ABUJA, Nigeria — “The girl was bleeding severely and the boys took a bottle of her blood and passed it around to drink,” 28-year-old Omowunmi recalled as she narrated her first experience of cultism. She was just eight years old and in 3rd grade at a government school in the town of Ojota, in southwestern Lagos state, when she observed a group of seven young men raping a girl behind her school.
The boys had entered the compound through a large hole in a wall. Omowunmi was nearby cutting grass as punishment for not having her books for class. “I was distracted by the noise coming from the other side of the fence,” she told me with a calm expression. When her teacher appeared, the boys fled, leaving their victim badly injured. She was rushed to the hospital. Omowunmi does not know if she survived. But “that’s something I’ve never forgotten,” she said. Although she did not understand what she had witnessed at the time, she had just observed a Nigerian cult ritual. She soon learned not to cross cult members, even when they intimidated her in university.
The social movement known as cultism has its roots in a confraternity organization established by the renowned Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka and his friends in 1952 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s oldest. They set up the brotherhood to resist the “stodgy establishment and its pretentious products” in an attempt to differentiate themselves from “a culture of hypocritical and affluent middle class.” Today, secret cults have become a major menace to Nigerian society, contributing to the violent killings of thousands across the country.
Cults exist to exert power, sponsored mostly by “big men” and politicians. In a country where too many young people are out of school with very limited job opportunities, cultism remains attractive to new recruits as a means of building social reputations and wealth.
Cultism takes various forms in universities and communities and serves different purposes. They include “perceived inordinate ambition for power and show of affluence, get-rich-quick syndrome, a means of conflict resolution and for religious practices,” according to one expert description. Many cults are occultic in nature—involving or relating to mystical, supernatural or magical powers and practices.
Earlier this year, a school principal told me that some teenaged boys had recently attacked her school—a government secondary school on the outskirts of Abuja—with machetes. Luckily, there were no major injuries, but the principal was almost seriously injured and the entire school was understandably shaken. She suspected the culprits to be cult members. The school was put on lock-down and a police officer assigned to guard the institution in the following weeks.
Several weeks later, I had a rare and slightly nerve-wracking opportunity to sit down with a young cult member. I traveled to the notoriously “rough” town of Masaka in Nasarawa state, in central Nigeria, an hour-and-a-half drive from Abuja, to meet Ikenna, a 19-year-old member of a cult called the Vikings (internationally known as the Niger Catalina). The rival group in his community is called the Black Axes. His friend, who introduced Ikenna to me, accompanied me to pick him up in a taxi before we proceeded to a nearby guesthouse where we sat at the bar. Ikenna was wearing a red-and-black checkered shirt with red trousers. (Red is the Vikings’ color.) With Nigerian hip-hop music blasting in the background, we proceeded to talk.
Ikenna lives with his mother and five siblings, three brothers and two sisters. His father died and his mother works selling food in the local market. The town of Masaka suffers high rates of teenage pregnancy and many of its young people are cult members.
Despite being introduced to me as a cult member, Ikenna initially denied being a cultist. As I probed further, assuring him I posed no threat, he loosened up and confessed that although he is a Viking, he wants to leave the cult. That’s no easy task because of the oath of allegiance he took when he joined in 2015. When I asked why he had become a Viking, he responded, “I got tired of people intimidating me” and described how cult members once terrorized him with knives on the street and stole his phone. He joined the Vikings because “they’re the ones dominating the area.”
The environment often helps determine the presence of cults; the more rugged and impoverished an area, the greater the likelihood. Cults are also common in universities—often considered the hotbed of cult activities.
Anyone who wants to become a member must participate in an intense and often brutal initiation. For Ikenna, it was called ITT—”intimidation through torture.” He was asked to buy a bottle of strong rum called Squadron, four candles and a razor blade.
The Vikings call meeting places “Iceland”—anywhere can be designated Iceland for the purpose. They call the orientation process “capping.” The ceremony includes some chants in English (Vikings are known to be literate). New members lie flat on their stomachs on the ground. Squadron is poured across their backs and they are beaten with the broad sides of machete-like knives called cutlasses. In some parts of the country, such as Benue (in the Middle Belt region), the Squadron on initiates’ backs is lit and cutlasses used to beat out the flames.
As we talked, Ikenna appeared highly conscious of his surroundings; he looked around often to make sure no fellow cult member could see him speaking with me. Sharing information about the group and its activities is seen as betrayal and carries severe punishment.
“I want to belong,” Ikenna said about wanting to join the Vikings. Benefits include that “you won’t be intimidated. You’ll be feared.” Some initiates, especially teenagers, believe joining a cult will help them attract girlfriends. In most parts of Nigeria, being a man means “having money and respect,” he said. As young boys grow up in a society with limited academic and career prospects and ample idle time, cultism can seem a good way to earn respect and money.
Loyalty is a key stated value of cultism. As a cult member, you must fight for your fellow members, Ikenna told me. Cult members use specific calls and responses known only to them to identify themselves.
