The Prospects for Peace and Security in Multi-Ethnic and Religious Societies: A Case Study of the Old Oyo Empire in Nigeria


Violence has become a major denomination in global affairs. Hardly does a day go by without news of terrorist activities, wars, kidnappings, ethnic, religious, and political crisis. The accepted notion is that multi-ethnic and religious societies are often prone to violence and anarchy. Scholars are often quick to cite countries like the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria as reference cases. While it is true that any society that has plural identities can become prone to divisive forces, it is also a truism that diverse peoples, cultures, customs and religions can be harmonized into a single and powerful whole. A good example is the United States of America which is a blend of so many peoples, cultures, and even religions and is arguably the most powerful nation on earth in every ramification. It is the stand of this paper that in reality, there is no society that is strictly mono-ethnic or religious in nature. All societies in the world can be classified into three groups. Firstly, there are societies which have, either through organic evolution or harmonious relations based on the principles of tolerance, justice, fairness and equality, created peaceful and powerful states in which ethnicity, tribal affiliations or religious inclinations play only nominal roles and where there is unity in diversity. Secondly, there are societies where there are single dominant groups and religions which suppress others and outwardly have a semblance of unity and harmony. However, such societies sit on the proverbial keg of gunpowder and can go up in the flames of ethnic and religious bigotry without any adequate warning. Thirdly, there are societies where many groups and religions contest for supremacy and where violence is always the order of the day. Of the first group are the old Yoruba nations, especially the old Oyo Empire in pre-colonial Nigeria and to a large extent, nations of Western Europe and the United States of America. European nations, the United States and many Arab nations also fall into the second category. For centuries, Europe was embroiled in religious conflicts, especially between Catholics and Protestants. Whites in the United States also dominated and oppressed other racial groupings, especially the blacks, for centuries and a civil war was fought to address and redress these wrongs. However, diplomacy, not wars, is the answer to the religious and racial wrangling. Nigeria and most African nations can be classified into the third group. This paper intends to showcase, from the Oyo Empire experience, the abounding prospects for peace and security in a multi-ethnic and religious society.


All over the world, there are confusion, crisis and conflicts. Terrorism, kidnappings, abductions, armed robberies, armed uprisings, and ethno-religious and political upheavals have become the order of the international system. Genocide has become a common denomination with the systematic extermination of groups based on ethnic and religious identities. Hardly does a day go by without news of ethnic and religious conflicts from different parts of the world. From the countries in the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda and Burundi, from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Afghanistan to the Central African Republic, ethnic and religious conflicts have left indelible marks of destruction on societies. Ironically, most religions, if not all, share similar beliefs, most especially in a supreme deity who created the universe and its inhabitants and they all have moral codes about peaceful co-existence with the people of other religions. The Holy Bible, in Romans 12:18, enjoins Christians to do everything in their power to co-exist peacefully with all men irrespective of their races or religions. Quran 5: 28 also mandates Muslims to show love and mercy to people of other faiths. The United Nations’ Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, at the 2014 celebration of the Day of Vesak, also affirms that Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and a great inspiration to many other religions in the world, preached peace, compassion, and love for all living beings. However, religion, which is supposed to be a unifying factor in societies, has become a divisive issue that has destabilized many societies and has caused millions of deaths and the wanton destruction of properties. It is also no gainsaying that many advantages accrue to a society with different ethnic groups. The reality, however, is that ethnic crisis has continued to stifle the expected developmental benefits accruable from pluralistic societies.

The old Oyo Empire, in contrast, presents a picture of the society where religious and tribal diversities were harmonized to ensure peace, security, and development. The Empire included various sub-ethnic groups such as the Ekiti, Ijesha, Awori, Ijebu, etc. There were also hundreds of deities worshipped by the various peoples in the Empire, yet religious and tribal affiliations were not divisive but unifying factors in the Empire. This paper thus seeks to proffer solutions necessary for peaceful co-existence in multi-ethnic and religious societies based on the old Oyo Empire model.

Conceptual Framework


The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines peace as a situation where there is no war or fighting. The Collins English Dictionary sees it as the absence of violence or other disturbances and the presence of law and order within a state. Rummel (1975) also asserts that peace is a state of law or civil government, a state of justice or goodness and the opposite of antagonistic conflict, violence or war. In essence, peace can be described as the absence of violence and a peaceful society is a place where harmony reigns.


Nwolise (1988) describes security as “safety, freedom and protection against danger or risk.” The Funk and Wagnall’s College Standard Dictionary also defines it as the condition of being protected from, or not exposed to danger or risk.

A cursory glance at the definitions of peace and security will reveal that the two concepts are the two sides of the same coin. Peace can only be achieved when and where there is security and security itself guarantees the existence of peace. Where there is inadequate security, peace will remain elusive and the absence of peace connotes insecurity.


The Collins English Dictionary defines ethnicity as “relating to or characteristics of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic and certain other traits in common.” Peoples and Bailey (2010) opine that ethnicity is predicated on shared ancestry, cultural traditions and history which distinguish a group of people from other groups. Horowitz (1985) also posits that ethnicity refers to the ascriptions such as color, appearance, language, religion etc., which differentiates a group from others.


