BY AGALI CHARLES
The sun still rises in Ekosodin, a tiny precinct detached from the Ugbowo campus of the University of Benin by a towering fence. But its brightness pales into insignificance for students who trudge the erosion-ridden community every academic session. Unlike the sun, their pains are grim, dark and shrouded in obscurity.
Consider the case of Daniel Ike; a jovial, smart kid. His sense of humour remained unrivalled. At 23, the stage was set for him to graduate from the department of Chemical Engineering, University of Benin. But everything fizzled away before his very eyes. One evening, “Afrodan” – as Daniel was popularly called by fellow students – went to see his girlfriend who stays at Vincente Villa in Ekosodin. A gentleman, he bought a pack of food at Kadis, an eating outlet in the area, for his lover. They hugged and chatted in tones characteristic of romantic encounters and agreed to see again in school the following day. But just as he stepped out of the hostel gate, two rounds of bullet hit him straight in the head. He managed an unsteady gait till he fell on his face. He passed on immediately. Till date, men of the Ugbowo Police Command are yet to uncover the masterminds of his death.
A surface scan at Jasper Igbinosa (not his real name) gives the 21-year old away as a happy-go-lucky student, unperturbed by life’s daily troubles. But a dig into the trenches of his soul mirrors the fears and frustrations of students living in off-campus hostels across Nigeria. For the fellow who resides atY2K Villa in Ekosodin, off-campus accommodation comes with more pains than gains. “Life in Ekosodin is a jungle. It is tougher if you are not a “strong man.” My second year was the most terrifying. Look at this place (pointing at an obvious scar at the back of his elbow); I was beaten by “boys” one night as if I were a thief. They could not believe I was not a cult member,” he narrated.
In the beginning
When Igbinosa gained admission into the university in 2011, his 46-years old single mother insisted he stayed on campus. As though nursing a premonition of the danger that lurked ahead, his mother practically forced him to settle for one of the school’s hostels. “She just didn’t explain why she wanted me to stay on campus by all means.” he said. But after spending a year in an environment that seemed to have imprisoned his best impulses, the fascination for a wild and free life got the better of him. “I wanted freedom, school hostel was boring,” he said.
At 200-Level, when it seemed his mother’s supervision had waned, he joined a friend to rent a room self-contained apartment at Newton Villa in Ekosodin. What however started as a quest for freedom later turned out a narrative in self-torture. Igbinosa was returning from a class one fateful evening shortly after a downpour. As he jerked to a song from his MP4 Player, two young men accosted him and demanded to know his “identity.” The story ended badly. Igbinosa was beaten till he bled from the nose and got swollen eyes. His two mobile phones, necklace and wallet, containing proceeds generated by his departmental association, were also ‘seized.’
But it didn’t end there. “Three days later, I ran into one of them at a bar on Edo Street. I had gone to see a football match. He requested I pay for the drinks they had just taken.” Igbinosa, who seemed to be dumbfounded, ran his hands through his pockets only to squeeze out a pantry N170; a sum largely insufficient to offset the N760 bill his assailant had incurred. “He made me promise the owner of the bar that I would return to pay the balance. And the woman held my mobile phone as surety,” he narrated.
Subsequently, they threatened to “drop” Igbinosa, if he didn’t remit a portion of the monthly allowance he got from his Abuja-based parents. In campus parlance, “drop” means to kill somebody, a practice common in campus violence. Igbinosa found the threat seemingly unbearable and called his friend, an Eiye top gun. “When I told him what happened, he promised to talk to the boys. Later we learnt that the boys (his assailants) are members of a rival group (to Eiye). At a time, they said they were not interested in money again, that they would kill me. Some of my friends who were already members advised me to join; that way I would be protected.”
Around 7pm the following Thursday, Igbinosa received a call in school from his flatmate that a troika of fierce-looking boys had besieged their hostel looking for him. “I knew immediately that they were the same people. That day, I couldn’t return home. I went to pass the night in a friend’s place at Osasogie,” he said.
Years of unreported killings
In 2011, Steve Phiobodo Tejiri (nicknamed TJ) gained admission to study International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of Benin. As a chap who had been deeply involved in internet scam for the most part of his life, his admission seemed like a perfect way to better channel his youthful energy. But two years later, all that changed. He was invited to a birthday ceremony at Aso Rock Villa, a students’ hostel located in Ekosodin. Two unknown gun men stormed the lodge, headed for the venue of the bash and shot him in the head. The following Sunday, members of his campus fellowship, The Love Family, held a service in his honour amid tears. His friend who gave his name simply as Ogieva said Steve’s assailant had been on his trail since the previous year, following his involvement in a brawl with a member of a rival cult group.
