Ilorin, city, traditional emirate, and capital of Kwara state, western Nigeria, on the Awun River, a minor tributary of the Niger. Founded in the late 18th century by Yoruba people, it became the capital of a kingdom that was a vassal state of the Oyo empire. Oyo’s commander at Ilorin, Kakanfo (Field Marshal) Afonja, led a rebellion in 1817 that destroyed the unity of the empire.
He was aided by Mallam Alimi (a Fulani from Sokoto), by Fulani warriors and slaves, and by Hausa slaves. Afonja was increasingly dominated by the Muslim Fulani, and, upon his assassination, Alimi’s son, Abd as-Salam (Abdul Salami), became emir of Ilorin and pledged allegiance (c. 1829) to the Sokoto caliphate. As a Muslim emirate, Ilorin subjugated several towns in Yorubaland and destroyed Oyo Ile (Old Oyo, or Katunga), 40 miles (64 km) northwest, the Oyo capital, in 1837. Abd as-Salam conducted a jihad toward the sea and was only stopped by the Ibadan victory over his cavalrymen at Oshogbo in 1840.
Throughout the 19th century, Ilorin served as a major trade centre between the Hausa of the north and the Yoruba of the south. It strongly resisted British rule, and not until 1897, when the army of the Royal Niger Company arrived after conquering Bida (106 miles east-northeast), did Ilorin recognize British supremacy. In 1900 Ilorin emirate was the only part of Yorubaland to be included in the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, which, later in the colonial period, developed into the Northern Province and then the Northern Region. With the subdivision of the country’s administrative regions in 1967, Ilorin became part of West Central (later Kwara) state.
Modern Ilorin is mainly inhabited by Muslim Yoruba people, although its traditional ruler is a Yoruba-speaking Fulani emir. Surrounding the historic central district with its traditional single-story red-mud houses with thatched straw roofs and numerous mosques, all protected by a mud wall, the modern city is an industrial, commercial, and educational centre. It is a major market for locally raised crops (yams, cassava [manioc], corn [maize], sorghum, millet, rice, peppers, peanuts [groundnuts], shea nuts, kola nuts, cotton) and for cattle, hides, and poultry. Local handicrafts include pottery making, wood carving, leather working, cloth weaving, and mat and basket weaving. The growing industrial sector now includes sugar refining, food processing, soft-drink bottling, match and soap manufacturing, and iron-working. There are several banks and insurance companies that serve the city and state.
The city is the site of the University of Ilorin and Kwara State College of Technology, which also contains the headquarters of the Nigerian Library Association. The Federal Agricultural and Rural Management Institute, which operates a research farm, is located in the city. Teacher-training colleges and a vocational trade school also serve Ilorin. Health services include a number of government, private, and religious hospitals and a nursing home for the elderly.
Ilorin is served by the railway and highway from Lagos (160 miles south-southwest), via Ibadan, which intersect in the city, and it has an international airport. Pop. (2006 est.) 831,700.