https://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/kriminalitaet/investigation-on-the-neo-black-movement-a-k-a-black-axe-16898417.html

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.”

          Ideologically, they saw themselves rooted in pan-Africanism, in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, against the oppression of African-Americans, against the impoverishment of blacks. The Black Panthers in the US served as role models: militant, disciplined and action orientated. On campus, the Black Axe sought to be “secretive, shadowy, little talked about by its members, enlisting codes, signs, secret rituals, initiations”, as one of its founder wrote. “Outside the campus it would be involved in the defence and protection of the black man. Our organisation was going to be the vanguard in the move to create a new black nation.” They eventually changed their name to the Neo-Black Movement of Africa. What they kept were the logo, showing a black axe breaking the chains of a slave, and the nickname Axemen.

          The official homepage of the Neo-Black Movement of Africa
          The official homepage of the Neo-Black Movement of Africa : Bild: nbmworldwide.org/Screenshot F.A.Z.

          One young student who joined the movement was Ernest Osa Amadasu. Back then he had just started his civil engineering studies; today he is part of the NBM leadership. "What attracted me was the focus on Africa, the common history of subjugation, the fight for social justice”, he says. To be accepted, he had to undergo all manner of tests: question-and-answer sessions, political discussions, push-ups, frog jumps while being pushed around by others. "They wanted to test our intellectual capacity and our physical endurance.” When it was all over, like all members, he was given the name of an African hero. In his case it was Mansa Musa, a Malian king from the 14th century.

          In 1983, while Amadasu was still in his first semester, a coup took place that brought Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to power. Buhari proclaimed a “war against indiscipline.” Like many students, Amadasu hoped that the new leader would eliminate the corruption that paralyzed the country. But Buhari soon focused on harassing critics and opponents instead. Thousands were imprisoned. Protests against the introduction of tuition fees were crushed by Buhari’s soldiers. The students fought back, mixing their own pepper spray in university chemistry labs. Amadasu and his Axemen wrote pamphlets denouncing the regime, which they published in their magazine Black Axe. Buhari reacted by banning the organization. He wasn’t able to enforce it, however, before being ousted by the next putsch in 1985. The fraternities continued their retreat into secrecy all the same.

          The economy had long since bottomed out. It collapsed after a brief oil boom at the beginning of the 1970s, and with it disappeared the hopes of an entire generation. Schools and universities lacked even the basics. “It became like a war situation regarding the scarcity of food“, Amadasu recalls. Thousands and thousands graduated and became unemployed. For its part, the military junta demonstrated how to get rich despite such drawbacks: "The main task of the state became to accumulate money for the man at the top", writes British historian Stephen Ellis. Like a slow poison, the message seeped deeper and deeper into society: The best way to succeed was through violence and deceit.

          NBM members who had finished their studies called themselves “Lords.” They organized themselves into regional groups known as “zones” and elected a “National Council of Elders” as their highest body. Among other responsibilities, the council monitored compliance with the group’s code of conduct. Members who did not take part, who endangered the reputation of the movement through alcoholism or criminal activity, for example, could be censured. The sanctions ranged from fines and corporal punishment to “de-axetion” – exclusion from the movement.

          Meanwhile, the rivalry between the university fraternities grew increasingly violent. Since students and faculty were the most vocal advocates of democracy, the military leadership did all it could to bring institutions of higher education under its control. It installed henchmen among the administrators – and instrumentalized fraternities for its own purposes. It offered privileges, money and weapons to ensure the fraternities abused rivals and uncooperative students. Initiation rituals became more brutal. Violence was used to terrorize first-year students, especially those from more affluent families, into participating. Non-students were admitted as extra troops for the battlefield. "Campus cults turned into authentic breeding-grounds of Nigerian organised crime", writes Ellis.

          In the mid-1990s, the NBM’s Council of Elders decided to place all university activities under the authority of the regional zones. "The situation on campus was chaotic, there was hardly any control", says Amadasu. "There was a lot of effort to get it into order. But they just didn´t understand what we were talking about.” Only the students who accepted the NBM´s rules were officially recognized as members, he says.

          Yet this did not stop all those who had already become Axemen from simply continuing on as they had before. At the University of Ilorin, for example, one of the largest in the country, the competition between the fraternities didn’t reach its bloody peak until after the turn of the millennium. Of all the cult groups back then the most dreaded were the ones who called themselves Black Axe and Neo-Black Movement, says the former geology student who wants to remain anonymous. "These names were used interchangeably." Some were students, others as the “foot soldiers” who appeared on campus with machetes and pistols were just pretending to be. "They were intimidating everybody on campus. If you were not quick enough to take cover, they surrounded you, asked you to give them your money, your wristwatch and they could even ask you to remove your shoes.” Those who belonged to another fraternity had to fear for their lives. „There were lots and lots and lots of bloody killings.” Wearing the wrong clothes could prove fatal: "I remember them coming into the lecture hall, drag us out. They rounded us up in the bush, put a gun to my head. They suspected me of being a member of another cult group because I was wearing a yellow LA Lakers shirt.”

