Afonja: The Kakanfo and fall of Oyo empire

Of the 14 Kakanfo so far, the tenures of three of them who were military commanders considerably impacted the history of, first, the Old Oyo Empire, and by extension, the rest of Yorubaland. The three Kakanfo are Afonja of Ilorin, Kurunmi of Ijaye, and Obadoke Latoosa of Ibadan. The last two of the 14, who were civilians and honorary holders of the title nevertheless impacted the history of Yorubaland, and also the entire Nigerian nation.

In the mid-1700s, around 1750 and onwards, a powerful Oyo warrior was growing in stature; a man called Afonja. His father was Laderin. Laderin himself was the son of Alugbin, who himself was the son of Pasin. Alaafin Majeogbe ruled Oyo from 1754 to 1770, and was succeeded by Alaafin Abiodun same year. Abiodun was on the throne for about 19 years, until 1789 when he was murdered by his own son, Aole.

Aole became Alaafin, and ruled from 1789 to 1796.  It was during these years that Afonja was Kakanfo, and was domiciled in Ilorin, a small town that nestled on the banks of a tributary of the River Niger, the River Awun. Afonja was the sixth Kakanfo, coming after Oku of Jabata, and was succeeded by Toyeje of Ogbomoso. His tenure as Kakanfo signposted the loss of the Ilorin area to the Sokoto Caliphate, after a dispute between him and Alaafin Aole degenerated into insurgency. This development has remained of great impact on the history of the Yoruba peoples north of Oyo till date.

Crisis with Aole

The crisis that spawned Afonja’s insurrection essentially centred around conventions, and oaths that he did not want broken. The Kakanfo generated issues with the Alaafin Aole when he was commanded to attack Iwere-Ile, the home town of late Alaafin Abiodun’s mother.

It is not known why Aole, described as a pompous, haughty and high-handed individual would order the home town of his paternal grandmother sacked. In any case, there existed a curse to the effect that any Kakanfo who attacked Iwere-Ile would die a horrible death, ostensibly placed by Alaafin Abiodun whose mum hailed from there. In addition, Kakanfo Afonja was also under oath from Abiodun. As a result of these, and other considerations, Afonja declined to carry out the orders of his commander-in-chief.

But Alaafin Aole, also called Arogangan (the high-handed one) had another assignment for Afonja. In 1795 he ordered the Kakanfo to attack Apomu, a market town that is part of Ile-Ife. In 1795, Aole ordered the sacking of Apomu, a town that forms part of the territories of Ile-Ife, the acclaimed source of the Yoruba peoples.

This order Afonja complied with; but on his return he himself had a brain wave, or perhaps was executing another planned agenda. He marched on Oyo, stormed the palace, and demanded that Aole should abdicate. In all of these, it would seem that the metropolitan forces under the command of the Bashorun were complicit; Afonja encountered no obstacles in dealing with Aole. The Alaafin committed ritual suicide after that.

Back to Ilorin

Afonja returned to Ilorin, his headquarters, leaving Oyo rudderless.Aole was succeeded by Adebo who ruled barely a year from 1796 to 1797; and was succeeded by Makua, who ruled a few months and also died in 1797. From 1797 to 1802 the Oyo throne was vacant. Alaafin Majotu was crowned in 1802 and he then reigned till 1830.

Ultimately, Afonja’s undoing came about when he decided to implement a human resources overhaul of his troops and commanders. By this time he had made friends with Salih Jinta, also known as Shehu Alimi, a Fulani cleric who had settled in Ilorin and who had brought with him many slaves and other clerics.

Afonja had developed the notion that Hausa slaves and Fulani mercenaries would make better soldiers and commanders than his own people who previously formed the bulk of his forces. He then ordered his adjutant, an officer called Ologolo to disband his troops and induct Hausa slaves and slaves of other nationalities into his fighting force.

When Shehu Alimi died, his son Abd Salaam, whom Afonja did not know was an ambitious man saw his opportunity and struck. Using the advantage of language which Afonja and his core Yoruba commanders did not have, his forces were infiltrated and a revolt instigated against him. He was finally killed in 1817, after which Abd Salaam declared himself emir and pledged allegiance to Sokoto Caliphate in 1824.

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