Cults, Gangs Or Something In-between

By Tosin Osasona


Perhaps one of the factors responsible for the progressive worsening of ‘cult’ related violence in cities across Nigeria is the confusion around what is cultism, who is a cultist and what is inherently bad about cultism in context of our differing historical and cultural experiences?

For those who think- is it really necessary getting the name right? Afterall, a sour orange is sour irrespective of the name you give it.

Definitions reflect the idiosyncrasies, prejudices and emotions of the person offering them and in the public policy space; except a problem is properly defined, proffered solutions are always going to be askew, and nowhere is this starker than the criminal justice sector in Nigeria.

Conceptual clarity around ‘cult’ and ‘cultism’ is important if we as a nation will stop the mindless violence that has blighted our centres of higher learning and has now entered our streets, decimating young people. No doubt, there are federal and state legislations criminalizing membership of cult societies, and in fact the Ekiti State 2017 Secret Cult (Amendment) Law increases the previous seven-year imprisonment for convicted cultist to death penalty.

Also, the 1999 Constitution forbids public officers from holding membership of societies deemed to operate against the ideals of such public office.

The Edo State Secret Cult (Prevention) Law of 2000, which as a matter of fact is one of the most lucid criminal legislations on the theme, bars students and public servants from having anything to do with cultism in any form, and this includes membership, being present at initiation or being initiated, possession of any dress, costume, uniform, regalia, identity card, insignia, certificate, symbol, book, register, staff, or article belonging to or connected with any secret cult.

This particular law as clear as it is, compared to other legislation on the subject, has in practice further muddled the water and left unanswered the most important questions about cult and cultism in Nigeria.

Why are all recent criminal legislations on the theme a pitiable rehash of the old colonial legislation that are prejudiced against anything African?  What are the distinctions in reality between the disruptive groups that are tagged ‘cults’ in Nigeria and violent gangs in other climes, such as MS-13 and Cosa Nostra?

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Why have groups that set out as fraternities in our universities ended up as being regarded as ‘cult’ groups, yet confraternities and sororities remain an integral part of collegiate culture across the world?

Is the problem the brute violent psychopaths that we call ‘cultists’ unleash on themselves and their unfortunate victims, or is it the secrecy that pervades their operations that makes the tag appropriate?

Why have Christian and European originated fraternities not framed with the negativity like their traditional African peers?

Now that vulcanizers, ‘‘riders, bus conductors, and porters” on the streets of Lagos in furtherance of their democratic rights have demanded the right of inclusion in the gang-family, how do we police these new barbarians at our urban gates?

Undoubtedly, one of the primary threats to public safety and security in many urban centres in Nigeria is the perennial violent clashes between gangs and groups that the media have continuously tagged as ‘cultists’.  But are these motley crew of felons’ ‘cults’ in our sociological and religious contexts?

Cults and secret societies are a central part of traditional African governance institutions in so many communities and were responsible in times past for the functioning of social, economic and political systems.

From the Poro and Sande cults in Mende and Temne chiefdoms in the Sierra Leone, to the Beri cult among the Vai people of Liberia, and coming close home, we have the Ogboni, Osugbo, Egungun cult societies among the Yoruba, the Ekpe secret cult among the Efik, and Ogo secret cult among the Afikpo-Igbo.

How are these African secret societies different from the medieval European merchant and craft guilds that were essentially confraternities of tradesmen?

Or what are the real functional differences between the various Masonic orders, Freemasons, and the church based-confraternities that are common among Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the Western Orthodox churches and African secret cults.

This clarification is necessary due to the fact that in English-speaking world, the term ‘cult’ is a very subjective term with derogatory connotations.

The colonialists in delegitimizing traditional institutions criminalized membership of so many of these African societies and forever branded them with the name ‘cults’ in a very disparaging way.

And post-Colonial Nigerian criminal law regime has kept the practice.

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Undoubtedly, there are multi-level problems with past and current strategies for addressing gang violence in Nigeria. The issue of wrong problem definition remains at the heart of this critical defect.

How can you solve a problem you have not shown basic understanding of?

Nigerian criminal legislations have branded gangs as cult groups, thus muddling the real problem, and calls into question the understanding of law makers and other managers of the Nigerian security architecture of the nuances of group violence.

Gangs and cults do share similarities, but there remain fundamental differences as cults have their central principle of organization, be it spiritual, religious or ideological belief system.

Gangs on the other hand have more elementary or no belief system and are distinguished by their brute use of violence.

The most organized of the groups we tag cults are partly imitation of Italian Mafia, mixed with some elements of MS-13 and other American street gangs, with a sprinkling of a secret society to create the illusion of mystique.

And for the vast majority of those groups with the core of its membership outside universities, they are nothing but gangs and mobs. The Awawa boys in Lagos fits perfectly this description; operating in a group of 100, wrecking violence and causing disruption whenever they can, which is their only discernible raison d’être.

Another manifestation of failure in problem definition as it relates to cults and gangs in Nigeria is faulty analysis, leading to wrong assumption and improper attribution of origin. How can we as a people not see the link between the rise of gangs in our urban centres and our abysmal socio-economic indexes-high urban youth employment, high incidence of poverty, lack of opportunities, and dysfunctional criminal justice system, among others?

Yet we are generously willing to blame the problem of cultism and gangs on Wole Soyinka and his six other peers for starting a confraternity in 1952 in Ibadan as if there is link between Wole Soyinka’s pioneered collegiate fraternity and Awawa boys or Eiye in Mushin area of Lagos in 2019?

And who in particular do we blame for the Yandabagangs in Kano? And moreover, we conveniently gloss over the despicable roles that university administrators and political actors have played in time past in emboldening and arming gangs as enforcers/executors of their agenda.

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There is a lack of coherent national strategy for disrupting and dismantling the most violent gangs in Nigeria, and also there is no visible national policy on school-based violence, leaving individual schools and communities to respond uncoordinatedly to a national tragedy. The closest we ever came to having policy was President Olusegun Obasanjo’s reactive anti-cult strategy in response to national outrage over the Obafemi Awolowo University cult killing on the 10th July1999.

Isn’t it time to look at setting up something like the National Gang Intelligence Centre like they have in the US?

Having worked in international development assistance programs focusing on security sector reform and governance, nothing exposes Nigeria’s ill-preparedness to address gang related violence as the lack of tactical and operational direction for Nigerian policing actors?

The police in some states have established anti-cultism squads, but with zero operational guidelines or unit terms of reference on how to operate.

We are left with a police unit compelled to improvise as officers deem fit, so sporting a tattoo in auspicious and sometimes hidden body parts or having some weird hairdos or dressed in certain colours can result in you getting arrested for being a cultist.

This in essence creates an opportunity for extortion, which ultimately alienates the very core of society that the police need to work with.

But we are back from where we started from, questions with no easy answers and how well we provide answers to these questions determine how fast we will stop the ongoing carnage by gangs in our centres of higher learning and urban city centres. But we must at least start from the obvious- there is nothing constitutionally and socially wrong for adherents of indigenous African faiths to belong to fraternities and societies like their peers in Abrahamic faiths and that most fraternities do not hold their meetings in market centres and open spaces, so secrecy is not the problem.

The problem is the violence, crime, extortion and intimidation which is motivation of gangs and gangsters.

Tosin Osasona is the State Interventional Lead on the Nigeria Policing Program

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