Letter from Nigeria — From the September 2019 issue

The Black Axe

How a pan-African freedom movement lost its way

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John,1 a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

1 John’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

Photograph from Lagos, Nigeria, 2015 © Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos

Photograph from Lagos, Nigeria, 2015 © Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

When the spray was spent, the initiates formed two lines and crawled towards the dais. As John knelt, eyes shut, the priest uttered an oath and slapped him, signaling his purification. The priest placed the axe on his head and gave him his “strong name,” that of a famous African freedom fighter. John’s was Patrice Lumumba, after the Congolese politician murdered in 1961. Others knelt and were named, too: Marcus Garvey, Muammar Qaddafi, Usman dan Fodio, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. When the five were done, they rose to their feet. The mob cried: A cry for one is a cry for all.

The reply: Aiye!

The men who had tormented John for hours now embraced him. They passed him a cup of Kokoma, a strong, weed-­infused punch. John was exhilarated, and drunk. He was an Axeman.

The Neo-Black Movement of Africa, from which the Black Axe emerged, appeared on Nigerian campuses in the Seventies as an emancipatory Black Power movement, and its anti­colonial, pan-­African message soon captured the imaginations of thousands of young men. Nigerian fraternities had existed since the Fifties, but the N.B.M. founders believed such groups had descended into empty sloganeering. Inspired by America’s Black Panther Party, the N.B.M. chose a more militant path. Its logo was an axe smashing the shackles of a slave, and its colors were black (for blackness), white (for peace), and yellow (for intellect). It produced a stringent code of conduct and a quarterly magazine filled with self-­help, poetry, and agitprop, called the Black Axe. Benin City was the movement’s spiritual home, its “mother temple.” Historically called Edo, the city was the center of a great kingdom for centuries until 1897, when British troops massacred hundreds, looted priceless artworks, and banished the oba, or king, whom citizens worshipped as a demigod.

On July 7, 1977, nine students at the University of Benin, on the edge of the oil-­rich Niger Delta, founded the N.B.M.’s first chapter. They pledged to purge Africa of racism and oppression and to promote research into traditional culture, including juju, a religion based on spiritual contagion through physical contact, whose practitioners imbue objects with divine power. The nine students called their philosophy “Neo-Blackism.” “Our organization was going to be the vanguard in the move to create a new black nation,” wrote one of the N.B.M. co­founders. “We were to see ourselves as leaders of all black men world-­wide.”

Today, the N.B.M. spans continents, with a self-­reported membership of around thirty thousand. The leaders of the N.B.M. claim their group has evolved from a campus fraternity into an international N.G.O. dedicated to “equality and social justice for all.” But many in Nigeria and abroad believe this image to be counterfeit. Law enforcement officials who have investigated the group say that over the past four decades, growing criminality among its members has corrupted the N.B.M., and they believe it is now closely associated—­if not synonymous—­with the Black Axe, the notorious fraternity that John joined more than a decade ago.

Black Axe–­related crime is a staple of Nigerian news. It is one of many “cults,” as fraternities are commonly known in Nigeria. Some dismiss its members as street-­level thugs. Others say they are a dangerous illuminati, with prominent members in politics, the military, and law enforcement who pull the strings of Nigerian power and have been linked to criminal activity in Europe and North America. Among the cults, “the Black Axe is one of the most notorious,” said Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian human-rights activist who ran for president earlier this year. Solomon Okoduwa, the leader of an anti-­trafficking task force, almost ended our interview when I mentioned the Black Axe by name. “I wouldn’t want to go into that,” he said. “These people, they’re dangerous. They are everywhere.”

Last January, I met Ernest Osa Amadasu, a current member of the N.B.M. leadership, beside an empty, sun-­blanched golf course in Benin City. At fifty-three, he is avuncular, with a doughy smile and a soothing, documentarian’s voice. We sat in the shade of a straw cabana, in blistering heat, but Amadasu barely broke a sweat as we spoke. As an idealistic civil engineering student at a university in Idah, Amadasu had been drawn to N.B.M.’s political zeal. “It was enlightenment,” he said, “understanding what Africa was about.” He told me that his initiation, in 1983, was a harmless endurance test of frog jumps, shuttle runs, and wrestling bouts. When it was over, leaders gave him the strong name Mansa Musa, after a fourteenth-­century Malian king so extraordinarily wealthy that he made the pilgrimage to Mecca with a caravan of sixty thousand men, including slaves bearing gold.

