INVESTIGATION: Lagos’ silent but raging gang problem
An investigative report carried out by a political and economic risk consultancy firm, SB Intelligence, on the spread, operations and challenges posed on the society by some silent but deadly ‘cult’ gangs terrorising Nigeria’s most populous city, Lagos.
A silent, stewing broth of poverty, patronage and violence
On Thursday, 13 July, 2013, gunmen shot dead Monsuru Taiye Seriki, who went by his popular moniker, Sempe. Sempe, who was the Financial Secretary of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) unit in Mushin, Lagos, had left the union office along the railway line that evening on a motorcycle, but was dead before he got to his home in Onipanu, a ten-minute drive.
An eye witness told a reporter from the defunct Nigerian Telegraph Newspaper, “Taiye got to the junction of his house, but as he alighted from the okada, about ten men who had been lurking around the neighbourhood accosted and shot him.
“They watched him die and pushed his body to confirm he was dead, then they fled the scene. After they left, residents who had scampered for safety when the shooting started; came out to see his lifeless body.”
It will later be discovered that, Sempe had received a phone call where some rival gang members accused him of waging a war against them. Sempe’s death was one of many in a wave of murders in Lagos spanning over the past half-decade that have been linked to various gang groups. A closer examination of this emerging wave of gang crimes leads to a crucial finding: the NURTW regularly straddles the line between union and gang activities. In addition, it is widely believed that most local politicians, traditional leaders and key members of the city’s elite seek to preserve their influence and access to political patronage by engaging the services of gangs and cult groups who end up petrifying poorer people with actions that sometimes lead to the destruction of property, and even murder.
Lagos is a tough place to live in. The city was rated as the third worst city for humans to live in the world according to the 2018 Global Liveability Index prepared by The Economist Intelligence Unit and the World Bank and released in August – a dismal 138th out of the 140 cities ranked. It only outperformed Dhaka in impoverished Bangladesh and Damascus in war-torn Syria. The index assessed all cities on a range of metrics, including Social Stability, Healthcare, Education, Culture and Environment and Infrastructure. Lagos was rated 37.5 per cent on healthcare; 33.3 per cent on education; 46.4 per cent on infrastructure and its highest score, 53.5 per cent on culture and environment. The worst score, however, was on Social Stability, a paltry 20.0 which indicates a “prevalence of petty crime, violent crime, the threat of terror, a threat of military conflict and/or a threat of civil unrest/conflict.”
Lagos’ gangs, known colloquially as cults have grown to comprise a near inextricable component of the fabric of life in Nigeria’s most populous city – for example, due in part because of the dissonance in governance that is a characteristic of many Nigerian cities and towns – local gang groups collect informal taxes and levies from residents and other economic actors, transporters, for instance, in many parts of Lagos. These collection rounds, often however, set the stage for the kind of rivalry and competition that easily devolves into turf wars.
The recruitment strategy for many of these groups are sophisticated and are designed with the long term in mind. According to one source, some parents and guardians in these cults initiate their children and wards into secret cults when they are still infants, while a few others encouraging their wards to participate in occultic practices while in primary and secondary school. For many of these residents, often resident in low-income neighbourhoods and plagued by the lack of a social safety net that guarantees access to a decent quality of life, a gang membership represents the only known social security structure that they know, a system that assures them of a somewhat stable income, a sense of relevance and perhaps most importantly, an avenue of social acceptance. This explains in part the prevalence of secret cults in the city’s secondary schools, a phenomenon that roughly dates from the mid-90s when adverse economic conditions decimated the incomes of a majority of Nigerians and exacerbated the country’s social problems.
Lagos, with its unhealthy mix of opulence and deep poverty has proved the ideal habitat for these groups – and no part of the city is out of their reach. Even rich neighbourhoods are not exempt from the social problems that gangs pose. In April 2018, staffers of Plus TV, a television station located in upscale Victoria Island who were attacked by an Oniru Estate based gang on the night of 30 April, 2018, because one of their journalists had filmed gang members apparently beating up a road user.
Lagos can surely do better. It has had a few opportunities in the past to do more to secure the lives and properties of its residents from these gangs, but has made little headway as mistrust of the police, who many Lagosians see as culpable in perpetuating the menace, runs deep. Many of the respondents and people who SBM Intelligence interviewed for the purposes of this report said that in their neighbourhoods, the local police was in the loop of gang operations, in some instances, either providing gang members with ammunition or looking the other way when they carry out their activities. Many Lagos residents have resorted to protecting themselves by enforcing curfews in their homes.
