Ilorin: A Historical Perspective

Published on 5th May 2014

Ilorin perhaps came into existence five to seven hundred years ago. It was a place with hard rocks for repairing or sharpening weapons. It was surrounded by hills and forests inhabited by many wild animals – elephants, lions, snakes and several birds. The original place was not far from one or two fountains which are now sources of two streams that flow into Asa River. Thus, it was a centre for hunters to sharpen their tools mainly made of metals.

There is confusion over the origin of the word “Ilorin.” Several historians and writers related it to abundance of elephants and believed the origin of the word “Ilorin” is “Ilu Erin.” But the most acceptable origin of Ilorin is “Ilorin” that is “Ilu Irin” that is town, city or village of metal weapons. It might be mentioned that this later meaning must be considered as the correct one, in view of place also called “Oko Erin,” where we now have the Ilorin Stadium and Queen School, and the areas around where elephants were very predominant. The stones used for sharpening weapons have been retained by the National Archives at a house called “Ile Bandele” which is almost half way following a footpath between Ita Ajia and Amule. This gives credit to true origin of Ilorin as “Ilu Irin” rather than “Ilu Erin.”

Ilorin by the 17th century remained a small village and when Oyo became a powerful kingdom, it became one of the places to check the incursion of the Nupes who were raiding for slaves to be sold to Europeans from places like Spain, Portugal and present America – North and South.  Half way through the 17th century to the 18th century, raiding for slaves became very prominent all over Africa, South of the Sahara and more especially in the place that later became Nigeria.

By the 18th century, the Europeans colonized Africa and partitioned it into various colonial territories. Nigeria, a fair sized land area was in colonial conquest in the second half of the last but one century up to 1904 when Sokoto was defeated.

Before the defeat of Sokoto in 1904, Ilorin had grown in size because the Nupe had started extending Southward from Niger to take slaves for sale to the colonial people. Oyo became the principal centre of the Yoruba speaking people with Alaafin as the ruler. The Oyo I am referring to was in the North –West of Ilorin. It is now in a forest reserve because of the Nupe incursion especially from Igbominas, Yagbas, Igbirras to Kukuruku. A lot of people in the present Edo were constantly under attack from the Nupes. The word “kukuruku” was the warning sound for people to escape to the hills where horses could not climb. In those days, when the horsemen were sighted, the people would shout, “kukuruku” for the people to climb the hills. It was only in 1948 that Oke ode, Yaaru, Oro Ago, Oko and Ola were merged with Ilorin Emirate. They were between Pategi and Lafiagi emirates.

The Oyo empire started declining because of the constant incursion by the Nupes. Around this century, the Yorubas were afraid of being captured as slaves. That was the origin of the traditional marks to know where a person came from. The Alaafin of Oyo was the only traditional ruler that ruled areas far beyond his town or the city of Oyo. Most of the Yoruba looked to him as a “colonial master” while Ife remained the cultural centre. With the expansion of Benin mainly along the coast up to the present Ghana, the Oyo empire started having economic problems because trade came mainly from the coast rather than the desert. With economic instability and constant threat by the Nupes, the  Alafin introduced the position of Aare Ona Kakanfo. An influential person in his empire was picked and made supreme Commander of the forces both military and civilian, that is Aare Ona Kakanfo meaning Supreme Commander. It started becoming the title of the most feared, respected and sometimes detested person in Oyo Empire.

Yoruba for a long time have had people of Muslim faith probably up to 1,000 years, but belief in Islam for them at that time had no negative bearing on their traditional beliefs. The Yorubas have merged with many indigenous peoples to the extent that their language has been so influenced in this connection. They had the influence of the Arabs from a place called Sudan and people from the present Yemen. The word “Bani” in Arabic has the plural as “Yar.” When the Hausa describe a Yoruba man, they call him Ba Arabe but still maintain the plural for “Yarabawa.” Whoever listens to Hausa, Yoruba or Kanuri has ease in detecting many words of Arabic origin.

Ilorin in 1800 was not a very big city. It had not become what it is known for now. The daughter of an Alaafin of Oyo had a son called Oladerin who was rich and was influential because of the mother who was a princess. Oladerin died young leaving many children in Oyo town. Of course, his wealth was based on slaves caught for sale to Europeans who took the slaves to America and the Islands of West Indies. In 1800, the son of Oladerin, Afonja moved to Ilorin and built a house at Idi Ape. He built a shrine opposite his house. The shrine is now occupied by the old central mosque. He moved south east of Oyo town and got very powerful because he had his army and constantly raided his neighbours. The Alaafin of his time, Oladerin, that is, his cousin, came from the female side. His tribal marks were “Keke” rather than “Abaja” but his wealth and military strength made Alaafin uncomfortable. He decided finally to make him Aare Ona Kakanfo as no Onakakanfo ended comfortably. He then started defiling the Alaafin and making life uncomfortable for him, after a hostile exchange between him and Alaafin through messengers.

