Thursday, August 22, 2002

Malcolm Fabiyi, PhD
Johannesburg, South Africa

Deconstructing cultism:
Making sense of the Nigerian experience

ometime in 1952, seven young men, gathered round to found the first fraternal brotherhood in a Nigerian tertiary institution. The place was the university college Ibadan (now the university of Ibadan). The roll call of the teenage youth at that fateful gathering, included names like Wole Soyinka, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, Muyiwa Awe, Ralph Okpara, Nathaniel Oyelola, Ben Egbuchelam, and Pius Oleghe. The fraternity they formed was the pyrates confraternity, a fraternal brotherhood whose birth had been inspired by the pyratanical creed that was popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book Treasure Island. Thus, the history of cultism in our institutions of higher learning, have their roots in that rather ironically auspicious beginning. With time, the organisation that these adolescents had intended to be a fun gathering of de-classed and de-tribalised compatriots, was to spawn a series of groups that have collectively transformed our tertiary institutions into battle fields and graveyards for the young.

Attempting to understand the syndrome

The causal elements of the violent cultic phenomenon has baffled, rattled and continues to confuse many observers of the Nigerian situation. How do young educated citizens become cold-hearted murderers who could calmly stroll into a crowded examination hall and gun down 15 human beings (as happened at the University of Nigeria Nsukka on Friday, 14th June 2002), or storm a room of sleeping students and murder 5 of them in cold blood (as at the Obafemi Awolowo University on 10th July, 1999)?

Theories have been bandied around about the possible causalities – ranging from demonic and spiritual possession, to the socially destabilizing effects of the militarisation of the state due to prolonged military rule, to the "elitist progeny" theory. I particularly detest the "demon possession" theory, because that precludes the option of a rational, logic driven approach to understanding the cause and effect relationships of this syndrome. The jury is still out on the militarisation theory, although I believe that this is not a primary factor. As for the elitist progeny theory, while there might be some truth in it, there is also evidence to suggest that Nigerian campus cultic groups have members that cut across all social stratifications.

The elitist progeny theory has been largely fuelled by the common knowledge that despite the countless cases of cultic brutality on campuses nationwide, no one is yet to be brought to book for any of the killings that were carried out. The assumption therefore has to be that at some stage, once the public outcry has died out the perpetrators simply walk back into freedom. From the Nigerian perspective, there is only one class of individuals that we know to be able to walk away from punishment – and this is the so-called elite. Therefore any young persons who can walk away from punishment after committing the most dastardly of crimes must be linked, most probably by blood, to the elite. The fact that as at yet, no one has been convicted for the cold-blooded murder of the 5 students union activists at Ife in July 1999 definitely lends credence to this theory!

In a power glorifying society like ours, the elitist progeny theory holds particular attraction, but the reality on the ground presents divergent factual realities as regards the question of cult membership. I believe that a complete causal theory must answer three fundamental questions

  1. Why do people join cults?

  2. What mechanisms, either in the cult movement, or in human psychology, are responsible for the transformation of seemingly normal young people, some from very good backgrounds, into psychotic killers?

  3. What has prevented the transformation of these cults into model organizations that play a clear social developmental role, as did traditional African cults like the Poro, the Ogboni, the Ekpe and the Egbesu.

None of the currently existing theories provides comprehensive answers to the fundamental questions posed here, and this must therefore be construed to be a failing. This discourse is aimed at providing an alternative causal theory, and it will also attempt to proffer solutions for addressing the menace.

If culture provides a plausible answer to the cultural roots of fraternal brotherhoods, it is history that will shed light on the reasons why the violent cultic, rather than the socially responsible fraternal order took root in Nigerian tertiary institutions.