In order to properly understand the extent of Lagos’ gang problem, over the space of four months, a detailed picture was put together through a combination of public surveys, literature reviews of investigations, articles and other literature written on the subject, as well as face-to-face interviews with insiders and people willing to talk about these groups, how these gangs and cult groups operate and what their continued presence portends for the future development of Nigeria’s megacity.
This report aims to provide a comprehensive insight into the inner workings, geographic locations and reach of these gangs, as well as highlight their social, economic and political impact.
- Situating Lagos’ gangs
Some of the most well-known cults/gangs in Lagos include the Awawa Boys in Agege, the One Million Boys in the Ajangbadi and Ojo areas, the EFCC Boys in Somolu, the Fellin Stealing Boys in Bariga, the Skippo Boys in Ebute-Metta, the Toba Boys in Mushin, the Falapa Boys, the Onola Boys, Sego Boys, and Idumota Boys, the last three are based in and around Lagos Island. The Aiye Boys and Eiye Boys are largely based in Ajah, while the Vikings are in Ladipo and Alaba markets.
Lagos’ gangs are not restricted to the built up, urban areas; some have spread their tentacles as far as the riverine communities and a few are known to maintain bases in many of the remote brackish marshes of Badagry, Epe and rural Ikorodu, from which they carefully plan attacks on their targets. Notwithstanding the above, it would be useful to examine in some detail the main gang groups that currently exist and operate in the city.
Popularly known as Black Axe or Axe Men, Aiye is a cult group which is fond of the colour black, and utilises the number ‘7’ as their symbol. The group originated from in higher institutions in Nigeria’s western states in the 1980s, and spread to the streets of Lagos, and other major urban centres in South-West Nigeria, where they practice their brotherhood. They also have known clusters outside Nigeria.
Locally, most of their leaders are called ‘jazzman,’ a code word for the leader of a local cell. The head of the Aiye is called ‘Virus.’ In the Lagos area, some particularly notorious leaders are referred to only by their nicknames, colourful monikers which include: ‘Majek,’ ‘Scanty,’ ‘Olori,’ and ‘Rocker.’ This gang is active in many major Lagos districts including:
- Ikorodu: Igbogbo and Odongunyan
- Daleko (located at Isolo)
- Ajuwon Estate
- Coker (located at Aguda)
Outside of Lagos, the Aiye group is strong in Abeokuta, Ogun’s capital and as far away as Oke Moniya, a suburb of Ilorin, the capital of Kwara. Within the university system, Aiye has a presence in most Universities in southern Nigeria, with a very strong representation in the Lagos State University, Ojo; the many campuses of the Lagos State Polytechnic, incuding sites in Ikorodu, Isolo and Surulere; the Oke-Ogun Polytechnic, Saki, Oyo; the University of Ilorin and the University of Ibadan.
According to Eiye’s Facebook page (Yes, it has one), the organisation was founded in 1963 with a mission to “uphold the core nature of the African culture with a commitment to excellence,” and to “make a positive impact on the socio-political psyche of Nigeria, and to ensure a complete breakaway from the colonial/imperial cultural domination of the time.” The same source states that Eiye remains “true to the vision of her founders.”
According to the BBC, Eiye’s original intention was to make a “positive contribution to the society,” but it has evolved to an “organised crime group,” from which, overtime, “many members went astray, committing violence in Nigeria, and delving into crime abroad.”
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), similarly describes Eiye as a “criminal group.”
Jane’s Intelligence Review states that Eiye is made up of “members of old secret societies transformed into criminal associations.”
Originally named the Eiye Group, (eiye is the Yoruba name for birds), it later metamorphosed into the Supreme Eiye Confraternity (SEC). According to a source interviewed for this report, the Supreme Eiye Confraternity (also known as the National Association of Air Lords) was formed by the following students: Goke Adeniji, Dele Nwakpele, Bayo Adenubi, Bola Fadase, Tunde Aluko, Kayode Oke, and Bode Sowunmi among others. Eiye members identify themselves by using the colour blue, mainly in Nigeria’s South-West where they are active in higher institutions. Like the groups which started out in the campuses of universities, they have strong leaders who are now successful professionals in various fields, and maintain a presence outside Nigeria. The group prides itself in breeding rugged birds that fly and nest everywhere they land.
