No-one paid much attention to three cars as they pulled up on the afternoon of Friday 14 June in a car park at the University of Nigeria's campus at Nsukka, in the southeastern state of Enugu State.
All of a sudden, several armed young men jumped out of the cars, raced into a nearby auditorium and opened fire on students swotting for their end-of-semester examinations. By the time the gunsmoke had cleared, 14 students lay dead. Two of the assailants were arrested by fellow students and handed over to the police.
The shock and outrage caused by the massacre reverberated throughout the country, and the university was closed indefinitely.
The police put the blame squarely on campus cults. "The university has been shut down
because some cult members went there, shooting and killing innocent people," Nwachukwu Egbochukwu, Enugu State's police commissioner said at the time. The three cars used in the operation, he said, had been snatched at gunpoint from their owners hours before the attack.
The Nsukka massacre was the worst manifestation so far of a cancer that had been spreading in Nigeria’s tertiary educational institutions for three decades: the menace of student cults, who visit violence on their rivals in a manner comparable to US street gangs. The attack in Nsukka
has been blamed on a group identified as the Vikings, who were on an apparent revenge mission on students thought to belong to a rival gang.
Before the Nsukka incident, the president of the Lagos State University's student union, who had been waging an anti-cults campaign, was stabbed to death by suspected cultists. At the
Ibadan Polytechnic in the southwest and universities in Okigwe and Port Harcourt in the southeast, several students also died in shootouts involving rival cult groups.
Barely two weeks after the killings at Nsukka, two students of the University of Ado-Ekiti, in the southwest, were shot dead in their residence by suspected cult members. A few days later the scene of violence shifted to nearby Owo. This time students of the town's polytechnic arrested five cult members following an incident and lynched them.
"At least 250 people have been killed in cult wars in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions in the last decade," Emeka Akudi, a sociologist who has been studying the phenomenon, told IRIN. "And as the years pass, the casualty rates appear to be increasing."
Yet, it is a monster with an innocuous beginning. The phenomenon of campus cults in Nigeria has been traced back to 1952, when Wole Soyinka - winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature - and a group of friends at the University of Ibadan formed the Pyrates Confraternity. Its motto was “Against all conventions”.
With the skull and cross bones as their insignia, the Pyrates cultivated a bohemian style that ridiculed the colonial attitudes and mode of dress of the day. This caught on among students and over the next two decades the fraternity, a non-violent body, became established in all universities and tertiary institutions that emerged in post-independence Nigeria.
The emergence of campus cults as they are known in Nigeria today began with a split in the early 1970s in the Pyrates Confraternity. First, a breakaway group formed the Buccaneers Confraternity. Next to emerge was the Black Axe or the Neo-Black Movement. Inter-group rivalry then set in, but
skirmishes between them were limited to fist fights.
The 1980s saw the multiplication of cults in the more than 300 institutions of higher learning across Nigeria. New groups such as the Eiye, the Vikings, the Amazons and Jezebels emerged, bringing with them more intensely violent rivalry.
In 1984, Soyinka, perhaps to take the wind out of the sail of the emerging trend, initiated the abolition of the Pyrates Confraternity in all tertiary institutions, but by then the phenomenon of violent cults had developed a life of its own. By the mid-1980s, it had become evident that some of the cults had been co-opted by elements in the intelligence and security services serving the then military government. They were used as foils to the left-wing student unions which, along with university teachers, were among the only remaining bastions of opposition to military rule.
"This was the time guns came into the picture," said Akudi. "Indeed there were instances where some university vice-chancellors actively protected some known cult groups and used them to hound student activists considered troublesome."
He said the existence of traditional ancestral cults, some of which have transformed into contemporary ones, alongside the Free Masons and other esoteric organisations, had favoured the activities of student cults. Members of some of these groups bond together for the purpose of protecting political and economic interests, and this is mimicked by the student cults.
Following a violent attack in 1999 at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, in which some student union officials were killed by a members of cult, President Olusegun Obasanjo launched a campaign to eradicate cultism from Nigerian tertiary institutions. Hundreds of students across the country came out openly to renounce their membership of cults and the violence associated with the activities of such groups began to die down.
However, recent events indicate a resurgence.
An editorial on 30 July in the respected daily, The Guardian, attempted an explanation:
"The violence associated with the cults currently can be attributed to the general breakdown of values which we once held sacrosanct. The premium attached to human life has plummeted so badly that youths can now kill without flinching ... We therefore cannot combat the cults menace
without paying attention to the problems of the larger society."