Lagos — Ben Oguntuase, the Capn of the National Association of Seadogs otherwise called Pyrates Confraternity has lately been in the forefront of the campaign against gangsterism and cult violence in institutions of higher learning in Nigeria.
In the wake of the gruesome murder of eight defenceless students at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Oguntuase fielded questions from the TEMPO team of WILSON UWUJAREN and JOKE HASSAN on the different dimensions to the cultism problem in tertiary institutions in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Q: We'll like you to address the problem of cultism because most of the organisations that commit these crimes on our campuses often trace their genesis to your association. What do you think could be done to reorientate these students?
A: First of all, the Pyrates Confraternity was founded in 1952 and that's quite a long time. Now, how do we deal with the present situation? Like we said in 1998 and we also said recently and we'll keep on saying it; there is the need for us to change the notion of "confraternity." Let me tell you that you are using the word "cult" wrongly in the way the press has been reporting this issue. Cult strictly speaking, is not a bad terminology. It simply means popular followership to a cause.
I think the issue here is, if we are ready to accept the notion of confraternity as good and recognise its potentials for nation building, then we can embark on a cleansing mission. The first step we can take is to register these bodies and let them submit to the university their programmes of activity. The second step, in my view, is to formalise the process of re-orientating these students. Some of them need special counselling. We need to go there, look for them, bring them out and take them through a programme of detoxication. We know how to deal with the situation.
Some of them are hooked on drugs, some are hooked on crime, I don't know how they learn to shoot and I don't know how they get used to so much alcohol, these people need to be helped. I know that there is a programme under the ministry of youths, sports and culture, for dealing with issues of juvenile delinquency. Time may have come for government to begin to think seriously about the establishment of a special campus police, it is not a bad concept. By their behaviour, they have asked for it and it should be established to monitor whatever is going on in the campuses. They would be there not to supplant the freedom that is associated with higher institutions of learning, but the campus police can be there to help monitor students' activities.
Q: Do you perceive any political undertone in these campus violence, especially the recent one at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife?
A: You see, the issue of political undertone is a delicate one. Why should we link this to any political undertone? Somebody wants to extend his term as a vice-chancellor or is interested in who succeeds him or has committed some crimes he wants to hide, he thinks creating confusion is the way out. Those students used to create confusion in higher institutions of learning obviously, will grow up to be like their patrons. Most students of this generation are not focused. I was also a student. As a student, I was more interested in who the Federal Government would recognise between the MPLA, or UNITA in Angola. I was interested in how we dealt with the issues of apartheid, I was interested in how to tackle the issue of 'if you Takar me, I Daboh you' that was the cliche of our time. Those were issues that interested people like us as students. As a student, I earned money as a columnist with the Nigerian Tribune. We have to have the correct attitude and mentality. I also know that many of them are also children of the elites who are fairly above the law or who were above the law at a point in time and it became difficult to deal with them. The time has come to know that the law cannot be a respecter of anybody. The law must be followed strictly and whoever breaks it, must pay for it.
Q: What is your perception of the 10 July killings in OAU campus and how is your association reacting to this?
A: The experience is quite lamentable. If someone had asked me in 1970 whether we could get to a time in Nigerian history where a student, or anybody for that matter, would carry guns in the university campus, when students are sleeping to go and shoot them, I'll tell that person that he must be out of his mind, that it can never happen. What happened on 10 July at OAU is horror that cannot be described. Honestly, the outrage that the students are demonstrating is justified. I find it incredible that the students identified some people who belong to these groups and at one time, it appeared there was going to be justice but all of a sudden, these students were readmitted back into the university on a vengeance mission. I thought whoever made it possible for these students to come back to the university should be held responsible for what has happened. And whoever is found to have had a hand in it should be made to pay for it. There should be no sacred cows.
Q: What do you think could have been the motive behind the readmission of established cultists?
