By Ejiro Umukoro
Akudo wants to come out but they won’t let her. The last time she told them she was leaving, they threatened to deal with her. What she did not expect them to do was to wait at the gate of her school after school hours to attack her in broad day light. She was assaulted by Vipers, a group she belonged to where she had been a member of the Vice Queen, the female arm of the gang. The group is dominant in Asaba, Delta state. Akudo is 15 years.
A crumpled note was dumped on Dumebi’s lap. By the time she looked up, she could not tell who had dropped it on her lap. She asked her classmates sitting close by, but they too did not have a good glimpse of who did it. The class was rowdy. It was break time. Dumebi uncrumpled the note. The first lines made her blood run cold, she broke into a sweat, her heart-rate spiked. It was a letter, addressed to her. It was a threat.
She jolted from her seat and headed straight to the school counselor’s office. She’s only 13 years and didn’t know how to handle this sort of matter. It was a message from a gang who saw themselves as ‘cultists’. Their name, Red Devil Girls, evokes fear. She had been ‘bammed’ code name for marked. Later that day when she got home, her mother impressed upon her not to go back to school the following day, a Friday. She was scared. Dumebi stayed back.
Sometime in the afternoon on Friday, Dumebi went to the market at Ogbeogonogo on an errand. A ‘spotter’ for the gang, known as Shedrach, surrounded by 7 girls pointed at Dumebi. That Friday after school hours, the threat was carried out opposite Ogbeilo junction where Dumebi was waylaid by the seven students dressed in mufti, who had gone after a ‘flight’, their code name for new recruit. They beat her up and left her bruised in the midst of confused onlookers.
When the news of the attack got to Dumebi’s brother-in-law, he was livid. On Monday the following week, Dumebi and her brother-in-law went to the police A-Division not too far from the market to report the case to the anti-cult office. Now they sit at the counselor’s office waiting for the proper protocol before the next action is taken against the perpetrators.
Millicent wore a smirk on her face. It was a cunning expression borne from a certain confidence she feels she possesses – the thought that she can outsmart her teachers, folks and school mates alike. At 15, she stands erect, and tells the counselor that she has denounced her membership from Tibi. She had been the ‘Queen’ of F-Tibi (Future Tibi, the female arm of the gang), at the top of the authority hierarchy.
Akudo, Dumebi and Millicent attend the same school. They are amongst the disturbing growing number of girls faced with a social dilemma fast becoming pervasive in secondary schools in Delta state: the pressure to belong or be forced to join a group often termed a gang or secret cult. In this school, a mixed secondary school for junior and secondary school students, at least 10 such groups exist according to the list I was shown collated by the principal of the school.
Of this number, two distinct gangs have dominant control inside the goings-on in the school while the other eight co-existing within the school have strong external influence from outside that manages their activities within. According to the principal, members of the group who control activities within the school are known as ‘coordinators’ and those managing the structure of the gang are called ‘leaders’.
While Dumebi cannot understand why she was chosen, Akudo was already tired of being a member of the group, whereas Millicent pretended to denounce when in reality, her goal was to jump from one group to another to recruit fresh girls to join another group known as Devils Girl. She was the mastermind behind the recruitment of Dumebi.
She had thought Dumebi was a weak easy target because she had that docile pliable look that wreaked of fear. But she was surprised to discover behind that face was a quick intelligent mind. She is not pleased as she sits at the counselor’s office hating the feeling of being outsmarted. The name ‘Hannah’ written on the letter is a fictitious name. It was written by another student, a boy, code name Shedrach who is also part of the secret-cult.
Millicent is a serial-group hopper. She knows the game and plays the rule to suit her needs. In every group she joins, her trump card is to ensure she has as many friends within who can stand for her, vouch for her. Her singular goal is to be become the ‘Queen’ of the female arm of any gang group she chooses to join.
That way she has control over the rules and the people who make the rules. Being a queen, she can control, intimidate, ‘obtain’, code name for stealing, harass or determine the fate of any girl through ‘flight’ or ‘nooting’ in exchange for other favours. Recruitment fees (otherwise known as ‘submit’) of up to N3,500 are paid to her aside weekly and monthly dues. Included in being in this position is the pecks of having boys who can fight for her should the need arise.
