Yoruba Brass Heads
The Yoruba are Nigeria’s first nation. Their historic advantages are eroding and the nation needs a renaissance
The Yoruba are an African ethnic group occupying a total land area of 142,000+ sq.km (2x size of Ireland). Their lands span Western Nigeria through the country called Benin into Eastern Togo. 60 million people across the world identify as Yoruba- similar population to France or Italy.
Lands of the Yoruba
Their acclaimed town of origin- Ile Ife was founded about 400BCE.
It is this author’s belief that although the Yorubas have occupied their current lands for more than a 1,000 years, they are unlikely to be autochthonous to the region. In fact some more Northern groups in Nigeria claim ancestral relationship with the Yoruba through the Bayajidda legend.
In the history of mankind, the more powerful groups occupied the richest lands, were expansive and able to integrate and protect their borders. Given the cultural dominance of the Yoruba in the West African region, their sheer numbers and expansive contiguous territories in some of the most fertile river basins and forests, it is without doubt that the Yoruba benefited from major early advantages in their ancient history.
At this point given the absence of verifiable data, this author would have to rely on historical accounts and logical conjecture to account for how those historic advantages were achieved.
It is this author’s belief that these ancient advantages arose from three reasons-
1. Pioneer knowledge of working iron and other metals
The Obelisk of Oranyan
The Yoruba claim descent from a migrating group from the East- the Arabia some say while others talk of Egypt.
The Obelisk of Oranyan with its trident markings (similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics) indicating the 61 years of life of the Prince Oranyan is often used as proof of an Egyptian origin or of a North-East African origin. These regions would have been one of the earliest workers of iron in Africa. They would have known how to forge agriculture tools and weapons of war from all types of metal especially iron.
None of the original inhabitants in the initial areas they settled in present day Okun land and subsequently as they expanded south and west would have had knowledge of iron making. As a result, the Yoruba groups would have had a natural advantage in warfare and agriculture.
This in fact would account for why they would have been able to expand across very fertile lands and build a contiguous territory their neighbors would have feared to breach. They would also have been better organised to conduct war against stone-age groups of the lower Niger region. This knowledge of war would have been obtained from centuries of participation in the highly developed generational warfare of North-East Africa between ancient Egyptians and the Nubians.
Copper mask of King Obalufon, 1300 C.E.
As a result of this iron and metal working abilities, they would have been able to conquer and absorb original settlers of the lower Niger region. They would have then used these populations to expand agriculture which in turn would have helped support larger populations in their realms and propelled even further explorations into new regions south and west.
2. Confederacy of kinsmen
Yoruba women, 1890
As they would have been outnumbered in the new regions they had infiltrated and were conquering, they would have had to resort to differentiating the pure Yoruba from the original populations through enforcing societal hierarchy through visible markers including body markings and flamboyant social mores e.g. greetings that denote superiority. In order to survive in this region, kinsmen would have sworn mutual aid in times of war and promised to always come back for annual rites of re-connection at the shared point of dispersal into the new lands. This shared point of dispersal would be known as Ile-Ife. It would have been very likely that Yoruba towns or those populations ruled by the Yoruba would have been protected against conquest and enslavement by expanding Yoruba groups. This may in fact account for how some distinctly non-Yoruba populations such as the Edo came to have Yoruba nobles in order to preserve their independence.
In fact it is common to hear the Yoruba from across fairly dispersed towns say the same proverb- ‘One does not sacrifice family, only strangers’.
This system of kinship would have made them impervious to external threats and also helped spread peaceful inter-town relationships across areas they settled.
This ‘Pax Yoruba’ or Bere would have promoted trade and created the wealth that allowed the arts especially metal-based sculpturing flourish.
3. Early urbanization
The Yoruba formed their settlements with the king’s dwellings at the center of the towns. Nobles built around the King and the rest of the populace around them. The army was often stationed in the frontier in outer towns facing hostile groups.
Common concentric structure of ancient Yoruba towns
This concentric formations of Yoruba towns concentrated dwellings and because they were easier to defend than sprawling settlements, they would have attracted more residents for the safety they offered.
Concentration of major towns in ancient Yoruba lands drove urbanization
The high densities would have enabled trade specializations which in turn promoted commerce. This commercial abilities would account for the innate commodification of trade-able items of value including humans and would account for why the Yoruba would eventually become some of the major beneficiaries of the slave trade.
These early development of commerce would spur the Yoruba into a gilded age where they created and sold dyed cloth, exported agro produce from the forest lands to the Northern Nupe and Hausalands and invested in the creation of impressive art works as a preserve of wealth and social status.
Unfortunately the growing wealth of the Oyo Yoruba who brokered the forest produce with the Nupes and Hausas would come to undermine the Pax Yoruba or the confederacy of Yoruba kinsmen based on Ile-Ife.
The rise of the Oyo in 1300 C.E. ended 300 years of the Pax Yoruba era in the region and marked the start of the decline of the the Yoruba as a nation that has continued till today.
The King of Oyo, circa 1910
In the second part of this series, I would attempt to show how the Yorubas descended into their dark age era, were saved from themselves by the British who in turn undermined them. I would also show how the regional system post-independence sparked a short Yoruba renaissance by bringing together the same elements that enabled the ancient pax-Yoruba era. This short post-independence period accounts for another era of modern advantages that the Yoruba have continued to enjoy for the last 40 years.
In the third part of this series, I would show that the Yoruba have again descended into a modern period of decline and I would proffer solutions to stem this decline.
I hope that this series would make the Yoruba ronu! (Yoruba think!).
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