Oba is the Yoruba word for king, and all of the kings of Yorubaland are therefore known as Obas. The Edo are said to have adopted the word when Eweka I, son of the Yoruba prince Oranmiyan, came to power in the kingdom of Benin and changed the royal title there from ogiso to oba. It is now used extensively in the West African republics of Nigeria, Benin and Togo.
The Yoruba chieftaincy system can be divided into four separate ranks: royal chiefs, noble chiefs, religious chiefs and common chiefs. The royals are led by the Obas, who sit at the apex of the hierarchy and serve as the fons honorum of the entire system. They are joined in the class of royal chiefs by the titled cadets of their royal families. The three other ranks, who traditionally provide the membership of a series of privy councils, sects and guilds, oversee the day-to-day administration of the Yoruba traditional states and are led by the Ogbonis, the Babalawos and the titled elders of the kingdoms' constituent families.
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 (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 Nigeria, Benin 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.
All of the subordinate members of the Yoruba aristocracy, both substantive titleholders and honorary ones, use the pre-nominal "Oloye" (lit. Owner of a title, also appearing as "Ijoye") in the way that kings and queens regnant use 'Oba'. It is also often used by princes and princesses in colloquial situations, though the title that is most often ascribed to them officially is "Omoba" (lit. Child of a Monarch, sometimes rendered alternatively as "Omo'ba", "Omooba" and "Omo-Oba"). The wives of kings, princes and chiefs of royal background usually make use of the title "Olori" (the equivalent of Princess Consort, otherwise spelled "Oloori"), though some of the wives of dynastic rulers prefer to be referred to as "Ayaba" (the equivalent of Queen Consort). The wives of the non-royal chiefs, when themselves titleholders in their own right, tend to use the honorific "Iyaloye" (lit. Lady who owns a title) in their capacities as married chieftesses.
The bead-embroidered crown with beaded veil, foremost attribute of the Oba, symbolizes the aspirations of a civilization at the highest level of authority. In his seminal article on the topic, Robert F. Thompson writes, "The crown incarnates the intuition of royal ancestral force, the revelation of great moral insight in the person of the king, and the glitter of aesthetic experience."1
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.2
As a sacred ruler, the Oba is traditionally regarded by the Yoruba as the ex officio chief priest of all of the Orisha cults in his or her domain. Although most of the day-to-day functions of this position are delegated in practice to such figures as the Babalawos, certain traditional rites of the Yoruba religion can only be performed by the Oba, and it is for this reason that the holders of the title are often thought of as being religious leaders in addition to being politico-ceremonial monarchs.