In the 17th century when the Oyo Empire (present-day southwestern Nigeria) was the dominant and most powerful of the Yoruba kingdoms, the king had a council of kingmakers that acted as a check on his powers.
During the reign of the empire in the 1700s, the council of kingmakers (Oyomesi), which was responsible for selecting and dethroning the kings (Alaafins), were headed by a Bashorun, who acted as Prime Minister.
The Bashorun had a final say in the nomination of the new Alaafin, his power rivalling the king himself. Oyo Empire had a succession of Bashoruns, but the one that is most talked about is Bashorun Gaa.
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Being the head of the council, Gaa became so powerful that he successfully enthroned four kings, deposed all four of them and was eventually murdered by the fifth, according to HistoryVille.
Born in the late 1690s when Oyo was ruled by Bashoruns as the throne had been vacant, Gaa was believed to have grown up in the years the empire witnessed a succession of some nine terrible kings.
“From Odarawu who was bad-tempered, to Kanran, an unmitigated tyrant, then Jayin, the effeminate and dissolute, down to Ayibi, the cruel and arbitrary, and Osinyago, the worthless, the Alaafins in the second half of the 17th century were despotic,” an article by the Medium said.
Their behaviours might have affected Gaa’s view of the office, and for the 24 years he became Bashorun, (1750–1774), Gaa, who was supposed to check the king from being an autocrat, became one himself. Gaa got power-drunk and supplemented his power with fear and juju while legend said he could change from a human being to any animal of his choice.
Gaa, nevertheless, played active roles in the military conquests during his time as a Prime Minister of the empire.
Becoming head of the Oyomesi during the reign of Alaafin Onisile, Gaa’s tyranny began when one Labisi was being prepared for the throne of Oyo. Gaa killed Labisi’s friends and silenced his supporters, and this enabled him to start his own rule through the installation of puppet kings from whom he demanded homage, writes HistoryVille.
As already mentioned, Bashoruns had the power to install and remove kings, but the only way they could do so was by asking these kings to commit suicide.
One account states that “if the Oyomesi lost confidence in an Alaafin, the Bashorun was required to publicly present the Alaafin with a calabash signifying that the Oyomesi, the ancestors, and the common people had lost confidence in him. The Oyomesi had the power to blackmail the Alaafin into opening the calabash which was considered sacrilege for an Alaafin. If the Alaafin opened the calabash, they were then expected to abdicate the throne by committing suicide or fleeing the land.”
With this power, Gaa, between 1750 and 1774, dethroned and executed the four successive Alaafins. They were Alaafin Labisi who spent only 17 days on the throne in 1750; Alaafin Awonbioju who took over and ruled for 130 days; Alaafin Agboluaye who reigned from 1750 until 1772, and Alaafin Majeogbe, who was on the throne from 1772 to 1773.
Having grabbed political power and military machinery of Oyo, Gaa was given all the respect and other material benefits that were meant for the kings during his role as Bashorun. This was not only an assault to the gods of the land but also a crime against the royal political system, according to most accounts.
What was also worrying was that members of Gaa’s household committed all sorts of crimes, including destroying properties of innocent people and taking their wives with force. None could expose these crimes for fear of being killed by Gaa.
But this was not the case for the fifth Alaafin under Gaa’s leadership. Alaafin Abiodun ended Gaa’s treachery in 1774 when the latter murdered his only daughter. Though some accounts state that Gaa had killed the girl (who was forcefully married to him) for a ritual, others said that Gaa needed a deer and when he couldn’t get one, he ordered his men to kill Abiodun’s daughter, Agbonyin because she had a similar name.
Furious, Abiodun secretly filed a petition to Aare Ona Kakanfo, the head of the Imperial Army, who, for the first time in Oyo history, marched with his troops to the capital of the Oyo Empire to end Gaa’s tyranny. The troops, which overwhelmed Gaa’s, murdered his children, including his pregnant wife and captured him alive.
“He was tied to a stake at Akesan market and Alaafin Abiodun ordered that every citizen cut a pound of flesh from his body and drop it in a huge fire in front of him. He was made to smell the odour of his own flesh, his nose was not allowed to be cut and flesh from his left part of the chest was excluded too (to prevent him from dying too quickly),” the HistoryVille account wrote. Gaa’s remains were later burnt to prevent his reincarnation.
Though his end was met with lots of cheers, his death ruined the Oyo Empire as it decreased the military and political strength of the empire. These and many other factors led to the subsequent collapse of the empire in 1837.