Galaxy owns a barbing saloon inside the Ugbowo campus of the University of Benin. Ostensibly buoyed by the need for expansion, he opened a new shop in Ekosodin at the beginning of 2014. But by October of the same year, students woke up to behold the lifeless body of Galaxy, killed by unknown persons suspected to be cultists. Sources said he had had a disagreement with members of the Black Axe confraternity, the most dominant cult group in Ekosodin.
Further investigations revealed that Galaxy’s murder was sparked by the brutal massacre of a certain George, a top-ranking figure in Eiye. He was said to have been killed in the wee hours of the day in front of his mother at Uselu, Benin-City. Few days after the incident, the development ignited reprisal attacks in neighbouring communities, including the case of Gbenedion Ejiroghene, who until his gruesome murder was a 300-Level student of Chemistry at the institution.
In 2012, Ali, a 400-level student of Medicine and a native of Auchi in Etsako West Local Government Area of the state, was killed at the Senior Staff Quarters. The cause of his murder remains unknown till date. This however sparked-off other killings on off-campus hostels, a situation which sources say forced the management to constitute a three-man committee to meet with prominent cult leaders around the campus to broker peace.
Investigations reveal that cultists defy the university’s security apparatus to wreck untold havoc on students. In June 2013, cultists invaded the Ugbowo campus of the University of Benin, killing a 200-Level Mathematics student at the institution’s Sports Complex around 2pm, while the statutory biometric registration was on-going. The Chief Security Officer of the university, Mr. A. U. Otokiti, was said to have fled the scene as soon as the incident happened, a development which, according to a former Students’ Union Government member, angered the school’s management and led to the termination of his appointment.
Playing with the hyena
Following extensive interviews with former students’ leaders, it was discovered that university authorities are behind the prevalence of cultism on campus, as well as its associated insecurity on off-campus hostels. Checks revealed that when Chineloma Eleodioma – Nigeria’s first female SUG president – won the UNIBEN Students Union presidential polls in 2009, there were unrests at the institution in the evening. The protests were motivated by water scarcity that had hit the campus.
But as the agitations began to mount, a group of men drove into the Hall 2 Car Park area in a Benz car and started beating the protesting students. “Management use these boys to maintain peace sometimes,” the source said.
He continued: “When you assume office as an SUG member, you are to link up with some cult boys who can work with you. You don’t have to join them, but this serves as protection from the oppression of SUG Parliament, who might want to suspend or punish you. If you don’t, be prepared to be exploited or harassed by cult groups because they’ll always come for you. “
A former SUG president at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, said: “My Chief Security Officer (a boy who acts as personal assistant to the president) is an ex-lord in Eiye. I have direct relationship with some high-ranking members of other cults around. If you don’t do that, you are either killed or continue to face all manners of harassment from every side.”
In Ekosodin, the miscreants are known as ‘Ekosodin Parliamentarians.’ They are sometimes deployed by troubled students’ leaders to disrupt sittings by members of the SUG Parliament. A former SUG leader recounted how the parliament plotted his “unjustifiable” removal. He told this reporter that he got a cash grant from a politician, whom he had been supporting.
When the information got to other members of the union, they wanted a share of the money, which he subtly declined. His refusal meant SUG parliament would initiate his impeachment proceedings. “I called those ekosodin parliamentarians to disrupt the whole arrangement. We later settled the fight,” he said in comic rebuff.
Harassment, atrocities all over
Alimi Sunday was invited to a birthday by a supposed campus fellowship member. But on getting to the venue of the bash, he discovered that it was no different from a gathering of thugs. “The boys were drinking and smoking Indian hemp, and everyone clung to their babes. My two friends and I felt odd. We left the party almost immediately for a friend’s place at Capa Green Hostel. As we entered the street between Aso Rock Villa and Newton Hostel, we heard voices from behind, saying “four wise men, show!” While the other three went back in obedience, Alimi kept moving on as though he didn’t hear anything. But the voice added: “You dey prove stubborn abi? If you move there, I go shoot you.”