The year Amadasu arrived on campus, a rawboned major general named Muhammadu Buhari seized power in a military coup. At first, the change thrilled Amadasu. “Corruption was at its zenith,” he told me. “So, when the coup happened, it was welcome.” But Buhari’s rule soon soured. He initiated a “war against indiscipline” that targeted regular citizens, enforcing neat queues at bus stops and beatings for those arriving late to work. Universities erupted in student protests, and Buhari sent soldiers to quell them.

Amadasu emerged as a campus leader. “The more the government reacted with force,” he told me, “the more we developed defense mechanisms.” Protesters repelled tear gas by covering their faces with kerosene-­soaked napkins, chemistry students threw together homemade mace, and the Black Axe magazine became a popular source of anti­state samizdat. In 1984, Buhari banned fraternities from operating on Nigerian campuses, but a year later another coup ended his rule, and the ban never took full effect.

Students saw the N.B.M. as freedom fighters. As members graduated from college and wanted to stay connected, they founded the National Executive Council, which attempted to bring the chapters sprouting up across the country under its control. The council promoted social justice and philanthropic work, and liaised with South African students who opposed apartheid. Amadasu helped form a National Council of Elders, above the executive council, a supreme body of representatives from each region, or “zone,” who were charged with upholding the N.B.M.’s code of conduct and administering punishment to those found to have broken it. Misdeeds such as theft, violence, or possession of drugs and weapons could be met with fines, probation, or banishment from the group, called “deaxeation.”

But the elders’ control over their movement waned. In the early Eighties, the price of oil tumbled. Public education funds and job prospects dried up, while crime soared. “The main task of the state,” wrote Stephen Ellis, a British journalist and historian of Nigeria, “became to accumulate money for the man at the top.” Gradually, the military junta infused in young Nigerians the maxim that power and wealth were best achieved by brute force. “The so-­called confraternities became infected with the violence that was developing,” Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize–­winning author and founder of Nigeria’s first fraternity, the Pyrates, told me.

As student-union groups continued to protest for democracy, Nigeria’s fraternities descended into violence. “Campus cults turned into authentic breeding-­grounds of Nigerian organized crime,” wrote Ellis. Military leaders, keen to squash student opposition, endowed cults with money and guns, which they used to attack student unions. But cults also fought one another bitterly for control of campuses across Nigeria. “Before, when there was trouble, it was just slap, knife,” a forty-nine-­year-­old member, who bammed in 1988, told me. “It graduated to shooting.”

In the Nineties, Axemen began recruiting without the permission of the elders, and initiations grew more violent. Soyinka told me that as a university professor he had intervened in situations where cult initiates gang-­raped female students. The media reported sensationally on gruesome ritual abuse, often infused with witchcraft and juju. Sowore, the human-­rights activist, survived a brutal attack by cultists in Lagos in 1994. The N.B.M. is “not a Black Panther movement,” he told me. “It’s just guys fighting for turf and control.”

In 1997, the National Council of Elders suspended all campus activities and moved exclusively to a zonal structure, in part to avoid being associated with the growing violence at universities. Members simply christened zones without their blessing—first in cities across Nigeria, then abroad. Amadasu claims that these “imposters” split from the N.B.M. and rebranded themselves under the group’s former magazine title, the Black Axe. Others say the division was not so clear. “There’s no distinction whatsoever,” Sowore told me.

On July 10, 1999, at four in the morning, forty masked Axemen burst into a dorm at Obafemi Awo­lowo University, in the city of Ile-­Ife. Using shotguns and hatchets, they massacred five student-union leaders who had protested against cults. Another three died later from their injuries. Investigators never discovered who ordered the slaughter, though some of those arrested allegedly confessed ties to the university’s vice-chancellor, who had blocked attempts to expel cults. The crime shocked and disgusted Nigeria: in less than two decades, the fraternities had come to embody the kind of oppression they once sought to resist.

By the time John bammed, crime was already endemic to the Black Axe. Back then, he told me, there were around four hundred Axemen in Jos, led by an elected chairman and priest, both current students. Those below them were sorted into three groups: eyes, criers, and butchers. Eyes kept watch for police raids at initiations and other gatherings. Criers publicized events and proselytized Black Axe principles in flyers or emails. Butchers were enforcers. They punished transgressions of the N.B.M. code of conduct but also fought rival cults, the most powerful of which, in Jos, was called the Vikings. John’s calm demeanor and youthful looks, he told me, inclined leadership to make him an eye.

