Who are the Yorubas?

Precolonial social organization

Though monarchies were fairly common throughout the Yoruba-speaking region, they were not the only approach to government and social organization. The numerous Ẹgba communities, found in the forests below Ọyọ's savannah region, were a notable example. These independent polities often elected an Ọba, though real political, legislative, and judicial powers resided with the Ogboni, a council of notable elders.

When citizens of more than 150 Ẹgba and Owu communities migrated to the fortified city-state of Abeokuta during the internecine wars of the 19th century, each quarter retained its own Ogboni council of civilian leaders, along with an Olorogun, or council of military leaders, and in some cases its own elected Obas or Baales. These independent councils then elected their most capable members to join a federal civilian and military council that represented the city as a whole. Commander Frederick Forbes, a representative of the British crown writing an account of his visit to the city in an 1853 edition of the Church Military Intelligencer, described Abẹokuta as having "four presidents", and the system of government as having "840 principal rulers or 'House of Lords,' 2800 secondary chiefs or 'House of Commons,' 140 principal military ones and 280 secondary ones." He described Abẹokuta and its system of government as "the most extraordinary republic in the world."

Gerontocratic leadership councils that guarded against the monopolization of power by a monarch were a proverbial trait of the Ẹgba, according to the eminent Ọyọ historian Reverend Samuel Johnson, but such councils were also well-developed among the northern Okun groups, the eastern Ekiti, and other groups falling under the Yoruba ethnic umbrella. Even in Ọyọ, the most centralized of the precolonial kingdoms, the Alaafin consulted on all political decisions with a prime minister (the Basọrun) and the council of leading nobles known as the Ọyọ Mesi.

Ibadan, a city-state and proto-empire founded in the 19th century by a polyglot group of refugees, soldiers, and itinerant traders from Ọyọ and the other Yoruba sub-groups, largely dispensed with the concept of monarchism, preferring to elect both military and civil councils from a pool of eminent citizens. The city became a military republic, with distinguished soldiers wielding political powers through their election by popular acclaim and the respect of their peers. Similar practices were adopted by the Ijẹsa and other groups, which saw a corresponding rise in the social influence of military adventurers and successful entrepreneurs.

Occupational guilds, social clubs, secret or initatory societies, and religious units, commonly known as Ẹgbẹ in Yoruba, included the Parakoyi (or league of traders) and Ẹgbẹ Ọdẹ (hunter's guild), and maintained an important role in commerce, social control, and vocational education in Yoruba polities.

There are also examples of other peer organizations in the region. When the Ẹgba resisted the imperial domination of the Ọyọ Empire, a figure named Lisabi is credited with either creating or reviving a covert traditional organization named Ẹgbẹ Aro. This group, originally a farmers' union, was converted to a network of secret militias throughout the Ẹgba forests, and each lodge plotted to overthrow Ọyọ's Ajeles (appointed administrators) in the late 1700s.

Similarly, covert military resistance leagues like the Ekitiparapọ and the Ogidi alliance were organized during the 19th century wars by often-decentralized communities of the Ekiti, Ijẹṣa, Ìgbómìnà and Okun Yoruba in order to resist various imperial expansionist plans of Ibadan, Nupe, and the Sokoto Caliphate.

The monarchy of any city state was usually limited to a number of royal lineages. A family could be excluded from kingship and chieftancy if any family member, servant, or slave belonging to the family committed a crime such as theft, fraud, murder or rape. In other city-states, the monarchy was open to the election of any free-born male citizen. There are also, in Ileṣa, Ondo, and other Yoruba communities, several traditions of female Ọbas, though these were comparatively rare.

The kings were almost always polygamous and many had as many as 20 wives and often married royal family members from other towns/city states.

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