          Pictures showing charity events on the NBM´s homepage
          Pictures showing charity events on the NBM´s homepage : Bild: nbmworldwide.org/Screenshot F.A.Z.

          Tobias Uche, the blogger, came across the NBM almost ten years ago. He is a financial crimes expert – and won’t reveal more than that. At the time, he was on the trail of scammers who had further refined the old “Nigerian prince” hoax of asking for help in e-mails and promising generous rewards. Engaging in ever more elaborate lies, they persuaded victims to send them money. Some of the scammers operated from the Netherlands, others from the UK or Spain. They laundered their ill-gained proceeds through the accounts of contacts in Japan, who in turn had connections in Canada and Nigeria. In internal mails, which Uche was able to access, they referred to each other as “My Lord.” They signed their communications using the names of historical figures from Africa and wrote many things Uche could not decipher at first.

          Law enforcement officials in Canada were also investigating. A Nigerian had broken the heart of a widow there, cheating her out of $609,000. He had passed himself off on the Internet as an American general stuck in the Middle East, repeatedly asking his online love for support so he could finally visit her. Using a fake UN identity card and pretending to be a friend of the general, he met the woman in person to receive the money. A court in Toronto sentenced him to two years in prison. He is also awaiting extradition to the United States, where the FBI has accused him of participating in a money-laundering ring.

          The money from these scams flowed mostly through Asian bank accounts, which often made it impossible for the police to identify the recipients. And it left them with a conundrum. "In most cases, criminals don´t trust one another. They always steal from one another, because they are criminals", says Michael Kelly, who led the investigation in Toronto. "In these cases, the individuals would have other criminals on the other side of the earth receiving money for them. But they never seemed to be worried that the other criminal would just keep the 100.000 Dollar for himself. So I asked myself: How do these guys trust one another?”

          Like Uche, it took the Canadians a while to figure out what connected many of the suspects: They were Axemen. The fake general was the NBM’s treasurer in Canada, where the group was officially registered as a non-profit organization. And when the investigators took a closer look at the Canada zone, they discovered more scams, a kidnapping and bar brawls. "I can't think of another organization out there that has the same correlation between membership and criminal activities”, says Kelly.

          In 2012, when the hotelier Augustus Bemigho-Eyeoyibo was elected National Head, the NBM’s supreme leader, he gave a self-critical speech, maintaining the group’s original values had suffered. "Brigandry, recklessness and hate have taken the front seat", he said, according to the minutes distributed to members. "This picture is not what we expect of the movement that we belong to and the ideals of which we swore to defend."

          The NBM´s logo on a hat seized during a police operation against drug dealers in Italy
          The NBM´s logo on a hat seized during a police operation against drug dealers in Italy : Bild: Polizia di Stato

          In August, two sisters and a brother of Bemigho’s wife were convicted of money laundering in London. Investigators are convinced that the former NBM head was the scam’s actual mastermind. Bemigho coordinated everything from Nigeria, says the law enforcement official who worked on the case for three years. According to his investigations, Bemigho, for example, instructed his sisters-in-law to use tainted money to buy fitness equipment and have it shipped to his hotel near Lagos. Blogger Tobias Uche also has e-mails, apparently from Bemigho’s account, suggesting the Nigerian was involved in fraud on a large scale. They contain Excel spreadsheets with thousands of postal and e-mail addresses, identity documents that are clearly fake, and correspondence with victims from Jacksonville, Florida, to Wendelstein, Bavaria. (Bemigho did not respond to requests for comment.)

          His successor at the organization is Felix Kupa, an engineer who works in the oil business and who has led the NBM since 2016. In response to an interview request, Kupa wrote via WhatsApp: "In a church there might be one or two persons possessed with evil spirit, but that does not mean the entire church is demonic." As a postscript, he added the leadership’s mantra-like refrain: “Black Axe has nothing to do with NBM."

          A judge in Palermo came to a completely different conclusion in 2018. She sentenced 14 street dealers for controlling the drug trade in the city’s Ballarò neighborhood and for their involvement in forcing Nigerian women into prostitution. That the accused were Axemen was, for the judge, an aggravating factor. Following testimony by three state witnesses, she concluded that Black Axe and the NBM were one and the same: “a mafialike organization”.

