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Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter - Literature - Nairaland

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Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by odumorun1: 12:40pm On Dec 19, 2012
Of the many imposing figures bestriding the rich tapestry of its not too recent history, the Yoruba’s, unique in their intriguing propensity to produce commanding and divisively contentious historic characters of a power and presence to match the energy of their tumultuous times, the Yoruba’s will be hard put to identify a man whose colossal impact on his era and the subsequent history of his people reverberates with a force as unanswerable as that of the last great Prime Minister of the once mighty Oyo Empire – Bashorun Gaa.
His notoriety steeped in the bloody regicide of four kings and the reach of his alleged tyranny to every corner of the vast empire he once so totally dominated, places him at the very peak of the pantheon of Yoruba pantomime villains, above the infamous clutches and not insubstantial claims of the likes of Kosoko King of Lagos, Madam Tinunbu of the same city, Afonja and Solagberu the renegades of Ilorin and Efunsetan Aniwura the feared Iyalode of Ibadan. Gaa was the Prime Minster of Oyo whose reign preceded its collapse and the fall of Yoruba land into a century of revolution and bloody chaos which would only end at the dawn of the British conquest towards the end of the 19th century.

Gaa who reigned towards the end of the 18th century was a man of immense force and personal magnetism. A leader of men not afraid of controversy or open conflict. He was also clearly authoritarian and combative, his name evoking fear and hatred amongst many who denounced his renown ruthlessness and alleged personal cruelty as sufficient proof of his political and historical perfidy. But history is never that simple, nor does the interrelationship between its personalities and politics lend itself to the easy certainties of facile moralising. History is a story, but a story book it is not. Its rules follow the iron logic of necessity that prescribe the immutable laws of social evolution, complete with its treacheries and intrigues, its cruelties and passions. It is messy, it is bloody. Bedtime reading for the faint hearted it is most certainly not. Unlike fairy tales the outcome is not predetermined to soothe, its characters not created to comfort through the easy categorisation of good and evil, wicked and righteous, denuded of social content and historical context. Historical characters are complex and their actions are informed by the historical role they play. Their morality weighed on the scales of the shifting equilibrium of social and national struggles. Who is more virtuous a ‘wicked’ man thrust to the forefront of a progressive ideal or a ‘good one’ burdened with the imperatives of a championing a retrograde cause.

Was Gaa a tyrant, or was he, albeit ruthlessly, a fighter against royal tyranny. Was Gaa trying to usurp the royal power in Oyo, or was he resisting its attempts; outstripping its constitutional power, to control, beyond what had hereto been historically acceptable, the society it had raised itself above. Was he a villain or was he a victim? If this argument might seem revisionist, it is because it is. If accepted history is the story of the victor, then it cannot justifiably lay claim to the last word on its legacy. Or as was so memorably intoned in the prologue to the epic film on the war of Scottish liberation, Brave heart, – History is often a story told by those who have hanged heroes.

Yoruba history like that of most pre-colonial African societies was recorded orally, verbalised by full time poets who earned their keep ministering to the land’s royal houses, none of whom had any reason to remember the great usurper with affection. It was later transcribed into the written word by the far from neutral pens of the first western trained missionaries and teachers, men like Ajayi Crowther and Samuel Johnson, the new Christians who shared the prejudices, preconceptions and purposes of the foreign empire they served. An empire whose emerging, still contested dominance demanded a corresponding revision of its newly conquered lands history, promoting a narrative favourable to local royalty and the absolutism of crowned heads without whose cooperation the cornerstone of colonialism – Indirect rule through a single unchallenged despot, dressed up in the paraphernalia and pomp of historic legitimacy, would founder on the rock of the lawlessness and rebellion which had engulfed Yoruba land for well neigh a century.
To understand history, it is not enough to understand personalities, it is necessary to understand, fully understand, the environment they lived and operated in, to comprehend the social currents and forces the interplay of which alone determined their actions. To understand bashorun Gaa, we need to understand not the morality or otherwise of this undoubtedly flawed figure or even his enemies, but the society they lived and died in, its struggles, its wars and above all the complex socio economic forces that force people, nations and personalities into bloody collision.

At its height, from the 16th to 18th century, the Oyo Empire was the most feared force along the western coast of Africa, stretching from borders of modern day Ghana in the west to the ancient Benin kingdom in the east, it was centred on the old city of Oyo, a walled metropole which had long been the most powerful of the Yoruba settlements in the south-western part of the territory of modern day Nigeria. While self serving myths imply its prominence to the ancestry of Oranyan, the most beloved grandson of the legendary founder of the Yoruba race, Oduduwa, its geography offers a more prosaically accurate if less fantastic pointer to the reasons behind its emergence as a regional power house in its own right. It was strategically located on the vast plains of the guinea savannah, offering a natural platform for trade, communication and conquest, far more favourable than the sites of its sister Yoruba settlements such as the Ijebu's and Egba's tucked deeper into the forests to its south or the Ekiti’s hemmed into their mountain ranges to its east. The city of Oyo, seizing advantage of its open surroundings quickly mastered the use of that universal instrument of military conquest, the horse, spreading its formidable reach across most of the region, reducing town after town to subjection and tributary status.

