There have been debates over the roots of the people of Benin and the Yorubas. We depend on oral history that, over a long period, may have been watered down, distorted and inflated. The main question is what are the true roots of these people, distinct from each other but having so many similarities.
Let’s take a walk through history now and see how the people of Yorubas and Benin are both closely and undeniably related.
The Yoruba have been the ruling party on the western bank of the Niger, as far as historical memory reaches. Of mixed ethnicity, they were the result of the assimilation of migrants’ seasonal waves that formed a shared language and culture. The Yoruba were divided into patrilineal descent units that inhabited village communities and continued to farm, but from around the eleventh century A.D., neighboring village compounds called the Ile, started to coalesce into several municipal city-states in which the clan’s loyalties were subordinate to a dynastic chieftain’s allegiance. This transformation created an urbanized political and social environment that was followed by a high level of artistic achievement, especially in the sculpture of terracotta and ivory and in the sophisticated metal casting developed at Ife. An important trading commodity was the brass and bronze used by Yoruba artisans, made of copper, tin, and zinc, either smuggled from North Africa or mines in the Sahara and northern Nigeria.
A luxuriant pantheon headed by an impersonal god, Olorun, was placated by the Yoruba and featured minor deities, some of whom were once human, performing many celestial and realistic duties. Oduduwa, one of them was called the founder of the world and the father of the kings of Yoruba. Oduduwa founded the city of Ife according to a creation myth and sent his sons to construct other settlements, where they reigned as priest-kings and presided over cult ceremonies. Such formal practices have been viewed as literary examples of the historical phase by which the reigning dynasty of Ife spread its control over Yorubaland. The tales were efforts to legitimize Yoruba monarchies by alleging religious origin after they had supplanted clan loyalties.
In the days of the glory of the kingdom, Ife was the center of as many as 400 religious cults whose traditions were manipulated by the oni (king) for political benefit. Ife was also at the center of the northern trade network. His court was funded by tolls levied on commerce, a tribute from dependencies, and tithes owed to him as a religious chief. The exquisite sculpture synonymous with this tradition is one of Ife’s biggest legacies in modern Nigeria.
On a revolving basis, the oni was selected from one of several branches of the reigning family, comprising of a clan of several thousand people. When elected, in the palace complex, he went into seclusion and was not seen by his people again. Palace administrators, town chiefs, and rulers of outlying dependencies were under the oni in the state hierarchy. The palace officials were spokesmen for the oni and the reliance rulers who had subordinate officials of their own. All positions, including the oni, were elective and relied on broad support within the society. Each official was picked from among the deserving members of the clan who had an inherited right to office. Royal dynasty members were frequently appointed to rule dependencies, while palace officials’ sons assumed lesser positions as functionaries, oni bodyguards, and magistrates.
Oyo and Benin succeeded Ife as political and economic powers during the fifteenth century, while Ife retained its position as a religious centre even after its demise. In the evolution of Yoruba ethnicity, reverence for the priestly duties of the Oniof Ife and acceptance of the shared tradition of origin were key influences. Not only among the Yoruba, but also in Benin, the Ife oni was regarded as the senior political officer, and he invested the symbols of temporal authority in the rulers of Benin.
In Oyo, where a member of his ruling family united many smaller city-states under his influence, the Ife model of government was adopted. Eventually, the Oyo Mesi, a council of state, took responsibility for choosing the Alaafin (king) from candidates nominated by the reigning dynasty and served as a check on his power. Oyo was established as a constitutional monarchy; the basorun (prime minister), who ruled over the Oyo Mesi, was in the hands of the real government. The town was located 170 kilometers north of Ife, and 100 kilometers north of what is now Oyo. Oyo was in the savanna, unlike the forest-bound Yoruba kingdoms, and derived its military strength from its cavalry forces, which gained control over the nearby Nupe and Borgu kingdoms and thereby formed trading routes further north (see fig. 2).
In the Edo-speaking region, east of Ife, when it became a dependency of Ife at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Yorubaland formed an agricultural community in the Eleventh to Nineteenth Centuries. By the fifteenth century, when Oyo had cut off the mother city from the savanna, it took an independent route and became a major trade force in its own right, restricting Ife’s access to the coastal ports. The oba (king), which was inherited from the Ife dynasty according to tradition, existed in political power and religious authority. A council of six hereditary chiefs, who also nominated his successor, advised the oba. Spread over twenty-five square kilometers, Benin, which may have hosted 100,000 people at its height, was surrounded by three concentric earthworks. Sixty trade guilds, each with its own fifth, were responsible for running the urban complex, whose membership sliced through clan affiliations and owed its allegiance directly to the oba. The oba ruled at his wooden, steeped palace over a large court richly decorated with items of copper, bronze, and ivory. Benin is also renowned for its art, much like Ife and the other Yoruba nations.
However, unlike the Yoruba kingdoms, a bureaucratic regime was established by Benin to oversee the governance of its expanding territory. Benin was in contact with Portugal in the late fifteenth century (see European Slave Trade in West Africa, this ch.). Benin also covered areas of southeastern Yorubaland and the remote Igbo territory on the western bank of the Niger at its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Dependencies were ruled by members of the royal family who, instead of a block of land that could be used as a ground for rebellion against the oba, were allocated numerous towns or villages dispersed across the kingdom.
Yoruba and Benin’s history have been intertwined, as is clear from this brief survey. In reality, in the modern Republic of Benin, areas to the west of Nigeria were also closely connected with this history, both in the time before and after 1500.