There are two different kinds of Yoruba monarchs: The kings of Yoruba clans, which are often simply networks of related towns (for example, the oba of the Egba bears the title “Alake of Egbaland” because his ancestral seat is the Ake quarter of Abeokuta, hence the title Alake, which is Yoruba for Man of Ake. The Oyo oba, meanwhile, bears the title “Alaafin”, which means Man of the palace), and the kings of individual Yoruba towns. For example, the king of Iwo – a town in Osun State – bears the title “Olu’wo” (Olu of Iwo, lit. Lord of Iwo).
The first generation towns of the Yoruba homeland, which encompasses large swathes of the said countries of Benin, Nigeria and Togo, are those with obas who generally wear beaded crowns; the rulers of many of the ‘second generation’ settlements are also often obas. Those that remain and those of the third generation tend to only be headed by the holders of the title “Baale” (lit. Father of the Land), who do not wear crowns and who are, at least in theory, the reigning viceroys of people who do.
The role of the Oba has diminished with the coming of colonial and democratic institutions. However, an event that still has symbolic prestige and capital is that of chieftaincy title-taking and awarding. This dates back to the era of the Oyo warrior chiefs and palace officials in the medieval period, when powerful individuals of varied ancestries held prominent titles in the empire. In Yorubaland, like in many other areas of Nigeria, Benin and Togo, chieftaincy titles are mostly given to successful men and women from within a given sub-sectional territory, although it is not unheard of for a person from elsewhere to receive one. The titles also act as symbolic capital that can be used to gain favour when desired by the individual Oba that awarded them, and sometimes vice versa.
During any of the traditional investiture ceremonies for the chiefs-designate, the Oba is regarded by the Yoruba as the major center of attention, taking precedence over even the members of the official governments of any of the three countries if they are present. As he leads the procession of nominees into a specially embroidered dais in front of a wider audience of guests and well wishers, festivities of varied sorts occur to the accompaniment of traditional drumming. Emblems are given out according to seniority, and drapery worn by the Oba and chiefs are created to be elaborate and also expensive. Most of the activities are covered by the local media and enter the public domain thereafter. Only the secret initiations for traditional chiefs of the highest rank are kept secret from all outsiders. Ceremonies such as this, and the process of selection and maintenance of networks of chiefs, are two of the major sources of power for the contemporary royals of West Africa.