Diplomacy and the Balance of Power in Pre-Colonial West African States (1600-1800)

David Olushola
August 11, 2023

Case Studies: Oyo Empire, Dahomey Kingdom, Benin Empire and Kanem-Bornu Empire

General Overview

It must be established that diplomacy is the various forms of bilateral and multilateral agreements that exist between two or more countries, as well as other major players at an interstate, regional or global level.

In our period of study (1600-1800), many West African states were in a period of nation building, state formation, empire expansions, military conquests, commercial contacts and succession disputes. This was the era of intense politicking, diplomacy, balance of power and inter group relations among all the kingdoms, city states and empires that inhabited Africa south of the Sahara. This era was a defining moment in the history of West Africa, many nation-states rose to power and glory, while many others fell considerably, thus losing their place in the larger regional balance of power that played out

Contrary to popular notions that has been assumed in the contemporary intellectual cycles regarding the origin of modern day international relations and diplomacy which was said to have been birthed in the treaty of Westphalia which saw the nation states of Europe organize themselves to ensure that peace and stability was restored to an Europe that had survived the  ravaging 30 years war through the signing of the historic treaty at Westphalia. Diplomacy and the balance of power had long existed between the various pre-colonial West Africa States before the advent of the Arab missionaries, scholars and merchants, as well as the European explorers, traders, missionaries and colonialists.

However, the balance of power in this era of West Africa’s growth was defined largely by the military strength and size of each territory in the region. It became a necessity for each empire and kingdom to invest heavily in building standing armies that embarked on various expansionary wars to enlarge the scope of their territories and to defend their lands from external invasions and various forms of threat.

In our period of study, state formation was at its zenith, various African kingdoms, empires and city states embarked on policies of expansion that helped to spread their tentacles over wide expanse of territories. The various states and empire that dotted West Africa had claim to their territories which were acquired through wars, military and marriage alliances, as well as long standing trading and commercial contacts, historical agreements and cultural interactions.

The army of Kanem-Bornu and Oyo expanded to such great lengths that they had a good amount of leverage over their neighbours, they conquered many of the outlying towns and villages, they controlled major trading cities and international trade routes like the Trans-Sahara and Trans-Atlantic trade routes, they thus became active in the trade in slaves and commodities. These empires built armies and produced rulers that were great military commanders whose influence and fame extended beyond their dominions.

In this period, major states in West Africa were already in different forms of trading relations, marriage alliances and tributary agreements with their immediate neighbours, surrounding states and travellers from beyond their region. An example can be seen with the kingdom of Benin’s early contacts with the Portuguese merchants and missionaries who landed on the coast of the Benin kingdom from the 1400s. This early contacts with the Portuguese led to exchange of emissaries, exchange of goods, as well as the signing of various agreements which fostered a form of bilateral relations between the two kingdoms. In that period, Benin dealt with Portugal on equal grounds, the kings of Portugal and Benin exchanged diplomats, letters and sent interpreters along to assist in breaching the language barrier. This same scenario is vividly painted in today’s modern day international relations and diplomacy among all the countries of the world, where Presidents send Ambassadors/Diplomats to represent them at major international forums and when meeting with world leaders.

This system of court diplomacy was a well-established means of diplomacy in that era among various west Africa States, Kings received visitors and emissaries into their palaces and conducted diplomacy and negotiations in the presence of their chiefs and palace officials. Such diplomacy focused on trade deals, marriage alliances, peace treaties, tributary agreements and military pacts which had defining impacts on their national interests and survival. At a point in time in the early 1600s, Dahomey kingdom became a tribute paying and vassal state to Oyo Empire. Oyo Empire offered Dahomey military protection and support. Dahomey and Oyo engaged in various forms of interactions which led to cultural exchange and intermarriage of customs and values. This age long diplomatic relationship between Oyo and Dahomey has been in existence ever since, with Oyo and the Yoruba culture/influence weighing heavily on Dahomey

West Africa during this period saw the rise of many powerful kingdoms and empires like Oyo, Kanem-Bornu, Dahomey and Benin which will be our case studies in this article.