John quickly became friends with a clique of Axemen from Enugu, a city in southern Nigeria, who taught him the basics of advance-­fee fraud, known in Nigeria as a 419 scam for its place in the nation’s criminal code. Scammers are often called Yahoo Boys for the email service they tend to favor. Many of them are male university undergrads. They score cash from email recipients by posing as a variety of characters including attorneys, soccer talent scouts, or widows in possession of huge estates. (In 2013 the world lost an estimated $12.7 billion to 419 scams.)

John’s scheme was to pose as the owner of a lottery, offering lucrative prizes in return for a few bank details. He camped out at the internet café of a seminary near his home, spending long afternoons sending thousands of messages to potential marks. He was good at it. By the end of his sophomore year, John owned a large sneaker collection and a Mercedes that he drove home between semesters. The profits were his: the only money John paid to the Black Axe was the roughly 10,000 naira in dues, collected each semester. John’s twin brother grew suspicious. “The money my mom was sending at that time—there was no way in hell he would have a car,” he told me. “It just didn’t make any sense.”

On Saturdays, the Axemen of Jos often gathered at the soccer field of a government school, nestled among junkyards on the city’s northern limit, for a meeting called Point One. Typically the time was spent planning parties, airing grievances, or discussing beefs with rival cults. As an eye, John stood beside the touchline, watching for danger. One weekend in his first year, some nearby farmers began complaining about the commotion. John feared that one of them would call the cops, and he quickly told the chairman to order everybody out.

The Axemen, most of whom were carrying guns, dashed away to a small bar called Last Bus Stop, a local Black Axe stronghold among market stalls in the city center. Minutes later a van rolled up to the field, packed with heavily armed police officers. Back at Last Bus Stop, everyone cheered and thanked John for engineering their escape. “I got a lot of props for that,” he told me. John was soon made chief eye, answerable only to the chairman and the priest. “I did really well in that post,” he added, proudly.

The new role placed him under greater scrutiny. Axemen fought ­daily with other cults. John was determined not to fall behind in his studies, but the campus was a conflict zone: he avoided traveling alone between lectures and had recurring dreams of rival cultists bursting into an exam hall and stabbing him to death. He retreated further into running 419 scams.

Some Axemen thrived in the mayhem. George was one of them, a “fun guy” from a town not far from Kaduna. George had charisma and style, and by his third year he’d become the zonal chairman—“the big man,” John told me. George was a skillful robber, too; he bought a car, a house, and a store with his loot. He and John got on well, but to others George was menacing. He could be “smiling, and cut you at the same time,” John said.

One night, John told me, cops cornered George and two others at a student dorm. John received a message from a fellow Axeman soon after and began calling members in the zone who worked as lawyers. But the cops allegedly took the three young men into the street and shot them all. The next morning, everybody gathered at Last Bus Stop to debrief. Some Axemen were already planning to “go vigilante”—to launch a revenge attack.

John grieved. He was terrified. He bought an arsenal of guns and imagined ways out of the Black Axe. He knew only two: violent death and deaxeation, which required slicing off his right thumb, an escalation of a Black Axe initiation ritual in which the thumb is merely cut. John had never heard of it happening in Jos, but he told me he’d seen one-thumbed former Axemen in Port Harcourt.

John decided to lie low. Despite his plummeting grades, he graduated in 2011. But around that time Nigeria’s Drug Law Enforcement Agency raided his home three times. The first raid turned up nothing. During the second, the cops found drugs and issued a warrant for John’s arrest but did not pursue him. When the police came a third time, in 2012, John again was not home, but his housemates were jailed for three months on armed robbery charges. John decided it was too dangerous for him to stay in Jos. The day after that raid, he drove his Mercedes back to Ka­duna.

In October 2017, in Amsterdam, I met a financial crimes expert who blogs about the Black Axe under the pseudonym Uche Tobias. It took me several months to earn his trust: we first exchanged text messages, then calls, then we met in another part of Western Europe before agreeing to meet in the Dutch capital. Tobias is amiable in person, if highly guarded, and chain-­smokes roll-­up cigarettes. As we sat in the restaurant of a small hotel overlooking Amsterdam’s red-­light district, Tobias showed me dozens of emails and documents he has gathered since 2011 that expose the movement’s global network of fraud.