There are various levels of cult activities, determined by the geographic location and type of organization. Some cult groups utilize so-called herbalists who use “jazz”—a form of Nigerian spiritual belief, similar to voodoo—or charms believed to possess spiritual powers (such as rings, bracelets, animal skins or potions) and assign them tasks, ostensibly for their protection and prosperity. Ikenna drinks a potion he believes protects him.
During my time in Nigeria, several people have told me about being robbed and some even kidnapped by cult members who used such charms to lure them. One woman said she was in a shared taxi with two men in the back seat. One of them demanded her wallet. Hours later, she found herself in the bush on the outskirts of town with no recollection of what had happened. She believes she was hypnotized. Such encounters often leave victims with severe psychological trauma.
Code of loyalty
The most extreme activity Ikenna took part in is known as HIT—a “mission to fight,” to the point of killing the opponent, on behalf of a fellow cult member. Failure to show solidarity results in punishment, often beating with a cutlass.
The Vikings are divided into senior and junior members. Ikenna is a junior Viking whose leader is known as the Terminator. The Vikings are organized into “decks” based on their location. Each deck has over 100 members. A member of the senior Vikings serves as the coordinator for the Junior Vikings.
Female Vikings are called “Viqueens.” Many join seeking protection from violence. The initiation process often involves forced sexual intercourse with male cult members. As documented by a popular Nigerian blogger, Linda Ikeji, girls are gang-raped during cult initiations. She described a case in Enugu state (eastern Nigeria) in which three adolescent girls “said they were introduced to the cult by a friend and at their initiation in 2017, they were raped each by five different boys.” One of them said that “we didn’t know they put drugs in the drinks they gave us. From there, we were initiated and raped.” The girls said their parents were not aware that they are members of the Viron Queen Confraternity.
“We were threatened not to tell anybody or our parents,” one girl said. “The irony is that at the closing hour of the school, three of the same boys who initiated us would come with bikes and take us away to have sex with us.” Once initiated, girls are also ordered to help carry out attacks. They typically don’t fight or carry arms, but act as spies and distract male victims through flirtation or sexual intercourse.
If a cult member is found to have betrayed his group, leaders punish him or her and sometimes even kill suspected transgressors. Some cults order members to commit robbery to support their activities and lifestyles.
Members are promoted to leadership ranks based on “how rugged they are,” Ikenna said. Once a member is determined to be strong enough for leadership (able to endure several rounds of beatings and other initiation acts), he is promoted. But “VIP treatment” can be given in some cases to members who want to become leaders and can pay their way. “For those who have money, you have to buy drinks for other members from all the decks until they are satisfied,” Ikenna said.
Ikenna’s worst experience has been to witness a stabbing in which the victim’s intestines emerged from his body. He says he did not stay around long enough to know if the victim survived.
Cultists are protected by the “big men” who pay bribes on their behalf and equip them with weapons. Law enforcement officers are often powerless or too intimidated to arrest them. Ikenna told me how cult members attacked a prison earlier in the year to free one of their members. Other times, they pay bribes.
Ikenna told me that he would not advise anyone to join a cult. “It’s not something to be proud of,” he said. “There is no gain in it, and you might just die.” Ikenna has a “golden finger” mark on his left hand as a junior Viking; senior Vikings get the mark on their right hands.
Ikenna believes the government can intervene by providing proper security. “I wish there was no tout on the street trying to collect my phone,” he said. I wouldn’t have become a cultist,” he said.
The politics of cultism
Cultism continues to thrive in Nigeria. Many groups are sponsored by politicians, often for elections—to intimidate opponents and carry out attacks during voting season.
Cult activities affect economic growth in certain regions of the country, especially the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Ogba/Ndoni/Egbema Local Government Area in Rivers State is known to have the highest quality oil, producing the highest percentage of Nigeria’s output. Eight years ago, its capital Omuku was the second-most prosperous city in the province after Port Harcourt, according to Chime Ifeanyi-Amos, a 27-year-old lawyer from Rivers state. “People were moving to Omoku,” he said. “But because of cultism, everyone left.” Some 95 percent of the population moved elsewhere. The cost of land fell from 20 million naira ($56,022) to about 200,000 naira ($560). Daewoo and other companies with offices in the city closed as a result.
Cult members raided companies, kidnapped staff and stole equipment. “It became a place where a person can go out and never return home due to being killed by a stray bullet,” Ifeanyi-Amos said. In January, one of Nigeria’s deadliest and most wanted cult members, popularly known as “Don Wanny” was killed by security agents following a seven-year period of terrorizing the town and its environs and killing many.
Because of cults’ secretive nature, combating the groups has proved a formidable task for the Nigerian government and civil society. Not much is known about their inner workings. “Cult activities are often associated with rituals that are characterized by a set of practices, belief system or thinking usually disclosed only to their inner caucus,” according to one account. Members are often bailed out of prison to keep them from going to court and revealing secrets.
As for Ikenna, he told me the disadvantages outweigh the temporary moments of feeling included and powerful. “I’m not that kind of person,” he said. But it’s not clear when or how he will be able to leave.