KIRIJI WAR: All you need to know about the world’s longest civil battle

Kiriji war
PHOTO: Ekitiparapo Soldiers led by Ogedengbe (second from left). Circa. 1878

The Kiriji War is the term used to describe a series of conflicts spanning roughly 16 years (1877 – 1893) between two powerful Yoruba confederate armies of mainly Western Yorubas (Ibadan and its allies) and Eastern Yorubas (Ijeshas and Ekitis). It is on record that the remote cause of this war was the collapse of the Oyo Empire, while the immediate cause was the domineering stance of the Ibadan military output on Yoruba towns and cities.

The Generals involved in these conflicts include:

Are Latosa
Osi, Ilori – son of Ogunmola and later Akintaro
Iyapo – son of Ibikunle
Balogun Ajayi Ogboriefon
Ali Laluwoye – Otun
Babalola son of Ajayi Ogboriefon




Emir Alihu
Karara – Balogun of Ilorin

Ayikiti – general

The war caused heavy casualties on both sides although historians believe that the losses were even. It showcased the largest array of military hardware in Western Africa at the time. The Eastern Yoruba confederacy purchased a large number of cannon guns which produced the thunderous sound “Kiriiiiiiji”. The name “Kiriji” came from the ground shaking vibrations that accompanied the use of the cannons which gave the Eastern Yorubas an advantage over the Ibadans. Several Yoruba towns and villages were completely wiped out of history due to the scorched-earth policy of the civil war. Two good examples of such settlements are Osogun (somewhere in Oyo) and Ijaiye.

Other names for the conflict are Ekitiparapo War, Jalumi War and so on.

Origins of the Conflict(s): Lagos politics and the Ijaiye war

Lagos politics during the early 19th century were complicated by a long dynastic dispute which culminated in the deposition of Oba Akitoye in 1845 by Kosoko, his nephew. Kosoko was a leading slave-trader, and the chances for ‘legitimate’ trade in the area were regarded as poor by the British as long as he remained in control. In exile, Akitoye gained the support of the British at Badagry. He promised to stop the slave trade at Lagos if reinstated, and Kosoko was expelled by force. He fled with his followers to Epe, but continued to interfere in Lagos affairs. After Akitoye’s death, the British administrators installed his son Dosunmu as ruler, but in the interests of trade (and to the disgust of the missions) they eventually came to an understanding with Kosoko, who was allowed back to Lagos (Kopytoff, 1965: 146).

With the establishment of British consular authority over Lagos, trade with the interior increased rapidly, as did cotton production in Abeokuta and the exports of palm oil from Lagos (Smith, 1974: 405). To allow firmer control over trade, and to protect British interests, Lagos was annexed as a colony in 1861 and a governor was appointed. But by now the political situation in the interior had deteriorated and trade was being increasingly interrupted.

After the defeat of Ilorin by Ibadan in 1840, rivalry between Ibadan and Ijaiye grew. In Ibadan the population had increased to over 60,000 by 1851. The Oyo Yoruba had come to dominate the political life of the town, and a political system gradually evolved which was well suited to military expansion (Awe,1967). There was no Oba, and chiefships were not hereditary. The chiefs were organized into four lines: the civil chiefs, led by the Bale; the military chiefs in two lines, headed by the Balogun and the Seriki; and the women chiefs led by the Iyalode. Within each of these lines the titles were ranked, and each chief moved up a rank as those above him died or were killed in battle.

The bottom ranks were filled by “magaji”, the elected leaders of the Ibadan descent groups. The most senior title, that of Bale, was usually filled by a Balogun who had proved himself in war. The fact that there was no Oba (King) reflected the theoretical suzerainty of the Alaafin, though from its foundation Ibadan pursued an independent foreign policy. In the 19th century the military chiefs usually had the greatest authority. Promotion to a title depended on a man’s ability to mobilize a following and on military skill. Prestige and wealth came from warfare and the result was an aggressive policy of expansion.

Ijaiye was founded about the same time as Ibadan, by refugees from the Ikoyi area, led by Kurunmi, described by Johnson as the ‘greatest soldier of his age’. It became an important communications center, and under strong leadership it prospered. Mann, the CMS missionary, lived in the town in the 1850s, and he provided much first-hand information on it. By this time, Ijaiye probably had a population of 40,000 or more. Initially, relations with Ibadan were good, but rivalry between the two gradually developed. An issue for a final confrontation was provided by the death of Alaafin Atiba in 1859. He was succeeded by the Aremo Adelu, and Kurunmi refused to recognize the succession. Ijaiye and Oyo were already at loggerheads over the control of the Upper Ogun towns around Saki. In any case, Ibadan sided with the new Alaafin and war broke out. Kurunmi died in 1861, before the final capture and destruction of his town.

