A burst of gunfire rang through the hall, shattering the midnight tranquillity, where scores of students huddled to prepare for their first semester examinations. Commotion and groans of agony seized the air. On the floor, wriggling in pains and bathing in a pool of their own blood, were three students. The gunmen, a gang of fellow students in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN, dashed across the hall in a guerrilla style, stamped their authority and, in a bizarre act of cruelty, stabbed their already bullet-ridden colleagues with axes and knives.
John Mbaegbu, 30, a disabled second year student studying for a combined honours degree in Biochemistry and Zoology, died on the spot. Emeka Okwum, a student of Philosophy, lay motionless with knife cuts on his head. He was presumed dead until he gave doctors a surprise several hours later. Chika Anyiam of the Department of Religious Studies, received matchet blows on his thigh, bled to unconsciousness and, together with Okwum, were still under intensive care last week at the University Medical Centre.
Early the next morning, a vicious cult gang which called itself the Ever-Ready-Souls-of-the-Concerned, claimed responsibility for the bloodbath. In a statement issued on pieces of paper smeared with blood, the gang, better identified as the Buccaneers, said its midnight attack was a revenge against “acts of terrorism” by another underground campus cult called the Pyrates. It warned the Pyrates (also known as the National Association of Seadogs) and other members of the university community to be ready to shed more blood and lives “anytime from now.” That afternoon, the embattled authorities closed down the university and brought in the police to drive away all students.
The February 22 bloody assault at the UNN was just a mere child’s play in the tales of horror, brutality, terror and agony unleashed on the universities and other tertiary institutions in recent times by clandestine students’ cults. In April last year, the University of Benin auditorium was jam-packed for a popular campus show called Mr. Kave. Midway into the macho contest, six students, armed to the teeth, stormed the auditorium. ‘F-r-e-e-z-e! if you move I shoot you!” the leader of the gang, a half-cast son of a judge, ordered, brandishing an automatic weapon. The auditorium froze. His gang, known as the Black Axe, moved into action. The leader seized the microphone from the MC (master of ceremony) and ordered four students, all boys, to “stand up and move slowly out of the hall.” Only one of the boys disobeyed. And in the pandemonium that ensued, two persons, a visitor and students, were shot dead.
On November 15, 1989, a gang warfare broke out between two cults at the Awka campus of the Anambra State University of Science and Technology, ASUTECH. The Buccaneers battled for supremacy with another cult gang called Mgba Mgba Brothers. Gunsmoke choked the campus, driving student and lecturers into hiding. When the smoke cleared, Mba Okorie, a student in the department of applied and natural sciences, was found dead. A statement announcing the death of Okorie, issued by the university authorities, said another student, Philip Ekwempu, a final year law student, was “critically ill (in the hospital) as a result of stab wounds inflicted on him.” The statement warned that the activities of campus fraternities were posing a “very grave” problem to the institution and regretted that students sent by their parents to study could turn themselves into monsters, mowing down their fellow students at will.
It sounds stranger than fiction. But the university system in Nigeria is under siege, bombarded, turned upside down and almost ruined by students’ fraternities. Majority of students, lecturers and their families now live in perpetual fear. Under the cover of darkness, the gangs torture, rape, kidnap, rob and maim anybody in the campus who crosses their paths. They cheat at examinations openly and threaten lecturers who dare open their mouths.
Their names convey awe: The Black Axe, the Black Beret, the Temple of Eden, The Trojan Horse, the Mafioso, the Vikings, the Buccaneers, the Sea Dogs, the Mgba Mgba Brother (meaning brothers in intrigues), just to mention a few. They brook no nonsense from anybody. They carry fire-arms, daggers, axes and knives disguised as walking or swagger sticks, and they “baptize’ anybody freely with acid. They are the tin gods and sacred cows of campuses. Chiweyite Ejike, 52, Professor of Zoology and Vice-Chancellor of ASUTECH, told Newswatch two weeks ago; “Campus cults have assumed the menacing posture of the Frankenstein monster, blood-thirsty and ready to devour our universities.”
Early in 1989, two students of the University of Jos arrived in the middle of the night at the Federal College of Education, FCOE, Pankshin, about 150 kilometres south-east of Jos, to initiate some FCOE students into the Buccaneer gang. To mark the occasion and register their presence in the college that night, the fraternity seized a mathematics lecturer and tortured him, allegedly for being ‘strict with marks.” The man, said one report, “narrowly escaped death’. The next day, the police from Paskshin moved in to rout them. Found on the students were human skulls, buckets stained with blood, matchets and bottles of acid.
