Being Text of a Lecture Delivered on 8 January 2013 in Oleh, Delta State, under the auspices of the Solomon Ogba Peace Group in Collaboration with Flomat Books
Our subject this afternoon is grim, a cause of one of our deepest anxieties about the present and future of this headache country called Nigeria. If education is both the nursery and bedrock of the future, and our schools the places where the intellect and character of the men and women to lead society, shape its political vision, and engage in its productive work are trained, then there is good cause for the nervousness we all feel with literally every report that comes these days from the schools, in particular — and only because of our topic today—the universities and other tertiary institutions. And, no, I am not now thinking of the national embarrassment of so-called university students who cannot spell their names — okay, if that is putting it too bluntly — who cannot tell a noun from a verb or finish three sentences without an embarrassing grammatical or semantic error. There are, indeed, “the miracles,” the desert flowers, that astonish us through sheer improbability. But they exist in spite, and not because, of the current state of our tertiary institutions. To return to the point, I am, rather, thinking of what has been dubbed “the menace” or “scourge of secret cults.” So let me quickly express the customary thanks for the honour and privilege of the invitation to stand in front of you today before I delve any further into this problem that haunts our collective dreams and waking moments. Let me, then, thank the Solomon Ogba Peace Group for sponsoring this lecture. I have never met Mr Ogba, and only had brief chat with him last month when a friend in the state government interrupted their conversation to put me on the phone so we could, at the very least, get acquainted over the airwaves. Alas, having prepared the table, the host is “unavoidably absent.” Well, even for a feast of words, the fare promises to be anything but mouth-watering, given our subject, so I won’t be too quick to hold his absence against him! And I will uncover the “dishes” and brace myself for the medicinal food he left on the table before travelling out of duty. I invite you to do the same.
Then I must thank Messrs Rockson Igelige and Olokor Eganase, whose meeting to discuss the fear, loathing and anger caused by the criminal activities of some persons widely believed to be members of “campus” secret cults led them to the idea of a public lecture. And having so decided, Igelige asked if I would be willing to be the lecturer, an enquiry to which I was too glad to answer in the affirmative. And I must also thank Anthony Akpokene, proprietor of Flomat Books, who took charge of the logistics of organizing, publicizing and inviting everyone to this gathering. It is my second time of collaborating with Akpokene in a social-cultural event, as those of you who attended the Oleh edition of my two “homecoming” poetry readings and performances at the campus of Delta State University two years ago will recall, but permit me to add that our relationship, though only recently reanimated, dates back to our days at Federal Government College, Warri. And lastly, let me thank all of you distinguished ladies and gentlemen, all worthy concerned citizens, drawn here today by the topic for our consideration. In particular, let me thank the three panelists who will discuss my lecture as a prelude to the wider conversation to follow: Professor Abednego Ekoko, a former Vice-Chancellor of Delta State University who will definitely speak from experience; Major-General Paul Omu (rtd), a former military governor who, I expect, give us the benefit of an insider’s view, even though in his time, we had yet to know the phenomenon of cultism; Dr Eddy Ugbomah, former university don who is therefore very familiar with the subject. Thank you all for choosing to spend this afternoon to listen to me and for the opportunity to listen to you in return. I hope to be worthy of your trust and the moment. We are all gathered for an afternoon of frank talk, of mutual soul-searching, in the hope that we might find an answer to the question, When and how did it all go wrong with the children we sent to school? Let us begin.
Confraternities and Secret Cults: Separating the Dream from the Nightmare
And let us begin with an attempt to clarify what secret cults are by first going to the origin of confraternities in Nigeria. For, today, the terms “confraternities” and “secret cults” do not mean separate things in the mind of the public: the one immediately suggests the other. The word confraternity, according Webster’s dictionary, means “a lay brotherhood devoted to some religious or charitable service; a society, especially of men, united for some purpose or in some profession.” The root word is the Latinate “frater” which means brother. The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was formed on 5 December 1776 in the United States of America. It was founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, in the colony of Virginia; a college second only to Harvard as the oldest institution of higher learning in America. Even that long ago, it had all the features associated with the fraternities that are a part and parcel of American universities today, such as lofty principles, a motto, an insignia, rituals, a code of friendship and camaraderie. Phi Beta Kappa held regular meetings during which its members discussed literary and social questions of the day, including such hot political topics as taxation and representative democracy. Because it was formed during the period of revolution, it could only hold its meetings in secret. Three years after it was formed, chapters were established at Yale and Harvard. This became the model for all subsequent fraternities and sororities (the sisterhoods) as well.
The manifestoes of nearly, if not all, of the “secret cults” known to operate within but also outside the campuses profess adherence to these characteristics. At least, that is what you will find with respect to the five oldest and better known ones. It is undoubtedly what anyone who cares to look will find in the manifesto of the Pyrates Confraternity, or the Seadogs, the oldest. It was founded, according to the history published on its website, to combat class privilege or elitism, affectations or the blind aping of British colonial culture and social mannerisms, tribalism, discrimination, convention or stasis, and social injustice of any kind. Its members also sought to live by the code of chivalry — to defer to and protect the weaker sex (presumably from gender discrimination as well, although this is not explicitly stated). In other words, its primary concern was to do whatever it could to ensure that the first university college in Nigeria would produce thinkers and visionaries and not yes-men and women dying to cast themselves in the image of the coloniser.