The origins of cultism

Man is a social being, and thrives on extensive social networks. Fraternal brotherhoods are merely an extension of such networks. The more collectivist and communal a society is, the more the workings of that society would come to depend on the facilitating roles of fraternal groups. For instance, fraternal groups (age grades) such as the Poro among the Mende of Sierra Leone and the Otuerere among the Urhobos of Nigeria are responsible for such tasks as community policing, community hygiene, and community development works (e.g., the clearing of fields, building of roads and footpaths). Cultural guardianship also resides with fraternal orders and cults, e.g., as with the Oro cult of the Yorubas, the Ekpe cult of the Aro Igbo and the Ibibio, and the Ekpako of the Urhobo. The more a society’s functioning, relies on belief in the intervention of djinns, spirits, demons, gods, goddesses, ancestral personages, magical myths and fantasies; the more likely it is for such societies to have an in-built predilection for secret fraternal orders. In such societies, the functioning of the state relies on spiritual symbols, and spiritual symbols are effective only for as long as they retain their ability to inspire awe and fear based on the aura of mystery that surrounds them. The functioning of many cultural fraternal orders subsisted in the preservation of the secrets of the ancients, and therefore the guardianship of the spiritual symbols that held the fabric of society together. Because the raison d’etre was the preservation of mysteries and rituals, these cults had to function in secrecy.

Thus, we can predict that the secret cult problem should largely be manifested primarily in the southern parts of Nigeria, and less so in the north. The north, with its predominantly Islamic monotheistic outlook can therefore by design, not foster fraternal brotherhoods in the manner that southern Nigerian cultural forms can. Rather, the major issues that could induce a grouping of individuals in a societal setting as in northern Nigeria would be in matters of quarannic (religious) interpretative differences. In such a setting, sects, rather than fraternal brotherhoods will be the order of the day. Evidence of the truth of this postulate is seen in the divisions of northern Nigerian society largely on the basis of adherence to the Sunni or Shi’ia sects of Islam. Again, because the intent of religious cults/sects is the eventual conversion of all persons to their worldview, they cannot afford the luxury of secrecy. Such organizations are however marked by their ideological opacity and a very strictly enforced hierarchy. Ultimately however, the battle of sects is a battle for hearts and minds. The battlefields for such "wars" are littered, not with blood and bones, but with megaphones, and tracts; with contests in charity and elaborate displays of piety and spirituality. Unsurprisingly, very few cases of secret cult violence are reported from Nigerian northern institutions. In the few cases where cult violence has been reported from Northern institutions, it has mostly been the southern elements in those institutions that are involved in the fracas.

Thus, there appears to be a strong case for the cultural disposition of the southern Nigerian to secret fraternal brotherhoods, and our societies, even today, still retain vestiges of this cultural heritage. Many of our national leaders of southern origins, e.g., Azikiwe, Awolowo and Bola Ige were all members of the Rosicrucian confraternity – a secretive (oc)cultic order. I make bold to say that there is hardly a Yoruba leader of note that is not a member of the reformed Ogboni fraternity (recall that one of the pivotal points in Falae’s case against Obasanjo after the elections of 1999, was that Obasanjo was a member of the Ogboni fraternity – a secret society, and therefore one whose membership is prohibited for public office holders). Membership of cultural associations is still rife, and Nigerians from Cape Town to Cairo; and from Stockholm to Sydney, will find that their lives still largely revolve around cultural institutions and symbols, of one form or the other.

What is responsible for violent campus cultism?

Although the cultural disposition of the southern Nigerian to fraternal orders can explain how, and why such "brotherhoods" under one guise or the other, have retained relevance in our society at large, what baffles observers of the Nigerian situation is how the tertiary educational system has become the center for violent cultic associations. To explore this issue, we must attempt to answer three pressing questions

  1. What led to the emergence of fraternal brotherhoods modeled after local cultural systems in western oriented educational institutions?

  2. Why is the outlook of fraternal brotherhoods in Nigerian tertiary institutions so violent?

  3. Why has the Nigerian college fraternity system evolved so differently from that of other societies (e.g., the USA) with a similar culture of fraternal college associations?

