Cultism in Nigeria: A Theatre of Blood and the Way Forward
Photo credit: BBC
BY RICHARD ABAM
AZUABIE, RIVERS: On the afternoon of a particular Wednesday in August 2017, Udobong ran as fast as his heels could carry him in one of the notorious neighborhoods of Azuabie, a densely populated slum in Port Harcourt Local Government Area of southern Nigeria's Rivers State.
Pursuing him were six boys of about 20 years old, armed with guns, machetes, and axes. Just as he ran into a one-room apartment he shared with his parents, they brushed his mother, who was standing by the door, aside, went in and dragged Udobong out.
In the glare of the public, the armed youths began to machete and ax him. His mother wailed, shouted, and pleaded to no avail. Soon, Udobong was dead. Soaked in his own blood as the young men shot into the air severally, cut off his two thumbs, and made their way off the scene chanting songs of victory to the amazement of onlookers.
The murderous youths were members of a cult group called "Vikings," and Udobong, who was about their age, was of a rival group known as "Black Axe."
Such deadly attacks, which have become part of the battle for supremacy among cult groups, are common in Azuabie, where Vikings maintains dominance, including terrorising and keeping community members in fear with common threats to life, theft, shootings, and actual killing.
Like in Azuabie, across the 23 local governments in Rivers State, notorious cult groups kill people, destroy livelihoods and disrupt economic activities, especially in the local government councils of Obio-Akpor, Andoni, Emohua, Omuku, Gokana, and Khana. In 2019 alone, 60 people were killed in the state by cultists.
Beyond Rivers State, the despicable menace of cultism has stamped its indelible marks on the soul of a dispirited Nigeria struggling to curtail armed banditry and Boko Haram that has killed over 30,000 people in the northeast region since 2009.
Sponsors and backers of cultism in Nigeria are reportedly planted within the larger society, ranging from politicians to business people to government agents to police officers, the military, academia, and traditional rulers for political and other gains.
Cults were not always violent
The beginning of cultism in Nigeria is traced to the early 1950s when Pyrates Confraternity was founded by Wole Soyinka - a Nobel Laureate for Literature - alongside six other students at the University of Ibadan in line with what existed in American and European universities and colleges in those days.
Pyrate Confraternity, later known as the National Association of Seadogs, was initially a peaceful group that worked to cater to its members' social and recreational life, fight backward-looking conventional treads, colonialism, elitism, and complacency on campus. Its modest and pro-people ideology soon made the group famous as many young men joined willingly.
What went wrong?
But about 10 years after its formation, corruption and power struggle started brewing among its members who were beginning to take on elitist notions, one of the very things the group was founded to fight.
In the late 1960s, splinter groups emerged from the Pyrates Confraternity to become known as Buccaneers and Eiye. Before long, other breakaway groups began to surface and spread into other Nigerian universities with new themes, philosophies, and creeds that espouse violence and strong-arm tactics of dominion on campuses as they jostled for prestige, power, women, and access to corrupt politicians who were hiring cult members to unleash violence against opponents.
The activities of cult groups soon moved into the larger Nigerian society due to some Nigerian universities' tough anti-cultism stance and because members retained membership after graduation. By 1982, some people in public services were either members of one secret cult group or the other, prompting the then federal government to order members to denounce their membership of such cults or risk losing their jobs.
Today, there exist more than 40 cult groups in Nigeria with over 12,000 branches or chapters. Most cult-related violence now occurs in the cities and villages like Azuabie than in the universities and other school campuses.
Security and economic impacts?
A general estimate shows that cult-related deaths within and outside campuses between 1996 and 2019 stand at 10,000.
While there is no sufficient data to measure the impact of cultism on the national economy, what is known is that some cultists in some parts of Nigeria have, over the years, transformed into ransom-seeking kidnappers, armed robbers, illegal tax collectors, and armed militias who threaten the operation of businesses in areas they have a strong presence.
In Rivers State, for example, one study conducted in 2018 to determine the socio-economic impact of cultism in that state concluded that in areas where cultists operated regularly, people lived in fear and could not freely engage in business and agriculture activities.
Failed efforts to end cultism
The first known government effort to end violent cultism was in 1989 when the then federal military government promulgated Decree 47, empowering university authorities to monitor student union activities and to expel and prosecute (for a possible five-year jail term or a fine of N50,000 or $500 at the time) any students who were members of secret cults. Though the decree helped stem down the rate of cult-related violence, it did not completely stop the practice as cult groups continued to operate less openly.
After democratic governance returned, in 2001, former President Olusegun Obasanjo signed an anti-cultism bill into law, imposing a two-to-three-year jail term or a fine of N250,000 (over $2,300 then) or both for any person who formed or joined any violent secret cult. Since then, nearly all of Nigeria's 36 states have introduced one anti-cultism law or the other, with Lagos State stipulating as much as a 21-year-jail term for offenders.
In Rivers State, one of the nation's theaters of cult-related killings, three anti-cultism bills have been passed into law; one in 2004, another in 2007, and the last one in 2018 stipulating a death penalty for offenders.
Yet, it is believed federal and state governments are not doing enough to protect people and property from the attacks of rampaging cultists due partly to the weak implementation of various laws. It is also held that past efforts failed because rich and influential parents and patrons intervened to give cultists a soft landing in and out of campus.
The way forward
To achieve a serene and secure school environment and society, an uncompromising, multi-dimensional, and collective approach is needed to tackle violent cultism in the country. It would involve the government at the federal, state, and local levels, parents, school administrators, politicians, the military, the formal security apparatus, and the students themselves working together.
The government - federal and state - should take punitive measures against cultism and cultists by prosecuting cult members alongside their highly placed sponsors, publishing their names and photographs in all higher institutions and on the media. All violent secret cults in the country should be proscribed. Any undue interference should be resisted to allow justice to take its course.
There should be counselling units in schools from primary to university. All students should be able to access guidance and counselling services from time to time to counsel them against the evil of cultism.
University and college students who engage in cultism should be expelled from school. Lecturers and teachers who belong to cults or sponsor cultists should be dismissed from service.
If these measures are in place, more youths will not die at the hands of cultists like Udobong.
NOTE: For the security of the writer, the real name of the victim is concealed and Udobong is used in its place.