This was not the end of the matter. The Egba had supported Ijaiye, and the Ijebu Remo had supported Ibadan. Remo lay on the most direct trade route from the coast to Ibadan. Egba attacked Remo, and Ibadan became directly involved because of its trading interests. Ikorodu, one of the Remo towns besieged by the Egba, is just north of Lagos, and the British became actively involved in the Yoruba wars for the first time. Governor Glover, one of the more aggressive administrators of the colony in the 19th century, had formed a view of the situation which successive governors were to share: that the Egba and/or the Ijebu were blocking the road to the interior and that this was the main issue in Yoruba politics. The wider political issues of the period, the struggle between Ibadan and the other states for supremacy, largely escaped them (Phillips, 1970). In Lagos, the administration was short of funds. It relied on customs dues and trade, and needed to keep the roads open. The merchants supported it at this stage, but the missions were still pro-Egba.

Townsend was opposed to Glover‘s attempts to station a British vice-consul in Abeokuta, but his own influence in the town was on the wane. After some peculiar double-dealing, Glover expelled the Egba forces from their positions around Ikorodu by force in 1865, but failed to achieve either his political or his economic objectives. He merely antagonized the Egba, who were already worried by the British annexation of Lagos. There was a further dispute between the Egba and the British over customs dues and the presence of Lagos police on Egba territory. Egba hostility erupted in the ifole (‘housebreaking’) riots of 1867, after which both European missionaries and merchants were excluded from the town for fifteen years.

In the early period of British involvement in Yorubaland, the interests of the missions, the traders and the administration often diverged. The missions were reliant on the goodwill of the local rulers in the interior, and, in the absence of a British political presence, they were extremely vulnerable. Their strategy was therefore to act as spokesmen on behalf of the towns where they worked, and to oppose the more aggressive measures of the Lagos administration. The administration itself needed to protect British interests and prestige, but at the same time allow conditions under which trade could develop, so that it could balance its books. As Ikorodu and its aftermath showed, it was difficult to achieve both ends at the same time. After 1865, the Lagos governor lost some of his autonomy when Lagos was placed under the jurisdiction of Freetown and later of Accra.

The merchants needed the administration to protect their interests, but it did not want a political situation which would prevent trade. Thus, in the early 1860s they supported Glover’s attempts to open the roads, but a decade later they were complaining to the governor at Sierra Leone over his plans to close the roads in order to put pressure on Abeokuta (Kopytoff, 1965: 155-6). During the consular period the merchants and the administration had united against the missions over their policy towards Kosoko. The slavery issue became less important after 1861 (Smith, 1974: 411), and the British merchants and missionaries united in their opposition to Glover in the 1870s. By the time of the Ijebu expedition of 1892, on the eve of the British takeover in the interior, the interests of all three groups largely coincided. Many of the Saro on the other hand were becoming increasingly alienated.

The Ibadan empire

With Ijaiye disposed of, Ibadan was free to consolidate its empire in the east. Between 1847 and 1870, large areas of Ijesha, Igbomina, Ekiti and Akoko came under Ibadan control (Akintoye, 1971: 33-75). Initially, this was in response to the threat from Ilorin. Some of the Osun towns like Osogbo had willingly come under Ibadan protection. More force was used in the subjugation of the towns further to the east. The Ijesha proved difficult to control. While Ibadan was occupied with the Ijaiye war, the Ijesha attacked them from the east. They were beaten off, and the Ibadan capture of Ilesha in 1870 marked the high point of Ibadan power (Akintoye, 1971: 56-60).

The subordinate towns controlled by Ibadan came to be administered through officials called Ajele, a system similar to that of the former Oyo empire (Awe, 1964). Each of the towns was the responsibility of a “babakekere” in Ibadan, who administered through an Ajele in the town itself. The subordinate towns were distributed among the Ibadan chiefs who derived much of their income from them. Though the quality of administration varied, the Ajele and their subordinates in the east gained a bad reputation for oppression and arrogance (Akintoye, 1971: 70-5; Awe, 1965). Their unpopularity was a major factor in the development of the Ijesha-Ekiti alliance against Ibadan which became known as the Ekitiparapo. This was in contact with the Ekitiparapo Society in Lagos, founded by Saro of Ijesha and Ekiti descent (Akintoye, 1968).