Given the strong role of cultism in the cultural milieu of non-Islamic ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, and the dissonance of colonial rule, there was a gnawing vacuum for a movement or organisation that could integrate the cultural need for fraternal belonging, into mainstream academic life. The challenge in doing this was ensuring that the associative vehicle was one that was sufficiently "western" to void being labeled local and unprogressive, but which also sufficiently retained elements of cultural fraternal brotherhoods (the reasons why these conditionalities were important will be addressed shortly). To be relevant, the groups had to allow for the expression of certain core elements of cultural fraternal orders, namely:

  1. Oaths and secrecy

  2. Rituals and traditions

  3. Societal developmental roles

The pyrates’ confraternity that was formed in 1952 helped to bridge this gap, by providing a sufficiently "western" vehicle for the expression of a cultural need for fraternal association. However, while the pyrates confraternity was able to provide the first two conditions listed above, it was by design not able to function in any societal developmental capacity because of the vehicle of expression that was chosen – the pyratanical creed. This flaw in the fraternal vision of the original seven was to ultimately lead to the gradual transmogrification of that earlier vision into the nightmare of violent cultism that plagues our campuses today. The rest of this essay explores how this came about.

The origins of violent cultism

If culture provides a plausible answer to the cultural roots of fraternal brotherhoods, it is history that will shed light on the reasons why the violent cultic, rather than the socially responsible fraternal order took root in Nigerian tertiary institutions.

The 1950s, which was the decade that saw the emergence of the first fraternal brotherhood in a Nigerian tertiary institution, was a period of intense nationalist ferment and cultural dissonance. There was the promise of independence from Britain as well as progress on a number of fronts – academic, literary, and political. However, this was also the period when ethnicity and tribal sentiments made their entries into Nigerian politics. For the few young Nigerians who were fortunate enough to make it to university, the times must have been truly confusing. They must have admired the lucid prose and convincing oratory of icons like Azikiwe; gawked at the clarity of thought and the iron-willed drive of personages like Awolowo; respected the organizational skills of leaders like Michael Imoudu; and would have been mesmerized by the youthful energy, and the selfless commitment of young titans like Mokwugo Okoye, Osita Agwuna, Anthony Enahoro, and Raji Abdallah. However, they must have also been greatly saddened by the increasingly sentimental tribal and ethnic rhetoric that many of these "nationalist" leaders were voicing.

I imagine that these young Nigerians must have pondered over the question of what it meant, or would mean (once independence was attained) to be Nigerian. They must have wondered about the role of ethnicity in a nation state, and would probably have concluded that it was an irritating aberration. Having been raised in cultural limbo – strongly attuned religiously to Christianity, but still resident in communes and locales that retained strong elements of tradition, these youngsters were the first to experience that ailment that assails colonized peoples everywhere – cultural dissonance.

In Soyinka’s autobiographical book – "Ake – the years of childhood", we catch a glimpse of the cultural flux that these young persons of that era experienced. At home in Isara, Soyinka lived at home with his staunchly Christian parents. His mother was even called "wild Christian" in recognition of the strength of her conviction. The day began and ended with a hymn, and prayers preceded every meal. However, whenever Soyinka went to the village to visit his grandfather, he was introduced to the world of oaths and spiritual bonds; he received lessons in the beliefs of his people; and an introduction to the gods and deities that ruled their lives. It was at the foot of his grandfather that Soyinka was introduced to Ogun (who he later adopted as his patron god), and the other members of the pantheon of Yoruba deities. The fundamental question in such a milieu must have centered on the location of the critical balance between modernity and traditionalism. How could one be learned (and therefore western), yet remain true to one’s culture? Soyinka, one of the most original thinkers of his generation, would undoubtedly have contemplated these issues. It is instructive that Achebe, another great thinker of that generation explored the issues of cultural dissonance in his first published literary work. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Okonkwo’s story is ultimately a tale of the battle between modernity and tradition, and an individual’s quest to locate a space, and to find an identity, when all around was in flux.

The failures of the pyratanical fraternal vision

Life always reveals its mysteries in hindsight. Therefore, the discourse that follows is not an attempt at allocating blame to the seven adolescents that founded the first cult in 1952. It is important firstly, to understand how the defining social and political movements that were operative in Nigeria when the original seven conceptualized their vision of a fraternal brotherhood influenced their decisions.