According to Millicent, there over nine female gangs in Asaba alone, many others unknown. These nine are the most dominant groups, many of them were created as the female arm of existing male-dominated gangs and secret-cults: TG Girls (Trigger Girls), Vice Queen (Vipers), F-Tibi (Future Tibi), White Angels (JVC – Junior Vikings), Pink Lady (Apache), Red Devils, Bad Dragon, Blue Birds, and Red Sea. The notorious three on this list are: JVC, Vipers and TG.
They all use the same spot for ‘initiation’, a neglected thick bush area within the premises of SPC (St. Patrick’s Church) and other selected bushy areas, hideouts, and uncompleted buildings scattered all over town or in abandoned school blocks. Within Millicent’s school alone, many of these groups co-exists, each running their gangs independent of the others.
There’s an aggressive drive for ‘flight’ or ‘bamming’ for recruitment of boys and girls. Millicent informs me that new recruits have recently joined different gangs, many of them mostly operating in public schools (she mentions three other popular public schools in Asaba). Dues for new recruits have gone up from N2,000 to N4,000 or N5,000 depending on the gang, while weekly dues, post recruitment, is being reviewed from N200 and N400 to more. Teachers interviewed mentioned a number of other public schools in Asaba were secret-cult gangsterism is prominent. According to another principal from Ugbolu community, on the average, each gang has as few as 4 members or more, with some as many as a 100. Private schools are also facing similar invasion.
Millicent joined Tibi when she was in JSS 2, age 13. A male friend of hers in the same school had slyly introduced her to the group a year earlier in JSS 1. She had been drawn to their unique patois of speaking (a distorted lingo of Pidgin English), the songs they sing during orientation, slangs and code words they use, how they rap, the kind of fun they have and how one day she too would be called ‘Omo Girl’ just like he’s called ‘Omo Boy’ within the gang. On the day of carrying out the ‘mission’, code name for initiation or oath swearing, Millicent paid N2,000 for registration dues including other items specified for the rites.
It was the same amount she paid a few months ago to be ‘disfeathered’, code name for denounce, from the group. But all of this is a façade; she’s like a double rogue agent who switches side. She claims to have rejected an offer to be ‘queen’ from JVC to join ‘Whitey’, (known to the general public as White Angel, the female arm of Junior Vikings Confraternity).
When Akudo decided to join her gang two and half years ago, three choices were placed before her: be flogged, be ‘nooted’ or pay a fee of N3,500. She chose to be nooted. That day 10 boys had sex with her. In school Akudo is known as the girl who has had sex with the most number of boys. She’s also known to sleep around. Twelve boys in her gang recently denounced and she had hoped to do the same.
But the backlash she experienced when she attempted to, has made her frightened and powerless. Due to uncontrolled interruption from gang activities, Akudo failed in her last exam. She would have to reseat. But like the rest of their members who often change school when they fail exams, Akudo has chosen to stay away from school.
To understand the peculiar situation girls of this school face, on 11th October, The International Day of the Girl, 100 randomly selected female students were asked to fill a questionnaire provided by GIME (Getting Inside Me Project). These students attend the same school as Dumebi, Akudo and Millicent.
The questions covered issues ranging from social and academic challenges the students face, pressures from peers and the home front including realities they encounter in school. Ten of the students did not submit their response. For those who submitted their response, some questions where left unticked or unanswered.
Other Pressures That Impacts Girls’ Lives
The need for acceptance by their peers is strong. A few do so to gain protection from sexual harassment, some succumb to the pressure to conform, others simply for the popularity that comes with having several friends and being known in several cliques, while a number of them prefer acceptance that stems from academic recognition or be known as the student with good morals. A select few prefer the power and control that comes from being popular as part of a gang or through familiarity with these gangs but not necessarily as members of these gangs.
Four distinct respondents did indicate in the questionnaire a strong desire to be accepted by the opposite sex with a high chance of giving in to sexual advances if the pressure doesn’t relent. The temptation is very high for girls who experience strong sexual impulse, even though they may not have had sex, or for girls who are very curious about sex. For this category of girls, if an offer presents itself, they chance of falling for it is very high.