The complexity of a society’s structure like that of every living organism evolves to match the dynamic of its ever developing daily functions. Therefore compared to the smaller surrounding towns and settlements, Oyo developed a governmental apparatus of a certain subtlety and sophistication. With its rising prosperity increasingly stratifying society along socially hierarchical and invariably antagonistic lines, potentially concentrating too much power in too few hands; inevitably empowering the most privileged - the royal households from whose ranks the Alaafin and other important chiefs were chosen, a committee of seven lesser nobles, representing the seven districts of the city were constituted into an advisory cum legislative body, called the Oyo mesi, headed by a titled chief called the Bashorun.

To further check the potential for royal absolutism, the princes of the royal families, while trained in the use of arms were prevented from active service in the powerful army whose officers owed their promotion and privileges to the leaders of the civil authority – the Oyo mesi and its head the bashorun, effectively separating royal and military power. This was a crucial distinction whose pivotal historic significance would only become clear with the final defeat of Gaa, when the country would be plunged into the hands of powerful warlords, many of whom, like Edun of Gbongan, Afonja and Solagberu of Ilorin and Timi of Ede would legitimise their unchecked rapacity through strong links to the various Yoruba royal lineages.

While many have described the Alaafin as a toothless tiger in a decorated cage, the evidence implies he was not as impotent as myth suggests. He held the power to declare war and levy and collect taxes through a network of agents called illari scattered across the empire. The power to raise money and declare war was thus concentrated in royal not civil hands. The ultimate check on the power of the princes or akeyo of the royal families was the power of rejection held by the Oyo mesi under the bashorun or the power to force an oppressive king to abdicate by taking his own life.

Seeing that the seven chiefs of the Oyo mesi had authority over the seven districts inhabited by the commoners of the city, it would follow that however indirectly they would express the popular will much more accurately than the relatively less accountable princes of the royal households, many of whom would ruthlessly exploit their commercial privileges, such as paying lower than the market rate for commodities, in building up economic empires of a scale and power that would threaten and later shatter the threadbare social contract established in Oyo’s early days between the emerging social groups and to which the Oyo mesi was the most determined defender. However the very nature of this system was based on a tension which never too far from the surface, and rapidly rendered obsolete by the unstoppable force of changing socio-economic circumstances, offering opportunities to some and posing threats to others, was bound sooner or later to explode into open civil violence and strife.

As is usually the case this point was reached in Oyo with the sudden arrival of new and previously undreamed of wealth, from a source few could have imagined would yield such riches at so little expense – the bounty of the vast ocean with its endless traffic in humans – the trans Atlantic trade

Slavery had been a mainstay of the Oyo economy for generations increasing in profile and prominence as the city expanded its power and territory. All the noble classes including members of the Oyo mesi owned and traded in slaves. But the industrial scale of the new trade, unlike anything ever seen before opened up opportunities for the wealthier classes in the Empire that by their position, organisation, privileges and connections the royal party was best placed to exploit.
Commerce was the oil that lubricated the machinery of the empire, fostering travel, trade and communication across its towns and villages. As the consequent prosperity flourished so did the machinery of government required to administer the ever expanding empire grow in complexity and organisation, an administration which in the hands of the ubiquitous and powerful Illari’s or king’s representatives and tax collectors gave the palace and royal princes a major economic advantage in the emerging struggle for wealth and power in the empire. The royal princes with their blood and social connections to the royal families of the various provincial towns and cities across the realm also had a ready made network to exploit to the maximum the opportunities posed by the new trade.

This was not the result of any organised conspiracy, but a natural by product of economic expansion in any environment. Economic growth particularly from a low threshold is an impersonal and inexorable force demanding an efficiency much more easily supplied by an authoritarian rather than a collegiate state. The demands of managing a vast and far flung empire, of collecting taxes, administering trade and imposing law and order, of monitoring and managing hundreds and hundreds of disputes, small and large, between diverse communities, of the day to day tasks of running a complex and increasingly hierarchical empire, of achieving equilibrium between the centrifugal and centripetal forces whose tensions keep an empire together are of a scale beyond the scope of any committee regardless of how august. It takes an emperor to rule an empire. Hence, increasingly, real power devolved to the hands of the Alaafin, his illaris, the provincial leaders and the power on whose back the empire increasingly rested – the Army chiefs, amongst whom were counted many provincial chiefs, such as the Onikoyi of Ikoyi and the Timi of Ede.