Like their chief rivals, the Aiye, they have strongholds in places like:
The Buccaneers are a cult who claim to belong to the sea. Their symbol is the yellow colour, and they encourage an active party lifestyle among their members. Like a few of the other groups, they began in higher institutions of learning before spreading out into the streets, and as with such groups with a higher education background, they have a nationwide presence, and have also spread out beyond the country’s borders. It has transited out of primarily carrying out acts of physical terror, intimidation and vandalism into operating sophisticated cybercrime rings. In addition, the group is known for being a mid-sized trafficker in small arms and some of its members get involved in occasional robbery. In Lagos, the Buccaneers are mainly found in:
- Coker, Aguda
- Ajeromi, Ifelodun
The Badoo group allegedly started about a decades or two ago, the timeline varying with the source and remained an underground force, almost in hibernation for a long time. The group would carry out attacks once in every four or five months because of its limited and highly restrictedmembership. The group leader who was referred to as ‘Badoo’ was killed a few years ago during a police raid that happened in Ibeshe.
According to three sources, Badoo members are usually recruited through job adverts which which invite desperate job seekers to call certain phone numbers. When a person calls, they are invited to a house where they get locked up in a room and debriefed about what these ‘jobs’ entail. Anyone who fails to join at this ‘recruitment stage’ is immediately killed as a preventive measure. As the gangs’ membership grew, so did the number of attacks. The gang went from attacking roughly every quarter to menacing the town of Ikorodu and its environs almost every day at its apogee. Its members only attack around 2am in the morning, targeting houses they have already staked out, sometimes over weeks. Their residences of preferences were houses with little or no security measures; often utilising a chemically induced spray to overwhelm their victims while they attack, and they taking their weapon which is usually a stone to their native doctors to be blessed. Curiously, they are known to carry out their operations naked, covering their bodies in oil so that they won’t be caught or nabbed during an attack. After an attack, they wipe their victims’ blood with a white handkerchief, which they sell, some of these bloody handkerchiefs commanding a street value of half a million naira and often ending up as the centrepiece of elaborate ritual ceremonies.
Badoo attacks reduced drastically when a huge public outcry forced an underfire state government to launch a much publicised crackdown. The police on 3 January, 2018 sealed off a petrol filling station, and a hotel and event centre belonging to suspected Badoo kingpin, Alhaji Alaka Abayomi Kamal. Alaka had been declared wanted in connection with a series of well-orchestrated killings and nefarious activities in Ikorodu and Epe.
The security authorities would later parade a Badoo kingpin arrested in Ikorodu who confessed to the killings and took the police to their shrine in Imosan, a suburb of Ijebu-Ode in neighbouring Ogun State where the group’s chief herbalist, Fatai Adebayo was arrested. Adebayo, who is popularly known as Alese, was said to specialise in administering oaths to Badoo members before they set out on their deadly missions. In spite of a hefty bounty on his head,
it is rumoured that Alaka has since relocated to Ogbomosho.
A surprising entry here to some, the National Union of Road Transport Workers is a legal union that has over the years morphed to enjoy broad powers of control over road transportation all over the country. The organisation functions as a mixture of a public transport company, a bus drivers’ union, an enforcement agency, and crucially, a street gang. The organisation raises funds through several methods, but its largest revenue streams come from charging bus drivers a fee as well as imposing operating levies on shop owners who own stalls in its hundreds of motor parks.
In Lagos, the organisation gained a lot of power and influence following a decision by the state government to empower them to collect taxes from bus drivers. In 2006, they split into two factions; Team Lagos and Face Lagos.
The Team Lagos faction, say multiple sources, are closer to the current administration in the state and count the National Leader of the All Progressives Congress, Bola Tinubu as their patron. They are also well known for acting as political thugs, and the following are their leaders according to corroborated records seen by SBM Intelligence:
- Sulu Anthony from Lagos Island
- Shile Burger – popularly called Hamburger – from Mafoluku. (Deceased)
- Michael Jaga from Lafiaji
- Saygo from Adeniji Adele
- Asake from Isale Eko
- MC Oluomo from Oshodi
- Femi Jaypron from Fadeyi
- Baba Alado from Mushin
The second faction, Face Lagos owe their allegiance to the former Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, and were built up during his second term in office following his split with Bola Tinubu. The following are their leaders according to records and sources:
- Kunle Ploy from Idumota
- Sunday Igbowo from Ikorodu
- Kabiawu from Lafiaji
- Small Jaypron from Bariga
- Toba from Mushin
- Sangay from Ketu
- Hunter from Ajah
- Tunde Simple from Oshodi
As a legitimate entity registered to operate in Nigeria, the NURTW has the largest footprint of all the gangs considered here, enjoying a presence in every part of Lagos.