Tobias has employed a number of methods to get information, the most successful of which has been to re­register Yahoo email accounts that Black Axe members have recently stopped using, allowing him to pass as an Axeman. At first, Tobias’s interest in the group was professional. Soon, he recalled in a written message (Tobias would only go on record via email), he realized he was seeing “an international apparatus of fraud and money laundering on a truly industrial scale. It was fascinating.” By 2013, Tobias blogged regularly about his discoveries in a tone that veered from anxious to mocking: he often called members “Assmen,” parodying the homophobia he encountered among them. His work has earned him thousands of death threats.

After we met, Tobias sent me a selection of early files, most of which dated from around 2012. Some were boilerplate 419s. Others were more elaborate scams, including one in which somebody calling himself “Arata Kazuo,” alternately from Tokyo and Osaka, stole over $37,000 from a man in northern En­gland. Scammers generally choose targets in rich nations, and the addresses of potential marks in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany filled dozens of spreadsheet pages.

Police in Canada have learned more about how the Black Axe network operates by investigating so-­called romance scams, in which bogus admirers charm elderly women into sending them cash, the value of which can reach seven figures. (Romance scams cost Canadians $17 million in 2018 alone.) They discovered that N.B.M. zones keep directories of each member’s strong name and location and the year that he bammed, which, they say, allows would-­be criminals to commit large, multi­national frauds.

Let’s say you initiate a scam in Montreal and reach out to members in your zone for somebody who is francophone to pose as a U.N., military, or government official to convince the target that their new suitor is in trouble and needs money. The zone replies: Lord Qaddafi in Chad Zone, who bammed in 2005, is great at romance scams. You connect. The scam is successful. The target sends $1,000,000 via a remittance firm. Now you need to launder the ­money. You reach out again. Somebody puts forward Lord Marcus Garvey in Dubai Zone. You connect. The money is received. Now it must be deposited in a bank in a country where regulation is scant. Lord Desmond Tutu has access to bank accounts in Shanghai Zone and receives the money from Dubai. Before the target realizes, the money has traveled across the world. Then it can be distributed among the members, each one taking home a percentage.

What’s more, the entirety of a scam is never revealed at once. Information may be sent via a combination of emails, phone calls, and WhatsApp messages. “If law enforcement has the wires . . . you’re only getting part of the piece,” Tim Trotter, a detective constable with the Toronto Police Service, told me. “They have good tradecraft.”

In the past couple of years scammers have transitioned to more sophisticated “business email compromise” scams, in which they extract payment by spoofing corporate email addresses. Fraudulent gains often pass through bank accounts in Hong Kong and mainland China thanks to “non-­existent money laundering checks” and “poor counter-­fraud strategy,” Tobias told me. In North America alone, scams earn 300 to 500 million dollars a year.

In 2015, Trotter and his colleague Mike Kelly charged an alleged Black Axe bookkeeper with fraud. He was convicted and is now awaiting extradition to the United States on additional charges. Canada now regards the Black Axe as an official criminal organization, and Trotter and Kelly demystify its structure and crimes for law enforcement agents worldwide.

On forums and in private mes­sages, scammers switch freely between the terms “N.B.M.” and “Black Axe,” further eroding Amadasu’s claim that the two are distinct entities. “It’s a very thin veneer that separates the two organizations,” says Trotter. He likens them to Sinn Féin and the Provisional I.R.A. during Northern Ireland’s Troubles: “One didn’t operate without the consent of the other.” In a leaked 2013 N.B.M. document, Lord Jaja ­Opobo of the Abuja Zone urged the N.B.M. leadership to clean house, worrying that the overlap between the two groups was hurting N.B.M.’s global image. Outside the organization, he wrote, “it is widely accepted that the Neo-­Black Movement and the Black Axe are identical.”

Only when they are caught are Black Axe members labeled as “imposters” by elders, Tobias told me. Augustus Bemigho-­Eyeoyibo, a hotelier and worldwide head of the N.B.M. from 2012 to 2016, was implicated directly in a number of scams that Tobias investigated. In 2012, Bemigho-­Eyeoyibo denounced criminal activity within the group. His main message, however, “was not to be caught,” Tobias wrote me. This May, a British court convicted three of Bemigho-­Eyeoyibo’s siblings-­in-­law of laundering nearly a million pounds for “the Black Axe organised crime syndicate,” and referred to Bemigho-­Eyeoyibo as “the leader of the Black Axe.” (Attempts to reach Bemigho-­Eyeoyibo were unsuccessful.)