A: We need to establish the identities of those involved before we can actually establish what the motives were. I suspect, and this is purely speculation, that given the crisis that has been going on in OAU on the issue of the students who were rusticated at one time (students have been demanding that they must be reinstated), somebody somewhere is trying to make sure that these students are not reinstated. The strategy is to fight the people who are calling that these rusticated students be brought back. Somebody may be thinking somewhere that if he creates a condition of panic and intimidation, the students may shut up and suspend the agitation, which could also affect the tenure of some senior officials in the university. I think it is very unfortunate. These are bloody criminals not students. They are not worthy of being called students.
Q: It has been alleged that the suspended vice-chancellor of OAU, Professor Wale Omole, is a Seadog. How true is this?
A: Since Prof. Omole was not in school during my time, I have gone into our records but couldn't locate his name. I sent a message to Prof. Wole Soyinka and, if my computer was here, I would have shown you his reply. He doesn't know about him being a Pyrate but we'll still keep on investigating. He might have been missed out somewhere, he might have come in and was sent out but because I'm interested in that particular side of the story, I will keep on investigating. We will get to the bottom of the matter. It is a promise.
Q: Does the Pyrate Confraternity have members in OAU?
A: We don't have members in any school. We are out of the campuses. This may interest you, only on July 4 we sent a letter to the Honourable Minister of Education in which we acknowledged his recognition of the fact that it is very necessary to deal with the appreciation of the cult menace in our higher institutions of learning and we offered to assist him in dealing with the problem. We told him that the sooner he acts the better. We were worried the dimension the issue of cultism was taking. When you plot the graph of the frequency of the crisis from Abraka to Ekpoma, and LASU to UNILAG, you will find out it is easy to predict where and when it will likely happen next. Later in August, we are going to have the annual convention. And the theme was deliberately selected to be: "Fraternity and Nation Building." It will be devoted to brainstorming about this issue of cultism and what to do about it. We are going to invite people who will make serious contributions. It is going to be like the one we had in 1990. This time, the goal is to improve upon that. This is what we were planning before the OAU fracas.
Q: How will you assess the efforts of university authorities in curbing cultism?
A: Bad. Very bad. I'm not impressed by whatever they claim to have done. In fact, they have not done much. I say so because nobody has been prosecuted successfully. I was reading a newspaper today (16 July) that fellow students are not willing to testify before those arrested. Students have no business giving evidence when they don't feel like doing so. What is the university security network doing? Is the university intelligence saying that we cannot muster enough evidence in a whole academic institution to successfully prosecute murderers? It is a shame. Nobody has been prosecuted successfully yet, over 150 people have been killed?
Q: How do we account for the shoddiness in handling these cases of cult violence?
A: It is largely due to the larger society. All the evil that took place in the last five years can't be explained. These people I can say, mustered a lot of strength during the period of Abacha. Mind you, these so-called students who are cultists were used to break the ranks of the students by making it impossible for them to speak with one voice.
Q: That was the point I tried to make when I talked about the political undertone. It is an open secret that Gen. Ibrahim Babangida used cults to fight students opposition to his self-perpetuation scheme. Abacha did a similar thing.
A: I didn't know of Babangida's strategy but I knew Abacha's very well. He pursued two goals. One, to discredit Wole Soyinka and label him as the father of cultism in Nigeria. Two, in view of his self-succession programme so much terror and division was programmed to take place on campuses such that students will not be able to speak with one voice. I know that was well coordinated by his agents. But that did not mean that if university authorities wanted to be alive to their responsibilities, that they could not have acted promptly and decisively They needn't have waited for the unfortunate incident at OAU to occur to start putting heads together.
Q: You talk of registering the fraternities as a solution to the problem of cultism, can you see it working in the kind of environment that now exists?
A: We have to put these things in perspective. In 1984, when we made the overtures to these other groups through their leaders and founders to pull out of the campuses and stop all campus activities, there was enough time for them to have done so without creating the kind of chaotic situation we have now. Mind you, Nigeria was not as bad as it is now in 1984. We would have had six clear years to effect this pull out without any consequences. But they remained and in the process, they were driven underground after they were declared illegal. A decree was promulgated against them. We knew that Decree 2 was not going to work. And it has not worked.
