OGAGA IFOWODO delivered this lecture at Oleh, Delta State, under the auspices of the Solomon Ogba Peace Group in Collaboration with Flomat Books
OUR subject is grim, a cause of one of our deepest anxieties – bordering on the nervous kind – about the present and future of this headache country called Nigeria.
If education is both the nursery and bedrock of the future, the place where the intellect and character of the men and women to lead a society, shape its political vision, and engage in its productive work are trained, then there is good cause for the nervous anxiety 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.”
Confraternities and secret cults: Separating the dream from the nightmare: 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 December 5, 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 AdewaleRotimi, 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 UniversityCollege 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