There is no single acceptable definition of religion. It is defined according to the perception and field of the person defining it, but basically religion is seen to be the human belief in and attitude to a supernatural being perceived as sacred (Appleby, 2000). Adejuyigbe and Ariba (2013) also see it as the belief in God, the creator and controller of the universe. The Webster’s College Dictionary puts it more succinctly as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, naturally involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. For Aborisade (2013), religion provides the means of promoting mental peace, inculcating social virtues, promoting peoples welfare, among others. For him, religion should positively influence economic and political systems.

Theoretical Premises

This study is premised on the Functional and Conflict theories. The Functional theory posits that every functioning system is made up of different units working together for the good of the system. In this context, a society is made up of different ethnic and religious groups which work together to ensure the development of the society (Adenuga, 2014). A good example is the old Oyo Empire where the different sub-ethnic groups and religious groups co-existed peacefully and where ethnic and religious sentiments were subsumed under societal interests.

The Conflict theory, however, sees an unending struggle for power and control by the dominant and the subordinate groups in the society (Myrdal, 1994). This is what we find in most multi-ethnic and religious societies today. The struggles for power and control by the different groups are oftentimes given ethnic and religious justifications. Major ethnic and religious groups want to continually dominate and control the other groups while the minority groups also resist the continued domination by the majority groups, leading to an unending struggle for power and control.

The Old Oyo Empire

According to history, the old Oyo Empire was founded by Oranmiyan, a prince of Ile-Ife, the ancestral home of the Yoruba people. Oranmiyan and his brothers wanted to go and avenge an insult passed on their father by their northern neighbors, but on the way, the brothers quarreled and the army split up. Oranmiyan’s force was too small to successfully wage the battle and because he did not want to return to Ile-Ife without news of a successful campaign, he started to wander around the southern shore of the River Niger until he reached Bussa where the local chief gave him a large snake with a magic charm attached to its throat. Oranmiyan was instructed to follow this snake and establish a kingdom wherever it disappeared. He followed the snake for seven days, and according to the instructions given, he established a kingdom at the site where the snake disappeared on the seventh day (Ikime, 1980).

The old Oyo Empire was probably established in the 14th century but it only became a major force in the mid-17th century and by the late 18th century, the Empire had covered almost all the whole of Yorubaland (which is the southwestern part of modern Nigeria). The Yoruba also occupied some areas in the northern part of the country and it also extended as far as Dahomey which was located in what is now the Republic of Benin (Osuntokun and Olukojo, 1997).

In an interview granted to the Focus Magazine in 2003, the present Alaafin of Oyo acknowledged the fact that the old Oyo Empire waged many battles even against other Yoruba tribes but he affirmed that the wars were neither ethnically nor religiously motivated. The Empire was surrounded by hostile neighbors and wars were fought to either prevent external aggressions or to maintain the territorial integrity of the Empire by fighting secessionist attempts. Prior to the 19th century, the peoples living in the empire were not called Yoruba. There were many different sub-ethnic groups including the Oyo, Ijebu, Owu, Ekiti, Awori, Ondo, Ife, Ijesha, etc. The term ‘Yoruba’ was coined under colonial rule to identify the people living in the old Oyo Empire (Johnson, 1921). Despite this fact, however, ethnicity was never a motivating force for violence as each group enjoyed a semi-autonomous status and had its own political head which was subordinate to the Alaafin of Oyo. Many unifying factors were also devised to ensure that there was a keen spirit of brotherhood, belongingness, and togetherness in the Empire. Oyo “exported” many of its cultural values to the other groups in the Empire, while it also imbibed many of the values of the other groups. On a yearly basis, representatives from all over the Empire converged in Oyo to celebrate the Bere festival with the Alaafin and it was customary for the different groups to send men, money, and materials to help the Alaafin prosecute his wars.

The old Oyo Empire was also a multi-religious state. Fasanya (2004) notes that there are numerous deities known as ‘orishas’ in Yorubaland. These deities include Ifa (the god of divination), Sango (the god of thunder), Ogun (the god of iron), Saponna (the god of smallpox), Oya (the goddess of wind), Yemoja (the river goddess), etc. Aside these orishas, every Yoruba town or village also had its special deities or places it worshipped. For example, Ibadan, being a very hilly place, worshipped many of the hills. Streams and rivers in Yorubaland were also venerated as objects of worship.

Despite the proliferation of religions, gods and goddesses in the Empire, religion was not a divisive but a unifying factor as there was the belief in the existence of a Supreme Deity called “Olodumare” or “Olorun” (the creator and owner of the heavens). The orishas were seen as messengers of and conduits to this Supreme Deity and every religion was thus acknowledged as a form of worshipping Olodumare.  It was also not uncommon for a village or town to have multiple gods and goddesses or for a family or an individual to acknowledge a variety of these orishas as their links to the Supreme Deity. Likewise, the Ogboni fraternity, which was the highest spiritual council in the Empire and which also wielded immense political powers, was made up of eminent people who belonged to different religious groups. In this way, religion was a bond between individuals and groups in the Empire.