A lecturer in the Political Science Department of the Cross River State University, Unicross, Uyo, who thought he was tough, found out too late that he could not withstand the fury of the Buccaneers. After a series of “minor misunderstandings” with the fraternity at the campus, the boys took the battle to his house in the town. They broke into the house and destroyed everything in sight. The man escaped. The lecturer’s case, according to Newswatch sources, was worsened by the fact that the “gang had identified him as a member of the Sea Dogs, a rival gang. A few months ago, the young man ‘disappeared’ from campus. Some of his colleagues say he resigned to save his life. Others say he was sacked. The university authorities simply prefer to keep sealed lips.
Another lecturer, terrorized at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, UST, Port Harcourt, has so far weathered the storm. His office in the two-storey engineering complex was burnt by a clandestine group on a Friday night. The lecturer’s trouble is that he is in charge of verification of students’ results. When he moved into another office after the first attack, he was assaulted again by a group suspected to be the Vikings. Although the lecturer and his colleagues would not say why, precisely the gangs are after him for fear of further reprisals, a student of the department of mechanical engineering, who pleaded not to be named, told Newswatch how the lecturer’s problems began. “After one examination sometimes last year, one of these boys just walked up to him and said: “Look, if I fail this exam, you are finished.” They exchanged words and since then, it has been hell for him.”
In the last two months, virtually all vice-chancellors have cried out in distress about the atrocities and havoc wrought by the campus gangs. Augustine Ahiazu, Vice-Chancellor of UST, in his matriculation speech January 27, described their activities as “horrifying.” ASUTECH’s Ejike, also in his matriculation speech February 10, called it a “strange aberration.” Gabriel Umezurike, Vice-Chancellor of Imo State University, ISU, last week described the groups as “destructive and murderous.” Students are even more distraught. Said Iroegbunam Michael Onuoha, Student Union Leader of ASUTECH: “The whole thing is getting out of hand. They (campus cults) have become so heartless and so callous that students no longer feel safe to pursue learning under an ideal, happy and healthy environment.”
Perhaps, in no areas has this callousness been more displayed than in the numerous cases of “acid baptism” and rape in the university. An optometry student at the University of Benin woke up early one morning in her hostel last year and decided to go to the classroom to read in a quiet atmosphere. On her way, she ran out of luck. The Buccaneers were coming. Her story: “I was a Jambite (first year student) then and didn’t know much about them. So, at about 6.00 am, I was trekking alone to the faculty to read and copy some notes before lectures. Suddenly, I saw a convoy of cars coming towards me with full headlights on. They were screaming as they came nearer (I was later told they were ‘sailing’ the previous night). When they got to me, they stopped. I noticed that all of them were dressed in black. As I was about to run, they seized me, threw me into one of the cars, tore my dress. As I screamed, they opened the boot of the car. Inside was the corpse of a boy, with some parts of his body missing? They say I would be thrown into the boot with the corpse if I screamed again. Ten of them raped me, I was so depressed, I went home to Ondo to tell my mother. When my parents came, a lecturer from my area told them my life would be at risk if the boys, who I can still recognize, were reported.
The optometry student was even lucky. Ifeoma of the faculty of science at the UNN has found it difficult to overcome her ordeal. That Saturday evening, she had a visitor, her brother’s friend, according to her, who came in from Enugu campus of the same university to visit his friends and dropped in to see her. Minutes later, the boy suggested that they should go have a drink at a bar called Madu, in the Margaret Ekpo refectory, inside the campus. It was about 8.00 pm. As they stepped out towards the bar, a group of boys surfaced from the darkness and formed a ring around the couple. A sharp knife whistled down the boy’s left shoulder and he slumped. Ifeoma was seized and dragged into the darkness, raped and abandoned in a state of coma.
Victims of this nature hardly tell anybody their encounters because of the stigma that goes with it. “My friends just knew I was attacked. I couldn’t tell them anything in detail, at least up to the point I was still conscious, but it is common knowledge here in Nsukka what girls go through when they fall prey to these vandals,” she said. These days, no girl dare step out of her hostel alone after 7.30pm without risking rape. At Nsukka and most other universities, students could only go to classrooms in the night in groups of tens or more. A vigilante group had to be formed by staff and students in Nsukka but that nearly turned the university into a warfront because incidents of gang warfare and clashes escalated. At the peak of these clashes late last year, the Black Axe captured a boy said to be a member of Pyrates, tortured him and almost cut off his genitals. That boy was still at the UNTH last week.
