Nigeria’s so-called Campus Cults are criminal street gangs which usually — but not exclusively — operate in and around the country’s colleges.
Nigerian media also refer to these groups simply as ‘cults.’
Decades ago they were referred to as ‘confraternities’ 1 — university-based groups that started out non-violent and resembled the sororities and fraternities found at America’s universities.
Over time these groups first grew secretive and then increasingly violent, both in response to the country’s civil war during the 1960s, and the rise of competing groups (often formed due to schisms).
In addition, many campus cults continued to meet and recruit long after its members had left the university — often for the purpose of criminal activity.
Since many of these groups practiced juju (voodoo) — in part to scare people into joining or staying with the gang — Nigeria’s media started referring to them as ‘cults.’
Like all gangs, these groups do indeed have cult-like recruitment and retention characteristics.
Origin of Nigeria’s ‘Campus’ Cults
The origin of cultism in the Nigerian universities can be traced to the Pyrates Confraternity that was founded by the Nobel Laurete, Wole Soyinka and others at the University College, Ibadan (now called the University of Ibadan), in 1953. The confraternity which was non-violent and whose activities were never shrouded in secrecy resembled the sororities and fraternities found in many American university campuses.
The aims of the Pyrates confraternity were lofty and noble. They wanted an end to tribalism; colonial mentality and they wanted to revive the age of chivalry. Unfortunately towards the end of 1960’s, the original aims of the Pyrates Confraternity were abandoned. The confraternity gradually metamorphosed into a secret cult that was later to proliferate into many splinter groups. This change was accelerated by yet other changes taking place both at the universities and the entire Nigerian society. The changes observable in the Nigerian society included violent military coups, state, sponsored political assassinations proliferation of ethnic militia, communal clashes and total erosion of the traditional family values.
Changes occurring within the universities included overcrowdness, under funding, deteriorated infrastructure and lack of virile students union activities. The emergency of secret cultism has been characterized by some bizarre and violent activities which include, physical torture as a means of initiating new members, maiming and killing of rival cult members and elimination of real and perceived enemies.
– Source: Adewale Rotimi, Violence in the Citadel: The Menace of Secret Cults in the Nigerian Universities , Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(1): 79–98 (2005), Abstract
International Crime Syndicates
Nowadays many of Nigeria’s criminal gangs operate far beyond the country’s borders. Many are involved in anything from online scams (commonly referred to as ‘419 fraud‘) to smuggling drugs, selling stolen crude oil, and/or trafficking people.
BBC Magazine recently reported on the arrest, in Spain, of members of a Nigerian sex-trafficking gang known as Supreme Eiye Confraternity (SEC), or the Air Lords.
[Xavi Cortes, head of the anti-trafficking unit of the Catalan Police] and his team first came across the group in 2011 during a forgery investigation, but quickly discovered it was a huge network trafficking women and drugs.
He asks me to look at his screen. On it is a map detailing all the locations they have identified where members of the SEC operate. Cities are marked in Europe, North, West and East Africa, North and South America, the Middle East and Asia.
Eiye in Yoruba, the main language of south-western Nigeria means “bird”. The group’s insignia is an eagle and each city containing members is called a “nest”, with the “mother nest” in Ibadan, about 100km (60 miles) north-east of Lagos.
The group was started at the University of Ibadan in the 1970s, and the original intention was to make a positive contribution to society. Over time, however, many members went astray, committing violence in Nigeria and delving into crime abroad.
The group now traffics human beings and narcotics (cocaine and marijuana) and forges passports. It has also facilitated the transport of stolen crude oil into Europe.
“They are able to earn money in many ways, but we are focused on human-trafficking and the victims,” says Cortes.
His second-in-command, Alex Escola, then tells me something remarkable.
“You know, one of the tappings showed us that last year, on 7 July, around 400 members of SEC met in Geneva. They had a big meeting, all together.”
It was an audacious display of arrogance. In a city where many of the world’s global institutions are headquartered, including numerous UN agencies, a global criminal institution held its own parallel international gathering and no-one tried to stop it.
– Source: The world of Nigeria’s sex-trafficking ‘Air Lords’, BBC Magazine, January 26, 2016
This video documentary, by Journeyman Pictures, was made in 2005. [Includes some graphic content].
- Confraternities in Nigeria, Wikipedia entry
- Cults of Violence “How student fraternities turned into powerful and well-armed gangs,” The Economist, July 2008.
- Violence in the Citadel: The Menace of Secret Cults in the Nigerian Universities , Adewale Rotimi, Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(1): 79–98 (2005)
- “[T]today, the terms “confraternities” and “secret cults” do not mean separate things in the mind of the public: the one immediately suggests the other.” Ogaga Ifowood, Leaders of Tomorrow: Persons of character or criminals?, Vanguard (Nigeria), March 6, 2013 ↩