When Lagos State University held its annual week-long entrance examination in late November, the main entrance to the university looked like a military camp. As the would-be students entered the campus they faced heavily armed paramilitary police, as members of the university security force searched one after another before letting them into the compound. All other students were barred from entering.
The measures were aimed at preventing attacks by armed gangs who are members of student cults. They often choose examination days to launch deadly attacks against rival members, and Lagos University has had its fair share.
In the past two decades, student gangs that go by names such as ‘Black Axe’, the ‘Buccaneers’, ‘Eiye Confraternity’, and the ‘Vikings’, have committed violence in tertiary institutions across Nigeria. According to the Nigerian civic group, Exam Ethics Project (EEP), 115 students and teachers were killed between 1993 and 2003. More recently the education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, put the figure at 200 deaths between 1996 and 2005.
In one of the worst incidents of such violence, more than a dozen students were shot dead in June 2002 at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in southeast Nigeria, when an armed gang entered the university’s engineering faculty in three stolen cars and opened fire on students sitting examinations.
“In many cases the violence by these groups is closely tied to examination malpractices,” said Ike Onyechere, EEP’s founder.
Just weeks before the Nsukka incident, a student leader at the Lagos State University, who headed an anti-student cult campaign, was stabbed to death by suspected cultists. In the city of Ibadan, some 100 km north of Lagos, several students died in an exchange of gunfire between rival gangs.
Another anti-cult activist, Segun Olushola, at the university in Nsukka, was abducted by gunmen in August 2006. Police investigators are still searching for him though fellow students presume he is dead
In violence allegedly between rival gangs in September, three students from a polytechnic in southwest Osun State were killed with machetes and buried in a shallow grave. The attackers presumed all three were dead but according to the police one of the victims survived.
The origin of campus cults can be traced to the University of Ibadan, where in 1952 Nigerian Nobel Literature Prize-winner, Wole Soyinka and a group of friends, created a campus fraternity called the Pyrates Confraternity. The fraternity was much like others on campuses worldwide. At the time, Soyinka said its purpose was to create a counter-culture of non-conformist behaviour opposing the colonial order prevailing in the university system at the time.
It was an idea that quickly spread to campuses around Nigeria. By the early 1970s a group of expelled members of the Pyrates Confraternity formed a rival group, the Buccaneers. A few years later another group splintered from the Buccaneers to become the Neo-Black Movement or the Black Axe.
For much of the 1970s and the 1980s the rivalry between the groups was limited to brawls and fisticuffs. But in the late 1980s armed student gangs emerged when the country was under military rule and student and university teachers’ unions were the only effective opposition in the country.
One commonly held view on the cause of the violence is that decades of misrule and corruption have spawned a culture of impunity. “Many of those who are members of these campus gangs are children of rich and influential people,” Eke Onyemaechi, an engineering lecturer, told IRIN. “On occasions some of them have been arrested by police but were freed after their parents brought their influence to bear.”
Soyinka also blames the degeneration of campus fraternities on the “vicious, mimic upstarts, the predatory scions of corrupt classes.” He dismisses attempts to link them to the group he founded more than 50 years earlier. “My message to the would-be reformers of the cultic phenomenon is this: stop attempting to apportion the blame for a malignant phenomenon on a benign beginning,” he wrote in a recent newspaper article. “Such attempts are morally deficient, since their purpose is to provide an alibi for contemporary society for its own moral degeneracy that resulted in the deformation of an original blueprint.”
Former student activists allege that some of the gangs had been armed by security agents linked to the military regimes, which saw them as a way of keeping an increasingly militant and outspoken student movement in check, spearheading strikes and demonstrations against the military rulers. “We had military intelligence and state security operatives on the campuses who were supposedly students, and they were often the source of the weapons for some of these groups,” Isotonu Achor, a former student leader at Nsukka, told IRIN.
According to Ezekwesili, politicians have armed and used gangs as thugs to intimidate opponents in recent years. He has vowed to deal with cultism in the educational institutions. In December he launched the Students Anti-Thuggery and Cultism Project, aimed at making students aware of the dangers of belonging to gangs and to encourage those already involved to renounce their membership.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]