Nigerian Confraternities : The Black Axe

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A black axe breaking the chains of a slave: the official logo of the Neo-Black Movement of Africa Bild: Archiv

In the 1970s, nine Nigerian students founded a fraternity to fight racism and oppression. Today, its name is associated with criminal activities all over the world. What happened?

          11 Min.

          When he thinks of the Neo-Black Movement, Usman dan Fodio likes to sing. He sings about African freedom fighters and their heroic deeds. He sings into the camera of his mobile phone and uploads the videos to Facebook. For more than five years he has been an “Axeman,” as the movement’s members call themselves. Usman dan Fodio is the name he was given during his initiation into the group, in tribute to a 19th-century West African ruler. "NBM changed my live", he says. "NBM taught me respect and discipline. I want to promote those ideas."

          David Klaubert
          Redakteur im Ressort „Deutschland und die Welt“.

          (Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels)

          Tobias Uche also runs a website about the NBM. He publishes photos and names, newspaper articles and internal documents. He would never show his face in front of a camera. His name is a pseudonym. And if he agrees to meet, he insists that not even the city be mentioned. "I want to expose them, to show what they really are: a very effective and dangerous international crime machine”, he says.

          The students who founded the NBM set themselves an ambitious goal: They wanted to fight the oppression and hardship black people faced, not only in their home country of Nigeria, but all over the world. And indeed, the organization is now active on almost all continents. According to its current leadership, the NBM has around 30,000 members. The erstwhile student fraternity has become a movement that claims to fight for "equality and social justice for all".  The German branch is registered as a Verein, one of the country’s ubiquitous “voluntary associations.”

          Uche has his doubts about such claims. And law enforcement officials who have investigated members in recent years in Canada, the UK and Italy are also convinced that the movement has strayed far from its original path. In its home country, the NBM is associated with the “Black Axe,” a forbidden “campus cult,” as violent gangs and secret societies with roots in universities are called in Nigeria. "The Black Axe was the most notorious“, says a former geology student who studied in Ilorin in western Nigeria in the early 1990s. While he was attending a lecture, he says, several Black Axe members beat up a fellow student from a rival cult in front of the lecture hall, smashing the victim’s skull with machetes and killing him.

          Streets of Lagos: Nigeria in 1970
          Streets of Lagos: Nigeria in 1970 : Bild: AP

          Nigeria was still under British rule when a handful of students founded the country’s first fraternity in the early 1950s. They called themselves the “Pyrates” and chose Wole Soyinka, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as their captain. Instead of the suits then customary on campus, they wore baggy pants and headscarves to signal their rejection of the elitist structures at what was then the country’s only university. The Pyrates grew rapidly when new universities were founded after Nigeria gained its independence. There were power struggles, dissenting factions split off.

          And at the beginning of the 1977/78 academic year, nine students at the University of Benin came together to defend themselves against the Pyrates, who not only called the shots in university politics, but also behaved ruthlessly on campus. The new group wanted a name evocative of power, too, as one of them later recalled. “The Vikings” was considered, but, alluding to their weapon of choice, they ultimately settled on “The Black Axe Confraternity.”

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