Today, the pernicious mix of class and ethnic chauvinism that served as its impetus might sound strange, but here is how the Pyrates Confraternity described the context of its emergence, a view corroborated by objective studies, as in the essay “Violence in the Citadel: The Menace of Secret Cults in the Nigerian Universities” by Adewale Rotimi, published in a 2005 issue of the Nordic Journal of African Studies, and to which I will make further reference below. Meanwhile, here is how the Pyrates Confraternity describes the context of their emergence:
In the early days of the University College of Ibadan … higher education was a near exclusive preserve of children from wealthy homes. The product of this middle [sic] upbringing, scions of business tycoons and colonial aristocracy, brought into the University College all their notions of class privilege and indifference to the social realities of the nation. The handful of students from poorer backgrounds either stuck doggedly to their books, looking forward to the day when the prize of an academic degree would compensate their present indignities, or strove assiduously to be admitted to the sophisticated circle of their flashier peers. Ashamed of their peasant or worker background, some played on the ignorance of their parents who made prodigious sacrifices to enable their children join the aristocratic sets, in appearance and acquisitions at least. So thoroughly did they absorb the habits and ethics of the class to which they desperately aspired that they, in effect, even outdid the "natural" elite of the university campus. Not surprisingly, student clubs were a reflection of these ambitions; so also was the orientation of the Student' Representative Council, which often made demands on the rest of the Nigerian community as if it was a body of exotic strangers from outer space.
In the 1950s, Nigeria was in a nationalist ferment and along with the heightened agitation for independence came the sad and predictable appeal to tribal sentiments as the motley array of ethnic nationalities, not previously under one national government, jockeyed for position and power. This tendency was absorbed by the University College, Ibadan, which “became a breeding ground for the worst kind of tribal thinking clubs,” such that the Students' Representative Council “and all forms of student activity, including sports, became mere expressions of tribal pettiness.”
Formed in 1952, the Pyrates remained for a long time the only confraternity in Nigeria and confined itself to harmless, if defiant and showy, activities meant to highlight their difference in thought and action from fellow students and other members of the university college community. The only possible cause for apprehension about their activities, which were carried out in the open, was, perhaps, their frightening insignia of skull-and-bones. This spelled danger to “the ordinary undiscerning observer,” as they acknowledge, but it was meant to symbolize a lofty idea: “a constant reminder” that all mortals will, in the final analysis, be reduced to bones. And, that while still in body, flesh and spirit, they are enjoined to “do whatever you can now for the sake of humanity.” The logo was, in addition, a symbol of the Pyrates’ radical egalitarian humanism: after death, when all has been turned into dust and ashes, skulls and bones will not be differentiated and we would be remembered only by our deeds while alive. As far as manifestoes and rationales go, theirs has to be one of the most admirable.
When we turn to the Buccaneers, founded in 1972 at the University of Ibadan, we find similarly stirring sentiments. Again, in its own words, the Buccaneers are a confraternity of “men who seek (sic) very high morals and a vision to contribute meaningfully to society … [and] to provide exemplary leadership for the larger community.” Its objectives include the denunciation of “oppression, corruption, tyranny, human rights violations and all forms of societal abuse” and an abhorrence of “non-progressive conventions that are detrimental to the societies we live in.” By using the plural “societies,” Buccaneers imply that this is an aim that extends beyond Nigeria to any society anywhere in the world in which a member might live at any point in time.
Like the Pyrates, Buccaneers claim to maintain a strict and selective admission process, the better to ensure the integrity of its principles and goals. “We believe in the promotion of societal values, the upliftment of the oppressed,” they say, and “enjoin our membership (who are fortunate to be selected after a thorough and rigorous set of interviews) to uphold the values that are in accordance with the demands of leadership and good citizenry.” Buccaneers also espouse an egalitarian philosophy. “In our eyes,” they continue, “everyone is equal and deserves equal opportunities, devoid of fear or favour. We embrace a philosophy of "BRODA DELIVER BRODA" which expresses our belief in teamwork and communal progress through selflessness, sharing, and protecting others in their time of weakness or vulnerability. Implicitly, every Buccaneer is challenged to give and to support his broda and to expect the same in return” (original spelling and phrasing). At the risk of repetition, let me again quote the Buccaneers on their philosophy:
We stand for love, orderliness, honesty, transparency, togetherness, championing and sharing each other's problems and positively seeking to solve them, promoting each other's welfare and well-being, creating a sample society for the world to copy from, promoting objectivity, fairness and social justice generally.