Late last year, the loud cries of a boy forced a University of Calabar, UNICAL, lecturer to stop abruptly at about 11.00pm along one of the campus’ major streets. An official of the Academic Staff Union of University, ASUU, and lecturer in the Department of Economics, the man was to get more than he bargained for. The screaming boy, a medical student, running for help, forced his way into his car. But the fraternity gang, hot on his heels, caught up with him just before the lecturer could speed off. They “baptized” the boy with acid and smashed the Peugeot 504 car, property of ASUU. The boy was so badly burnt that UNICAL medical centre had to quickly dispatch him to the university teaching hospital for specialist attention.
Acid attack is the commonest form of punishment meted out by the cults to those who dare to go after their girlfriends. They exercise strict control over their girls and it is dangerous for others to “trespass.” Like in the jungle, the fight for females remains at the centre of most bloody clashes between the gangs. For fear of reprisals, girls dread turning down their crude overtures. Said a postgraduate student of English at UNN: “Look at my age. Even at my level, if one of the (cult members) stops me now in the campus, no matter how crude he does it, I must stop and pretend to be very nice and ready to go out with him, then allow him to say all the nonsense he has to say, before I venture to move. Otherwise, his gang will blacklist me and make life most miserable for me.”
At the height of the havoc wrought by these thugs last year, heads of the seven tertiary institutions in Anambra State met, April 27, to deliberate on how to deal with the situation. In a statement issued at the end of the meeting, the vice-chancellors and rectors said gangs have become the worst enemies of higher education in Nigeria and appealed for a concerted effort and co-operation from government agencies, parents and the public to stamp out what they called ‘criminal violence” by the fraternities. As, they put it: “The problem has escalated to warfare and cases abound where clandestine groups from one institution would plan and execute an attack on members of another clandestine group in another institution. They terrorize fellow students, intimidate them in various forms and attempt to bend the general will of the majority to suit their interest. We have such crimes as rape, burglary, thuggery, theft, attacks with daggers, axes and acid. In order to guarantee the proper atmosphere for meaningful learning, it is important to contain the activities of these clandestine groups, immediately.
But there does not appear to be any let up. A gang called the Mafia in the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ile-lfe, specializes in burglary and robbery. They inform their victims in advance of their intentions and they strike in a way that would make Lawrence Anini, the notorious Benin robbery kingpin, turn in his grave with envy. They go for anything that sells fast and rakes in quick cash. On February 1, 1990, they struck at the ground floor restaurant located at the student’s union building, called Forks and Fingers. The Mafia, of course, is not a bunch of hungry students, so they had nothing to do with food. Instead, they carted away several electric and gas cookers as well as nine gas cylinders estimated by Femi Obasa, owner of the restaurant, at more than N50,000.
That was, of course, just one of their minor operations. The previous session, the security department and the office of the vice-chancellor received a note from the Mafia. The gang intimated the OAU authorities of their intention to rob the science faculty of its six computers at a given date and time. Taking the threat seriously, security was beefed up in the campus. But the Mafia knew best just when to strike. Not on the day they promised. Not even that month. Security was relaxed. Then the underground movement went into action. They carted away the six computers in one operation. Said Patrick Obayomi, a retired army captain who heads the security department: “They are tough criminals. The only language they understand is violence.”
At the University of Benin, an angry lecturer told Newswatch that “there are probably more armed robbers in the campus than outside. He may have painted an exaggerated picture of the situation but the university authorities have had cause to investigate allegations that students were involved in many robberies in the city. During a surprise check recently, security men who searched the boys’ hostel at the instruction of Grace Alele-Williams, the vice-chancellor, found seven shotguns hidden away in various boxes and wardrobes. One of the young men found with a gun, Newswatch gathered, “had an unexplained and serious wound on his leg.”
What had actually led to the surprise check was the arrest in the government reservation area, GRA, of a group of boys said to be members of the Black Axe, in a case of attempted burglary. The student who led the thieves to his father’s house was said to be unhappy with the father for withdrawing a car from him. He connived with his fraternity friends to steal the car but ran out of luck when the night guard fired at them. In panic, they scaled the walls into the next premises, the home of a top police officer, and found themselves in police hands. At Nsukka, laboratory equipment, video recorders, lecturers’ and visitors’ cars are constant targets of gangsters. Said a Zoology lecturer: “You hear these boys talk about ‘deal’. Deal is outright stealing and robbery.”