Two case examples thought to be rape turned out to be consensual acts following further investigation. One happened inside an abandoned school block during school hours where a student boy had it with a student girl in the presence of a second boy who stood watching. The other happened in SPC by a girl’s boyfriend in the presence of other boys. All of them were school mates.
Human influence is a powerful social variable that can make or mar a girl’s sense of worth, academic performance, career choices and vulnerabilities. Many students stated that their parents are too busy for them and do not care about their welfare or academics as long as they are seen attending school. A student clearly stated in the questionnaire that she plans to run away from home because of undue parental pressure on all fronts.
Another student noted that her parents are forcing her to go against her desires. One complained about intimidation from her folks, another complained that her parents have anger issues, and often transfer their aggression on her. Some complain of lack of money from parents to buy books, many carrying worn out school bags or wearing torn shoes and threadbare uniforms. A few expressed strong desires for not being able to buy other simple things, like a favourite dress.
A few other parental issues like emotional abuse (insults thrown at students constantly), lack of trust, parents’ assumed conclusion that student must be a bad child at school, overburden with excessive house chores, lack of attention, love and care from parents/guardian, and insistence from parents that student must hawk were a number of pressures these girls listed.
On the positive side, some students noted that there were also good pressures from their parents, like: study hard, do the right thing, get good grades, choose only good friends, don’t join gangs in school.
In this digital age, the proliferation of phones has created an acute need for students to keep with trends and the fast moving global village. Although a large number of the students expressed strong desire to own a phone, some did so for the purpose of study, others for social media connectivity, while some wanted one to be in communication with family members, relations and friends.
Two of the students stated they were too young to own a phone (11 years because their parents said so. Three others simply don’t want to because they feel they’re too young to own a phone). A sizeable number (23%) did not want to own a phone because it would distract them from their studies.
In the area of social challenges they face, it was interesting to observe that 35% of the students were very aware of the challenges they face, especially at school even though many more did not articulate their exact challenge on the questionnaire. A quick feedback, post submission, highlighted why this was so. Many students didn’t tick the boxes for ‘what social challenges do you have’, in part, as a result of inability to express self, not sure what the term meant, not enough time to think through the question, or unwillingness to share.
These vulnerability pointers show that when harassment, bullying, assault and intimidation go unchecked within the home and in schools, it gives birth to the desire to seek protection from the attacker, bullies, perpetrators or environment that promotes it. This in turn creates the need for the attacked to seek protection from outside themselves that leads to having, and forming a group, or joining one that protects the attacked and their interests.
Often students who are lured into such secret gang-cults are innocent and ignorant of the activities of the gang they joined until it is too late. And when they do, getting out becomes a life threatening move. This fear often paralyses students from leaving or denouncing their membership, and after a while, it becomes a habit to carry out the orders of the group, sinking them further, almost to the point of no return.
When I interview the PPRO of Delta State Command, Andrew Aniamaka, he explained that in response to the rise of secret-gang-cult related activities in the state, the State Anti-Cult Unit (SACU) was created in July 2016 to eradicate secret-cult-gangs and cult related offences. About six months ago a volunteer arm, the Civilian Anti-Cult Corps (CACC), who are rigorously screened and vetted by the Police State Command across all local government areas within the state, was created to support the activities of SACU.
The unit serves as additional manpower to achieve SACU’s objective: to identify members, their hideouts, and activities with the goal of eradicating secret-gang-cults in Delta State. It is no mean feat as there are, in Asaba alone, over 170 private schools and over 500 public schools in Delta according to the information I gathered from the Ministry of Basic and Secondary School Education.
Many of the public schools I investigated have a population of no less than 800 students with some schools having as much as 2,000 or over 3,000 students. Some of the school authorities interviewed for this report expressed concern about the ratio of police support per school to tackle the menace of secret-gang-cults in schools.
