Ilorin is a city located in the western part of central Nigeria that also serves as the capital of Kwara State. Already inhabited by the Yoruba people by the 15th century, it later emerged one of the key outposts of the Oyo empire by the 18th century under the king or Alaafin.
Having fought many wars over time against the Nupe and Borgu, Ilorin had become a key military garrison of the Oyo empire, where troops with cavalry were stationed under a commander named Are-Ona Kakanfo Afonja by the 1790s. Unfortunately, it was also a period of great turmoil at the king’s court in Oyo after Alaafin Abiodun was murdered by his son Awole in order to ascend the throne. In the midst of the power struggle, Afonja asserted his independence and took Ilorin out of the Oyo empire by 1817.
To shore up Ilorin against reprisals from Oyo, Afonja had formed an alliance with Oyo Muslim community leaders such as Shehu Alimi and Fulani jihadists led by the Uthman dan Fodio in the formative stages of the Sokoto Caliphate. That became Afonja’s undoing as he was killed in 1823 by those same allies, who then assumed rulership of Ilorin, making it an emirate of the caliphate. That is why until today the traditional ruler of Ilorin is an emir, while those of other Yoruba towns are obas.
A Modern City Emerges
Ilorin’s takeover by the British Royal Niger Company in 1897 was the precursor to eventual British colonial occupation three years later, incorporating it into the colony of Northern Nigeria. Then in 1967 Ilorin became the capital of Kwara state, one of 12 states created by the military government of Yakubu Gowon as it dismantled the erstwhile four-regional structure.
The city has seen steady, if gradual, expansion since then, reaching a population of over 700,000 inhabitants at the last census in 2006, with a density of more than 1,000 persons per square kilometer. Like most towns and cities across Nigeria’s Middle Belt, Ilorin is a confluence of cultures with large populations of the Fulani, Hausa, Nupe, Igbo and the Baruba coexisting with the indigenous Yoruba, reflecting elements of both the mainly Muslim north and the largely Christian south. Due to its strategic location, it serves as an economic, cultural and political gateway between the northwest and southwest of Nigeria.
Ilorin is essentially a civil service city with a sizable workforce of government officials that help grind the wheels of the bureaucracy. The vast majority of the ordinary people work as either farmers or traders. There are huge mining potentials with commercial deposits of limestone, dolomite, kaolin, gold and tantalize identified in surrounding areas.
To tap from the agricultural potential of surrounding areas, Olam International, a global commodity trading company, that can process 100 metric tons of cashew nuts daily. Dangote Flour Mills has also set up a plant in the city, where Chellarams Nigeria has a motorbike assembly and Rajrab Pharmaceuticals has a manufacturing plant.
A new shopping mall, part of the South African-backed The Palms chain that has been establishing around the country, has opened in Ilorin to attend to the needs of the city’s growing middle class . It features outlets such as the Shoprite grocery chain, the KFC fast food outlet among other recognizable brands.
Ilorin has a number of tourist attractions and is also a staging post for excursions to several interesting natural and cultural sites. The Sobi Hill that overlooks the city had served as a defensive position against invaders for the early inhabitants of the city, and a visitor atop can still experience the advantage it offered from its top.
A visit to the Asaju Compound in the Idi Ape district of the city will reveal the “Okuta ilo irin” , the knife-sharpening stone which the early founders used to sharpen their knives, from which the city is believed to have derived its name.
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments operates the Ilorin museum, which features the Esi soapstones, among other unique objects.
The city is also an important centre of pottery and traditional textiles, with guilds running in the Oju-Ekun, Ita Marin, Oloje and Okekura districts.
Ilorin is accessible by road, rail and air. Airlines that fly to Ilorin include Overland Airways, Capital Airlines and Arik Air.