Oyo Empire

Oyo Empire emerged as one of the most powerful of the Guinea forest states in the late 1500s and early 1600s after growing from a little town into an empire through various forms of military conquests and expansionary drives. Oyo became powerful and rose to the zenith of their dominance in this era. Oyo became a regional hegemon in the guinea-forest region, the empire conquered its various neighbours like Ijebu, Owu, Ede, Ilesha, Egbado, Oko, Iseyin, Saki and Dahomey, thereby forcing them to become tribute paying vassals who owed their allegiance to the Alaafin. The empire also prospered due to its access to the Ajase port in Dahomey where it participated in the slave trade, exchange of commodities and interactions with the Europeans at the coast. For many years, the King of Dahomey and his court owed their allegiance to the Alaafin, and they were obligated to pay tributes of various forms to Oyo Ile. Oyo became the most powerful of the Guinea forest states, the empire’s strength and expansion through its standing army and cavalry was unrivalled in the region. The Alaafin’s military commanders were mandated to go and fight expansionary wars to solidify Oyo’s strength and dominance. In the process, various alliances were reached, treaties and agreements were signed, there was inter marriages, exchange of culture and there was considerable prosperity in the empire. Oyo Empire and its army was feared, the empire used this as a leverage to solidify its dominance for over three centuries before the empire finally collapsed in the late 1800s due to a civil war, power tussle and the independence of the former vassal states.

Dahomey Empire

Dahomey was a prosperous kingdom in the westernmost part of the Yoruba regions of West Africa. The kingdom gained prominence because it sat at the coastline of the Atlantic with its Port at Ajase which became an entry point of various kinds of goods and merchants from Europe. At a point, the kingdom became one of the largest slave depots in West Africa with as much as 10,000 slaves exported annually. The kingdom became a vassal to Oyo which gave it military protection. Oyo became an adversary from whose claws Dahomey sought to free itself. For many years in our period of study, Dahomey fought many wars and had clashes with Oyo’s army in unsuccessful attempts to regain back its sovereignty. This struggle to free Dahomey from Oyo’s clutch led to the rise of Amazon female warriors who became feared and dreaded, they fought with so much strength, resilience and anger. They were a people whose population continuously dwindled and whose able bodied youths were exported to foreign lands as slaves. However, during the bloody Yoruba civil wars in the late 1800s, Dahomey capitalized on the impending collapse of Oyo and the Empire’s plunge into disrepair to assert its independence from Oyo. The trading ties and cultural integration between both kingdoms continued on to the present day.

Benin Empire

In our period, Benin rose from its ancient origin as a small town whose history was shrouded in mystery to become one of the largest and most powerful empires in West Africa. After the modernization era of the Ogiso dynasty, the Eweka dynasty turned Benin into an empire that attracted Portuguese merchants, Explorers and missionaries to her shores. At a point, Prince Ginuwa the crown Prince of Benin sent his son Olu Atuwatse (Dom Domingo) to Lisbon for education. The Portuguese and Benin engaged in extensive forms of court diplomacy leading to a long lasting relationship with the Portugal royal house. At a time it was known that Benin Obas exchanged letters with the King of Portugal. This relationship between Portugal and Benin was the earliest forms of diplomacy and international relations that took place in the West African sub-region. The port of Ughorton became a major source of revenue for Benin. The Oba imposed various forms of taxes on the goods  traded at the coastline.

To the hinterland, Benin expanded its dominion, outlying towns and city states like Ore, Owo, Akure, Warri, etc. became tributaries to the Oba and fell under Benin’s authority. Benin also maintained a form of marriage and cultural alliance with Ile-Ife whose Patron and founder -Oduduwa was believed to have been a Benin Prince. Benin made attempts to gain advantage in the ensuing balance of power tussle in the region, howbeit; Benin’s rise was checked by Oyo’s influence and Ile-Ife’s cultural parity. Although Oyo and Benin never fought any outright war, they became like pariah states, with each developing at its own pace. Ile-Ife and Benin never let go of their historical alliances which had existed for centuries and is still in existence. Benin and Ile-Ife have engaged in cultural diplomacy for a long time in their history and they both share common deity and Orishas, they share common system of centralized governance model with Oyo Empire. The people of Benin believe Oranmiyan one of the sons of Oduduwa imported the Benin model of Republican and absolute monarchism to govern Oyo Empire which he founded as the first Oba/King. This cultural diplomacy between Benin, Oyo, Ile-Ife and many of the neighbouring kingdoms like Igala, Nupe, Jukun, Idoma and Warri have remain unbroken for a considerable long period of time.

