If students at British universities are “freshers” or “finalists”, their counterparts in Nigeria are members of the “Black Bras”, the “Black Axes” or the “Pyrates”.
But there the similarity ends. While British students are struggling to pay tuition fees, their Nigerian counterparts are risking death in violent clashes between rival university cults steeped in black magic.
“They indulge in all sorts of violent activities – killing, rape, extortion, theft,” said Emmanuel Chege, a 24 year-old botany student at Ambrose Ali university in the town of Ekpoma.
Mr Chege sat beneath a poster reading, “We are tired of the cultists – they must go!”. The university in Ekpoma is notorious for the violence of the cults.
In the last month alone, 13 of its students have been killed in clashes between cults calling themselves the “Black Axe” and the “Black Eye”.
Professional mercenaries were allegedly hired to carry out some of the killings. The state governor, Lucky Igbinedion, was forced to intervene in the conflict.
He called a special meeting with the university authorities to discuss the security situation. But Ambrose Ali university was not closed for fear of disrupting final exams.
Mr Chege said the cults use “juju”, or black magic, to terrify students.
When someone is initiated, they are traditionally beaten to the ground with their assailant hitting them below the head to prevent noticeable bruises. They must then stand up and be beaten to the ground over and over again.
“You have to take some concoctions and rituals. People die – those are the weak ones,” said Mr Chege. The concoctions are a mixture of drugs, alcohol and blood drawn from an animal.
Nigeria’s 100 universities boast four main cults. Members of each wear distinctive bandanas and use particular handshakes.
These mannerisms are bizarrely reminiscent of the antics of the gangs who terrorise the poorer neighbourhoods of American cities and control local crime networks.
In Nigeria those in the “Black Axe”, wear black bandanas, the “Black Eyes” wear yellow, the “Pyrates” favour blue and the “Mafia” choose red.
Non-members are often ostracised and referred to derisively as “Jews”. University lecturers are often members.
Nigeria’s student cults started out as relatively innocent organisations, similar to the debating clubs of Oxbridge. But they soon metamorphosed into a far more frightening version of American student fraternities or the German “burschenschaften”, notorious for their love of duelling.
The Nigerian “Pyrates” were founded in 1954 for political discussion by Wole Soyinka, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
By the 1980s, the “Pyrates” had become steeped in violence and fought for supremacy on the campuses with their rivals from the “Black Axe”.
They lost and the “Black Axe” seized first place as the largest cult.
Female students have their own cults – called the “Black Bras” in Lagos university.
Murders are organised by the cult’s “capos” or “butchers”. The pretext can be anything from a perceived slight to, more often, the favours of a female student.
The cults are believed to have been responsible for hundreds of murders in the last 20 years.
“It’s all about supremacy and in a war that’s when the killing starts,” said Mr Chege.
Apr. 20, 2005
Christian Allen Purefoy in Ekpoma