Ibadan had already become involved in yet another conflict over trade with Egba and Ijebu in 1877, when Ibadan traders on their way from Porto Novo with firearms were attacked by the Egba. This gave the Ekiti and the Ijesha their chance. In 1878, the revolt against Ibadan rule started with the massacre of Ibadan officials in Ijesha, Igbomina and Ekiti. This led to a war which dragged on for sixteen years.

Eventually, Ibadan found itself fighting on five fronts. In the east it faced the Ekitiparapo under the command of Ogedengbe, the Seriki of Ijesha. In the south it faced the Egba and Ijebu. Ilorin joined in in the north. Finally, Ife joined the alliance in 1882. There had long been friction between the Ife and the Oyo settlers at Modakeke. The animosity was strengthened by the war during which Ife itself was sacked by the Modakeke and their Ibadan allies, and in turn, Modakeke was sacked by the Ife and Ekiti.

The main action of the war, however, took place in the north-east. The Ibadan and Ekitiparapo forces faced each other at Kiriji, a few miles east of Ikirun. Control of the trade routes was a major issue. There were three main routes to the interior, via Egba, Ijebu and Ondo. The Ondo route had been opened up by the British because of the frequent closure of the other roads. During this war, it became the main supply route for both sides (Akintoye, 1969). Some Ibadan supplies were able to get through via Ijebu. The war was unpopular with Ijebu traders, and the Awujale (King of the Ijebus) was forced into exile in 1885. Despite this, the flow of supplies was not completely free. Ijebu traders’ profit margins were high, and they retained strict control of trade through the kingdom (Johnson, 1921: 610-11).

After some initial reverses, the Ekitiparapo gained something of an advantage in the conflict, and the help they received from Ekiti Saro merchants in Lagos was crucial. The most important factor was the supply of breech-loading rifles, much more accurate than the arms being used by the rest of the Yoruba, though the Ibadan were later able to get a small supply of them as well (Akintoye, 1971: 119).

Attempts at mediation had started as early as 1879-80. Both the Alaafin and the Ooni were involved, but neither was trusted by both sides, and Ife later joined in the fighting. The Lagos government was under instructions from London and Accra to keep out of the conflict, even though the fighting was having serious effects on the economic life of the colony. Under commercial and mission pressure, the Lagos government attempted to mediate but was rebuffed, and from 1882 to 1884 the British did nothing. Attempts by Saro in Lagos and by the Fulani emirs to end the conflict also failed.

After 1885 the attitude of the administration started to change. Firstly, there was the changing political status of Lagos which was separated from the Gold Coast in 1886. Secondly, the scramble for Africa by the colonial powers was well under way, and there were fears of French interference. Thirdly, some of the main protagonists of the war were themselves getting tired of it (Akintoye, 1971: 176).

To negotiate a peace, the administration turned to the CMS. A ceasefire was arranged in 1886 through the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the historian, and Charles Phillips, later the Bishop of Ondo. The parties then signed a treaty in Lagos with Governor Maloney which provided for the independence of the Ekitiparapo towns and the evacuation of Modakeke, to suit Ife,. This proved impossible to carry out. Ilorin refused to stop fighting in the north where it was besieging Ofa. Thus the war dragged on, and the forces refused to disband (Akintoye, 1971: 181-4).

British fears of the French soon appeared justified. There was the curious incident of 1888 when an employee of a French company persuaded the Egba chiefs to sign a treaty with France, providing for the construction of a rail link with Porto Novo (Ayandele, 1966: 49-51). This was a direct threat to trade with Lagos, but the French refused to ratify the treaty. The two powers hastily agreed on a frontier in 1889 (Anene, 1963). The areas recently invaded by Dahomey fell within the French sphere of influence. The British moved into the interior with the establishment of a post at Ilaro in 1890, while the French invaded Dahomey in 1892.

More aggressive measures to extend British control in the interior came with the arrival of Governor Carter in 1891. Like Glover, he took the view that the key to the situation lay in control of the trade routes through Ijebu and Egba. The result was the Ijebu expedition of 1892 (Ayandele, 1966: 54-69; Smith, 1971b). Ayandele suggests that in fact the Ijebu had showed more willingness to open the road than the Egba, but the decision to attack Ijebu was based partly on the hostility of the missions: unlike Egba, Ijebu had never allowed them in. The impact of the expedition was considerable. In 1893, Carter was able to set off on a tour around Yorubaland, making treaties with Oyo and Egba, and finally persuading the Ibadan and Ekitiparapo forces to disperse. The Egba opened the road to Ibadan, and allowed the start of railway construction. After two final incidents, the bombardment of Oyo in 1895 (Ayandele, 1967) and the capture of Ilorin by the Royal Niger Company in 1897, effective colonial control was established throughout most of Yorubaland.