According to SACU, it has only one vehicle dedicated for this purpose for the entire state, which at the time of this report has been grounded and requires N300,000 to fix it. Perhaps at this juncture it is pertinent to ask: how committed is Delta State Government in tackling head-on the menace of secret-gang-cults in the state? SACU thus rely heavily on CACC across all L.G.As to do the leg work and refer to SACU once suspects are apprehended for proper prosecution.
A number of the school authorities I spoke to said they are at the mercy of police in getting prompt response unless they are able to pay from their pockets to fuel police vehicles with a bit of tip thrown in, paying the sum of N2,000 to N5,000 as the case may be. For schools that cannot dip into their pockets on a regularly basis to fight gang-related clashes, they live each day praying that each school-day goes without incident.
Another option exploited by some schools is enlisting the communities in which their schools are located to provide daily security in lieu of preventing the schools from being closed down as a result of gang clashes and related activities. With this kind of collaboration, these local vigilante groups do the work of scouring through bush areas, hideouts or abandoned buildings that are often used by secret-gang-cults as their meeting point.
According to SACU, Warri has the highest number of suspects arrested (316) and number of prosecuted (300) since 2016 till date, followed by Kwale with 250 arrested and 222 prosecuted. Asaba with 107 arrested suspects and 77 convictions tops at number three. In total, 24 towns and cities in Delta State are fast become breeding ground for secret-cult gangsterism. Since 2016 as at the time of this report, a total of 1,598 have been arrested and 1,337 prosecuted. Of this number, 62 were girls arrested for related offences and 49 of these were prosecuted.
The officer in charge of the State Anti-Cult Unit, CSP Ibrahim Danazumi, spelt out a list of identifiers in spotting out members of various secret cults: Cult Group / Slogans / Greetings Dress Codes
Inspector Titus Ayuba at SACU’s head office in Issele-Azagba stated that there are tens of cult groups in Delta with new names springing up. He gave a list of 21 confirmed secret-gang-cults for male groups in the state: Burkina Faso, Two-Two (black beret), Ayes, Eiye, Marphites, Buccaneers, White fowls, Jamma, Junior Vikings, Future Trigger Boys, Trigger boys, Supreme Vikings Confraternity aka Aro-Bagger, Vipers, Sparrow, Juries and Cage Birds. Others are Dread Dread, Jewries, Dominion, Spaye, KKK and many others. The female-arm of some of the gangs includes: Black Bra, Daughters of Jezebel, Pink Lady, Amazons and White Angels.
A number of barriers, according to Inspector Ayuba, stalls the process of prosecuting arrested suspects. He mentioned that lawyers through loopholes in the law, frustrate efforts of police in seeking convictions in court, so sentencing in Delta State is very low. The rules in Delta State Laws are not strong enough he says. For example, “a confessed secret-cult suspect cannot be convicted based on his confession. Simply confessing to the act cannot send the suspect to prison, except where violence is involved and he was caught in the act.”
The jail time for this is 3 years he explains unlike in Lagos where death penalty is the sentence for such crimes to serve as a stronger deterrent. In dealing with the judiciary, SACU’s efforts are often truncated, he says, especially in cases where arrested offenders have political backers. When charged to court, “politicians pass through the judiciary to truncate justice and free suspects” he explains.
According to him, one of the Delta State rules requires that “SACU must first seek consent from the attorney general’s office of the state before an offender will be tried, and often, the ministry of justice doesn’t listen and the court eventually strikes the case out.” At the time of this report, 9 young men ages 17-19 years were held in custody at SACU’s jail in Issele-Azagba, alongside a matured man of 35 years, a father of one, who was caught during a raid in the midst of secret cult drug users – he too, a drug dependent users of four years. The 9 teenagers were arrested based on their secret-cult activities. Some were from broken homes, or wards living with guardians but the rest live in homes where both parents are still together.
Another challenge faced by SACU is lack of remand homes or rehabilitation centres. In Delta State there is only one remand home, the Sapele Juvenile Remand Home based in Sapele. This is where all prosecuted cases of underage secret-cult members below 18 years are taken to. Males above 18 are referred to either Ogwashi-uku Prison, Agbor Prison or Okere Prison, while the girls are taken to the Women Prison in Agbor. According to Inspector Ayuba, there are about 4 to 5 girls currently held in the women prison for secret-gang-cult related offences.
