of the Baale were restored to him in this process (in place of the Balogun who headed the hierarchy of military chiefs), but on the other hand, the peculiar interest and nature of the colonial administration that heralded this receded the constitutional giving. This was brought about by the system of indirect rule, which placed the polity under the Alaafinate in all ramifications that included administrative, social, political, and fiscal tidies. In this process of struggle, the title of the Baale was replaced with Olubadan, so as to strengthen his political posture and exact independence from Oyo. The oscillation of this highest title in the land between the military and the civilian ranks of the political divide helped to further strengthen the system in the face of the changing realities of the period.

Regardless of the irrelevance of the traditional military institution in the emerging state, the influence of this institution, rooted in a not-so-distant past to which its holders would go to war to animate, had made it difficult for it to be totally eradicated and embalmed in history. To this extent, succession to this exalted seat oscillates between the Otun Olubadan (formerly Otun Baale), in line of the civil chiefs, and the Balogun, in the line of the military chiefs, following a long line of promotion of chiefs across the chieftaincy divide, with the aim of reaching the peak, which was the position of the Olubadan. With the prevalence of the civil line, the Balogun is promoted to the civil rank of Otun Olubadan to be positioned for the exalted seat.

With progressive modernity came further alterations and debates on this institution, with the relevance of the chieftaincy institution in the administration of the modern state in Africa remaining fundamental. This was a progression from the argument of the emerging educated elite of the twentieth century, who consistently emphasised the need for their inclusion in local governance at all times, based on the premise of the illiteracy of the Native Authorities. In this view, they argued that these authorities were incompetent in the modern bureaucratic administration of the Weberian state, and, for this reason, their exposure to Western education should be a prerequisite for holding positions across its structures, including at the local level.

Apparently, this argument began to dominate from the post-World War II years as more educated elites came to occupy such positions, using this newly acquired power to engineer the independence of the state. Due to the rise in this population and other interest groups in the city and other places, as well as because of the shortages in the traditional titles, honorary titles were instituted for various purposes that bordered on local and state administration. However, as this was achieved with more responsibilities conferred on the educated elites in the state, the argument morphed into the relevance of the institution as a whole to the modern state. This is a dominant argument that will persist for some time now until the modern state is reformed. To be sure, not only is the relevance of this institution questioned, but that of the state and its practices has also never moved away from the radar of scepticism.

The demise of the Olubadan, Oba Saliu Abiodun, has brought this institution to light again, and the composition of the top-ten chiefs, principal chiefs of the Olubadan-in-Council, is a stellar tale of the advancement that has been made in this institution so far. According to the traditional doctrine of succession by promotion through the thirty-four stages from the lineage level, the next-in-line, Chief Lekan Balogun, the Otun Olubadan, prominent in his role as a successful diversified business magnate, politician, and technocrat, attests to the future of this institution and the role it would continue to play in the democratic process and good governance of the state.

To the people of Ibadan, the magajis (heads of lineages among whom recruitment is made to the chieftaincy rank and order sustained at the lowest echelon of administration of the city), and the government of Oyo State, may this period of transition bring peace, love, and light to all. Aṣẹ!

Toyin Falola, a professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin, is the Bobapitan of Ibadanland.

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