By deploying the conceptual framing of kingship power as Alaafinology, I am offering a conversation that is less about the narrative of this specific kingship but a lot more about it as a “system” of politics, an institution of governance, and political philosophy. I am doing so not within just the Oyo data, as useful as this may be, but within a larger African setting as well as the world beyond Africa that speaks to kingship. In this larger setting, the ingenuity of a system receives substantial theoretical analysis in terms of its representation, justification, ideology, and relevance. In my approach, the African concept and ideologies of power may begin to receive the attention that they have not yet received. One advantage of such an approach is that this discourse can be built upon to move the contributions of Africa to a higher level of analysis, approximating it to what is called the “universal”. Indeed, narratives on Oyo as well as other African kingdoms and empires treat them as localities and peculiarities; my study treats them beyond that, with the further suggestion that theoretical ideas can be formulated around the Alaafin and other kings to talk about the constitution of political ideologies, ontologies of power, and the epistemologies around domination and subjectivity.
Alaafinology! Why am I deploying this label! It can be changed to Obalogy as well, and my reasons will still be the same. Historical narratives, as rich as they can be, are not enough to create intellectual permanence, to organize memory, to build museums, to build ideologies, and to universalize knowledge. Many essays on different aspects of kingship have become ephemeral. Labels and definitions are the tools of power, knowledge dissemination, and the means to spread ideas over a wider region. Taking the great stories of the Alaafin outside of the Yoruba region may not necessarily connect with such people as Igbo (Nigeria), Asante (Ghana), Vai/Kru/Grebo (Liberia) or Zulu (South Africa). However, labels and definitions connect; therefore, they enable others to study their own histories and events in relations to those labels. Where the label fits, it enables the “universalizing” of narratives; whereby it does not fit, it allows narrative departure points.
A label is a short cut to a library. It allows the creation of a subject, a field, a specialization, as in PhD in Alaafinology, which may be on a group of people in far-away Gambia. Disciplines have their roots in labels, as in History, Literature, and the sung specializations within them. Elsewhere, I have argued that if we had created Ifaology in the 1950s and 1960s, many universities would have been awarding degrees on it. Such a degree would gave attained virtually everything that the humanities stand for as in critical thinking and pedagogy. Labels have been created to understand institutions, processes, places,etc. For instance, we now use the Sultanate as a label to describe many kings in Muslim countries. We now use Egyptology to describe the study of ancient Egypt and its antiquities, and we label those who engage in it as Egyptologists. A highly specialized branch on language within Egyptology is known as Demotic Studies, and they refer to themselves as Demotologists. Studies on IFA could be labelled as Ifalogy while those who engage in it can be called Ifalogists to designate a highly dense and specific field.
We must create labels and define them, their meanings, mythology, and tools. Thus, I can say that Alaafinology means the following: kingship and the exercise of power; kingship and the civilizing mission of culture; kingship and the collapse of kingdoms; the body of the king, etc.
We can then apply the meaning to specific cases over time. For instance, the label can be a way to understand history, as in the study if the Pharaohnic state — the king and his ability to expand the polity. After the decline of Egypt, monarchies developed in Napata and Meroe (Sudan), and a greater success story in Ethiopia which survived the modern era. Alaafinology can speak to the forms of monarchies, their strengths and decline.
To talk about Alaafinology, in whatever form kingship is defined, is to speak to ideas about the centralization of power, the forms of government, the theory of power (distributive, absolutist, divine, monarchial, predatory, pre-modern, modernist, etc.). Alaafinology can speak to the theory of checks and balances, but with moments of ruptured to the system and the move towards absolutism.
Alaafinology can be used as a label to understand land-based kingdoms. The Alaafin and Oyo illustrate the characteristics of land-based empires with larger conception of global imperialism and modernism.(Foot note 1). Land-based empires emerged in China, in the Americas (Maya, Tiahuanaco and Huari), Aztec in Mexico and Inca in Peru, both later destroyed by the Spaniards. How did they emerge? Who destroyed the kings? How did the fall of kings connect with the role of outsiders with better weaponry? Why did some like China survive due a longer time, and able to work its long successful past into its impressive present, based on a solid long-standing bureaucracy? How did land-based empires generate resources to fund emperors, fight their wars?
