The News (Lagos)

Africa: Routing Cultism

Lagos — It would have been a miracle of sorts if the secret cult phenomenon had not reared its head in our various tertiary institutions, given the various desperate developments in the larger society these past 15 years.

We had it coming all along. True, the seeds had always been there, but the society has, in recent times, provided the fertile soil and nurtured the seed of brigandage to unfettered growth. Rather than acknowledge where we missed the boat, we have made a national pastime of pious pontifications on a problem which is only a mirror-reflection of our general social decay.

In attempting to get to the bottom of the problem of campus cults and crimes, we should also examine the daily diet of violence we feed our youths through the media and everyday living. Our young people have come to learn that might is right. The god that controls their minds is always on the side of the bigger battalion. Words such as justice, truth and fairness don't exist in their lexicon. We have taught them that the end justifies the means.

If we dig well enough, we may well discover that a good number of the so-called secret cultists in our higher institutions are children of the affluent. Children who were born but not bred. Children who failed JAMB only to be smuggled into the institutions on the stroke of their parent's executive pen. Children who live in their own evil world where, in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, "the orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of longing and fulfillment."

A young boy who has been used to having his way all his life and whose daddy is always there to bend rules and give him all the support he does not deserve, will probably end up a criminal. He will visit violence on his immediate environment. He will enrol in the most dreadful of the cults. He will destroy whatever he perceives as standing between him and 'happiness.' His target may be a lecturer whose course he had failed; a female student who had rejected his amorous advances; or a fellow 'macho' who was claiming 'equality' with him. For him, 'happiness' means having his way at all times.

Peer pressure also plays a part. In trying to keep up with the vogue, an otherwise level-headed student may be misled into joining one of the dreadful cults. In these days when those running our higher institutions seem to think that the best way to stem the crisis on campus is to ban, infiltrate or otherwise destroy the students' union, the rising wave of campus cults would probably teach them not to urinate in a well from which they might drink. It is better to deal with a students' union than to broker a truce between warring campus gangs of no fixed address. A strong students' union would never tolerate a group of gangsters forming a parallel government on campus.

Considering that cultism - with its harvest of death, maiming, rape and destruction of property - is now threatening the very essence of higher educational institutions in Nigeria, it is time we dealt a death blow to the phenomenon. Enough is enough, or as Olatunji Dare the former Guardian columnist would put it, "Enough is already too much".

Every self-respecting adult should feel affronted that a handful of criminally-inclined children are literally holding our higher institutions to ransom. vice-chancellors, rectors and other institutional heads should feel even much more so.

Now to the question: How do we solve the problem? First, our higher institutions must be run as designed by the laws establishing them. Universities, polytechnics and colleges of education and technology are not academic cantonments or intellectual barracks where teachers must teach only 'what they are paid to teach' (apologies to Chukwumerije). We must run our higher institutions as they are run all over the world.

Secondly, we must also encourage democratic culture in the larger society so that everyone gets used to dialogue, negotiation and civilised conduct. Those running the affairs of our institutions must learn to dialogue with their students, thereby making them part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Students are adults too. They must be encouraged to take responsibility by making input into decision-making and how the institution is run. I challenge all the vice-chancellors and rectors in this country to work hand in hand with their students' unions on the campus cult problem and watch if they would not achieve better results. The bee might be a small insect, but it does produce honey which is much more than you can say for the elephant.

Permit me to share my personal experience as a student leader at the University of Ife. We had the cults, but they were all registered with the Students' union and with the Directorate of Student Affairs. They had fixed addresses. We knew their officers and advisers (who must be lecturers). Before my tenure, there had been cases of skirmishes involving the cults, but nothing to compare with the mayhem that is the vogue in our universities today.

On assumption of office, I held a series of meetings with the various groups and told them that if they gave me any problem during my tenure, I would first outdo them in their game of violence and then ensure that they were expelled. They invited me to their 'ship' on the day they were 'sailing'. I went, having taken some precautionary measures. I was pleasantly surprised to see the level of discipline and decorum they displayed. I ate and drank with them. Subsequently, I concluded that they were just a bunch of young men seeking attention. So, I appointed a few of them into students' union committees and they performed excellently.

I must, however, mention that two of their members tested our will: one committed rape and the other stabbed a fellow student during an argument. We arrested both students, dragged them before the university disciplinary committee (over which the vice-chancellor presided) and got both of them expelled. We then got them arrested by the police. They were charged to court. We gave their cases wide publicity. From then onwards, we didn't have any more problems from the cults throughout my tenure.

I have given this example just to demonstrate the role that could be played by a vibrant students' union in curtailing cult activities. The cultists are not ghosts. They are students with flesh and blood. Their fellow students know them. My own theory is that, as violence-prone individuals, they tend to be well-behaved in an atmosphere where there is a balance of terror. If the cultists know that they would surely be caught and punished for their crimes, their anti-social proclivities would be somehow doused. We must come to terms with the fact that a desperate disease requires a desperate cure. We have, all along, been trying to kill a rampaging lion with a catapult. We must load our rifles. Murder, rape, assault and arson are classified as crimes all over the world. Anyone who commits such crimes should not be handled with kid gloves just because he happens to be a student. He is an adult and a criminal to boot. Malcolm X once admonished his followers, "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery". Recipe for anarchy? Yes. And we don't want anarchy. So, what should we do? We should no longer allow violent criminals hiding under academic gowns to get away with their crimes. Higher institutions are part of the larger society. There shouldn't be any taboo about the hangman's noose dropping over the head of an under graduate murderer. We must visit the full brunt of the law on the murderers, rapists, robbers and hooligans masquerading as secret cultists on our campuses. Their activities are not only offensive to man, but are also veritable sins against God's law as enshrined in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 3-17).

Let us all, in God's name join the crusade then. For as the Chinese say, "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

Olaoye, a former president of the Students Union of University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), delivered this address at the Alumni Lecture of Oke Are Seminary Old Boys Association.

Publication Date: August 23, 1999 (19990823)

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