“The movement has gone through [a] series of problems, mostly anchored on the notoriously violent, dishonest, and criminal conduct of many members,” Lord Obopo wrote in the 2013 paper. Yet N.B.M. leaders still recoil at the suggestion that their organization is criminal. “If any individual who is a member of the Anglican Communion commits crime, it will be unfair for you to say that the Anglican Communion is an organization that has been set up for criminals,” Melvin Richmond, dep­uty to the current worldwide head, Felix Kupa, told me. “Out of every twelve there must be a Judas.” Yet Trotter says that more than 70 percent of N.B.M. members he has investigated in Canada have been arrested or convicted of a crime. “That’s not a few bad apples,” he told me.

Over the past two decades, the Black Axe has also built a lucrative business in human trafficking. Working alongside established cartels, Axemen herd Nigerians across the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Many are young women, pimped under threats of spiritual damnation by juju healers. The International Organization for Migration reported that, in 2016, nearly nine thousand Nigerian girls were trafficked to Italy alone.

On a hot summer’s evening in 2017, I visited a tiny brothel on the third floor of an apartment block in Palermo, Sicily, where a woman sat on a high stool in a cramped living room, selling drugs from an athletic sock on her lap. Fading sunlight flickered through a grated window, past lines of gently swinging clothes. Television news boomed from a flat­screen.

In a partitioned room behind the woman, two men smoked and played cards on a wooden dining table, lit only by black light and a slowly rotating disco ball. On either side of the men were small, curtained alcoves in which women who had been trafficked from West Africa received clients for $19 a session. Most of what they made was levied to the Black Axe.

Last year, Sicilian authorities convicted fourteen Axemen of Mafia association, making the Black Axe the second organized criminal group to be recognized on the island. Some of the men are appealing their conviction, and, in May, the N.B.M. sent a lawyer to Palermo to defend its arrested members and argue that the organization is not affiliated with the Black Axe or any criminal activity. Francesco Del Grosso, who heads the national police’s foreign crimes and prostitution unit in Palermo, said “as far as our investigation is concerned, the N.B.M. and the Black Axe are one and the same.”

Prosecution is more complicated in Nigeria. The federal criminal code prohibits membership in an “unlawful society,” and states have passed a patchwork of laws banning cults, including the Black Axe. But enforcement is weak. One woman who had recently returned to Benin City after being trafficked to Libya told me that if authorities “see the cults, they say nothing happened.” Most political leaders I met were reluctant to acknowledge the group’s existence. Politicians still pay cults to swing votes, through fraud or violence.

On rare occasions, Nigerian law enforcement does target top-­ranking cult members. In 2015, cult violence in Benin City peaked when dozens of people were killed in just a few weeks. A local attorney complained he couldn’t find witnesses for prosecutions. “Everybody was scared,” the then police inspector general, Solomon Arase, told me. Arase’s officers arrested more than two hundred men on charges ranging from murder to armed robbery. They included eleven alleged cult leaders, who were shipped to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, without bail. Among them was Ernest Amadasu.

“The police were very wild,” Amadasu told me when I asked him about the arrests. He alleges that he witnessed police torture and told me it was another example of the state conflating the N.B.M. and the Black Axe. “They brand everything cultists,” he said. “My organization is not a cult.” Amadasu is certain the N.B.M. can return to the political movement he helped shape in its early days.

After Amadasu spent sixty days in detention, a court ruled that he had been illegally arrested and that the N.B.M. is a “lawful human right[s] & Charitable Association.” The group frequently points to its registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission to prove that it is operating above­board. “There is certainly a minority of members who are vocal against what the N.B.M. has become,” Tobias wrote me. “But the vast majority are well aware of what they are a part of and are members specifically for the purpose of improving their careers in organized crime.”

Nigerian cops told me that they often hit roadblocks when trying to prosecute cult members. The Abuja-­based prosecutor agreed that “people in high political offices are really involved” with the Black Axe. But the biggest difficulty in getting high-­ranking Axemen to trial is far simpler. “Most of the members of these groups are sworn to secrecy,” she told me. “And as soon as they see one that has exposed the truth, he is killed.”