The 1950s, as was stated earlier were the heydays of nationalism. However, for socially conscious youth, the ravages of ethnicity were starting to make themselves obvious. For such persons who were sufficiently enamored of traditional fraternal orders to seek to replicate the workings of such groups, a cultic/fraternal movement that was based on the cultural workings of any particular Nigerian ethnic nationalities would amount to the affirmation of the superiority of the culture from which the cult institution was borrowed, and would thus be a manifestation of tribalism.

It was perhaps in their puerile attempts at creating an ethnically neutral fraternal brotherhood that the original seven looked beyond the shores of Africa to find alternative fraternal vehicles. Robert Louis Stevenson’s book - Treasure Island, offered sufficient inspiration with its romantic portrayal of the pyratanical fraternal creed. A creed, which affirms itself in being "against all convention", as defined by society. Obviously, the teenagers who formed the pyrates fraternity did not debate the philosophical implications of their choice of a fraternal vehicle – they probably did not even fully grasp the potential future implications of what they were doing.

There were several flaws in the pyratanical creed as it was proposed in 1952,

  1. The pyratanical creed amplified, rather than abated cultural dissonance. There were more applicable African fraternal brotherhoods that could have been used as a vehicle. The Anglo-Saxon pyratanical vehicle that was chosen had no bearings whatsoever with the African understanding of fraternities and brotherhoods. While the African cult performed clear developmental roles in society e.g., as with the Poro amongst the Mende people of Sierra Leone, the Egbesu amongst the Ijaw people, and the Ogboni amongst the Yoruba; the pyratanical creed was in contrast, anti-society. It was a cult of thieves. It was a secret brotherhood, not by choice, but by circumstance. It was composed of men whose livelihoods were derived from the slaughter of innocent seafarers and the pitiless plunder of their belongings.

  2. The pyratanical creed "against all convention" which remains a core aspect of the pyrates (and therefore all other campus cults’, since they are all offshoots of the pyrates) worldview was not prescriptive enough to serve as a clear statement of objectives. Convention is relative, and can be interpreted in a variety of contexts. Social, cultural, political, etc. Would the flouting of clear societal laws against violence, not in a warped way, count for the fulfillment of the creed "against all convention?" Clearly, differences in interpretation could lead to the emergence of deviant groups formed on the basis of a warped interpretation of what could otherwise have been a noble, but ambiguous creed

  3. The most dangerous element of the pyratanical creed is/was in its very motto "Odas is Odas" which translates to mean, "Orders are Orders". While the original seven might have intended this to be a call for discipline, it has become interpreted to mean an unquestioning, almost zombie like obedience of all directives from the upper echelons of the hierarchy of campus cults, regardless of whether or not these directives could ultimately lead to the killing and maiming of innocent individuals.

This last creed more than any other demonstrates the inherent contradictions within the pyratanical vehicle of fraternal brotherhood. On the one hand, one stands against convention, and the assumption is that this is a stand driven by individual conviction. But the stand is not an individual one – it is collective, and in its collective nature, it becomes a stand for a group convention. And once that group convention is defined (regardless of who defines it), it cannot be questioned, for "Odas is Odas". It is easy to see how groups like this can become powerful tools for oppression and chaos in the hands of a psychotic individual – and our nation is full of many countless psychotic elements that walk around like normal people. Add to this the fact that the pyratanical vehicle because of its western roots has no societal developmental functions, and we arrive at a fraternal model that essentially serves the purpose not even of the group, but of individuals. There are countless tales of cult wars that have been precipitated by a cult leader’s anger at being looked at the wrong way, or for having his lecherous overtures spurned by a female.

Thus, we see that seemingly insignificant issues such as the choice of a fraternal vehicle, the non-specificity of the meanings of the fraternal creed, and the lack of social development objectives set fraternal associations in Nigeria on an inevitable path of social deviance. In these groups we have individuals who have the power, but without the responsibilities that ought to have come with them. The individualistic pyratanical creed which had no societal objectives, but which emphasized an allegiance only between fraternal brothers became the definitive vehicle for fraternal association. Subsequent breakaway groups like the Buccaneers, the Vikings, the Klu Klux Klan (yes, there is a Nigerian campus cult group named after the odious organisation that was responsible for the racially motivated lynching and killing of our African-American diasporean brothers), the Black Axe, Eiye, and other groups largely retained the individualistic pyratanical creed as their raison d’etre.