If they had not been banned, they wouldn't have had the audacity to go underground and then start coming out with abrash terrorist disposition. We should register them and see that they go through a process of reform and part of the reform is that some of them would have to change their names. What is Black Axe for God's sake? Some of them will have to relinquish their symbols. America solved this problem in one week. They insisted that fraternities on their campuses must be recognised but that they would all have to bear Greek alphabets so you have Alpha Betta and such other fraternities. These are the kinds of reforms I think the society must put in place as a condition for change.
Q: Why is it that "fraternity" has assumed a violent connotation in Nigeria?
A: It depends on the political disposition of the university leadership. There was a time at the University of Ibadan when the Black Nationalist Movement was considered a terrorist group. They were the people who were always agitating, who were always calling for demonstrations on the campus. I am talking of the early 1970s. That was the notion then. People like Comrade Ola Oni was sacked from the university, because they are always agitating, not because they belonged to any of these campus cults. So, I think, it is easy to give any generic name to anybody but we also need to begin to investigate seriously those who have committed these crimes and actually find out if they truly are students that they claim to be.
When some of us were in school, we had Pyrates Confraternity and even those outside the four walls of the university loved it because the idea was positive. But these days, what you see is that the so-called fraternities are busy visiting violence on the people they are supposed to protect.
I strongly suspect too that the rank and file of the universities might have been infiltrated and, that we need to reorientate the students and the society as a whole. If they can deal with the issue of people who entered schools with forged certificates and those who begged others to write their examinations for them, I don't see why this particular issue of cultism cannot be curbed once and for all. I also have the suspicion that a lot of people come from outside to join these students in some of these things they do.
Q: Can you be more explicit on how to go about detecting these people?
A: First, a special university police. Then, government has to design a programme to make this possible. We have the state security apparatus, they have a job to do. If they want to do it, they can do it.
Q: Are you advocating armed security on campus?
A: I think the time has come to have them.
Q: But in your time, there was nothing like that. Don't you think the presence of armed security men on campus is a recipe for chaos?
A: Without them now, we are seeing a lot of killings in the schools. May be we need a group that is specially-trained for this purpose. They will be trained in student psychology and will know how to handle them.
Q: Do you have any particular person or group in mind for this assignment?
A: That can always be determined when the concept is accepted. The details can be worked out.
Q: Don't you think it is possible for the same university authorities to use the kind of security you are advocating in causing more havoc?
A: I see what you mean. They don't have to report to the vice-chancellor or to the registrar. They could be part of the nation's police force and be made to report to the DPO in charge of the area the university is located. In the US, the campus police report to the city police. This matter must be viewed in extreme form. OAU has to be the very last. It must not happen again anywhere. And if this is what it takes in order not to have it happen, so be it. I will have no regret for asking for it.
Q: A vice-chancellor, Professor Jelili Omotola has said that parents don't take interest in the activities of their children in the universities. Should parents really be blamed for the cult menace?
A: I will put a lot of the blame on some of our institutional shortcomings. For instance, if we make the appointment of vice-chancellors the duty of the university senate which will look at the credentials of those that have signified interest and let each professor vote and then recommend three to the university council. Whoever is picked will owe his allegiance to the improvement of university community rather than satisfying the interest of some external masters as we have seen. One other thing is that institutions such as JAMB and NUC should just fold up. This kind of problem was not so prevalent when each university was allowed to screen and admit students. In fact, it was when JAMB got into it that the Owosho cases also came into the scene. I also think that the time has come to consider whether all the universities we have are actually worth it in this country. Some will argue that given our population, compared to American population, we don't even have enough universities, we also need to examine our literacy level. And that brings us to the issue of funding of these universities. I feel we need to look at how they are funded. A situation where they have to go cap in hand begging the authorities before they get money to run the universities may also enslave them to these authorities.
Also, the issue of what is paid to acquire university education is important. I am personally of the view that primary and secondary education is a must, but university education is not compulsory. So, if you must get it, you should pay for it.
Q: What do you think the government should do immediately in the case of OAU?
A: The government should without further delay, set up a credible, independent body to conduct a full-scale investigation to determine what happened and the role played by anybody, whether directly or remotely in what happened. They must get to the very bottom, who and who did what at what time? It means unraveling the Omole mystique. That panel is very necessary.
