For instance, Alpha Phi Alpha served as a meeting point for advocates Martin Luther King jr, WEB Du Bois, Fredrick Douglass, and Jesse Owens…
By Joshua Chizoma
Fraternities are a feature of American college life. They are a community of male students who come together to “promote common social and intellectual interests, often arranging dining and residence services for their members.” Fraternities are often named using Greek alphabets and are hence referred to as the Greek system. Although fraternities vary, they typically share these five characteristics: secrecy, single-sex membership, selection of new members on the basis of rushing and pledging, ownership and occupancy of a residential property, and use of identification symbols including Greek letters, armorial achievements, ciphers, badges, hand signs, passwords, flowers, colours.
The first fraternity in the United States was the Phi Beta Kappa founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary. This was followed by Kappa Alpha Society, Sigma Phi, and Delta Phi founded in Union College. In the early stages, these associations were banned in the various universities in the United States. Hence, members would typically meet at hidden locations to engage in various activities, ranging from philosophical debates to poetry and fiction readings as well as political discussions.
The process of joining a fraternity is known as pledging, and a pledge typically lasts a lifetime. Before this, there is the rush, which is when intending members visit the different houses to meet members of the fraternities. Each fraternity decides the process of admitting new recruits. Stipulations such as academic qualifications, prior university experience, and social standing are some of the criteria different fraternities put in place. Some engage in a practice known as hazing. Hazing requires prospective members to carry out often physically grueling exercises as a ground for admittance. These physically exerting tasks sometimes lead to the death of new recruits. Thus, hazing has now been banned in most American colleges.
At their core, fraternities engage in philanthropic activities, provide mentorship and leadership examples for members. They also encourage academic excellence. Such is their relevance that they have served as springboards for social and justice movements. For instance, Alpha Phi Alpha served as a meeting point for advocates Martin Luther King jr, WEB Du Bois, Fredrick Douglass, and Jesse Owens.
Confraternities have not always been violent. They had a noble beginning. According to various reports, the first confraternity in Nigeria was established by Wole Soyinka, Olumuyiwa Awe, Raph Okpara, Ben Egbuchie, Nathaniel Oyelola, Pius Oleghe, and Aig-Imokhuede. They were subsequently known as the Magnificent Seven. They established the Pyrates Confraternity at the University of Ibadan in 1952. The confraternity was a response to the elitist behavior rife in the university community at the time. Recent graduates of the institution engaged in exclusionary policies, hoping to make university education inaccessible to the average man. The confraternity was hence established on the principles of egalitarianism and democracy, with the overriding intention to speak truth to power and restore some sanity to the Nigerian educational system. It was open to promising young people from any ethnicity, tribe, or affiliation. The achievements of the confraternity were tremendous, such that its members represented the finest minds Nigeria had at the time.
Eventually, other splinter confraternities were created. The first was the Buccaneer Confraternity created in 1972 by Dr. Bolaji Carew after he was expelled by the Pyrates Confraternity. There was also the Supreme Eiye Confraternity founded at the University of Ibadan. The Eternal Fraternal Order of the Legion Consortium aka Klan Konfraternity was founded at the University of Calabar. The Brotherhood of the Blood aka Black Beret was established at the Enugu State University. Also formed were all-female groups such as the Daughters of Jezebel, Black Bra, etc.
The emergence of these confraternities also saw a divergence from the early ideals of the founding fathers. Thus, beginning with the breakaway of the Buccaneer, confraternities became increasingly violent. This continued to grow in intensity till the point where violence, cult wars, banditry, and racketeering became the defining characteristic of these confraternities. It was at this point that these groups came to be known as secret societies or cults.
Another factor that perhaps led to the radicalisation of confraternities was the evolving political conditions in Nigeria. Military dictators and politicians found cultists to be cheap and willing political muscle. Swayed perhaps by the finances and promise of political appointments, leaders of confraternities consorted with and carried out the wishes of the political and military leaders. Specifically, during the tenure of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, cultists were reportedly used to intimidate students and unionists who were the last bulwarks against the oppressive policies of the state. Cultists were used to kill oppositions, with the government providing weapons. This lion grew wild such that even after there was no use for it, it could not be tamed. Thus, the country continues to suffer the repercussions of the greed of the powers that be. Even several years after the return to civilian rule, cultists still run loose.