Nowhere is the cultural dissonance in these groups portrayed as vividly, as is done in what they choose to call themselves. Who would believe that African fraternal groups go by names like the pyrates (Anglo-Saxon, European), Buccaneers (Anglo-Saxon, European), Vikings (Nordic), Klu Klux Klan (North American, white supremacist), Daughters of Jezebel (Judeo-Christian)? Of the dominant fraternal groupings, only the Eiye fraternity uses an indigenous ethnological source for its name.

Without a clear set of measurable societal objectives, it became inevitable that these groups would decline morally, faster than even the society was declining. The aberration of western individualism in the collectivist fraternal traditions of the African was to lead to a wholesale amplification of cultural dissonance.

The roles of campus fraternities in other societies

As I posited earlier, fraternal brotherhoods have thrived, because they served a purpose – fulfilled a need. A timeless and ongoing African, nay human, need for social belonging that is still manifested in the collectivist nature of our societies, all the way from the innumerable social and cultural organizations to which we belong, to the community development associations, the buyer’s groups and the thrift societies that continue to govern our lives. Fraternal societies continue to service these needs in other societies, and it might be useful to study how the collegial fraternal system has evolved in other societies.

In countries like the United States of America, campus life would be unimaginable without their "Greek life" fraternities and sororities (sisterhoods). These organizations are called Greek life, because their origins were derived from an attempt to recreate the fraternal scholastic feel of the philosophical schools that the Greeks pioneered – a system in which rival philosophers and scholars had schools that consisted mainly of other scholars and apprentices who subscribed to their worldview and philosophies. It is no exaggeration to state that the American educational system, and to a large extent, the American society owes a great deal of debt for the formation of a character of service in its youth, to collegiate fraternities and sororities.

Modeled after the Greek schools, social service and an aspiration to enlightenment were natural consequences of the choice for "Greek life", because that was what the scholastic traditions to which they aspired was all about. The vehicle in this instance, was appropriate, for it borrowed a powerful collectivist intellectual fraternal vehicle, and applied it in an environment of individualism. It is therefore not surprising that almost all of America’s political and intellectual elite are themselves products of fraternities. Most US presidents, including the incumbent George Bush, were members of fraternal orders. It was in these fraternities that many performed their first social services, worked pro bono in the first soup parlors for poor people, and developed a passion for service. Fraternities as they are structured in that nation, also perform functions like augmenting the infrastructure base in universities by providing what they call chapter houses on campus where members of the fraternity live.

To buttress the role of the societal context in explaining how and why groups evolve as they do, it is worthwhile contrasting the evolution of youth life in tertiary institutions in an individualist, non stratified nation like America with for instance an elitist, stratified society like Britain.

There is virtually no fraternal system, as we know it in America and Nigeria in British schools. This I believe is largely because by the time the university system became democratized and was open to all, there were no real contradictions within the national body polity that could have lead for a need for social identity beyond the broad divisions of English society into the royal and the other classes. The monarchy was not under siege. Everyone knew their place in society, and lived, associated and acted accordingly. In America however, the university system evolved in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. Those were, as in the case of Nigeria, the period of national birth and was therefore a period of intense social and political ferment. The American nation had just won independence from Britain, and there was a rejection in America of the class divisions of society that prevailed in England. In pursuit of the same spirit that had given birth to their nation, the young men who formed the first fraternities, looked to history to seek out models of association that were egalitarian, that promoted constructive dissent in the quest for enlightenment, and which were by design intended to develop the individual as well as the community. The Greek scholastic tradition of fraternal orders, met all of these criteria.

In contrast, it was from Robert Louis Stevenson’s pyratanical tale of naked greed, intrigues, manipulation, lawlessness, and life on the outer fringes of society that the group of adolescents who formed Nigeria’s fraternal brotherhood found inspiration. As I stated earlier, this choice was as limiting as it was damaging. Unfortunately it caught on, and became the standard for all other fraternal associations that followed.