You might say the Buccaneers take themselves too seriously, but no matter. The Supreme Eiye Confraternity was founded on the idea of Afrocentricism; that is, a focus on Africa as the primary source of its beliefs and practices. Indeed, it states the claim very boldly thus: “an ORIGINAL African Confraternity” (original emphasis), as if the only other confraternity in existence then, the Pyrates, lacked originality as an organization of African students in the first Nigerian university. This, perhaps, signalled the coming turf wars that would degenerate, once the enabling circumstances arose, into the evil phenomenon we are here to examine and to which I will come presently. The Eiye Confraternity was founded in 1965 at the University of Ibadan by students described as “patriotic and visionary,” according to its own history, “with a commitment to excellence, desire to make positive impact on the socio-political psyche of the student populace and Nation at large.” At its inception, it went by the name Eiye Group but became the Eiye Confraternity four years later. The founders of the Eiye Confraternity, we are informed, “believed strongly in the espousal of the traditional African teachings towards human and spiritual excellence against the backdrop of colonial subversion of the African mind.” The confraternity claims to believe “in the traditional teachings of the ancient African oratorical practices and NOT Voodoo” (original emphasis). It avers a continual striving “for human excellence through our initiatory traditions” and disavows any form of parochialism. It is not, it says, “an ethnic society” but one that “cuts across all barriers of the ethno-social, political, religious and economic divides in Nigeria through fraternization and the pursuit of a more just society for all via the ‘Brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God.’”
If the Eiye Confraternity was founded on an Afrocentric world-view, the Neo-Black Movement, more popularly known as Black Axe, merely expressed the same idea in the more overtly political concept of Pan-Africanism, an ideology of race-wide, and so trans-continental, liberation of mind, body and territory. It was formed at the University of Benin in 1977, according to the objectives stated in its organ (accessed online), The Arena, to “promote activities that will encourage Black people towards the full exercise of the human spirit, the re-awakening of all its Inventive, Creative and Moral Capacities”; “stand against all acts of racial contempt and conflict, exclusion, discrimination and intolerance”; “engage in researches on African traditions and culture;” “internalize and evolve realistic approach (sic) towards providing solutions for Africa's problems;” and “enhance and promote the image of Black people all over the world.” Not surprisingly, the Confraternity was formed in the heat of the euphoria surrounding the 2nd Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Nigeria, more popularly known as FESTAC ’77. The anti-colonial struggle for the total emancipation of the continent was still raging then in the southern African nations of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola.
Lastly, I will outline the history and objectives of De Norsemen Kclub, otherwise known as Vikings. According to the official website of the Vikings, its objectives are to direct the energy of its members towards economic development in all spheres of national and international life; wipe out unemployment, unproductiveness, and poverty, “first on board our ship, then the nation at large”; establish respect for human dignity and sanctity of human life; encourage labour and intellectual industry; preserve the environment from degradation and the promotion of national and international peace; uphold “God as the Foundation of our ship” and abhor in its totality all ethnic, religious, racial and status discrimination. They also struggle to protect the oppressed and the weak of the society by promoting “corrective measures for defence of the masses against all social vices militating against its progress,” such vices as deprivation, corruption, injustice, victimization, and undemocratic measures. As if these goals were not clear enough, the Vikings reiterate their “main objective” as the “fight against sacrilege, vandalism, smuggling, hoarding, trespass, touting, conspiracy, pilfering, terrorism, and insubordination, extortion, impropriety, kidnapping, piracy, intrusion, hijacking, quackery, bunkering, banditry, political extremism, false alarm, and guerrilla warfare.”
I have focussed on these five confraternities as representative of the numerous groups existing in the country today. As in all generalisations, however, I am bound to have glossed over a few, but I hope not significant, differences among not only these five but also, and even more, among the many other groups that have proliferated in the secret cult hot-houses known as our university campuses. Furthermore, I have not focussed on the female groups, what would be a weak parallel to sororities in American university life, even though several of them are known to exist and operate under such suggestive names as Daughters of Jezebel, Temple of Eden, Black Braziers (Bra Bra), White Pants, Barracudas, Viqueens, Mermaids, the Amazons and the Damsels. Relatively new to the terrain, having all been formed in the 1990s, not very much is known about them but it seems that sex (including the running of call-girl services) and competition for suitable boyfriends as well as the attentions and deep wallets of high profile politicians are among their primary objectives. They have been known to be as deadly as their male counterparts in gruelling (perhaps even pleasurable? rumours suggest forced sex with designated men or other girls) initiation rites and dare-devil or reprisal attacks on perceived enemies. But I have chosen, rightly I hope, to highlight the five male cults above because they are the oldest and present us with the clearest contrast between “then” and “now.” I take them at their own word for the simple reason that who they say they are gives us the perfect context for examining who or what they have become and to answer the attendant questions of their frightful metamorphoses, as well as what is to be done to restore them to their vaunted original glory. In doing so, I am aware that the histories and manifestos I have cited are mostly available online, and that taken together with some of the claims and disavowals (denials of voodoo practices, denunciation of involvement in kidnappings or of being secret cults, for instance), one can hardly resist the conclusion that they were written specifically to deflect the widespread outrage against the violent and murderous activities that followed their transmogrification into vicious gangs or cults.