Alaafinology is about the ability to manage conflicts and wars. Conflicts were very endemic to the kingship system. It was hard to manage an extensive empire. Similarly, it was certainly hard to manage the competing forces within the palace and capital. It was hard to manage sibling rivalries. Take, for instance, the succession to a vacant throne, which was (and now) always very complicated. Rivalries were intense by the aspirants, in spite of being related by blood. Oye didu– competing for the throne–reveals the ability of a candidate to master the skills of negotiations and survival, the understanding of the forces that exercise control, and the ability to project one’s character. The competition was tough in the past, and tough in the present. (Foot note 2) Having ascended to the throne, its maintenance was equally difficult– one needs political acumen to handle men and women with competing interests and a lot of money to sustain a lifestyle.
Alaafinology is about the understanding of African power systems before the imposition of colonial rule. Power revolved around the king, his palace, the household, officials and retainers, and powerful chiefs and kin-groups. The strategies of kings to maintain dominance was never the same. Many African kingdoms were fragile, while some were strong. Migrations away from power centers undermined the power of many kings. Loss of the control of trade routes, long-distance trade and labor, weakened many kings. The impact of the king on everyday life of citizens was never the same everywhere. Not all kingdoms were successful as Egypt in establishing legal systems and bureaucracies. Not all were also greater than the Roman emperors to use religious institutions to establish a cultural dominance.
Alaafinology is a label to understand the process of state formation in different parts of the world. Sometimes, state formation involved an access to an ideology of power, as in the case of Islam in the Sokoto Caliphate. The success in building a strong military, which must be ensured by access to weapons, means of mobility, and horses (as in the case of Oyo). Warrior kings emerged in some places, as in the case of Shaka, the founder emerged in some places, as in the case of Shaka, the founder-king of the Zulu. Between the sixteenth centuries, Oyo and many other West African kingdoms, especially those along the coast, had to deal with the opportunities and destructions of the Atlantic slave trade. The supplies of slaves to the Atlantic — which produced access to guns and gunpowder, while allowing them to consolidate power — also destroyed them in the long run.
One final example is about death and transition in the context of royal life. The body of the king, in death, creates mysteries, and in some sense miseries as well where, in the past, it warranted human sacrifices. In secular terms, the death of the king was a calamity around the continuity of the system and the ruptures that were created. Whether it be Oyo or Mali, the death of the king generated serious uncertainties. There were reasons for this. Performance and effectiveness were very much tied to the person of the king. Indeed, the health and fortune of the state was the same as those of the king. Death could immediately undermine the state itself. Speaking about death, the study around death, including suffering and agonies, has come under the label of thanatology, which has given rise to scholars on this topic who call themselves thanatologists.
I expect a vigorous challenge in my intellectual creation of Alaafinology as a label. If objections are raised to the suggestion on its wider application to cover long historical eras in different parts of the world, it can, at least, be applied to the study of Oyo where, as in a study by Abdullahi Smith on the fall of the Old Oyo Empire, the label of “Alaafinate” had previously been coined. (Footnote 3) Pending the affirmation or rejection of my idea, I am using Alaafinology in its broader sense that I defined above. In this application, I am not just dealing with Oyo but kingship in general within a broad ideological and epistemological canvas. To fully understand what I am driving at, it has to be seen as an epistemic enterprise in the decolonization of African knowledge. The proposal has a very strong scholarly potential to open the traditional archive to unfold a richer understanding of institutions.
Culled from: OYO HISTORY, TRADITION AND ROYALTY ( Essays in Honour of His Imperial Majesty the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba (Dr.) Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III
Edited by: SIYAN OYEWESO, OLUTAYO C. ADESINA.
1. I am adopting here the controversial classifications of kingdoms/empires into land-based and sea-based. For their meaning and adoption, see Stephen How’s, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002)
2. For how the current Alaafin, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, ascended the throne, see Kola Owolabi and Sayo Alagbe, The Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III: His Life History and His Philosophy (Ibadan: Universal Akada Books 2008)
3. Abdullahi Smith, ” A Little New Light on the Collapse of the Alaafinate of Yoruba” In Studies in Yoruba History and Culture: Essays in Honour of Professor S. O. Biobaku Gabriel Olusanya, ed., (Ibadan: University Press Limited 1983),