Religion was never used as an excuse for genocide or for any war of attrition because Olodumare was seen as the most powerful being and that he had the ability, capability and capacity to punish his enemies and reward good people (Bewaji, 1998). Thus, fighting a battle or prosecuting a war in order to help God “punish” His enemies connotes that He lacks the ability to punish or reward and that He has to rely on imperfect and mortal men to fight for him. God, in this context, lacks sovereignty and is weak. However, Olodumare, in Yoruba religions, is considered to be the final judge who controls and uses man’s destiny to either reward or punish him (Aborisade, 2013). God can orchestrate events to reward a man. He can also bless the works of his hands and his family. God also punishes individuals and groups through famine, drought, misfortune, pestilence, barrenness or death. Idowu (1962) succinctly captures the essence of the Yoruba Olodumare by referring to him “as the most powerful being for whom nothing is too great or too small. He can accomplish whatever he desires, his knowledge is incomparable and has no equal; he is a good and impartial judge, he is holy and benevolent and dispenses justice with compassionate fairness.”

The argument of Fox (1999) that religion provides a value-laden belief system, which in turn supplies standards and criteria of behavior, finds its truest expression in the old Oyo Empire. The love and fear of Olodumare made the citizens of the Empire law abiding and have a high sense of morality. Erinosho (2007) maintained that the Yoruba were very virtuous, loving and kind and that social vices such as corruption, theft, adultery and the likes were rarities in the old Oyo Empire.


The insecurity and violence that usually characterize multi-ethnic and religious societies are usually ascribed to their plural nature and the quest by the different ethnic and religious groups to “corner” the resources of the society and to control the political space to the detriment of others. These struggles are often justified on the grounds of religion (fighting for God) and ethnic or racial superiority. However, the old Oyo Empire experience is a pointer to the fact that prospects abound for peaceful co-existence and by extension, security in plural societies if nation building is enhanced and if ethnicity and religions play only nominal roles.

Globally, violence and terrorism is threatening the peaceful co-existence of the human race, and if care is not taken, it may lead to another world war of unprecedented magnitude and dimension. It is within this context that the whole world could be seen to be sitting on a keg of gun-powder which, if care and adequate measure are not taken, may explode anytime from now. It is therefore the opinion of the authors of this paper that world bodies like the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the African Union, etc., must come together to address the issue of religious and ethnic violence with the sole aim of finding an acceptable solutions to these problems. If they shy away from this reality, they will just be postponing the evil days.


Leaders, especially those who occupy public offices, should be encouraged to accommodate other peoples’ religious and ethnic affiliations. In the old Oyo Empire, the Alaafin was seen as a father to all irrespective of the peoples’ ethnic or religious groups. Governments should be fair to all groups in the society and should not be seen as being biased in favor of or against any group. The Conflict theory states that groups continually seek to dominate the economic resources and political power in a society but where the government is seen to be just and fair, the struggle for domination will be drastically reduced.

As a corollary to the above, there is the need for ethnic and religious leaders to continually sensitize their followers on the fact that God is love and does not tolerate oppression, especially against fellow human beings. The pulpits in the churches, mosques and other religious assemblies should be used to preach the fact that a sovereign God can fight His own battles without involving puny men. Love, not misdirected fanaticism, should be the central theme of religious and ethnic messages. However, the onus is on the majority groups to accommodate the interests of minority groups. Governments should encourage leaders of various religious groups to teach and practice rules and/or the commandments of God in their Holy Books regarding love, forgiveness, tolerance, respect for human life, etc. Governments could organize seminars and workshops on the destabilizing effects of religious and ethnic crisis.

Governments should encourage nation building. As seen in the case of the old Oyo Empire where different activities like the Bere festivals, were carried out to strengthen the bond of unity in the Empire, governments should also create different activities and institutions that will cut across ethnic and religious lines and that will serve as bonds between the different groups in the society.

Governments should also set up councils comprised of eminent and respected personalities from the various religious and ethnic groups and should empower these councils to deal with religious and ethnic issues in the spirit of ecumenism. As stated earlier, the Ogboni fraternity was one of the unifying institutions in the old Oyo Empire.

There should also be a body of laws and regulations stating clear and heavy punishments for any individuals or groups of individuals inciting ethnic and religious crisis in the society. This will serve as a deterrent to mischief makers, who benefit economically and politically from such crisis.

In world history, dialogue has brought the much needed peace, where wars and violence have failed woefully. Therefore, people should be encouraged to employ dialogue rather than violence and terrorism.


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This paper was presented at the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s 1st Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding held in New York City, USA, on October 1, 2014.

Title: “The Prospects for Peace and Security in Multi-Ethnic and Religious Societies: A Case Study of the Old Oyo Empire, Nigeria”

Presenter: Ven. OYENEYE, Isaac Olukayode, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Tai Solarin College of Education, Omu-Ijebu, Ogun State, Nigeria.

Moderator: Maria R. Volpe, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Director of the Dispute Resolution Program & Director of the CUNY Dispute Resolution Center, John Jay College, City University of New York.


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