Monday, 30 December 2019

Bashorun Gaha - Revising the Legacy of the "Tyranical" Prime Minister of the Oyo Empire


If "Nollywood" makes engaging and intelligent films with attention to historical accuracy and high production values, I can't think of a better epic than one involving this longstanding and notorious 18th century Prime Minster of the Oyo Empire, Bashorun Gaha (or Gaa).

His story is replete with so many components: the competition for power and influence, murder and empire building. Among the chroniclers of Yoruba history, his name is synonymous with authoritarian rule and cruelty.

He held his position (Bashorun) during the tenure of four Ala'afins (kings) of Oyo, bearing responsibility for the deaths of three of them, until Ala'afin Abiodun outmanouevred him.

Gaha was burned to death because it was felt that this would prevent his spirit from being resurrected.

The Reverend Samuel Johnson gives a good account of his reign in his landmark book "The History of the Yorubas" which was first published in 1921.

Johnson's tome presents Gaha in all his infamy. But even this orthodox assessment of a man consumed by personal ambition and a wielder of arbitrary power gives an alternate view; namely that Gaha rose to power as a man of the people and not solely by the permission of the aristocracy. The people had begun to tire of the tyranny of previous Ala'afins:

As Johnson put it in in Chapter V, Page 178:

"Gaha 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."

So while it may be overly presumptious to consider him to have been at the helm of an attempted political reformation based on republican sentiment, it may simply be a case of Gaha's legacy being fashioned by the aristocratic establishment which having overcome him, "wrote", or more accurately, saw fit to pass down their biased version of history. in other words, they were no better than Gaha but as victors in a power struggle, had the power to write down their version of history.

As Johnson put it:

"Gaha the Basorun had by this time attained to great power and influence. He made himself the King maker and King destroyer. He did not aspire to the throne, for that was impossible of attainment, but he demanded the homage of all the Kings he raised to the throne."

Bashorun Gaha continues polarises opinion to this day and will do so perhaps until the end of history.

The image is an artist's impression.

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© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He has a keen interest in history.

1 comment:

  1. Rev Samuel Johnson was an Oyo Prince. His view of Gaha is necessarily biased. the story is actually more complex...

    Gaha's father was the famuos Bashorun Yamba. It was under him the Oyo empire reached its greatest extent.Contrary to common view, the Aare Ona Kakanfo
    was not the head of the military in the Oyo empire. That role was held by the Bashorun. The Bashorun was both head of the Oyo mesi and supreme military commander. The Aare Ona Kakanfo was the head of the Alaafin's own personal regiment. In hierarchy he was subordinate to the Bashorun.

    The Crown Prince had a public altercation with Yamba's son (Gaha's brother). the Prince had his guards beat him up. Yamba's son later died from injuries received.
    All these happened while the Alaafin and Bashorun Yamba were outside Oyo on a military campaign together.

    Upon returning to Oyo, the Alaafin refused to censure the crown prince. For the Oyo people: this was one impunity too many by the crown prince in particular and the royal families in general. Bashorun Yamba as head of the Oyo mesi demanded the Alaafin commit sucide. Riding on the wave of rising anti-royal family sentiment, the Oyo mesi went further and put an end to father-to-son succession and demanded that the crown prince die along with his father.

    In a final act of restitution, when Yamba died his son - Gaha was made Bashorun. Bashorun Gaha carried the anti-royal family sentiments to its inevitable conclusion by usurping power and becoming de facto emperor...

    So, Bashorun Gaha's actions were not arbitrary. He had a personal beef with the Royal Families. Most importantly, the people supported him in the humiliation of the royal families at least up until the excesses and impunity of the Bashorun's own children made them wary of the concentration of powers in Gaha's hands

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