Alimi recounting the experience said, “I just stood still, not knowing which to choose between a bullet and going to meet them and parting with my phone. Deep in my fear, I decided not to yield to the threat. So I kept going, but the bullets weren’t fired at me after all. My friends came to join me later to narrate how the “boys” collected their phones and money. They also asked for my department and hostel, said they would come for me.”
Kester Uhunwango, 400-Level Law student of UNIBEN, has seen the rough edges of a community where terror reigns unchecked. His calm, unassuming mien contrasts sharply with the trepidation that greets his soul at the mention of Ekosodin. For the fellow who stays at Africana Hostel, Ekosodin is a nightmare many dwellers love to hate.
“I was sleeping in my room one night, when the ladies living in the room opposite mine arrived at about 1.00am in the morning. They were party riders, who kept a tab on social events, but as I opened the door for them this fateful day, three boys showed up from nowhere. One of them held a gun while the others wielded dangerous weapons. They forced their way into the hostel and told all of us to lie down. Before my very eyes, they pounced on one of the girls, stripped her of her dress, pushed her to the wall and raped her in the darkness.”
For Beye Paul, a Geography and Regional Planning student, a minor disagreement with a flatmate suspected to be cultist, meant he had to present himself for a daily dosage of slap every morning. “You won’t believe it, but I had to present myself before those boys, to be slapped every morning,” he said.
If Ekosodin purrs with dark narratives, BDPA Quarter resonates the same tirades of terror for residents. In broad daylight, Tony Abulime’s quest for a befitting rest turned out to be a date with the devil. “Around 1.45pm, I was sleeping in my room at Presidential Lodge, Third Street, BDPA, Ugbowo. Suddenly, I heard a bang on the entrance door. Initially, I thought it was the wind because it was raining. I returned to bed. Suddenly, the bang came again, this time, with a force. Before I could stand up, my door had already given way to two hefty guys. One carried a cutlass and the other held a battle axe. One of them gave me a blow on the head and as I fell, they immediately ordered me to bring out my money and laptop. I told them I had no laptop. They ransacked the room and made away with my Play Station 2, Blackberry and five thousand naira.”
He added: “They left my room and went to other rooms. But luck ran out on them when they got to the last room. The occupant, who was obviously aware of the attack, waylaid them behind the door. He vehemently smashed one of them with a rod. He fell and the other ran away through the back door, abandoning their spoils. Before we could all join him, the other thief ran away. We reported the case at the BDPA Police Station the next day.”
Gloria Momoh recently graduated from the Mass Communication Department of the University of Jos, Plateau State. But the excitement of her graduation few months ago did little to erase the trauma she endured, when student-robbers ripped her door open, and quietly hauled away her valuables. Juxtapose this with the helplessness of Asiegbu Chiamaka, who was trailed to her home by a group of student miscreants.
Hear her: “I just returned from a programme on campus that fateful evening. My room was stuffy since there was power outage, so I opened my door for fresh air. At about 7:00pm, two guys strolled into my room. I felt they were robbers, one of them held a gun. They ordered me to go naked. I refused. And I started praying. They became forceful and started fuddling my breast. They tried hard to force my two laps open, but I kept struggling with them. Later I began to run out of energy, so I screamed. Immediately they perceived my neighbour unbolt a door, they zoomed off.”
For Onwukwe Zeal, a 300-Level Electrical/Electronic Engineering student, Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), there is neither any reason to trust the police nor the local vigilante group. They share a common denominator: non-unresponsiveness to attacks. “I was at home when three boys came to my lodge in broad day light. They took away my laptop, other gadgets and money. I reported at the vigilante office. They assured me they would work with the police for proper investigation since I knew some of the faces. Till date, nobody investigated anything. And I see those folks walk freely every day,” he lamented.
Two students beheaded in Abia penultimate Saturday
In a similar manner, two students of Abia State University, Nwigbo Chukwuebuka, a 300-level student of Estate Management, and Samuel Ethelbert, also a 300-level student, but of Political Science department were gruesomely beheaded by unknown boys suspected to be cultists. Chukwuebuka and Ethelbert were said to be members of Mafia cult and the attack was a reprisal one, meant to retaliate the killing of the leader of a rival group, Burkina Faso, by name Collins Agwu, a.k.a Biggy, who was killed the week before.
The attack reportedly happened at the CHIDOO Hostel, a private hostel about 4km from the university gate, prompting the university management to advise parents to pay attention to where their wards are staying.