The implications of the events of the 19th century for the direction of change in the 20th were profound. The main centers of population were no longer in the savanna but along the northern fringe of the forest. Warfare was related to economic changes, as the slaves which it generated were used to fight, to produce food to feed the armies, or to produce palm oil for the traders on the coast. It is one of the ironies of 19th century history that the gradual abolition of the slave trade by the Europeans and the switch to the ‘legitimate’ trade in palm products led to an increase in the number of domestic slaves in the interior.

The successor states wrestled with a variety of problems in establishing a new political order, but the underlying trend was a shift in power away from the hereditary rulers to the more independent military commanders with their followings of ‘war boys’ or omo ogun. In Ibadan a system had to be developed which could accommodate the interests of these men. In Abeokuta, refugees from many small states had to be integrated into a single system, and a balance of power achieved between the war-leaders, the traders, the traditional chiefs and the Saro. In Ife and Ogbomoso, arrangements had to be worked out by which immigrants could live alongside an existing population (Agiri, 1966; Oyediran,1974). In all these cases the problem persisted into the colonial period, as did the search for new solutions.

The religious changes were just as far-reaching. After initial setbacks, Islam made rapid strides, especially in areas with populations originating from Oyo. Christianity developed fastest in the south, in Ondo and Ijebu. The two world religions are now equally strong, but their distribution had profound implications for the relative levels of educational and economic development of the various Yoruba subgroups.

The growth of British influence in Yorubaland was a slow process. Forty-two years elapsed between the bombardment of Lagos and Governor Carter’s tour of the interior. The reasons for the delay were complex. Public opinion in Britain had at times been against imperial expansion, and it was only in the 1880s, when the pace of competition with the French and Germans quickened, that the British increased their influence in the interior.

Other opposition had come from the merchants who wanted good relations with the interior states, and from the missions. The attitudes of the merchants gradually changed, especially with the trade slump of the 1880s which emphasized the need for political intervention. By 1892 the European merchants at least supported the invasion of Ijebu, and a rail link with the interior under British control was now seen as the main hope for the development of commerce.

The missionaries, too, had relied on good relations with the interior, and their vulnerability had been shown by the ifole episode. Nevertheless, they had supplied Lagos with a wealth of information on the interior, and they were to play an important role in the negotiations to end the wars. Towards the end of the century, the interests of the British missionaries and the Saro clergy began to diverge. The British missionaries might have supported the attack on Ijebu, but James Johnson, himself an Ijebu, was passionately opposed to it. Within the CMS there was growing criticism of Venn’s policy of relying on a native pastorate. In the 1890s there was an influx of younger European missionaries favoring tighter European control (Ajayi, 1965: 233-69; Webster,1964: 1- 41). Even Bishop Crowther’s work in the Niger Mission came under attack, and after his death no African successor was appointed, despite the availability of men such as James Johnson, who had been considered for a diocese as early as 1876 (Ajayi, 1965: 231). The alienation of some of the laity led to the formation of the African churches at the turn of the century (Webster, 1964).

The same trend was apparent in other areas of public life. In the early days of the Lagos colony, a large number of senior officials in Lagos life had been of Yoruba Saro extraction (Cole, 1975: ch.3; Kopytoff,1965: ch.12). Their successors were usually British. West Africa was no longer the death-trap for Europeans that it had been in 1841, and the use of quinine had lowered mortality rates considerably. While some Saro, notably Henry Carr (Cole, 1975: 105-9) remained loyal supporters of British rule, others began to take a more nationalistic stance. A good contrast is to be found in T.B. Macaulay and his son Herbert. The father was a good friend of Glover and the main advocate of British academic education. The son was the major critic of the British administration in the first half of the colonial period (Cole, 1975: 109-19; Baker, 1974: 88-94). A further sign of the times was the adoption of Yoruba names by many of the Saro. The 1890s saw a minor Yoruba cultural renaissance, the finest product of which was Johnson’s History (Ayandele, 1966: 264-5; cf. Hopkins, 1969).

PHOTO: Ekitiparapo Soldiers led by Ogedengbe (second from left). Circa. 1878

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