Omoyele Sowore’s attackers wore red baseball hats and covered their faces.
“Two of them followed me and pulled out their guns and forced me to walk back to their members,” he says.
It was a well-coordinated attack.
“Around 150 of them were running in my direction, shooting into the air, holding out knives and broken bottles. As soon as they reached me they held guns to my waist and shot into the air several times to scare away students who were surging in large numbers toward my direction,” Sowore recalls.
“They took me into the hallway and stabbed me all over my body. They pinned me to the wall and injected me, it was very painful, I felt my entire body quaking. I managed to get out of the hallway with my body covered in blood but I was seized by another group of cultists who stripped me naked. They took me to the third floor and forced me to jump down after hitting me with a baseball bat,” Sowore recalls.
The attackers injected Sowore with an unknown substance.
“It was a decision to kill me slowly by injecting me with an unknown chemical substance,” he says.
Such incidents are common in Nigeria’s universities. The attackers, who assaulted Sowore, were cult students at the University of Lagos.
Sowore’s crime was that as a student leader he led a campaign against cultism.
“I was working upon the mandate of the University of Lagos to fight cultism. The campaign took a lot of dimensions. It was a principled, very well-organised and mass-based campaign that fearlessly targeted cult gang members and exposed them. On so many occasions we had to physically prevent them from harming students,” says the former students’ union leader.
Nigeria’s universities are under the grip of cult gang members. About 20 cult groups operate in the country’s universities. The most prominent are the “Buccaneers, Vikings, Black Axe and Eiye Confraternity”. Their objective is to control the universities for selfish ends.
They indulge in criminal acts such as rape, robbery and extortion. They also coerce lecturers into awarding them good grades. Strict lecturers, who refuse to cooperate, are often shot dead in their offices. In the past three months, six lecturers in different institutions in south-eastern Nigeria have been killed by suspected cult members, according to the police and university authorities.
Scores of students are killed yearly in cult-related violence. Some are murdered for minor reasons like going out with female students whom cult members fancied. Student leaders who wage campaigns against cult members also risk being killed. One of the most remarkable attacks on student leaders occurred in 1999 at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife in south-western Nigeria.
Five students, including the secretary general of the students’ union, were killed. Many students are murdered in their final year just after writing their last examinations.
Tola Kazeem, a student at the Obafemi Awolowo University, says cult gangs inflict maximum agony and fear on the campus.
“If you offend them, they postpone their judgement and you think they have forgotten. No, they haven’t. They retaliate in a way that hurts most,” he says.
Kazeem escaped being killed when a cult member fired at him last year. Many cult activists are themselves killed during gun battles between rival groups.
The government and university authorities say they are making efforts to curb the menace of cult gangs. Nigeria’s National Universities Commission (NUC), the government agency coordinating the country’s universities, is anxious to curb the activities.
“Not only is any student implicated in cult activities summarily dismissed from the university, such students are also barred from gaining entry into other universities,” says Peter Okebukola, NUC executive secretary. The Nigerian government and some of the country’s 36 states are planning new legislations against the cults.
A proposed law in Nigeria’s north-central state of Kwara provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for student cult members.
But Nigerians are not convinced that new legislations will make any difference since not much has been done to prosecute cult members under existing laws.
Taiwo Adepoju, a sociologist, believes it will be hard to eliminate campus cults without addressing the root causes of the problems that make students to join the group in the first place.
“The nature of the Nigerian society is such that most people want to get power at all cost for their economic benefits,” he says.
Sowore says the cult students, who are mainly the children of Nigeria’s ruling class, seek to control the universities in the manner their parents control the country.
“The cultists are the youth wing of the ruling class. Most of them are the children of military officers, chiefs and influential Nigerians who were responsible for the rot in the larger society,” he says.
Cult students flout the law and go scot-free just as their parents do.
“We have a class of Nigerians who have the licence to kill and these characters are in power. The same license or immunity is extended to their children, friends and acquaintances; they also have immunity to criminal prosecution. In short, they are above the law of the land, every Nigerian knows this fact,” he says.
In most universities, students live in fear. No one knows who will be the next target of the gangs.
“Life on campus is unpredictable, the cultists are everywhere, some of them have graduated but chose to remain on campus,” Kazeem says.
Kazeem says he has come across “weeping parents” who have travelled to collect the bodies of their loved ones from the university. Some rich parents who do not want to subject their children to cult activities send them to study abroad.