The Transmogrification into Secret Cults
The emergence of secret cults, what I call their transmogrification, has been traced to the factionalisation that began with the break-away of the Buccaneers from the Pyrates. But this view appears unmindful of the fact that the Eiye Confraternity, founded in 1965, predates the Buccaneers by seven years; one reason, perhaps, why the former makes a point of stating that it is “NOT a splinter group,” does “NOT have any break-away organizations” and that it is “the ONLY tertiary institution based Confraternity that maintains its unity after over 40 years of existence” (original emphases). At any rate, some members of the Pyrates Confraternity who had allegedly fallen short of its high standards and been expelled founded the Buccaneers. But according to the Buccaneers, the Pyrates Confraternity, then led by “a cadre of supposed super Pyrates,” had betrayed the original ideals and their disenchanted founders — three of them, led by Bolaji Carew — had merely left to form a new confraternity that would stay true to its goals. Nevertheless, they took with them many elements of the Pyrates, including similar attire and symbols as well as its highly regimented and hierarchical structure (I will have something to say on this below). In its edition of 10-16 August 2005, The Midweek Telegraph traces “the origin of confraternity violence back to Carew’s 1972 saga and the birth of the Buccaneers.” In the absence of any specific evidence of violent confrontations between the parent and emergent confraternities, it seems to me that this view mistakes any form of competition or rivalry for the sort of criminal, even blood-curdling, activities that led to the renaming of confraternities as secret cults. In any case, not all of the confraternities are break-away groups, as the Eiye are at pains to point out, and as the brief history of Black Axe above has shown. Yet, there is no mistaking the striking similarity between all the confraternities that followed the Pyrates, beginning in 1965. They all espouse nearly similar creeds, have a rigidly hierarchical organizational structure, proclaim supremacy, boast of a highly discriminating (by which I mean, selective) admission process and display a penchant for metaphorical self-naming, but more on the implications or effects of these when I come to the question of how the transmogrification occurred. Suffice it for now to agree with the Buccaneers that the subsequent “growth and spread” of the two confraternities which “coincided with the expansion of other student movements … resulted in squabbles in many campuses.”
State-Sponsored Violence or the Militarisation of Campuses
But there is another, more credible, view that traces the violence — mild at first and mostly between and among the confraternities (perhaps, what the Buccaneers refer to as squabbles), but which grew in intensity and goriness to the point where it became their single defining characteristic and raison d’être — to the equally gradual but increasingly ferocious transformation of Nigeria’s political life. Commentators who hold this view point especially to the extremely negative and destructive role that the military came to play in our politics starting with the bloody first coup of 15 January 1966. From the counter-coup six months later to all the coups that followed, whether they be described as violent or “palace coups” — a misnomer, I argue, since ultimately, any non-constitutional change of government is violent, redeemed only if it is by way of a popular revolution — the pogrom against the Igbos in Northern Nigeria and the horrendous Civil War of 1967-70 that ensued, to massively rigged elections that lead to the installation of kleptomaniac treasury-looters, the Nigerian polity has been defined by one word: VIOLENCE. The thorough militarisation of the civic space, precipitated by the plain fact that power turns politicians and political appointees into instant millionaires and billionaires, transformed the electoral process into what General Olusegun Obasanjo, former military dictator and President from 1999-2007 in the so-called return to democracy, famously described as a “do-or-die” affair; in other words, a war. Colonel Ahmadu Ali (retired), chairman of his ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), would underscore the war metaphor with the idea of “garrison” politics while lauding the “strongman” of Ibadan politics, the late Lamidi Adedibu who unleashed his private army of thugs on any Oyo State governor who as much as hesitated to obey every of his wishes and desires; in particular, the wish that he be given a direct access to the state’s treasury. The ensuing unbridled violence led to many high profile political assassinations, itself a continuation of the method perfected by the military dictators Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. The list of their victims is too long to recount here, but we may mention a few: Dele Giwa, Major-General Mamman Vatsa, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8, Alfred Rewane, M. K. O. Abiola and his wife, Kudirat, Bola Ige (and by necessary implication, his wife, Justice Atinuke Ige), etc. The telling thing about all of these cases is that their murderers have yet to be apprehended, as if the victims all committed suicide. With the increased militarisation of the polity came the deeper deformation of the structure, and vulgarization of the principles, of a federation, such as the idea of relative but inviolable autonomy for the federating units, separation of powers and of state and religion, the result of which is strong perceptions of marginalisation and oppression across the land; hence the rise of ethnic and religious militias.