No doubt, universities’ authorities have punished some members of evil gangs caught in the act. Three institutions (Unical, Calabar Polytechnic and Imo State University) have, in the last three weeks or so, dismissed 50 members of the underground gangs. But the way members of these societies get away with their act and continue to thrive without much hindrance raises the question of just who they are, what they look like and what makes them so pervasive.
Chineye Mba Uzoukwu, an alumnus of UNN and son of a professor at UNN, has spent almost his lifetime at the campus and has a low down on the fraternities. “A Buccaneer or a Pyrate does not look like a hideous, grim-faced caricature, as their name suggest. They are children from what you may call rich homes. You may ask me why it is that they are so few and yet have so much clout on the system. The answer is that they feel protected. They see themselves as ‘the untouchables’ and nobody is going to tell them anything or do anything to them,” Uzoukwu said.
Casmir Chuks Ani, a doctorate student of philosophy of law, agrees. “They are fraternities of affluent families that have gone astray.” According to Ani, the fraternities were meant initially to serve as a link between children of elites in high institutions but like any other mafia group, Ani said, they started defining their territories and, from that point, violence and gang warfares began. “Rarely can you find a poor man’s son in these secret fraternities, and that is a scientific statement,” he said.
Uzoukwu, who now works with an advertising firm in Enugu, put the problem in a sharper perspective: “It is a kind of identity crisis, an ego problem. First, they are over-pampered at home and they come to school hardly prepared for the task and challenges of academic endeavours. They gain admission, in most cases, through the back door. They wear designer clothes and are more interested in impressing other students that they are special. They want to be seen at the best parties in town. In an academic community, where the majority is too busy to notice them or pander to their wishes, they tend to react adversely.”
Ahiazu, the vice-chancellor of UST, Port Harcourt, worried about the adverse effect of these vicious gangs, undertook a thorough study and investigation of the fraternities in his university. His aim was to get to the roots and source of the dare-devil mystique surrounding the fraternities. He successfully penetrated the groups and through agents, witnessed their dreaded meetings and initiations. Here are his findings: “They meet only at midnights at very odd places (valleys, hill tops, cemeteries, forests) dressed in dreadful apparels. They drink some sort of diabolical concoction which contains human blood and the blood of other animals and eat certain dirty, smelling substances. They engage in strange body movements which are generally similar to that which the fairies of Queen Titania of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream do, while sending their fairy queen to sleep.”
In addition, said the vice-chancellor, “during these meetings, they don’t talk normally but use certain sounds and symbols which are only intelligible to their members. They behave in a manner, as if possessed or as if they had become transformed into extraterrestrial beings.” While initiating members, the vice-chancellor found, to his horror, “they subject them to gruesome bodily torture, to the extent that the weak ones, who cannot withstand the excruciating pains, may die in the process.” The university itself, Ahiazu confirmed, has “recorded such incidents of death in the past, as in other universities.”
The explanation for this bizarre ritual by students may be found in drugs. Ejike is seriously worried about this possibility. This ought to be thoroughly investigated and if drugs are part of the problem, then we have got a real monster in our midst,” Ejike said. A staff of UNN in the students’ affairs department, who requested not to be named, is certain that drugs are in use by the fraternity members. “Drugs are very much in use. It is not just grass or Indian hemp. That is something that has been there for as long as I can remember. But the boys have now gone into heroin and something they call ‘Chinese capsule.’ One student described to Newswatch the effect of the “Chinese capsule” on users: “You swallow it with water or alcohol and in a few minutes, you will be on top of the world. Nobody can mess around with you.”
But the cover and protection given to these fraternities by some university authorities border on scandal. Newswatch found that the majority of students publicly expelled or rusticated find their way back to school. The son of a former adviser to President Shagari was expelled last year from the UNN. The young Buccaneer returned to school in a matter of weeks. There is another case of a police officer’s son in the Department of Mass Communication at Oko Polytechnic. Popularly called A. B. Nigeria by his friends, the boy, a Buccaneer, was expelled for organizing the raid and robbery of the off-campus hostel. Some stolen properties were recovered from the boy. The school said he was expelled but the young man never missed lectures for more than a week.
There is also the son of a professor in the agriculture department at OAU, nicknamed “Don.” “Don,” ironically, spells terror. He has been identified as the leader of the Mafia in the university. Together with another son of a former vice-chancellor called “Kete,” they rule OAU. But they are untouchable. In UNN, for instance, the numerous cases of cult members charged to court for the various crisis are “settled” out of court because, as one mass communication lecturer puts it: “One person’s father knows that person’s father who is a judge, a magistrate, a dean of faculty or a vice-chancellor.”