          Since then, people in Italy and beyond often talk of “the Nigerian Mafia” whenever criminal suspects have connections to the West African country. Yet the term is misleading. Nigerian organized crime does not typically feature clearly defined affiliations or tight hierarchies as for example the Cosa Nostra or ’Ndrangheta. Individual criminals or cells – which have spread around the world along with the millions of Nigerians who have left their homeland since the 1980s – work together in loose networks, sometimes for just one crime, sometimes for a few years. What connects them even at a distance are mutual acquaintances, common ethnicity. Or a fraternity’s oath of allegiance. "The organization is perfect for criminals", says Uche. "When the NBM is involved the individuals become far less loosely connected. And they can act far more effective.”

          A victim in Benin city: Nigerian organized crime networks are involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution.
          A victim in Benin city: Nigerian organized crime networks are involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution. : Bild: Reuters

          The street dealers in Palermo operated as a closed, violence-prone group. One of them travelled back to Nigeria to become an Axeman so he could sell drugs in a better, more contested location. The men used the names Black Axe and Neo-Black Movement synonymously in their online chats. They attended meetings of the official NBM Italy zone and paid membership dues. One of the state witnesses described an occult initiation ritual in Verona in which newcomers were brutally degraded and beaten. But he also said, “drug trafficking and prostitution are the personal activities of every individual. There are also Black Axe who do not commit crimes.”

          The Italian prosecutors pressed charges against other NBM members all the same, including Osahenagharu Uwagboe, known as Sixco, who lived near Verona and worked as a car mechanic. There was no evidence that he was involved in the crimes in Palermo. The only accusation against him was that he was head of the Italian zone for a few years – and thus, the prosecutors argued, a mafia boss. After a lengthy trial, the court ruled against the prosecution. Sixco was released at the beginning of November 2019. He had spent almost three years in a maximum-security prison.

          "The verdict validates our claims that we are a corporate organization poised to seek the best for humanity", says Macjean Omuvwie, a systems administrator in Berlin who is president of the NBM Europe region. He represents a total of 12 zones, including Germany. "I only knew Sixco. I don´t know if the others in Italy actually were members, but I don´t think a lot of them were”, he says. “Some of them couldn´t even write their own names. Tell me, how can they be a member of an intellectual organization?”

          For far too long, Omuvwie says, the NBM leadership has had no control over who became a member or who was a member. An IT company in Nigeria is now working on assembling a database, he says, which will contain the names of all Axemen, along with biometric photos, the year and place they were admitted and the zone in which they are active. „This will help us to wipe out people who are not members, who are just claiming to be members“, Omuvwie explains. The convicted criminals in Italy and Canada have already been “de-axed”.

          This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org).
          This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org). : Bild: journalismfund.eu

          Yet the NBM’s innocent self-portrayal is just as misleading as the image of a globe-spanning mafia that the media and law enforcement agencies like to present. According to a German law enforcement official who has spent years looking into Nigerian organized crime, investigators scrutinized the German NBM association but found nothing alarming. "Definitely, there will be some good eggs among them”, says the former geology student from Ilorin. Years after graduating, he accidentally ran into some Axemen at a party in Berlin – “peaceful and loving gentlemen", he says. "But I am just one of the thousands that have been traumatized by the name NBM in the past. And they are very well aware of what happened.”

          Tobias Uche, who has received hundreds of death threats as a result of his blog, also considers the leadership’s transparency initiative to be another attempt at obfuscation. Although there are untainted individuals who uphold the group’s original ideals, he says, it is ultimately the criminal members and their activities that benefit. Screenshots from internal forums taken by Uche suggest that the NBM is still much more connected to the unscrupulous Black Axe gangs in Nigeria than it publicly admits. In the discussions, the violence and murders are mostly condemned. One of the Lords criticizes the "the bitter truth that we are fighting nonstop for years now". “We” – when communicating with other members, he does not question the perpetrators’ affiliation.

          Conversely, many of those who became Axemen in the past two or three decades see no need to submit to the current leadership, whether they themselves are criminals or not. Even Usman dan Fodio, who sings his praises of the NBM in his videos and swears by the founding fathers and their ideas, is not registered in any zone. “I don’t need this,” he says. He is not even bothered by the comment left by an NBM spokesman calling his Facebook page “fake.” On July 7, the day of the organization’s purported founding, he meets up with other Axemen in the park. They don the logo with the black axe. They drink beer, sing and celebrate – their own Neo-Black Movement.

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