However, from the early 1800s, Benin began to collapse due to succession disputes, internal civil wars and the marauding pestilences of the Europeans who kept pouring forth from the coast.

However, the final death knell to Benin came when the British bombarded Benin at the latter years of the 1800s, in 1897 precisely, due to a failure of diplomacy. The British sent a powerful naval force that invaded Benin, destroyed many of the ancient artifacts and symbolic materials in the Oba’s palace. Oba Overamuen was deposed and sent on exile to Calabar which was once under Benin’s dominion. The British had a greater advantage over Benin, with a powerful naval force and superior weapons. Benin thus lost its age long regional dominance over the Guinea forest region.

Kanem-Bornu Empire

This is perhaps one of the largest empires in the savannah regions of West Africa with a powerful cavalry military force and a ruling dynasty that lasted for one thousand years (Saifawa dynasty)

The empire at its apogee became an Islamic empire. This empire was an offshoot of the first Kanuri empire which had gone into demise giving birth to the second Kanuri Empire with its capital at Ngazargamu. The second Kanuri Empire was founded by Sayf Bhi Din Yazan in the 9th century.

Kanem-Bornu Empire in our period of study had become a vast empire that spanned the Chad region, Cameroon, Niger, South Sudan, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Adamawa, etc. The empire’s fame reached as far as Mecca and the Middle East. During the reign of Mai Idris Alooma, hostels/Embassies were built in Mecca for indigenes of the empire that embarked on pilgrimages. The empire’s earliest contacts with Islam which became a unifying religion was through the Arab, Tuaregs, Berbers and Almoravid merchants, Emissaries and Scholars who came from North Africa and the Middle East and traded in commodities such as; salt, gold, horses, camels, jewelries, garments and slaves. The Empire’s diplomatic relation was made possible through its strategic location and control over the Trans-Sahara trade routes which was an international trade route in pre-colonial Africa. The influx of the Arabs, Tuaregs and Berbers led to the importation of the Arab culture and religion into the empire. The Mai welcomed the Merchants and Islamic Scholars into his empire and he appointed them as Advisers and Qadis. The influence of Islam and Arab was reflected in the popular culture and social life of the Empire. Many citizens of Ngazargamu learnt the Arabic language and there was friendly relationship between Kanem-Bornu and the Islamic world. The Mai of Kanem-Bornu sent diplomatic envoys and emissaries as far as Mecca, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

At the apogee of its influence in our period of study, the empire also plunged inwards conquering its immediate neighbours to the south such as the Hausa city states like Kebbi, Kano, Katsina, Gobir, etc The Empire’s cavalry force became advantageous in its expansionary drive inwards towards the south, this gave it a great leverage in the balance of power of the region. The use of the cavalry force was a new innovation at that time and Kanem-Bornu capitalized on this to expand its territory.

The coming of the Fulani Jihadists into Hausa land and their drive to control the savannah region, as well as the incessant guerilla warfare unleashed by the Bulala tribe led the final collapse of the Empire.

Non State Actors

Many non-state actors arose and participated in the diplomacy of the Pre-colonial West Africa states in our period of study.