This view is not original, and I need not dwell on it. I suspect that you share it too, so I will limit myself to an elaboration of it mostly by citing a few of the many social analysts who have argued in this vein. And what better personage to turn to first than Professor Muyiwa Awe, code name Long John Silver, one of the Original 7 who formed the Pyrates Confraternity in 1952, but who has since turned an evangelist, founded a church — the Fullness of Christ Evangelical Ministry (FOCEM) — and publicly renounced the association partly on rather contentious terms that led to a prompt rebuttal from his erstwhile brother and leader of the group, Wole Soyinka. In a piece entitled “The Metamorphosis: From Confraternities to Cults” published in his ministry’s newsletter and posted on FOCEM’s website, Awe not only adopts this view but alsocasts his gaze a little further back to trace the origin of what he calls the “national culture of violence” to the Operation Wetie crisis that swept Western Nigeria in the wake of the rigged 1964 regional election. Because he encapsulates this argument, I will beg your indulgence to quote him at some length:
By 1964, violence had crept into the political system of the country with the introduction of political party thugs operating within the national political landscape. The situation was most severe in the Western Region where the might of the Federal Government was being used to undermine the regional government. Operation Wetie was introduced, in which properties of perceived opposition politicians were set on fire using petrol as fuel and, in extreme cases, politicians themselves were set on fire. In an act of political violence, the Federal Government declared a state of emergency in the Western Region and appointed a civilian administrator to rule over the Region. The unrest in the Region finally led to the first military coup on 15 January, 1966. This was followed by the Revenge Coup of July 1966 which was staged by Nigerian soldiers from the Northern Region who perceived the first coup and its aftermath as being directed against the interests of their Region. Then there was the mindless violence of the pogrom carried out in the Northern Region against civilians of non-northern origin resident in that Region. The massacre was directed particularly at civilians of Igbo origin. This led to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra and its attempted secession from Nigeria. This attempt was eventually crushed after a 30-month civil war from July 1967 to January 1970. Even now that we are under a civilian administration, many former military men are in top positions at the national and state levels. Our president was a military Head of State and a retired general; former military officers are now governors, senators, legislators etc, and they continue to demonstrate that old habits of authoritarianism that are characteristic of the military die hard. Such habits do violence to democracy and the rule of law. In addition, armed robbery, assassinations and ritual murder are now a common occurrence in the country. The culture of violence that has covered the land these many years has percolated into various levels of society, and the confraternities, fraternities etc. have imbibed this culture. Violence was introduced at their initiation ceremonies. Secrecy became their mode of operation, and occultism - the use of spiritual power belonging to Satan - was also introduced. The metamorphosis is now complete; the confraternities, fraternities and brotherhoods have become secret, evil cults, the Campus Cults. In the early 1990s, female students started their own cults.
There is only one thing missing from Awe’s perspective on what he rightly calls the national culture of violence: the specific way in which this culture seeped into the campuses and an explanation of how the confraternities fell prey to it so easily.
As the military consolidated its hold on power, and one regime was replaced by another, especially in the long, dark period of 31 December 1983 to 29 May 1999, the universities emerged as sites of the most consistent opposition to autocracy and the demand for a return to democracy. The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), together with their individual campus affiliates, emerged as the vanguard associations that mounted relentless criticisms of dictatorial policies that shredded our civil liberties, eviscerated the principles and values of our social existence, and prepared the way for military self-perpetuation. ASUU fought mostly for academic freedom, improved conditions of service and reform of a rapidly crumbling university system unable to carry on any teaching or research worthy of its name. NANS, which defied its ban and every attempt to prohibit local campus unionism, also fought for the same issues with an emphasis on free education at all levels, as articulated in its Charter of Demands, but because these questions had a direct bearing on the character of the government (military dictatorship), the battle line was drawn. Having failed to emasculate the students and the progressive lecturers active in ASUU, the military government decided, as a matter of deliberate policy, to arm and patronise the confraternities which by now had become more and more anti-social, even if their “squabbles” were limited to inter-fraternity quarrels, reprisals against “sugar daddies” or any rival for the attentions of their girlfriends, or the intimidation of lecturers to award them passing or higher grades. Adewale Rotimi, whose essay “Violence in the Citadel” I referred to earlier, is specific on this point of the military regimes’ patronage of the confraternities as allies against the resistance the military was unable to crush on the campuses. Basing his view on findings by another scholar, Rotimi rightly points out that confraternities were not violent at all when they emerged in the 1950’s. That was until they were “high-jacked” by military governments who were anxious to consolidate their hold on university students who challenged their authority. By the time of the 1988 anti-fuel price hike, whose flashpoint was the University of Jos, it had become clear to General Babangida that virile student unionism posed a potent threat to his power. Consequently, confraternities, whose activities had become less open the more violent their squabbles became, were employed as a ready and willing reactionary force to “neutralize” student unions and their “anti-government activities.” This fuller picture, drawn from the perspective of active participants or observers of the gradual militarisation and degradation of the university, may be found in two other scholarly articles: Said Adejumobi’s “Structural Adjustment, Student Movement and Popular Struggles in Nigeria, 1986-1996” in Identity Transformation and Identity Politics under Structural Adjustment in Nigeria (2003), a book of essays edited by Professor Attahiru Jega, incidentally Iyayi’s successor as president of ASUU and the current chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), and Sylvester Odion-Aikhaine’s “The Student Movement in Nigeria: Antinomies and Transformation,” a 2009 essay published in the Review of African Political Economy.
