Saturday 13 May 2023

Aare Ona Kankanfo: The Seniormost Military Leader of the Oyo Empire

Statue imagining the likeness of Kokoro Gangan, the first Aare Ona Kankanfo of the ancient Oyo Empire. Kokoro Gangan hailed from Iwoye-Ketu, Yewaland (i.e. Egbado) where the statue was unveiled.

The office and title of Aare Ona Kakanfo was created by Alaafin Ajagbo, who reigned during the 1600s. Aare Ona Kakanfo translates to "Field Marshal" or "Generalissimo" of the armies of the Alaafin. The Alaafin was the ruler of the medieval Yoruba empire of Oyo.

Ajagbo is recorded as having created a hierarchy of ranks which encompassed an officer class (70) and a non-commissioned class of warriors (54). Other designated ranks of the field commanders of Oyo's armies originating from Ajagbo's organisational innovations include the Bashorun, Balogun, Jagun, Agba-Akin, Akogun, Olorogun, Oluogun and Aare Ago.

The installation of the Kakanfo involves making 201 incisions, tiny cuts known as gbere, with a razor which begin at the forehead and extend backwards to the waist. The process is completed by crowning him with a specially designed cap made of red feathers of a parrot's tail known as Ojijiko. He is also adorned with an apron of leopard’s skin, and leopard skin to sit on always, the Asiso or pigtail and the king’s invincible staff.

Originally, once he was installed, the Aare Ona Kakanfo went to live in a different part of the empire as the tradition was that Alaafin and Aare Ona Kakanfo were not to live in the same town.

The Aare Ona Kakanfo was charged with the responsibility for waging war when ordered to do so by the Alaafin. The penalty of failure was to forfeit his life.

Three Aare Ona Kakanfos participated in wars which profoundly affected the history of the Yoruba people:

. Afonja of Ilorin

The grandson of Laderin, the founder of Ilorin, Afonja, who was the sixth Kakanfo, built up an army composed of "Jamas", runaway slaves from Yorubaland who were mainly of Hausa-Muslim origin (they included Baribas, Nupes and Fulanis). 

Over time, Afonja lost control of the Jamas who joined forces with Alimi, a Fulani cleric, in the jihadist expansion that was a continuum of the holy wars promulgated by Sheik Usman Dan Fodio. Afonja was assassinated (circa 1824) and Ilorin came under Fulani rule.

The Fulani emirate of Ilorin proceeded southward until defeated at Oshogbo by Yoruba forces led by the city state of Ibadan.

. Kurunmi of Ijaye

Ijaye Orile, the western palatinate of the Yoruba, expanded enormously in the time following the collapse of the power of Oyo in the face of jihadist expansion. This was fuelled by the southern migration of Yorubas who in Ijaye engaged in weaving cloth and in agriculture.

Henry Townsend, a missionary of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS), estimated the population to have been around 40,000 (a figure accepted due to the high degree of urbanization among the Yoruba). Townsend praised the arrangement and level streets of the town and was particularly impressed by the “spacious marketplace in the centre of the town … the best I have seen in Africa, not excluding Sierra Leone.”

Between 1830 and 1861, Ijaye under Kurunmi grew to rival the power of Ibadan and Abeokuta, the bastion of the Egbas. But straddled between these two great powers he was forced through circumstances to choose one over the other. Perhaps stimulated by the commercial competition with Ibadan over the control and taxation of caravans heading north to the River Niger and south to the Atlantic coast, he opted for an alliance with the Egbas. 

The political and economic rivalry led to open conflict in 1860. Kurunmi’s refusal to recognise Alaafin Atiba's successor in 1859 led to war against the forces of Oyo and Ibadan a decision which ultimately resulted in his overthrow. Kurunmi’s forces, including those of his allies, the Egba, were decimated and it led to the destruction and abandonment of Ijaye Orile whose inhabitants migrated to other parts of Yorubaland. Kurunmi's ending in 1861 is shrouded in mystery: He either died in battle or committed suicide.

The demise of Ijaye Orile led to the emergence of Ibadan as the strongest power in Yorubaland.

. Obadoke Latoosa of Ibadan

At the helm of the state of Ibadan which supplanted the waning power of Oyo, Latoosa prosecuted the Kiriji Wars, a series of civil wars designed to consolidate the hegemony of Ibadan. He is also claimed to have instigated a reformation of the treatment of slaves. He died in 1885, committing suicide after losing the support of the generals under his command.

Latoosa was the twelfth and last Aare Ona Kakanfo to fight as a military commander. The British colonial authorities abolished the role. It was later revived and exists today as a ceremonial title. 

The modern era Kakanfos have been:

. Samuel Ladoke Akintola, a politician during the First Republic of Nigeria, who was assassinated in January 1966.

. Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, a business magnate who died in July 1998 soon after his release from imprisonment under the military regime of General Sani Abacha.

. Ganiyu Adams, the present Aare Ona Kakanfo, was awarded the title by the late Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi III in 2017.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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