Few Nigerians dare cross the Black Axe. In 2017, Chief Okoi Obono-­Obla, a lawyer and aide to President Muhammadu Buhari, who returned to power in 2015, risked his life to do so. That summer, Obono-­Obla discovered that his twenty-­three-­year-­old nephew, Jude Iroegbu, a lively young man who hoped to join the Nigerian Air Force, had become a member of the Vikings. Alarmed, Obono-­Obla and around two dozen members of his extended family met at Iroegbu’s parents’ home in Ugep, a town in the Niger Delta state of Cross River. The relatives demanded that Iroegbu renounce his cult membership. He agreed.

A few days later, however, Axemen allegedly surrounded Iroegbu on a red-­dirt road outside the palace of the Obol Lopon, Ugep’s traditional king. They hacked him to the ground with machetes and knives. As Iroegbu lay bleeding in the mud, one of the men shot him in the chest.

On a balmy evening last February, I met Obono-­Obla at a bar in Abuja, where we spoke over a soundtrack of funky house. He speaks hurriedly and has an intense look, as if staring over your shoulder at a burning building. A few days after Iroegbu’s murder, Obono-­Obla wrote an open letter to the state’s governor, Ben Ayade, accusing more than twenty Axemen he had identified, via informants and social media, of the murder. Obono-­Obla urged Ayade to launch an investigation into the killing.

Several of the suspects were arrested, but Obono-­Obla told me the problem goes far beyond what happened to his nephew. On January 1, 2018, he organized an anti-­cult march in Calabar, Cross River’s capital city. Five thousand people participated, waving placards that read say no to cultism; say no to violence.

Obono-­Obla’s high status offered protection, but he still received death threats. As we spoke, he switched hurriedly between three cell phones, showing text messages to me. “I will deal with you,” read one. I asked Obono-­Obla how the Black Axe could be stopped. He was unsure. Cults operate as a “state within a state,” he told me, just like America’s old mobs: “They can always buy their way. They can bribe the police, so people are not willing to come out and give evidence or testify against them.” Fighting police and judicial corruption could stem some bloodshed, Obono-­Obla told me. Until then, Nigeria can expect many more men like Iroegbu to die young.

Corruption is widespread in modern Nigeria, and brazen: when asked why $100,000 disappeared from state coffers last year, one employee of a government education authority claimed a snake had eaten it. Unemployment is at 23 percent. Radio advertisements beg women not to have more children, as the state fumbles for solutions to a population boom set to make Nigeria the world’s third largest country by 2050.

Educated young people often find that no opportunities await them upon graduation. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s five richest men have enough money to end extreme poverty altogether, in a country where 112 million people live below the poverty line. Politicians often live like feudal overlords, traveling in a style that even Mansa Musa would envy. Amid such inequality, the get-­rich-­quick call of the cults is powerful. Nigerians have fallen into a “lotto culture,” said Sowore. “You keep playing until you win. But you never will.”

Felix Kupa, the new head of N.B.M., has striven to show a softer, more beneficent side of the organization. (Kupa declined to be interviewed for this story.) He has launched programs promoting resettlement for refugees and legal aid for prisoners. A $1.38 million vocational center is being planned for Benin City, where young Nigerians will be able to learn trades and leadership skills, and educate themselves in African history.

With the help of elders such as Amadasu, Kupa is also working to log every N.B.M. member in a database, including personal details and fingerprints. Since last May, the movement has worked with a Lagos consultancy to develop an app with which it can track personal information. “If you are not willing to share your details with us, or with the authorities around the world, that means there is something criminal about you,” Melvin Richmond told me. It is unclear when the project will be completed.

Before I left Nigeria, I met John a second time, at an upscale café in a modern neighborhood on the edge of Lagos. It was hot and windy, and great clouds of construction dust whipped across the street outside. Beyond the café sat the old skyscrapers of Lagos Island, cloaked in smog and harmattan sand. John was dressed in black-­and-­yellow athletic gear and wore his hair in tight braids. He spoke louder and with more confidence than the first time we had met. He told me he could never fully leave the Black Axe, but at least in Lagos he could step back, and slip seamlessly into the city’s sulfur-­choked bedlam. He lives on its perimeter with a girlfriend and works as a supplier for his mother’s construction company. He had begun teaching prisoners the dangers of cultism.

His views on the Black Axe had mellowed since the worst days of Jos. “Enlightenment matters,” he said of its founding ethos. He believed in the organization’s founding politics of black emancipation and delighted in meeting others across Africa who felt the same. One day, he told me, he hoped to leverage his N.B.M. contacts to join Nigeria’s political ranks. “You see yourself as limitless,” he said. “You can’t be subdued by anything or anybody.”

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