Dogon-Dutse, an off-campus community around UNIJOS, Plateau State, is another den of violent goons, waiting to unleash deep horror on unsuspecting students. “Most of these attacks are carried out by student-robbers. They rape girls, steal and sometimes inflict harm on their victims,” said a post-graduate student who requested not to be named. He narrated how a cultist, who laid ambush on another student, was killed at the institution’s permanent site. The cultists had allegedly killed the wrong student, a victim of mistaken identity, when students at the scene of the incident chased them and apprehended one in the process.
However, when placed on a scale, the horror of Ujemen community around Ambrose Alli University in Ekpoma, Edo State, dwarfs that of Dogon-Dutse in astronomical proportion. Of great peculiarity is the fact that attacks here are mostly motivated by desperate cultists, who pounce on innocent residents to solve their survival puzzle. “Most of these cult boys are hungry students, and sometimes locals. They survive by harassing innocent people. They steal and intimidate fellow students, especially those who live off-campus. Politicians also use them during elections. Thereafter, they are left on their own to cause trouble everywhere,” said a source at the Anti-Cult Campaign Organisation of Nigeria (ACCON).
Where is the police?
Like Igbinosa, many of the victims in Ekosodin bear their cross alone. On March 4 this year, a gang of robbers attacked a hostel on Ehico Street around 4a.m. Of the 14 rooms in the lodge, 13 were raided. One of the occupants allegedly placed a distress call to nearby Ekosodin Police Station, but when it appeared help was not forth-coming; they resorted to calling the local vigilante men. But the robbers left just before the vigilante men arrived.
Residents insist that the station at Ekosodin has failed to live up to expectation. “Nobody here can beat their chest that when trouble comes, Ekosodin police would rescue them. Most times, they would have to call the Ugbowo Police Station for help which is farther. The question therefore is, why are they here if they can’t defend us?
“Most times, the robbers would have wreaked havoc on residents before the police show up. It appears deliberate. Of what essence is the security outfit then?” she queried.
Speaking to this reporter at the Ugbowo Police Station at BDPA Quarters, the Divisional Police Officer who gave his name as S. O. Ugbowo, said the division had been responsive to attacks. “We don’t stay back whenever we receive a distress call. Our men have been hard working. Those who say we don’t respond on time are not sincere,” he said.
But when this reporter visited the Ekosodin Police Station in March, nothing suggested it was a security outfit, except for a worn-out Nigeria Police flag that waved feebly. A middle-aged man who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity said: “This is not a police station. It is an out-post. We are six personnel here altogether. But only two officers are armed. When emergency arises, it’s only those two officers that can go. “
Asked why there was no single officer in sight at 6:23pm when this reporter visited, he said: “We have closed for the day. I would have gone home by now too. I stayed back on personal grounds.”
Vigilante to the rescue
In most of the communities this reporter visited, there exists a local but loose security system managed by indigenes. Most times, the groups are formed by locals driven by their love of community. Around the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) and adjoining communities, a youth vigilante group shoulders the security responsibilities.
For example, the Vice-Chairman of Umuchima Youths Association, Imo State, Mr. Boniface Akagha said the group formed the vigilante network in the community to offer free security services to residents. “We are concerned at the level of insecurity in our community. Our parents lack the strength to secure the community. The youths can do that because of their energy. People call us when there are attacks. And we respond immediately,” Boniface said.
While the likes of Boniface defy the horror of the night to secure fellow residents, his counterparts in Ekosodin are driven by financial rewards. A former leader of the Ekosodin Youth Association, who preferred to be addressed as Chairman, said the lure of material things had stoked divisions within the security ranks, culminating in the proliferation of factions. A faction led by Efosa Obaze currently staggers at the cruxes of a scuffle. Obaze is allegedly to have dipped hands into the finances of the group, misappropriating about N600,000 from where he is said to have procured a Gulf car. Investigations showed that insecurity has increased in the community since the fight began.
At Ujeme around Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, the vigilante group, it was alleged has been infiltrated by cultists, who sometimes turn around to harass the same residents they are expected to defend.
The story is the same in Ekosodin, where some landlords have had to part with as much as N70,000 annually to maintain steady security cover in the event of an attack. Though, of all the hostels visited randomly by this reporter, only a handful of landlords confessed to complying with the payment regime, citing extortion.