I need not tell you, I hope, that I can speak from personal experience, and the experiences of other victims, students and lecturers, with which I am directly familiar. When the Babangida regime and its spokesmen hunted student activists on the pretext that NANS and campus unions were banned, that our activities were therefore illegal, or when the regime said it did not recognize NANS (especially when we gave those ultimatums about protests if our demands were not met), we defied him and his minions with a simple answer: The feeling is mutual! We do not recognise your regime which is illegal, since you assumed power by an act of violence against the constitution and the sovereign will of the people. An illegal government has no legitimacy and cannot ban the citizens’ right to freedom of association and peaceable assembly! As you know, this was not a bluff, and the many street protests that NANS called in the eighties and nineties, peaking with the great anti-SAP uprising of 1989, testify to the desperation of the military in the light of the failure of the draconian provisions of the Students Union Activities (Control and Regulation) Decree no. 47 of 1989, and so why it had to resort to arming and setting up the confraternities — as well as such newly minted groups as the Peace Movement, Vigilantes and Man O’War — as counterweights to the “radical” students unions and NANS.
The harvest of this deliberate policy of militarizing the campuses was bountiful. But the policy, it should be noted, predated Babangida; it took form with the military invasion of the University of Lagos in 1978 to put down a protest by the students of an arbitrary increase in school fees imposed by the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. In the process, a student activist, Akintunde Ojo, was shot dead. Several students were injured and many more arrested. The president of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), Segun Okeowo, and several other leaders, were expelled. Lecturers, including the well-known mathematician, political analyst and columnist, Dr Edwin Madunagu, were dismissed without the slightest regard for the rule of law, and many more kept under surveillance. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, the renowned historian, Professor J. F. Ade Ajayi, was summarily relieved of his position. This dark moment in the history of higher education in Nigeria is what is popularly known as the Ali-Must-Go free education “jihad,” named after Colonel Ahmadu Ali, Obasanjo’s Federal Commissioner for Education (yes, he of Garrison politics fame as chairman of the PDP during Obasanjo’s second coming as head of state). Since then, university autonomy and the sacred principle of academic freedom, a basic guarantee of meaningful intellectual inquiry, have been more of a dream than a reality, something that ASUU has tried valiantly but in vain over the years to recover. From then on, it was only a matter of time before the culture of violence brought to the campuses with the guns and tanks paid for by the people would so percolate to every nook and cranny of university life, and transform the consciousness of the students (save those who remained steadfast, anchored to the local students’ unions and NANS), as to lead to the epoch of confraternities as vicious gangs and cults.
It was in the 1980s and 1990s, however, that the policy was implemented with the most sinister intent, driven by the sole aim, it seems possible to say in retrospect, of transforming university campuses into academic barracks — or miliversities, as one might call them. Vice-Chancellors were handpicked and imposed on universities by successive military regimes against the laid down laws guaranteeing the autonomy and integrity of academic inquiry. Babangida, ever eager to trample where angels dare not tread, would stretch the limits of the ridiculous with the extraordinary step of appointing a soldier, Major-General Sani Kontagora, as acting vice-chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University! All appointees had one overriding mission: to ensure that lecturers did not teach “what they are not paid to teach,” a clever ruse for completing the work begun by Obasanjo of purging the classrooms of any academic who dared to think independently; in other words, anyone who did not cower and grovel before the regime. Radicals and extremists, they were branded, and that became a one-way passport to dismissal. In his position as visitor to all the federal universities, Babangida set up visitation panels that functioned as medieval inquisitions aimed at stamping out any whimper of dissent. The University of Benin where I was an undergraduate law student was a designated testing ground, a laboratory of military annihilation of university autonomy, the height of which was the summary dismissal of Dr (now Professor) Festus Iyayi, president of ASUU (ironically enough, in his case the charge, in effect, was that he practiced what he was paid to teach, though not for private profit as alleged); the late Dr Babs Agbonifo, who may have been more guilty by association with his friend Iyayi than for his own “sins”; Professor Itse Sagay, one of the most respected legal scholars the country has known and dean of the law faculty; and Professor Jackson Omene, a brilliant paediatrician of the medical school and the university’s teaching hospital.
In one of the rare instances of victory against the might of the military fully marshalled, the four lecturers went to court and had their dismissal quashed. Yet, when Iyayi returned to the classroom, he was faced with a direct threat to his life. This was around 1996 or 1997. He had gone on invitation to the reading room of one of the student hostels to speak to a group of students on a hot national issue. On arrival, he was approached by a student — a sympathetic one, considering — who spoke kindly to him as follows: “Sir, I have great respect for you, but we have been told that this meeting cannot take place. We have orders to shoot anyone who refuses to leave.” And as he spoke, he lifted his shirt to show Iyayi his concealed gun. I got this anecdote from Iyayi himself only four days ago, but you may wish to hear the full details from him!
