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Functions Of An Oba In Ancient Yorubaland

By: Bola Olalekan

Oba is a Yoruba term for King, an Oba is the monarchical head of government in ancient Yorubaland. Some Obas ruled supreme over their kingdoms and subjects with unchecked powers while some had checks and balances like the great Old Oyo Empire (OOE), some have their powers checked as a result of their tributary status to OOE.

Their titles vary amongst clans in Yorubaland, for example, the Oba of Oyo is called ‘Alaafin of Oyo’ (Man of the palace at Oyo), some Obas’ titles are attributes to their land, examples are Oluwo of Iwo, Osolo of Isolo and so forth.

There are first class and second class Obas. First class Obas are of the ancient Yoruba kingdoms that had been in existence since the primordial era, the Alaafin, Ooni of Ife, Alake of Egbaland, Eleko of Eko (Oba of Lagos) are all first class Oba.

Second class Obas are the Obas of less popular kingdoms in Yorubaland, the first class and second class Oba do wear beaded crowns and royal regalia, they also hold ‘Irukere’ (fly-whisk).

There are Baale (Father of the land) who are mainly viceroys and do not wear crown as they are affiliates and their towns are tributary to neighbouring Oba.

An Oba title is not necessarily hereditary in Yorubaland, apart from OOE where The Oyomesi cabinet is chooser of Oba, the common method is, once an Oba dies, the Olu-awo (Head of Ifa) of the kingdom is consulted by the Ijoyes (Chiefs) to follow ancestral means of choosing the next Oba, the Olu-awo would consult the Orisa of different deities and after some rigorous sacrifices and rituals, he (Olu-Awo) would pronounce whom is next to become the Oba.

An ancient Oba in Yorubaland would normally be the wealthiest, most influential and most important personality. They enjoyed life to the extreme, Yoruba would often say ‘Oun je aiye oloba’ (living the life of a king) if someone is living flamboyantly.

The Obas of course had many responsibilities and privileges that come with their high-status role. As divine Obas, they had access to special powers and extraordinary wisdom to carry out their thoughtful tasks.

An ancient Oba would have a lot of privileges among them would be ‘gbese le’ (the act of an Oba putting his leg on a kneeling woman’s shoulder). An ancient Oba could marry any woman at anytime, all he needed to do was to gbese le (oral history states this is quite uncommon). That gesture signifies ownership and marriage to the woman. If an Oba was on his forecourt, any citizen who walked pass must stop to greet him. Therefore, any beautiful woman that catches his eyes might become his wife.

In this case, if the woman was married, an ‘Aroko’ (material message) would be sent to the husband to indicate the divorce and remarry of his wife, he would however though be compensated.

Husbands would warn their wives to avoid the palace, not being disrespectful to the Oba, but to avoid the occurrence of ‘gbese le’

Ancient Obas were highly respected and were often referred to as ‘igbakeji Orisa’ (second to the supreme deity), an order of an Oba is of high magnitude and must be strictly adhered to, anyone who flouted their laws might be executed as shown in this saying: “Eni ba foju di oba, Awowo awo” (Awowo would wreck those who disobey Oba).

Awowo was a machete used to execute those who disobeyed the Obas in Ancient Yorubaland.
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