Members of the Shaku-Shaku gang are known to be cart pushers who go around Lagos’ many side streets and back roads, picking and buying scrap metal. Most of the group’s members are from Nigeria’s north and mainly congregate around canals. While they are cart pushers by day, many commit robberies at night. Some of them work as thugs for the many tricycle and motorcycle riders unions that dot the town, an economic activitydominated in Lagos by northern Nigerians.
They have leaders in all locales across the state and these leaders are called Seriki, while their domains are called Sabo.
- Awawa Boys
Another deadly gang that terrorised the city through much of 2015, the Awawa Boys were not a centralised gang as the others profiled in this report, but a loose group of street children who operated as pickpockets in all the major bus parks in the state. Their cult sign, according to the former Commissioner of Police Fatai Owoseni, is a black teardrop on the left side of their eyes.
Within the group, authority is vested in the ‘chairman’ of the various packs. Proceeds of their robberies – some of which are conducted at gunpoint – are given to the chairman, who divides the spoils among all the members based on an internal ranking system, a loose system which differed from park to park. What bound this group was a common heritage as most members appear to originate from Ibadan and its environs, many of them having lost their immediate family members. Today, they have a stronghold in places like:
- Akerele Boys
The Akerele Boys are based in Surulere with their ‘empire’ in Shitta, a central neighbourhood in the district and their name deriving from one of the main thoroughfares in that local government area. Their speciality is armed robbery, and their operations are statewide.
As with all of these groups, the leaders are not addressed by their names, but by nicknames. The four most mentioned names are Iku Jelili, Sergeant Kofoshi, Gabassin, and Kerosene. They also have a stronghold in Agege.
Other gangs and cults have a smaller geographic footprint and even lesser reputations. Notable mentions are the Seego boys which was started in 2015 and One Million Boys which began in 2015-2016.
- A fight to the death
Based on interviews with many respondents as well as expert insights, the three most common triggers for confrontations between Lagos’ gangs are:
- Disagreements: Perceived disrespect between rival gangs can start a gang war, while disagreements and/or disrespect within a certain gang can lead to a killing to maintain discipline.
- Promotion: Tussles for promotion, an event which usually comes with power and recognition could also trigger a gang war.
- Encroachment: Perceived encroachment on the territory of a rival gang is almost certain to trigger a gang war. Territory could include buildings, clients, business or women.
When gang wars occur, there is no consideration of residents occupying that particular environment. Fear is instilled into the residents, and when fear creeps in, for their safety, residents decide to keep mum when they’re asked questions by the police force about what happened. The police force, in most cases, don’t involve themselves, and when they do, they might end up fleeing from the scene because they might be outnumbered by the gang or cult members, or they’re subdued.
Interviews were conducted in areas where gangs and cult groups thrive.
- Mushin: The mere mention of Mushin strikes fear into the bravest minds on the Lagos Mainland, as a result of the heinous crimes perpetrated by some sects in the community. A part of the Mushin community known as “Empire,” is mostly dominated by gang youths, and is known as a hotbed of drug usage, loud drinking parties, smuggling, prostitution among other activities.
- Somolu: Gang wars have long been a feature of life in Somolu, a local government area (LGA) sandwiched between Yaba, Surulere and Ikeja LGAs. Residents have had to tolerate the excesses of the Eiye cult group who are the pre-eminent gang in the area for years.
As an example of the scale of the situation in Somolu, in October 2013, an incident took place in front of the house belonging to Vincent Olatunde, a human rights activist and community leader. Before his death, he was able to recount how and why he got shot. He had stopped some suspected cultists from attacking the police station, who also wanted to use the opportunity to loot and terrorise the community.Mr. Olatunde was blamed for the arrest of some of the gang members, and so he became a target. Mr. Olatunde claims to have been attacked during the day in an incident which claimed the life of a boy named Hakeem. Hakeem had come to his house to plead on behalf of his father, who was responsible for the attempted attack on the police station at Alade. Mr. Olatunde confronted one of his attackers who he knew very well as Afilo. His attacker, Afilo, shot him in the back. He was taken to the Island General Hospital where he was treated, but as the hospital lacked equipment, the bullets couldn’t be removed. He was advised to seek help from traditional doctors. He relocated from his house to receive treatment from traditional doctors, but unfortunately, Mr. Olatunde went into shock as a result as a result of his wounds, and died on 17 May, 2014. No one has been held criminally responsible for his death.