In July 1984, the National Association of Sea dogs (the pyrates confraternity) was forced to pull out of Nigerian campuses as the problem of cult violence became more intense and intractable. They were clueless as regards what the problem was, and what the solutions could be. This act shows their desperation in the face of campus chapters that failed to mirror the noble interpretations of the pyratanical creed, which others before them had upheld. The socio-political context had changed, and with that change came a corresponding paradigm shift in the interpretation of the ambiguous pyratanical creed. While "against all convention" in Soyinka’s time might have meant a stand against colonial aping and cultural affirmation; by the 1980s, it meant rebellion against legitimate legal structures.

In fairness, the pyrates have remained at the forefront of attempts at understanding the menace of cultism, but unfortunately, all their attempts so far, have looked outwards, rather than inwards. The solutions proffered have therefore been pedestrian, and lacking in any real insight. While some of the problem lies in the moral decay of the larger society, the root lies in the flawed design of the fraternal vehicle that was put forward in 1952.

The way forward

As was stated earlier, man is a social animal, and from pre-historic times, has sought out communities of like-minded others to relate with. Fraternal brotherhoods and sisterhoods have always had a role to play in African societies and will probably continue to do so for eons to come. The real challenge, I believe is that of re-aligning the warped individualist, intellectually stifling, moronic ideology of fraternal brotherhood that exists in Nigeria, to one that is more collectivist (in the real sense of the word), and which like traditional African cults have a clear social developmental role to fulfill.

In southern Nigeria particularly, cults played, and continue to play a significant role in our lives. For example, following the consistent denial to the delta peoples of their rights to increased revenue derivation quotas, and their frustrations at the insensitivities of government(s) to their plight, Egbesu was reborn, albeit, in a more violent form, to serve as a vehicle for the expression of the Ijaw objection to the plunder of their lands by the Nigerian state. Membership of the OPC and the Bakassi boys, it is said, is predicated upon certain initiatory practices, the taking of oaths, and the performance of rituals – and these groups are therefore arguably, the modern day equivalents of ancient cultic orders whose functions were community policing related.

While we might debate the relevance of fraternal orders and cults to our lives today, there is no question about the damaging and destructive nature of campus cultism today. Solutions are needed, and they are needed urgently. I propose the following as a way to finding real and effective solutions to the cult menace

  1. Competent Nigerian citizens (scholars, cultists, jurists, etc) should be brought together to undertake a rigorous study of the cultism syndrome to foster an understanding of the detailed workings of cult psychology in Nigeria

  2. A road map should then be determined from their work that comprehensively lays out how the transformation of the current warped individualist cultic ideology to a more socially active traditionalist African fraternal creed can be achieved


In a recent topical write-up on this issue, Ume Ngozika posited that a possible solution could be the affirmation of merit in our tertiary institutions. If we celebrate top performing students and athletes, we could precipitate a gradual shift from the current system where cult leaders and other social deviants are idolized (perhaps feared is a more appropriate term to use) to one in which truly deserving persons are rewarded and emulation of their positive behaviors is incentivised. Hopefully, the Nigerian society as a whole could then borrow a leaf from its youth. We will know that this model is successful when the 419 perpetrator, the corrupt politician, the pen robber civil servant, the kleptomaniac public official, and the hypocritical pastors and imams stop being our role models and poster figures.

Every capable Nigerian needs to devote some energy to this search for a solution to the cult menace. If our tertiary educational system collapses under the onslaught of violent cultism, then all will be truly over. Our academics – the innumerable sociology, ethnography, anthropology and psychology professors who throng our universities, and litter the intellectual landscape of our nation, should redouble their efforts at deconstructing this phenomenon. If this issue is not what engages all of their creative energies now, then what does? The fire brigade and reactionary attitude to this menace has not, and cannot solve the problem. It is only a methodical, scientific, logic driven study of the phenomenon that will yield the answers that are needed.