The Police Command of Delta State is on a strong drive to eradicate secret cult-gangsterism in the state, and through the State Anti-Cult Unit (SACU), it is carrying out renunciation programmes for repentant secret-cult members. Their primary target are members of the group who were initiated by force or intimidation and are no longer interested in being a member and want to renounce. The steps require anyone willing to renounce to approach any magistrate court in the state to obtain an Affidavit of Cult renunciation and thereafter proceed to SACU’s office at Issele-Azagba for a Renunciation Certificate.
However, after signing the certificate and such a person is caught engaged in secret-gang-cult activities, the certificate will not protect them. It would be considered perjury after signing the oath of renunciation only to return to the group. Principals of schools, students, guardians, and parents are encouraged to seek such support from SACU to help fight and eradicate secret-gang-cult and its attendance menace to the society.
There are two enabling laws in which suspected members of secret gang-cults can be tried in the state, depending on the degree of their involvement and circumstance of the case: section 64 of the Criminal Code and the Delta State Proscription and Prohibition of Youth Association Law Cap P16 of 2006 where upon conviction, a suspect is sentenced to imprisonment for 14 years without an option of fine.
SOLUTION: It Takes A Village Approach
Role of Parents and Guardians
Parents and guardians have a crucial role in preventing and stopping the recruitment of their children and wards by being active, attentive and watchful carriers. Often there are signs to look out for when a child is about to be recruited, has joined, or would make a recruit that attracts gang coordinators.
Wearing certain colours of handkerchiefs, bangles, buttons on school shirt or trousers, belts; smell of drugs on uniforms; tendencies to hide or hide things; use of phone to watch pornography; telling lies, stealing, stubbornness, disobedience, indiscipline, not studious, addiction to substance abuse, acts of bullying, anger issues, and other anti-social behaviours are often good pointers to watch out for.
Parents must be decisive in nipping such acts, habits or behaviour in the bud. Parents must work on, and up their parenting skills. Inability to discipline an erring child or control a child, not with threat, intimidation or inflicting injury, but with tough love will prevent the child from thinking they can do bad and there will be no consequences for bad behaviour. Children must learn that there are consequences for bad behaviour and anti-social tendencies.
When a child tells his or her parents they don’t need pocket money but are found using phones, watches, clothes, or any other items they as parents didn’t buy for them, fathers and mothers must worry and ask questions. If it means returning said gifts, confiscating or burning them, parents must do so to drive home a point: all gifts given must get their approval before they are accepted or used; if a child is not working, there’s no way he or she can have money, or buy himself or herself things. It raises the question of lies and stealing and this must be investigated thoroughly.
Advocacy and Campaigns Against the Effects and Dangers of Anti-Social Behaviours and Activities
Continuous and rigorous public campaigns against cultism within and outside schools such as workshops, talks, dramatizations, and seminars should be carried out by NGOs, governments, communities, schools, religious centres, individuals, parents and students.
In addition, better approach to teaching civic education and religious studies is crucial, school authorities should be firm and expel offenders. There should be no sacred cows, names of expelled or affected students should be published in at least 2 newspapers, media must consciously project programmes that sensitize youths on the danger of secret-cult-gangs, control of peer group influence in schools, control of consumption of illicit drugs by the youth: tramadol, codeine and other dangerous drugs.
Others are regular monitoring of all registered clubs and associations in schools. Many secret-cult-gangs operate under the guise of registered social clubs in schools or campuses. Guidance and counseling units in schools should be strengthened and students encouraged to attend counseling sessions, get students to serve as vanguard groups to resist secret-cult-gang activities, teachers who are discovered to be members of any secret cult group should be reported to the police by the principal and appropriate sanction meted out on erring teachers by the supervising ministry.
We also need to encourage formation of press club, quiz/competition/debate for positive discussions, schools need to form strong collaboration with police and various group organisations to fight secret cult gangs, police must continuously carry out diligent prosecution of cases based on the new law: Delta State Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Cultism Law of 2016.
This investigation into secret cults and gangsterism in female students in Delta State was supported by Code for Africa.
Names of victims have been changed.