Onuoha, students’ leader at ASUTECH, put the problem at the door of university authorities. “Take, for instance, the kind of case we had at the Awka campus (of ASUTECH). The university senate took a decision to suspend some students and the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of the campus somehow went back on that decision and the boys were recalled before their term of punishment expired.”
Law enforcement and security agencies, accused often of high-handedness, appear to be fed up and tend to look the other way while the universities stew in their own juice. Early in the year, for instance, fraternity bandits went berserk at ASUTECH, Enugu, and ransacked a nearby hotel. The owner of the hotel rushed to a nearby police station to call for help. The police refused to help. Said the owner of the hotel: “They told me the boys are big men’s children. “If you shoot them, their parent will make sure you (the policeman) face the music. If you go there with a baton, the boys will shoot you down, and you will die and nothing will happen.”
Concerned university administrators, sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, jurists, parents, and students alike are caught in the vortex of this calamity. Many tend to say “violence begets violence; let us give them a dose of their own medicine.” For now, that is the situation in some campuses such as the ISU, Okigwe, where culprits are paraded naked in female hostels, beaten and bruised before being handed over to the police. As Ani put it, “it is a way of saying: to hell; enough is enough.
But asked Nnamdi Onugha, Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Anambra State: “Can we do something sane now to avert this calamity?” In his speech on January 22, while opening the 1990 legal year in the state, Onugha had dedicated a major part of his address to the issue and warned: “If nothing is done and pretty soon, the situation will get worse and become dangerous to the extent that no rational parent will feel safe enough to permit his child or ward to continue his studies in any of the affected institutions.
The Attorney-General, to be sure, is a victim. His second son, a 22-year-old final year law student at ASUTECH, was shot four times in the leg on May 22, 1989, during gang warfare. The National Orthopaedic Hospital, Enugu, performed what Onugha described as a “marvelous job” to restore the boy’s leg. But the boy is still limping, nearly a year later and maybe forever. “Take the case of my son,” Onugha said, “If he had lost his leg completely, he would have wrecked his life, all for nothing.” He pleaded: “If you people (in the press) can arouse the conscience of the nation to this tragic affair in our higher institutions, you would have saved many lives and the future of our country.” He called for a “national round table, comprising relevant sectors of the society, to tackle the subject and recommend solutions to the government.
Ejike, one of the very few university administrators prepared to speak out on the subject, said a careful study and analysis was required since the problem touches on the very fiber of Nigeria’s youths and leaders of tomorrow. “That is why I am pleading that the society must look at the problem with sympathy, so that we, the elders, don’t end up handing over the future of the nation to a new generation that we will be scared of.” Parents, he said, hold the ace in any successful attempt to solve the problem. “If we do not have a big anchor on parental care, we cannot even start making some headway.”
Onuoha believes the academic program in tertiary institutions is not tasking enough to occupy students, leaving room for ugly situations like campus cults, to rear their heads. He said the fraternity problem would become more complicated if the cults succeed in their current attempt to win and hold students’ union offices. To overcome, he said, academic programs should be more rigorous, examinations should be based on a high percentage of roll call, and expelled members of cult gangs should not be re-admitted into any other university or be allowed to pursue their education abroad. “The situation now is that if it gets worse, their parents fly them abroad to complete their studies. That should be made impossible,” Onuoha said.
The security system in the campuses came under the security of Udobi Ikeje, president of IMECS Nigeria Limited, Lagos. He said security is very loose in campuses, with security men virtually powerless. He suggested a campus police force, because “university communities cannot pretend to be islands, separate from the larger society, nor can they be allowed to remain lawless.”
Ani wants Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate, held responsible for the entire problem. “He started it all. He founded the Sea Dogs and all these other groups are factions of his creation. He must have an idea on how to chain these mad dogs.”
The activities of campus cults, Uzoukwu said, are a symptom of a sick society and cannot be treated in isolation. There are hardly any role models for the youths to emulate. “These gangs we are berating and trying to stamp out are the typical offsprings of our type of society. These young men have seen outright rouges and embezzlers of government funds, who are supposed to be in jail, being hailed as pillars of our churches and communities. A chap in the university has an idea of the father’s salary and knows that the fleet of cars, buildings, and summer holidays abroad is made possible by dishonest means. He absorbs that value, that wealth is might and might is right. He knows the father is a Buccaneer in his own way. So, what he talks about is money. If you do not have money, you are nothing to him, degrees or no degrees.”