Around 1808, Alaafin sent him a calabash. In Oyo tradition, this meant that one had been sentenced by the Aalafin to death and the victim’s skull would be sent back to Aalfin. Afonja sent the calabash back with yam flour inside meaning, “what Alaafin asked for is impossible except if you could convert the yam flour to fresh yam” indirectly declaring war on the Alaafin.

Before this time, Muslims from various parts of West Africa and from Sudan were moving down to Yorubaland as teachers and preachers. Among these Islamic scholars was Muhammad Saleh who came from a little ancient town called Bunza now in Kebbi State. Saleh first went to Nupeland. He was in Bida before crossing river Niger to the south and got to Oyo. From Oyo, he moved to Iseyin where he virtually converted every citizen to Islam. The Alaafin heard of him and asked him to come to Oyo. Alaafin decided he would accept Islam but subject to his own former beliefs in sacrificing human beings, which Saleh refused to accommodate. He then moved southwards to Ogbomoso which was being then ruled by Barubas. After about a year and half at Ogbomoso, he moved to a place called Kuo near the present Ilorin Airport. It was there he stayed with his scholars including those who came with him and those who joined him. His name Muhammad Saleh is almost forgotten except the nickname he was given – Mallam Alimi. Many Yorubas still have pride bearing that name Alimi.

When Afonja defiled his Alaafin by refusing to commit suicide, the Aalafin sent a powerful force to confront Afonja to bring him to Oyo dead or alive. The force was so formidable. One of the options opened to Afonja was to run away from Ilorin. The only place he could run to was to the Nupes who might enslave him or to wait and fight with certainty of defeat. However, many of his followers, according to some historical evidence including some of his children had become muslims and scholars with Mallam Alimi. On their advice, Afonja came to Mallam Alimi for help. Mallam Alimi on seeing Afonja welcomed him and would not pray for him or fight on his side because he Afonja and his Alaafin were not believers in Allah. Afonja then told Mallam Alimi that he did not believe in Islam but if Mallam Alimi’s prayer would help him, it would make him to be a strong believer in islam. Mallam Alimi then said, “In that case, we shall pray for you, we shall fight on your side and with Allah’s blessings, we shall humiliate any force sent by the Alaafin against you.”

Afonja then said, “Mallam Alimi, but you are not many.’’

Mallam Alimi replied, “Everyone you see is more than one thousand solders of Aalafin.”

The Alaafin sent a powerful force which Dr. Johnson described vividly in his “History of Yorubas.” The Alaafin never anticipated defeat and decided to put Afonja away and to witness Afonja’s defeat. The Alaafin followed his troops after a bloody battle. He was humiliatingly defeated and a lot of his warriors were captured both by Afonja and Mallam Alimi’s forces. Mallam  Alimi’s forces captured the Alaafin with some of his top warriors and took them to Kuo. There was shock all over Yorubaland because of this disastrous war. Mallam Alimi expected Afonja to come immediately and declare he had become a Muslim. After almost three weeks, Afonja never came to thank Mallam Alimi. Instead he sent to Mallam Alimi asking for surrender of the Alaafin to him, which Mallam Alimi would not do. However Mallam Alimi asked Afonja’s emissaries what Afonja would do with Alaafin who was his king. They told Mallam Alimi that Afonja would sacrifice Alaafin at the shrine. There and then Mallam Alimi arranged the escort of Alaafin back to Oyo.

For Alaafin the humiliation was too much and unbearable but for this Fulani, Afonja would have sacrificed him on the shrine. So he took four arrows and shot one in each direction and said, “As I have shot the arrows North, South, East, and West so will Yorubas be scattered. They will never be united.”

He then took poison and died. He was succeeded by his son, Odunewu. Mallam Alimi died in 1823 and left many children and some scholars. After Alimi’s death, his first two children who were born in Bunza took over his leadership. The first one, Abdulsalaam, was virtually ruling and by 1831, he went to Sokoto to receive the flag from Sultan Bello. He died in 1942. His younger brother Shitta succeeded him as Emir. By this time, Ilorin was full of scholars and continued to be full of scholars up to today. Some of the scholars moved out of Ilorin to new places like Ibadan, Abeokuta and Edo. Some scholars like Shitta who built the first central mosque in Lagos, was knighted by the Sultan of Turkey. That is why “Bey” was added to his name. Incidentally, his descendants still use the name Shitta-Bey.

It is difficult to mention the thousands of Islamic scholars that Ilorin produced. I hope this will be of some help to research on Islamic Scholarship in Ilorin and Nigeria as whole.

By Hon. Justice S.M.A. Belgore, Gcon.

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria at Centre for Ilorin Studies (CILS), University Of Ilorin.

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