taboo subject

Nigeria: Tracing the rise of ‘cult’ groups to an ‘African Mafia’

By Alexis Billebault, Alexis Billebault

Posted on May 24, 2023 08:07

 © Nigerian ‘cults’ originated here, in Benin City, and have morphed into global organised crime groups. (A street in Benin City, capital of Edo State, southern Nigeria. (Joseph Egabor8/Photo12/Alamy)
Nigerian ‘cults’ originated here, in Benin City, and have morphed into global organised crime groups. (A street in Benin City, capital of Edo State, southern Nigeria. (Joseph Egabor8/Photo12/Alamy)

From Benin City, Nigeria, to Palermo, Marseille, and beyond: Nigerian criminal groups have succeeded in developing their trafficking activities in Africa, but also in Europe. Mafia Africa (Flammarion, 2023) is the culmination of an investigation into organised crime by journalists Célia Lebur and Joan Tilouine.

In Europe, Italian organised crime takes different forms – Camorra, Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, while other criminal organisations from the Balkans (Albania and Serbia), Russia, and Georgia jostle for power. They are all involved in the trafficking that European states are combatting with varying degrees of determination, sometimes with limited means and uncertain results.

In recent years, the land known as the Old Continent has become familiar with a new form of mafia: the Nigerian cults, currently very active in Italy and France, particularly in the fields of human trafficking, prostitution, drugs, and cybercrime.

Taboo in Nigeria

Originally, the cults had nothing to do with any criminal organisation and the violence that accompanies it. “They were created in 1952, on the campuses of certain universities in Southern Nigeria,” says Joan Tilouine, co-author of Mafia Africa. It was a confraternity of students with a certain level of education, a sort of intellectual elite.

Cults were, and still are, officially banned in Nigeria. The authorities did not look favourably on the emergence of this movement, because they saw it as a potential counter-power, but they have learned to use them to serve their own interests. It remains a taboo subject in the country, while the cults have spread to all levels of society, even the most powerful,” says Tilouine.

From the campus to the streets of Benin City

Today, cultists are hardly recruited from the universities, but rather from the streets of Benin City, the capital of Edo State in the south of the country, where the top two originate. Some of their members are politicians, businessmen, senior civil servants, and even Afropop stars.

‘Mafia Africa’ by Célia Lebur and Joan Tilouine

“Not all cultists advocate violence, on the contrary. Some of the intellectuals are trying to keep the original dimension of the cults alive, but it is increasingly difficult,” she says.

Benin City-based Maphite and Black Axe cultist confraternities were born on campus. Célia Lebur and Joan Tilouine conducted their investigation in this city, which is representative of Nigeria, a huge country riddled with inequality.

Some of the leaders of the cults live in an upscale part of the city, not far from the poorest areas, where the underlings are recruited.

“In Benin City, investigating was more difficult than in Marseille or Italy. We had to find people who were willing to talk to and accompany us into dangerous neighbourhoods where two European journalists could easily be spotted,” says Tilouine.

Although the cults are purely Nigerian – “there is no comparable confraternity elsewhere in Africa”, says the journalist – they have expanded their reach, first on the continent, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea and the Ivory Coast, then in Europe, and even in Japan and Brazil, where the cultists have managed to establish “professional” relations with the yakuza and the Brazilian cartels. They have done the same in Italy, notably in Palermo, where their members sometimes work for the local mafia.

In Marseille, violence is not a problem

Cohabitation with local traffickers, which the Nigerian gangs hardly fear, is proving to be conflictual, even if the latter do not seem to be able to compete with the former, especially in the drug trade.

These mafia organisations are also characterised by their violence, which mostly affects Nigerians. The settling of scores between rival cults is frequent, and not only in the underbelly of Benin City when night falls.

In Marseille too, Vikings, Eiye and Black Axe, three of these criminal groups, do not hesitate to physically confront each other in the street. However, more seriously, they use violence against some of their compatriots, whom they bring from Nigeria, via Niger or Libya, in inhumane conditions.

It will not stop. On the contrary, especially with the migration route.

Women who are forced to prostitute themselves on the migratory route as well as in Europe, are particularly affected. Marseille is the French city where the cults are the most established and the most active and have been for the past 15 years.

Some Nigerian women, victims of violence by cultists, have dared to break the silence by approaching social services, or even by lodging a complaint, and have attracted the attention of the police and the media.

For Tilouine, the cult phenomenon is bound to grow and flourish.

“It will not stop. On the contrary, especially with the migration route. European states are doing what they can to fight against these not always well organised structures, some of whose members are uncontrollable. There are disagreements between leaders about the methods, which are sometimes considered too violent.”

Nigeria was known in Europe for its national football team, its oil, and its Afropop. Now, it will be known for its mafia.

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