By Toyin Falola
When the world saw the BBC documentary on “Black Axe: Nigeria’s Mafia Cult” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViTQ7N7iUQ0), the kind of surprise that greeted it, especially over the media, was not expected. This is because, while the whole narrative is excruciating, it is obvious that we dug our own graves and the ghosts we failed to bury have been haunting us. We should have known that one day we would be caught in the embrace of the nemesis of our lethargic act. I submit that the society caused and has continued to nurture cultism, and, sadly, without pausing to consider the endemic consequences on every one of us.
Cultism in Nigeria, when it first started, had no ties with violence and unrest as it is today. The foundations of these groups were birthed of knowledge, resilience, and intellectual convictions. The freedom of people from colonial and neo-colonial oppression formed the original motivation of the early groups. Cult groups were conceived to position good morals as well as elevate literary creativity in Nigerian higher institutions. The Magnificent Seven’s establishment of the National Association of Seadogs, popularly known as the Pyrates Confraternity, at the University of Ibadan in 1952 was born out of the desire for social change and not close to what is obtainable today. After this, similar groups erupted, and people came out to align to the beautiful common goals. An example of this was the Eiye Confraternity of 1958, also founded at the University of Ibadan.
In the 1970s, the face of cults in Nigerian higher institutions of learning started changing its cloaks. This was largely because of the derailment from the original ideologies and the establishment of new cult groups who initially started with good intentions but quickly eclipsed to groups capable of conceiving and creating the more endemic menace they first existed to curb. The proscription and criminalization of cultism and its activities had rather been a hypocritical mockery of itself. The banning has not been followed with matching force, and it has become more of a celebrated horror in the society. Cultists are now almost confident and do not mind whose ox is gored. Those at the helms of control and operation of these cults have gotten so fierce that death does not sink their courage.
Body counts are done against warring groups. Like football scores, records of how much one group has attacked the other are kept and prided in like a coveted trophy. No conscience, no remorse, just brutality, cruelty, and unforgiveness. To the cultists, it is either them or the world. A famous public display of cultism is the popular 7/7 celebration, especially the Boogie-Night by the Neo Black Movement (Black Axe). Many of them consider this particular day as “Cultist Day,” and it is widely celebrated by their members. As this day approaches, the society begins to prepare too, increasing their security consciousness so as not to be caught unaware by eventualities and the aftermath of the cults’ celebrations.
It is not that our present condition is immutable, but we have long slept when the opportunity to nip cult activities in the bud presented itself. Today, cultists now operate like pseudo-social groups in the community. Their activities are no longer restricted to the schools from where they started. They now own and manage parks, markets, and the youth structures in many societies. But then, the question that continues to linger is how we got here as a nation. How did we dig our grave to the point that our youths are gradually falling into it like goats led to a slaughterhouse?
Almost all the theories of crime explain why a heinous crime like cultism came to be and why it is still festering. More appropriately, the sociological theorists of crime believe that criminal disposition is of a social origin; that is, society pressurizes individuals to commit a crime. Robert Merton posits that criminal dispositions such as cultism are related to the concept of anomie which ascribes crime to societal structures and expectations. A social order is established in which people are expected to aim at surging these echelons, and failure to succeed in doing this might have psychological fallouts on people. There is a similar causation chain in Nigeria, where cultism seems to be a thing of pride. While society expects individuals to succeed, there is almost zero opportunity to match this expectation. The youths become utterly dejected and seek a way out, either to defend themselves against those who have been affected or to find another means to achieve their goals. Today, many people have joined cultism because they find it to be the easiest and most available escape route.
As a society, we have dug our graves, and we are now reaping the consequences. Our current situation also ridicules our long clench to a communalistic and, especially, moralistic society. In time past, we had societal institutions, values, and norms that helped check wayward activities from the start. However, there has been a breakdown of all this cultural pride – everyone is now for themselves. The Nigerian State and its institutions have failed their people. The Police and other law enforcement agencies are no doubt becoming more dangerous to society than they are supposed to protect it. Unjust maltreatment of the people, despite rules and laws, has pushed people to the wall, and almost every agency established to maintain social normalcy is either non-functional or has become a shadow of itself. Cultism has continued to grow in the country, triggered by the lackadaisical attitude and negligence of many institutions of learning, where these cultists have found to be the best place for their mundane activities.
If we must subjugate cultism, we must approach it holistically. To begin, the society must be able to revamp itself to eliminate the primary driving force behind cultism. Poverty alleviation must be the major focus of the government, and youth engagement and the creation of employment opportunities must be prioritized. Evidently, cultism has found its way through all strata, and as such, special attention must be given to it. There is also a need to overhaul the reformation of respective government agencies, especially by creating an anti-cultism agency, to put an end to this danger. The officials of this agency would be charged with the exclusive duty of orientation, prevention, and rehabilitation of cultists. Ours is a system that has been compromised from top to bottom, and we need other social institutions like NGOs, religious institutions to weigh in in the struggle to thwart this problem.
In addition, schools must take their duties in loco parentis as seriously as it is described. Cultism, especially those in the community, should be hunted down solely by the police. It is unsafe for civilians like the Onyabos of the Ikorodu part of Lagos to pursue dangers alone. Maybe when we do this, we can chart a way forward in the war against cultism, cover the grave we dug, and make our society safe once again.
 M. O. Fasakin and Ayeni Catherine Folake, “The Menace of Cultism in Nigeria Tertiary Institutions: Implications for Educational Development in Nigeria,” Journal of Contemporary Issues in Educational Planning and Administration 5, no. 2 (2020): 139.
 Bestman Wellington, “Nigeria’s Cults and their Role in the Niger Delta Insurgency,” The Jamestown Foundation, July 6, 2007, https://jamestown.org/program/nigerias-cults-and-their-role-in-the-niger-delta-insurgency/.
 Umaru Ibrahim Danburam and Nnome Chinyere Ifemma, “Cultism in Tertiary Institutions in Nigeria, Concept, Causes, Effects and Solutions,” International Journal of Management, Social Sciences, Peace and Conflict Studies 4, no. 3 (2021).
 Ayodele Oluwafemi, “Police Warn Cultists Against Celebrating ‘July 7’ Festival, Put Officers on Alert,” The Cable News, July 7, 2021, https://www.thecable.ng/police-warn-cultists-against-celebrating-june-7-festival-put-officers-on-alert.