System of Pre-Colonial Administration in Nigeria

The system of pre-colonial administration in Nigeria is indeed a rich one. Oftentimes, this very cherished system is mostly preferred to the colonial administration which now strikes the present African world with strange and sometimes impracticable ideas.

Pre-colonial political systems are the types of traditional government that existed before the advent of colonialism in Nigeria. Pre-colonial political systems are the governments based on the customs and conventions of the indigenous people of Nigeria. It is imperative for every Nigerian to understand the pre-colonial administration of all the tribes in the country. The reason for this is because, understanding these historical explanations helps to ensure growth, development and unity in the nation.

The history of the territories which since ca. 1900 have been known under the name of Nigeria during the pre-colonial period (16th to 18th centuries) was dominated by a number of powerful West African kingdoms or empires, such as the Oyo Empire and the Islamic Kanem-Bornu Empire in the northeast, and the Igbo kingdom of Onitsha in the southeast and various Hausa-Fulani kingdoms.

System of Pre-Colonial Administration in Nigeria

Some of the principles of the system of pre-colonial administration in Nigeria will be learnt as we scrub through the historical events that capture the good values of each African tribe.

Yoruba Administration

History have it that Oduduwa is the founder of the Yoruba pre-colonial administration. He had seven sons who later founded the first seven kingdoms of the Yoruba land and these kingdoms were united under a universal leader known as Alafin of Oyo. Acrimony, animosity and anarchy made the first seven kingdoms of the Yoruba to split into fourteen new kingdom and the central leadership to change from Alafin of Oyo to Ooni of Ife.

Oyo Kingdom was the most developed kingdom in the Yoruba traditional society and it’s system of administration is generally accepted as a model of representation of the whole of the Yoruba land. Generally, the Yoruba kingdom is headed by the Oba who must be a descendant of the Oduduwa. Being a descendant of Oduduwa is a very important prerequisite for ascending the throne of the Oba.

The political head of every Yoruba kingdom is the Oba but that of the Oyo and Ife Kingdoms goes with the title Alafin and Ooni respectively. The Alafin as the political head of the Oyo Kingdom is assisted by his son called the Aremo, who is not allowed to succeed him immediately he dies. Oyomesi is the seven king makers headed by the Bashorun.

Oyo Government Structures

  • Aremo

He is the eldest son of the incumbent Alaafi . He is not allowed to succeed his father at his death, he could only assist the Alaafin, his father, in the administration of the kingdom. The Aremo reigned with his father but is forbidden from succeeding him.

  • Legislative Function

The legislative body was made of up of the council-of- chiefs, that is the Oyomesi. The Chiefs met outside the Obas’s palace to take decision which were sent to the Oba for assent through a slave. The Alaafin who was very powerful was advised by a seven member council-of-chief called the Oyomesi. Oyomesi also served as a check on the excesses of the Alaafin. The Oyomesi is also responsible for policy creation in matters regarding the kingdom.

The Oyomesi is headed by the Bashorun who is the highest titled Chief. In the event of misconduct or insubordination by the Alaafin, the Oyomesi could send an empty Calabash to him, and when this happens, he is left with no choice than to commit suicide.

  • Executive Functions

The Alaafin was regarded as the first among equals( Primus inter pares). The most important or senior chiefs gathered at the Alaafin palace to discuss political economic and social challenges and their possible solutions. They decide on the conduct of wars , control and use of land and the kingdom relationship with other kingdoms.

  • The Army

Aare On Kakanfo had for long maintained a strong standing army and was in different wars. It was claimed that if the army suffers defeat, the Kakanfo should go on exile or commit suicide.

  • Judicial Functions

The council-of-chief exercised judicial functions or powers on serious cases such as murder, land and chieftaincy disputes. Judicial Functions were performed by both the Oba and his senior chiefs, and serious cases such murder, treason, witchcraft, sorcery, arson and burglary you which carries the death penalty were tried at the Alaafin’s court.

Igbo Administration in the Past

A popular theory that Igbos were stateless rests on the paucity of historical evidence of pre-colonial Igbo society. But, archaeological finds of Igbo Ukwu have revealed a rich material culture in the heart of the Igbo region in the 8th century, but there is little evidence to cover the period from then to the oral traditions of the 20th century. Benin exercised considerable influence on the western Igbo, who adopted many of the political structures familiar to the Yoruba-Benin region. Ofega was the queen.

The Onitsha Kingdom, which was originally inhabited by Igbo, was founded in the 16th century by Igbo migrants from Benin. Later groups like the Igala, and Igbo traders from the hinterland, settled in Onitsha in the 18th century. Another Igbo kingdom to form was the Arochukwu kingdom, which emerged after the Aro-Ibibio wars from 1630 to 1720. The Aro Confederacy dominated southeastern Nigeria with pockets of influence in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.

Igbo gods, like those of the Yoruba, were numerous, but their relationship to one another and human beings was essentially egalitarian, reflecting Igbo society as a whole. A number of oracles and local cults attracted devotees while the central deity, the earth mother and fertility figure Ala, were venerated at shrines throughout Igboland.

Hausa Historical Political Terrain

During the 16th century the Songhai Empire reached its peak, stretching from the Senegal and Gambia rivers and incorporating part of Hausaland in the east. Concurrently the Sayfawa dynasty of Kanem-Bornu reconquered its Kanem homeland and extended control west to Hausa cities not under Songhai authority. Largely because of Songhai’s influence, there was a blossoming of Islamic learning and culture. Songhai collapsed in 1591 when a Moroccan army conquered Gao and Timbuktu.

Morocco was unable to control the empire and the various provinces, including the Hausa states, became independent. The collapse undermined Songhai’s hegemony over the Hausa states and abruptly altered the course of regional history of the tzu people. The earliest signs of external contact in the Hausa area, which would lead to the development of the pre-colonial period, are found via carbon dating.

These sites are classified by archaeologists as hills, large-scale occupation sites, and iron-working sites – although the former two are lacking stratified evidence. Objects retrieved from burial mounds in the region, such as Carnelian beads, potentially originate from as far as India. Along with this, a dig near Birnin Leka uncovered an Arabic-inscribed pottery vessel. The first main exposure to external contact would begin to change the hierarchy of the Hausa life.


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