The Christian missionaries: The Christian missionaries from Europe played huge roles in the international relation of the era under study. They served as the proselytizing agents who focused on converting the “pagan Africans into the religious values of the Church. Thus in a period of 300 years, many West African states began to receive a wave of various missionary groups from Europe like the; Church Missionary Society, The Roman Catholic, Baptist, Calvinists, etc. with each of these groups building schools, hospitals and mission stations across the shores of west Africa and paving the way for the colonization of the territories they inhabited. The coming of the missionaries with their mindset of cultural and religious superiority over the Africans tilted the balance of power in their favour. They were sponsored by their governments as they drove into the heart of Africa to win territories for the Church. Howbeit, Benin Empire and Oyo Empire maintained their age long traditional practices despising the missionary efforts. Their resistance was however short-lived as the missionaries were indefatigable in their mission.

The European Merchants: At first, the European merchants started to trade in commodities with the West African kingdoms under study, but the advent of the slave trade changed the face of diplomacy in the region. Slavery had adverse effects on the socio-economic development of the Africa societies at the coast. Slavery prospered many kingdoms that participated in the global economy of that era. Slavery defined a new form of relationship and contact between Africans and the Europeans. The exchange of European surplus goods for African slaves who worked in their plantations and Royal palaces in America and Europe ushered in a new period of parasitic relationship between Europe and Africa. The European power who finally conquered many territories did so due to the need to secure cheap resources from Africa which were shipped to Europe. This earliest form of coastal diplomacy led to the growth of city states like Dahomey, Opobo, Warri, etc one defining feature of this era was the building of trading forts by each European power across the coastline of West Africa.

The Berlin conference of 1884-1885: At the latter years of the 19th century, the European powers met amongst themselves in a diplomatic event that birthed the partition for African territories. West Africa territories and kingdoms were excluded from these discussions, although they were the objects of discussion by the European superpowers at the conference. The conference led to the drawing of artificial borders across Africa on maps designed and schemed by the European powers. The diplomacy of the late 19th century in West Africa was dominated by various forms of African resistance to the influx of the European Merchants and Missionaries who later became settlers expunging Africans of their lands and resources. The European powers broke the protocol of diplomacy by attacking many coastal West African states which gave them advance into the hinterland. The British won for itself the areas around present day Nigeria from which they advanced through Lagos and Dahomey into Oyo Empire. They capitalized on the Yoruba civil wars and the waning influence of Oyo Empire to penetrate into Yoruba land and subsequently conquered it.

The presence of Islam: Islam has had centuries of contacts with the Sudanic empires and the southern Sahara states of West Africa. Islam contributed a great deal in unifying Empires and kingdoms across the Sub-region and intermarrying with the local religion and customs of the people. The activities of Uthman Danfodio and his jihadist war led to the establishment of many Islamic caliphates across West Africa. Cities like Timbuktu, Jenne, Gao, Kano, Katsina, later Sokoto became centers of Islamic learning, culture and scholarship. Kanem-Bornu as part of our case study adopted Islam during the reign of Mai Idris Alooma this made the empire an Islamic Empire.

The Trans Sahara  trade and the Arab Merchants: The Trans Sahara trade route is one of the oldest and busiest trade route across Africa. The desert route that connected North Africa and the Middle East from the rest of Africa emerged as one of the oldest international trading route in the world. The route featured merchants and travellers from North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Berbers, Tuaregs and Almoravid. They travelled with their culture and Islam which they evangelized and transmitted along the way in every city and town they came across. They interacted with the diverse peoples and cultures they came across, alliances were reached, trading pacts were signed and above all some undefended cities and towns along the terminus of the Sahara were defeated and came under the dominion of the Warriors and military leaders that conquered them.

Conclusion: The era of Pre-colonial diplomacy in West Africa as highlighted above led to intense state formation and the redefinition of the nature of politics and balance of power in the region and this had a lasting impacting in the colonial and post-colonial West African states.


  1. “Africans and their History” (Revised Edition), June 1987, Joseph E Harris
  2. “African Origin of civilization: myth or legend” January 1974, Cheikh Anta Diop
  3. “How Europe underdeveloped Africa”, January 1 1971, Walter Rodney
  4. “What Britain did to Nigeria”, 2021, Max Siollun
  5. Lecture notes on History of the inter-group relations in Nigeria, 200 level, Department of History and International Studies, Bowen University, 2014.

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