When things fall apart

Last month's brutal massacre was just another crime by Nigeria's most-feared criminal organizations, student cults. But just who these cultists are is a matter of some dispute.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

It is Saturday at dawn on a beautiful college campus. Inside their dorm rooms, students sleep away their Friday night escapades, perhaps resting their cerebellums after a tough week of study. Such a setting suggests quiet time in Academia, that place far away from the scary goings-on that afflict the “real world.”

But this is not the United States. It’s Nigeria, where living on a college campus can expose you to a kind of violent crime that seems anomalous in a university.

At sunrise on July 10th a convoy of cars and jeeps approached Awo Hall at the prestigious and tranquil Obafemi Awolowe University in Ile-Ife, 160 miles east of Lagos. About 40 marauders emerged from the vehicles, clad in black trousers and black T-shirts, their faces hidden by masks. These were the student and ex-student members of the “Black Axes” and they wielded shotguns and hatchets. Witnesses told The News (Lagos) that the attackers called out their targets by name: “Faro, come out if you are a man! Legacy, come out if na your father born you!” Pouring into the residency, the killers then indiscriminately annihilated every student in their path. Local newspaper reports described the horror of the crime scene: mattresses saturated with blood dripping through floors into rooms below, walls splashed with brains. Five died on the scene; three more expired in the following days and eight
more remain in critical condition.

This nightmare seems surreal to Western pupils sequestered in peaceful ivory towers, but in Nigeria, with its myriad social disorders, campus violence has grown over the years to epidemic proportions. But the violence has not come from outside but rather from student organizations themselves.

Secret societies, or “cults” as they are also called in Nigeria — like the Black Axes, Sea Dogs and Eiye Confraternity — have brutally ravaged Nigeria’s 37 state-run institutions. The massacre at Obafemi Owolowe University (OAU) is only the most recent tragedy; observers estimate that 150 students have been slain in the last five years, with scores more victimized by rape, assault, extortion, kidnapping, blackmail, torture and arson attack. Cultists — who often emulate the music and attitudes of American street-gang culture — dominate several campuses with intimidation tactics. Sometimes they employ threats of murder or extortion for seemingly petty ransoms, like an “A” grade or a fraudulently written term paper. Unprotected students, professors and administrators are often forced to surrender whatever grades, goods and privileges that the cultists demand.

Until the massacre this month, OAU had been considered one of Nigeria’s safest universities, due to student leaders’ successful mobilization of the institution in resistance to the criminal gangs. In 1991 after one cultist was stabbed to death and another was shot in an attempted kidnapping, the cults seemed to retreat, but student leaders continued to look for signs of illegal activity. Last February, a campus-wide search nabbed eight mobsters who were stockpiling machine guns and other dangerous weapons in their dorm rooms. Such behavior enraged the Black Ax criminal bosses. The News reported that a meeting held at Black Ax headquarters in Lagos enlisted recruits from other campuses nationwide for the following morning’s assault, aimed at OAU student leaders in the targeted dorms. The secretary general of the Student’s Union — George Yemi Iwilade, aka “Comrade Afrika” — was executed in his bed, his head summarily axed. The Student Union president — Lanre Adeleke, aka “Legacy” — narrowly escaped death by leaping from a balcony.

The lawless behavior of the Black Axes was met by an equally ferocious, if more justifiable, student response. At 4 p.m. on the afternoon following the massacre, President Adeleke presided over an assembly in the enormous amphitheater of Oduduwa Hall; he demanded the immediate resignation of Wole Omole, the loathed vice chancellor who impeded student efforts to eliminate cults (Omole, for example, failed to expel the previously apprehended eight cultists). An award of 10,000 nairas ($100 U.S.) was offered for Omole’s capture and hundreds of students occupied the administration building, refusing to leave until Omole was fired. One vigilante group reportedly kidnapped Omole’s wife on her way to a church. Holding her for ransom, they demanded that Omole surrender.

The students also erected roadblocks at the university entrances, impounded vehicles and launched vigilante searches to flush out the killers. Several suspects were captured, interrogated and handed over to the local police, only to have second-guessing students, suspicious of police leniency, later storm the police station and seize back a prisoner. According to The News, a suspect named Frank Idahosa Efosa (who was found with incriminating “Guns ‘n Roses was here” T-shirts in his luggage bag) eventually admitted that he’d heard Chancellor Omole referred to as the “patron” of the Black Axes, and that he’d heard someone say a large sum of reward money had been offered by Omole for an attack on the student leaders.