What about the students? They did not fare much better — in fact, worse. The structure that houses the UNIBEN Students Union offices was originally named “June 12 Building” but had to be renamed in homage to William Obong, its Secretary-General who was shot in 1999 at the end of a meeting with the vice-chancellor during which he had maintained his opposition to a policy the administration had tried to force down the throat of the university community. The general suspicion was that the university had collaborated with the members of a campus cult to silence him. True or not, one fact remains to give weight to the suspicion: till date, the murderers of Obong are yet to be found, let alone charged. I could give more examples involving intimidation and infliction of bodily harm, citing the instances of the late Chima Ubani, president in 1987/88 of the Students Union of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Emman Ezeazu, of the same university and president of NANS; Omoyele Sowore, president in 1992 of the University of Lagos Students Union, and countless expulsions and rustications but you know the facts as well as I do. I have not even bothered to list the atrocities of the cults, whether committed during inter-gang warfare or as violent robbery or as outright robbery and rape of innocent citizens. The pages of our newspapers — “’bulletin boards’ for reporting the daily exploits of members of secret cults,” as Rotimi puts it — are replete with sordid and gory details of such attacks, including two just last month: see the report, “Citadel of Violence” in The Insider Weekly of 17 December 2012 involving gun fights between and among members of the Brotherhood of the Blood (also known as Two-Two or Black Berets), Vikings, Black Axe, Buccaneer and Eiye, as well as the story “Cobbler Caught with Gun” in Saturday Punch of 5 January 2013 (yes, that is three days ago!) in which the cobbler, one Nonso Eze, explains how he came to be in possession of the gun, a tale in which he claims to have been caught unknowingly in a reprisal attack involving Black Axe and Eiye.
I have taken up much of your time and yet there is more to say, so I must move on to ask whether the militarization of the campuses from without aside, the confraternities are in any way complicit in the rise of this deadly culture of violence. I raise this question because, clearly, it is time to move beyond the lazy and mendacious blaming of the Pyrates for the degeneration into gangsterism and cultism, or indeed any mutual finger-pointing by the spokesmen of the confraternities.
The “Foam” in their Eye: Hierarchical Structure, Machismo and Chauvinism of Confraternities
As seen at the beginning, the manifestoes of the five oldest confraternities, taken as the model of most if not all of the others that followed the Pyrates, are highly idealistic. There is hardly anything to fault in them, other than, perhaps, in mere matters of style. So how then did they become so easily prone to co-optation for ends diametrically opposed to the ideals of freedom, justice, egalitarianism, racial pride and authenticity, fair play, non-discrimination, solidarity and service to humanity in general that they so stirringly espouse? I will not waste time here. I have two speculations; I will hazard them and move on to the concluding part of this lecture. Firstly, it seems to me that the hierarchical organizational structure of the confraternities, borrowed wholesale from the Pyrates despite any accusations of undemocratic leadership or betrayal of the original ideals leveled by the Buccaneers, rendered them easy targets for infiltration, being in that way akin to the command structure of the military. “Odas is odas,” say the Pyrates, who explain that it is merely a by-word for “discipline,” but you might say the same thing of the military too! “Blud for blud,” the Buccaneers say, claiming divine retribution or karma for all evil deeds, but in the reality of daily existence, this might more easily connote a unilateral sense of right and wrong to justify unreflective acts of vigilante justice, echoing as it does the Mosaic injunction of an eye for an eye which the latter teacher, Jesus Christ, felt compelled to rewrite as “turn the other cheek” for an ethic of forgiveness.
This hierarchical structure betrays the tenets of freedom and democracy that their respective creeds trumpet. And the names and nicknames of their leaders as well as of the groups themselves are revealing: Cap’n Blood, Grand Eye, Seadogs, Sea Lords, Air Lords, Axe-men, Supreme this-and-that Confraternity. Indeed, one confraternity, the Eiye, an Afrocentric philosophy notwithstanding, observes a Rambo Day! And then there is the ethnological marvel of Norsemen, a branch of the Germanic race to be found in the Nordic countries of Europe, who, unknown to the world, turned all black at some point in history, relocated to Nigeria and formed a club (kclub, that is) that also goes by the name of Vikings! Secondly, there is the tendency I can only describe as unbridled machismo, a vaunted masculinity that undergirds the exclusion of female students from membership, a practice at variance with the non-discriminatory, radical egalitarian humanism proclaimed by their manifestoes. It is not enough to disavow male chauvinism; the very exclusion of females from the social activities that promote fellow-feeling and group solidarity, from the internal deliberations on issues during which questions of power within and without the organization are resolved, has to have some bearing on the structure of thinking of the male members regarding daily collective existence in the larger society. In particular, the impact of that mode of navigating the civic space, which is necessarily a shared one, on the weaker minds among them, the sort allegedly expelled from the Pyrates, leading to the chain of factionalisation and mimic groups. But let me be clear: I am not levelling a specific charge of chauvinism against individual confraternity brothers but only making a general observation as to the way our mode of existence, of social interaction, can affect, mostly unconsciously, our attitudes. And the effect need not be explicitly negative, nor be to the same degree or at all on each individual. But if an organization excludes a gender, whether one founded by men or women, it cannot escape the charge of chauvinism by simply saying, Look, we have nothing against men/women and, in fact, have many male/female friends outside the club. In other words, the history of power, class and discrimination has taught the world to assume gender prejudice until the contrary is proved. It is, therefore, a rebuttable charge, though often a very difficult task. After all, there is no such thing as benevolent chauvinism.