Invariably the civil authority of the still powerful but increasingly marginalised Oyo mesi and the metropolitan chiefs was challenged by a royal party and provincial leadership who by their position had cornered to the detriment of the Bashorun and his followers much of the new wealth. The scene was set for a showdown. With the rise of the forceful and powerfully assertive Gaa to the post of Bashorun, it became inevitable. Five Alaafin's, Labisi, Awonbioju, Agboluaje, Majeogbe and Abiodun were raised to the throne under Gaa four of whom were later disposed.

The simplistic conventional narrative of Gaa’s supposed tyranny suggests they were removed, killed or forced to commit suicide as a result of the Bashorun’s caprice or the cruel vagaries of his mercurial temperament. But this does not explain the acquiescence of the 6 remaining members of the Oyo mesi, powerful men in their own rights with substantial local followings without whose backing Gaa would have been dangerously isolated.

Another issue long ignored by the anti Gaa School has been the popular mood of the ordinary people of Oyo which seems at this point to have been largely suspicious of the royal party, as a result of a series of despotic and oppressive Alaafins in the period leading up the emergence of Gaa. These included Alaafin Amuniwaiye, known for ravishing the wives of his underlings and allegedly as malicious myth go the first Alaafin caught, literarily in the act by Magun. A fable suggesting just how low in esteem of the people the rapacious alaafins had become. Alaafin Gberu an oppressive tyrant ultimately rejected by the Oyo Mesi, Alaafin Osinyago and his immediate successor, Ayibi, both brutal and corrupt despots all of whom were rejected and overthrown just before the rise of Gaa.

The most comprehensive account of Yoruba history to date, Rev Samuel Johnson’s tome with its fervent anti Gaa bias was forced to admit in Chapter V page 178 –“Gaa had great influence with the people and a great many followers who considered themselves safe under his protection from the dread in which they stood of kings because of their cruel and despotic rule”

It is in this light that the emergence of this powerful prime minister has to be seen, with the popular will demanding an assertive and powerful personality in the position of Prime Minister or bashorun to check the growing abuse and oppression of royal power.

This is not to say the Bashorun or Oyo mesi were disinterested saints. They were but a section of an increasingly powerful and arrogant ruling party, which however due to its connections to the poorer classes whose interests it was forced to reflect in order to better defend its own, were forced to confront the palace on behalf of an oppressed people facing up to an increasingly out of control royal authority treating its interests with the same contempt as it did those of the noble classes cut off from the network of royal patronage.
It was said of Gaa that he created a parallel administration mirroring the structure and spread of the palace officials and ubiquitous Illari’s or the kings provincial representatives, a network spread across the realm comprised of his sons and supporters who took upon themselves the responsibilities of levying taxes and dispensing justice, supplanting the king’s officers across the empire. The Bashorun had become a law onto himself. The kings who opposed or resisted his power were either killed or forced to kill themselves.
Again rather than a convincing charge sheet these facts only point to the depth of the power struggle that gripped Oyo in an era of unprecedented wealth from its entry into the Trans Atlantic slave trade. Trade, particularly foreign commerce had been a particular monopoly of the princely cast or the akeyo, who had distinct commercial privileges denied to the other classes. It was inevitable that they and the provincial chiefs and crowned heads with whom they had strong links of blood and lineage would corner most of the new wealth at the detriment of the non royal nobility whose metropolitan authority in the old city now seem dated and overtaken by a fluid and rapidly changing economic situation. Hence the attempt by the metropolitan chiefs under the Bashorun to extend, ‘unconstitutionally, their local authority across the empire to effectively combat the power and connections of the royal party

Gaa’s regicide like that of similar upstarts in aristocratic states, such as Cromwell in 17th century England and the Jacobins in revolutionary France, who all gained undying infamy by separating monarchs from their crowned heads only seems abhorrent when seen through the eyes of the incorrigible royal romanticist, not those of practical men of action and politics in similarly unforgiving environments. There was no other way of removing an absolutist king except by killing him. If a King proved despotic as there is ample evidence most of the Alaafin’s, even predating Gaa, did, they couldn’t be voted out, nor pushed aside. A king once crowned cannot be dethroned. Hence the old law of abdication meaning death or suicide. In pursuing this Gaa was only showing a will and decisiveness to push through his policy of checking royal absolutism through the only means possible – death. That this in the end did not prove sufficient only reflects the depths of degeneracy of the royal caste, how deep the corruption had eaten into the fabric of the state with the removal of individual kings doing nothing to deter those who followed them from taking the same path of absolutism the new changed situation demanded. It also showed the utter futility of Gaa’s brave but ill-fated opposition to the increasing absolutism of the royal party. He was a representative of a bygone era, a more simple age of small town politics in an epoch of where the insatiable demand from across the seas for slaves on an industrial scale and the unimaginable wealth it brought in its wake had rendered the old borders, the old structures, assumptions and certainties redundant and obsolete. The age of the dictator and the warlord had arrived. Gaa and his constitutionalists had become yesterday’s men.