Q: Do you have some people in mind who should be contacted?
A: Government should feel free in deciding who and who to constitute the panel, but I also know that some people are already predisposed in a way that they can understand the language of these people. I know Government may get to some dead end that may require some special assistance to make a breakthrough.
Q: Can you be explicit?
A: What I'm saying is that there are people who I know if they serve on that panel will help get very quick and worthy result.
Q: Who are these people?
A: When you put "D" in quote and another "D" not in quote, the one in quote can know the footprint of the one not in quote.
Q: Can you interpret that proverb to our readers?
A: To be honest with you, there are very senior active people for instance in the Pyrates Confraternity who can help. It is our interest to get to the bottom of this matter? It is our determination to make the OAU tragedy the last of its kind. I believe we can be very helpful in getting to the bottom of this matter. It will be a suicidal mission if we go and sit without any kind of government backing. Again, the intention can be misunderstood. And it could get to a certain stage where you have to throw away carrots and use some sticks: Then you need some state apparatus to carry that out. So, we need a combination of government's effort and the state apparatus to get it done. I believe it can be done and successfully too.
Q: The build-up to the OAU killings took a very long time and we all know the level of allegations and counter allegations that passed between the students and the university authorities. Wouldn't it have been possible to reach a mutual consensus as a means of avoiding the July killings? A: The only reason Omole could have done what he did for so long and treated these students with the most horrible kind of contempt in the face of the serious issues they are raising has to be that he has some kind of super godfathers somewhere outside the university system that have been giving him protection. If not, he would have responded. The knowledge that OAU was his primary constituency that would have made him work towards ensuring that there is peace, order and security in that place and not treat the very object of his existence as a V.C. with the kind of levity he demonstrated. Whatever comes out of whatever investigations carried out, I believe he stands indicted already. He should have treated the students' grievances, which included the issue of cultism much much earlier. You see, Omole has the propensity of always shutting the gates of the university. University vice-chancellors must not always think like that. It was this kind of attitude that led to the Apampa crisis in U.I. in 1971, leading to the death of Kunle Adepeju. Anybody who is old enough to be in the university is a legal adult and a vice-chancellor must put that in mind in his day-to-day running of the institution.
Q: Let's take you back a bit. Do you sincerely mean that Omole never interacted with you?
A: I have been in the executive of this association since 1985 and I've never come across Omole in any of our activities. That is why I said I don't think he's a member. There is always the possibility that he might have been a member while he was an undergraduate and was removed. We are investigating all of this. I will get the real facts. Right now, I'm saying he is not. But just in case he is, we will investigate fully.
Q: The students seem to have lost confidence in the police and they have arrested and taken in "custody" one alleged cultist involved in the Ife killings. Should it be like that?
A: It shouldn't be that way, but I think the question we should ask is: why should it be that way? The murderers were given to this same police one time ago, how did they escape police from custody? The Assistant Police Commissioner is saying that when he wanted to prosecute them, the students did not come to give evidence and the case was being adjourned and adjourned. I said rubbish. You want the students to face a new form of threat again?
I will still say that irrespective of how aggrieved the students are, I still want to appeal to them that two wrongs don't make a right. There is a law in the land, as soon as possible, they should release those people to the police authority to do its job. I think the students must have got enough information now on these people to be able to understand the true position of things. I also like to appeal to these students that whatever happens, they must not harm those who are in their custody until they are released to the police.
Q: Finally, what role should the press play in this matter?
A: Let us get rid of these cliches: "anonymous" or "names withheld." Please, mention names. The worse they can do is to sue you. Many of us will contribute towards your defence. Help us expose those behind these students and the students cultists themselves. The public rely solely on the press to be informed. Please inform us adequately like your sister magazine (TheNEWS) did with that beautiful investigative work on Alhaji Ibrahim Salisu Buhari, we have confidence in TEMPO's pedigree to help us expose the godfathers of these students. Who are those supplying them arms and ammunition? Who are those using them? Which of the vice-chancellors are using them to secure their tenure? The answers to these questions is a duty for the press.
Publication Date: July 29, 1999