- Ebute-Metta: This district, just across the lagoon from the financial district of Lagos Island has witnessed many gang maimings and killings. One person, Comrade Ishola Agbodimu , a human rights activist and community leader, has been attacked multiple times. Mr. Agbodimu is a Secretary of the Ifesowopo Community Development Association in Ebute-Metta, and is also the Secretary of the Lagos chapter of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria. Mr. Agbodimu was attacked, stabbed, and left for dead on 17th August, 2014 because he not only spoke out against gangs in Ebute-Metta, but had gone ahead to mobilise the men in the area to join the vigilante group to assist the police in protecting the area. Luckily, Mr. Agbodimu survived, but has requested on multiple occasions that the police to fish out the gangs responsible for the attempt on his life, for rendering him and his family homeless, for the destruction of a lot of properties in the area, and for the mindless attacks on innocent citizens.
Mr. Agbodimu now serves as the President of a non-governmental organisation, the Rural Urban Development Initiative (RUDI), which campaigns for improvements in the living standard of slum dwellers, and promoting their rights.
- Epetedo: Epetedo is a community in Lagos Island. In 2017, a revenge attack took place at the 155th celebration of the founding of Epetedo. The gang war was between three local groups – the Falapa boys, Onola boys, and the Seego boys.
The confrontation was started earlier in the year by the Seego boys, and left no fewer than eight people dead. Residents identified one of them by name, Kola; while others identified him simply as Ramon. A police source said the Seego boys informed them in detention that they were avenging the 2015 murders of some of their members in Ajah.
A source told SBM that the Okepopo boys believed that the Onola boys had assisted the Seego boys in attacking their families. They came to this conclusion because when the Seego boys struck, they did not touch any member of the Onola family. Okepopo and his crew rearmed and waited for an opportunity, which arrived during the 155th celebration ceremony.
Another source told SBM that the fight between the Onola boys and Okepopo boys was a battle for control of the petty traders in the district. Whoever won the battle, would have the right to collect levies from the traders.
- A security architecture in over its head
It is not clear that the police has been able to effectively deal with the menace of gangs in Lagos. While the security operatives continue to devise means to battle the gangs, and ensure peace in these communities, the gangs have found ways to create new modes of operations. This has continued for ages despite the proscription and criminalisation of gang membership and their leaders getting arrested and prosecuted in line with provision of the law.
The Police know that members of most host communities are aware of and tolerate the activities of the gangs, but are afraid of turning them in because of the fear of retribution. Two security sources say that police across the state regularly carry out ‘mop up’ gang raids.
An anti-cultism unit headed by Superintendent Kehinde Thompson was expanded in 2017 to tackle the problem. Setting up this unit, beset with the same operational challenges that characterise general police work in Nigeria, has not however stopped the menace. According to police sources, a weekly tally of paraded suspects show that an average of 10 to 20 suspects per week are paraded as suspected gang members. Notwithstanding the obstacles, authorities have scored some success in decoupling gang members from these groups. Between September 2017 and March 2018, more than 1,000 gang members renounced their membership of various gangs in Lagos according to police data made available to SBM.
Hope for a new Lagos
A lot of work remains to be done in order to make Lagos safer for its residents, businesses and visitors. The work must happen on a number of levels.
The existence of gangs has been incentivised by the massive economic, social and political contradictions that exist in the city. In Lagos’ urban blight, wealth and poverty, privilege and deprivation, social access and social stratification often exist side by side. In a climate where such markedly different realities exist, the seeds of frustration and resentment will flourish.
Furthermore, the city’s elite has profited greatly from this security and social morass, leaders and politicians often employing these gangs as foot soldiers in the service of their parochial interests.
On many occasions, when gang members are arrested, these politically influential elements use their contacts to secure their release, thus liberating these young men (and in a few cases, women) to continue their life of plunder and pillage, making life unbearable for the residents of their catchment areas.
As if to compound the issue, the fear of retribution and years of law enforcement abuse and corruption has inoculated Lagosians from becoming effective partners in crime prevention, detection and investigation; when in many cases, rogue police officers are complicit in aiding and abetting gang activities.
Ultimately, addressing Lagos’ security situation will require more than a hard power approach. Gangs are able to thrive in large part because of the economic disenfranchisement, social deprivation and lack of access to the basic necessities that enable a decent form of living which leaves large swathes of Nigerians with a feeling that there is no other alternative to a life of pillage and crime. Creating lasting and broad-based economic opportunities for more Lagosians is the only effective countermeasure to this promising megacity’s silent menace.