The real terrorists
Our investigations revealed that a larger percentage of attacks on Nigerian universities’ off-campus hostels are the handiwork of part-time students. This category of students, it is believed, have sufficient time at their disposal to socialise and foment trouble.
A former leader of the UNIBEN SUG said most of the culprits behind off-campus violence are students who have been expelled and those who were not admitted after undergoing the UNIBEN Diploma programme. “A good number of them are also students who got extra years in school. That’s why management decided sometimes ago that no student should be allowed to spill twice,” he said. Such category of students, he noted, were to be given a pass just so they could move on with their lives.
Facing the monsters for good
In 2012, Chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) at the University of Jos (UNIJOS), Dr. David Yakubu, said the level of insecurity on Nigeria’s campuses was intolerable, calling the governments to action. In 2014, Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Dr. Julius Okogie decried the “alarming violence” in Nigeria’s universities.
Consequently, on the 3rd of October 2014, the Federal Government, through the Special Assistant to President Goodluck Jonathan on Youths and Students Matters, Comrade Jude Imagwe, ordered military protection for campuses. But almost a year after the declaration, campuses remain vulnerable to attacks. Of serious concern is the fate of students who stay off-campus – who are often left to their own devices.
Senior officers of the various universities who spoke to our correspondent said the institutions cannot be liable to what befalls students staying off-campus. Supporting the opinion of the image maker of the Ambrose Alli University, Mr. Chris Adamaigbo, Public Relations Officer of the University of Benin, Mr. Michael Osasuyi, said the security of off-campus hostels was clearly outside the ambit of the institution, saying “the current administration, led by Prof Osasere Orunmwense, has initiated moves to cushion effects of the situation. We have embarked on a scheme to assemble the database of students staying in BDPA, Osasogie and Ekosodin. And we are working with corporate organisations to build more hostels for the swarming students,” he said.
But until these intentions are matched with action, the spate of insecurity around the hostels will continue to be disturbing.
In a report by World Education News and Reviews (WENR) and corroborated by Dr. Jamila Shu’ara in his paper presented at the UNESCO Institute of Statistics Workshop on education statistics in Anglophone countries, the number of applicants into Nigerian universities grew from 916,371 in 2005/2006 to 1,670,833 in 2013/2014. And 520,000 students were admitted into Nigerian universities in 2013 compared to 76, 984 in 2005, indicating a 31.1 per cent admission rate as against 8.4 percent in 2005. Despite this sharp increase in university enrolment, the number of available hostels remains unchanged; a situation which forces many to seek accommodation in the unsafe off-campus hostels every year.
Welfare Secretary of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Iloh, said new hostels should be erected to absorb the growing student population. “It’s a question of population explosion. And one way we can solve this riddle is by increasing the number of hostels. But unfortunately, many of the private hostels built around the campuses are rather too expensive. School authorities would do well to explore private sector participation,” she said.
In an interview with our correspondent, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Lagos, Dr. Alex Igundunase, said the prevalence of cultism on Nigerian campuses could be traced to dysfunctional family up-bringing and the need to “belong” to a group to boost one’s ego. He called on relevant security outfits to step up their intelligence in ensuring safer campus. “There is nothing a society benefits from (the activities of) cult groups. Often times, the original personality of the person is distorted, awkward and weird. Soon or later, the person becomes a problem to the society.
“Organisations or institutions of learning could work out modalities of getting people who can infiltrate these groups with the aim of understanding why they do what they do. We can’t solve the problem if we don’t know why they do what they do,” he said.
In a joint study published by Haastrup T. Ekundayo et al in the Kamla-raj Journal of Social Sciences titled: Menace of Cultism in Nigerian Tertiary Institutions: The Way Out, the authors argued that “The existence of these groups on campuses has made life unsafe and meaningless to both staff and students,” and called on “stakeholders in the university education, including the churches, the mosques, parents, school administrators and the society at large, to fuse effort to eradicate the menace before it destroys the whole educational system.” Stakeholders are of the opinion that the spate of insecurity on off-campus hostels can be reduced if the government is more aggressive in her quest to eradicate cultism in the tertiary institutions by enacting and implementing relevant laws.
But like the sun, the likes of Igbinosa (off-campus dwellers) still wake up to their quotidian torment. While their mates retire quietly to their beds in school hostels, they slog home in faint optimism, looking up to the sky for protection