Are Nigerian campus administrators actually aligned with thuggish cultists in murderous conspiracies? Are other government officials also involved? Citizens of Africa’s most populous nation (124 million) are hotly debating this possibility.

“Secret cults are financed by those in political offices and higher institutions of learning, to maintain their power status,” said Sam Araoye, a 22-year-old ex-student of OAU, in a phone interview from New York. Araoye co-directs a Nigerian democratization group called New Directions. “I believe the Vice Chancellor did get the Black Ax to kill the student leaders, because he was always being criticized by them.”

Such claims, while widely circulated among students, are not universally accepted. When queried about Araoye’s theory, Dr. Jacob Olupana, a recent professor at OAU who currently teaches African Studies at the University of California at Davis, was adamant. “Not so!” Olupana told Salon by phone. “It hasn’t been proved; it’s just an allegation that I find difficult to believe. Chancellors don’t use cults to maintain their power. Cults aren’t political at all.”

There’s also considerable conjecture about cultists’ motivation and economic status. Nigerian media defines them as idle, rich, juvenile delinquents, but Araoye disagreed: “Most cultists, especially those that get caught, are the poor, and less privileged. That’s why they’re targeted to join when they’re freshmen and sophomores, because they need money. Politicians and administrators employ poor students to carry out their gruesome ambitions — they give them money and cars.”

This class analysis carries little weight with Professor Olupana. “That’s bogus!” he retorted. “Cultists are a mixed bag of poor, middle-class and rich from dysfunctional families. It’s not about class or politics or ethnic strife. It’s about hooligans! Cults are a symptom of law and order breaking down everywhere in a deteriorating situation. Years of military rule in Nigeria have introduced a culture of violence; hooligans can buy all the guns and ammo they need from police and the military.”

According to Darren Kew, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University who is writing his dissertation on Nigerian civil society, while its henchmen may come from all ranks of society, the leaders tend to come from the upper classes. “Key cult figures are often the sons of Nigeria’s elite,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Many of the cultists failed the entrance exams; they were only allowed into the schools because their parents purchased their admittance from cash-strapped and corrupt university administrators.”

Cults have a peculiar history. Nobel Laureate playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka co-founded the initial “Pyrates Confraternity” at the University of Ibadan in the 1950s to promote social awareness and political freedoms — Nigeria was still under colonial rule at that time. According to the Pyrates’ current “Capn,” military dictator General Abacha used Soyinka’s association with these fraternities to tar Soyinka as the “father of cultism.” Succeeding decades of civil war and military dictatorship reduced Soyinka’s dream-child to its present mutation, with rival groups fighting each other and harassing non-members for power. Dismayed by the disintegration of their vision, the Pyrates removed themselves from campuses in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, all campus fraternities were outlawed, but the edict only plunged them into secrecy and baser depths of anti-social behavior.

Yet now the campus community is demanding that anti-cult laws on campus are not sufficient. Three days after the OAU massacre, thousands of student sympathizers attended an emotional burial ceremony for five of the victims. The next day, Nigerian Education Minister Tunde Adeniran curtly announced the dismissal of Chancellor Omole. Later, Adeniran ordered all administrators of Nigeria’s educational institutes to completely eradicate cult activities on their campuses by September, or resign from their offices.

Is obliteration of the heavily armed cults possible in 90 days? “Not easy,” said Dr. Olupana. “Cults are a very deep problem. If the minister is serious about this, he’ll have to provide government assistance to the poorly managed, poorly paid universities that were neglected during Nigeria’s decades of military rule.”

Universities are only as safe, sane and honest as the nations that sponsor them. Nigeria has been plagued by tyrants, corruption and ethnic-religious tribal strife (like the current clash between Yorubas and Hausas in the cities of Kano and Shagamu) ever since it achieved independence from Great Britain 39 years ago.

Nigerians are currently optimistic, though, due to the recent democratic elections that finally ended the sordid reign of totalitarian generals. President Olusegun Obasanjo and his cabinet are enjoying a popular honeymoon and the confidence of the citizenry. Perhaps Africa’s struggling giant can find its feet, and emerge as a prosperous, peaceful nation. Only then will it be a nation where students sleep restfully in their dormitory beds, worrying about their finals instead of possible death.

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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