Contrary to established myth there is little evidence that Gaa’s fall came about through a popular rising of the supposedly oppressed masses across the empire. Finally coming against an Alaafin, Abiodun, who matched the increasingly aged Bashorun in wit, cunning and ruthlessness, Gaa fell to a well crafted and concealed conspiracy whose success rested on an alliance of the Royal princes with the provincial kings, subject to the capital, and who also provided the bulk of its military muscle. The uprising in Oyo itself would have failed had not the provincial chiefs led by Oyabi, the Aare ona kakanfo or head of the imperial army marched on the capital for the first time in Oyo’s history. Seeing that the officer class and imperial staff – the Eso where well represented in the capital as were many ordinary soldiers, it seems the need for outside intervention which in the end proved crucial to the royal party’s triumph would suggest a lack of real support for the royal cause within Oyo or significant support for the Bashorun.
Whatever the reason there is a broad consensus that the resistance by Gaa and his supporters in the City was ferocious and only put down after intense and savage fighting. Again the strength of the resistance against what were clearly overwhelming odds implies men fighting not just for their lives but for something they felt was worth laying them down for. Gaa’s family and supporters were slaughtered across the breath of the empire. The Bashorun himself was taken alive, tortured, publicly humiliated and burnt at the stake, the taunts of his royalist enemies ringing in his ears as he died.

With him died the old empire and the power of civil authority that had underpinned it. The Oyo mesi never recovered, the people were cowed into submission before the triumphant princes and provincial kings. The consequence of his defeat was a new unchallenged absolutism by the Alaafin and the princes together with the increasingly unchecked power of the provincial kings and army leaders with their increasingly loud demands of independence from Oyo. As the price for their support in crushing Gaa and the old order. The Alaafin had won but his victory would prove pyrrhic for the royal line.

The next time the imperial army would march on the capital, this time led by Afonja, the Kakanfo, who succeeded Oyabi; it would come not to support the king, but to claim his head. The revolution had begun

The new struggle was now one between the centre at Oyo and the newly emboldened provincial kings and army chiefs. It would end up tearing the empire apart and hurling the entire kingdom into a century of revolution and turmoil that would only end with the arrival of the British who tiring of the impact of the chaos on the unimpeded commerce their new industries in Lancashire demanded, imposed a peace on a region exhausted by endless struggle strife and conflict.


Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by kodewrita(m): 1:44am On Dec 22, 2012
just curious. who's the original author of this article?
Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by odumorun1: 1:48am On Dec 22, 2012
kodewrita: just curious. who's the original author of this article?

I wrote it myself
Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by kodewrita(m): 4:19pm On Dec 22, 2012
I like the alternative approach to history though if we are objective, this is just as potentially revisionist as the original alafin's tales.
Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by lawani: 7:29pm On Aug 27, 2015
Very interesting perspective. It is also worthy of note that the Oyo successor state of Ibadan abandoned the aristocracy and introduced a new system of political leadership.
Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by tarano: 6:43pm On Oct 17, 2015
The Oyo Kings and princes were tyrants and unjust. Bashorun Gaa always play the princes against each other. After the death/suicide of three kings in a roll. The princes consolidated their power and closed ranks. Oyo went through a period of instability... From Abiodun to Arole...

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Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by lawani: 5:17pm On Nov 04, 2015
The Oyo Kings and princes were tyrants and unjust. Bashorun Gaa always play the princes against each other. After the death/suicide of three kings in a roll. The princes consolidated their power and closed ranks. Oyo went through a period of instability... From Abiodun to Arole...
The overall point of the article is that Bashorun Gaha was only one member of a 7 seat Oyo mesi and other members were powerful in their own right, so much that they were not rubber stamps. Then the fact that the imperial army had to march on the capital to stop the removal of the Alaafin goes to show that the popular story may not be entirely true. However, most historians agree that Alaafin Abiodun was not a despot.

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Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by Positivist: 1:06am On Nov 05, 2015
Interesting! Lalasticlala and co please move this to the right section.
Re: Bashorun Gaa - Cruel Tyrant Or Misunderstood Freedom Fighter by naijalander: 7:50am On Mar 08, 2017
I think its the other way round:

Gaha being a member of the Oyo Mesi would have been from one of the original Oyo families as such his intention was to restrict the freedom of the colonies (the provincial chiefs). These chiefs would have made the king their puppet and had him enact policies which favored them. This would have deprived the Oyo Mesi of their original influence over him.

Amazing work by the way.

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