Is this contradiction, perhaps, what the metaphorical inaptness or rhetorical excess of confraternity self-naming points to? I am speaking here of the outlandish notion of pirates, buccaneers, sea-lords and air-lords who only “sail” and “fly” on land! No more than puffery, probably, and a pointer to the “boys’/men’s club” spirit of the whole thing for a start, the idea of a male-only society devoted to bonding and camaraderie and so well-served by tall tales. Indeed, one might wonder if all members are at least required to be swimmers or “astral travellers.” As the faithful majority of confraternity members ponder the metamorphosis from the charitable organisations envisaged at their inception to the diabolical gangs and cults that they have become, I hope that such members will at minimum consider these speculations as an invitation to further self-scrutiny. And that those among their younger members whose criminality led to the view of confraternities as cults would ask themselves whom their hero is: Soyinka, whose founding of the Pyrates Confraternity purportedly opened the flood-gates (I nearly said blood-gates!) of mimic and not-so-mimic groups but whose entire life is an instruction manual on how to be an intrepid tribune of justice “as the first condition of (our) humanity,” or some unnamed patron-saint from hell? Time for the confraternity “brothers” who came much later to use their axes and guns to break the chains of bondage to mindless violence they have voluntarily slipped on their wrists and ankles — and, even worse, their minds. Time for them to return to the founding vision of brotherhood, equity and social justice that they all proclaim.
Cults and the Idea of the University: On Learning and Character
I am close to the end of this lecture, so indulge me for one more minute as I turn to a key idea of the topic. Since what we know today of the confraternities-turned-cults is antithetical to learning and character, we need to remind ourselves, as well as present and future undergraduates, of the idea of a university, its ultimate purpose. I hold that this is true, by and large, even if the one and only purpose of entering a university — as is so often the case — is to obtain a meal ticket, a certificate that guarantees a better job and higher salary. And I can think of no better authority to turn to here than Cardinal John Newman, an Anglican turned Catholic who became a towering figure in the history of the modern university. With the blessing of the Pope, he founded and was rector for five years of the Catholic University of Ireland (the present University College of Dublin). Though a “man of God,” he insisted on the separation of the church from the university: the latter, he insisted, was not the place for making moral beings; that office, he rightly asserted, belonged to the church and priests and not to the non-seminary classroom and the professor. Knowledge, which he saw as its own end, was the ultimate justification of a university. According to Newman, education “makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.” How many of our prosperity pastors, owners of a good number of the new universities that are the rage today, one of which insists on virginity tests for its female students (mercifully, it appears all right for boys not to be virgins!), would accept this proposition? As Newman argued, “To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself) … as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.” Given our subject, I would underline the opening phrase about opening and refining the mind to enable it master and have power over its faculties. In plain words, the age-old goal of knowledge for self-mastery (though one cannot wholly master one’s self it is nonetheless a worthy goal) or personal discipline, which in turn prepares the individual for a life of dignity and service to the common good. University education, in particular, of the liberal kind, Newman insisted, “brings the mind into form.” For him, the function of a university properly called, or, in his words, “taken in its bare idea,” is “intellectual culture.” Not, it bears reiterating, a “culture of violence,” for a university “educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it,” the knowledge that it imparts being an “indispensable condition of expanding the mind.”
Newman offered these and many other profound insights into the nature and purpose of the university in a series of lectures he gave as founding rector of the Catholic University of Ireland; they were subsequently published in a book entitled The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated in Nine Discourses Delivered better known by the shorter title, The Idea of a University. I commend it to our heads of state and governors (elected and unelected), and our private proprietors (especially the Daddy Overseers, Bishops, Archbishops, Men-of-God)—honourary intellectuals, all, as visitors or the final authority of our universities. Newman’s ideas will help clear some of the thick cobwebs that clog their thinking and prevent a healthy understanding of university education. Perhaps then we would return to the urgent business of expanding the minds of our young men and women; of creating an enabling environment that would promote learning and character. Given this, and all the foregoing, I shall not bother with the tedious and perfunctory exercise of proposing a “way forward.” That way, at any rate clear directions to it, are implicit, I believe, in all that I have said. And if not, definitely in the reams of paper full of such proposals that abound in our archives. Let us then look to any sense I may have made this afternoon, and to the solutions that brighter minds than mine have proffered and will surely proffer again, voluntarily or on demand, with the sworn determination of eradicating the culture of violence that has wrecked our universities and restoring them to their old glory as places of learning and character.
I thank you for your patience.