At the moment, cultists and confraternities strike terror into the heart of regular citizens by the mere mention of their names. On university campuses, they terrorise lecturers and students. They also engage in all sorts of criminal activities: cybercrimes, and armed robberies. Cult wars are also quite rife. The most popular was the 1999 Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) massacre that led to the death of five people.
Confraternities in Nigeria and Fraternities in the United States. What Went Wrong?
Nigerian confraternities are supposed to be modelled after their United States counterparts. At the very least, the structure, objectives and styling of both organisations should show a similarity. Basically, The term “confraternity” is used in Nigeria to refer to groups styled after fraternities in the United States. Confraternities in the US refer to a different kind of organization, mostly religious. However, hardly anyone in Nigeria today can be bold to make that claim. Truly, the early confraternities, with their egalitarian posturing, might be the closest Nigerian secret societies have come to resembling their Western counterparts. At the moment, confraternities in Nigeria and fraternities in the United States share significant similarities such as the use of codes and insignia, a deep-seated pandering to communism, and a certain level of exclusivity to membership and acceptance. However, it appears that is where the similarities end. The thought of secret cults dredges up both terror and revulsion in the average Nigerian. Hence, regardless of whatever lofty ideals any claim to aspire to, no parent will willingly endorse their ward’s affiliation with a secret society.
But, why is their perception so different? Why do confraternities have such a terrible reputation in Nigeria while the case is different in the West? To be clear, fraternities do not have a sparkling reputation in the United States. At best, opinions are divided. Frat brothers are often considered irreverent young men with sexist inclinations. Another common accusation is that fraternities are elitist, discriminating against minorities such as blacks and queer people. The existence of black, Asian, and gay fraternities lays credence to this accusation. However, the extent and veracity of these accusations have often been hotly debated, with movies like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House” criticised for inaccurately depicting fraternities.
Beyond that, it is easy to argue that those with such questionable reputations amongst the ranks of fraternities are just bad eggs. The caliber of people who have gone through the fraternities and their continued relevance to American society also lends credence to this posture. For instance, 18 US presidents, 85 percent of Supreme Court Justices, and 76 percent of senators have all pledged at one point of their lives or the other.
But, whatever the ills of American fraternities, there is still a specter of reverence that trails them. The same is not applicable to confraternities in Nigeria. The reason is simple: while their US counterparts have held on to the ideals of their founding fathers, confraternities in Nigeria cast them off a long time ago. This is due to several factors. Confraternities, it might seem, were always doomed to fail in Nigeria. Without the requisite communal spirit, selflessness and altruism which formed the bedrock of fraternities in the West, a descent to anarchy, as eventually became the case, was inevitable in the Nigerian situation. Furthermore, the sociocultural factors that enable egalitarian intentions and organisations to thrive are absent in the Nigerian milieu. The average Nigerian is constantly caught in a war with the government. When we are not fighting outrageous financial policies, we are defying corruption or calling out trigger-happy security agents. There has to be first an enabling environment for Nigerian confraternities to pursue the grandiose aspirations that US fraternities often aspire to. Thus, in the face of joblessness, nepotism, corruption, wanton discrimination, and greed, it was inevitable that confraternities could not continue to pursue enlightenment or emancipation from the colonial mindset.
However, this does not explain why confraternities engage in violence and are regarded as dens for reprobates. This sad state of affairs is the case now because confraternities have since been hijacked and radicalised by external forces. The nature of these secret societies has made them porous to infiltration. The confraternities had a strict hierarchical leadership structure and operated a strict secrecy code that entertained no questioning of authority. They entertained ideas of retribution, karma, and self-help, or as the Buccaneers would say “blud for blud.” The unquestionable loyalty and hierarchical nature betrayed the democractic status such societies should exist in. Thus, when the military infiltrated their ranks and compromised their leaderships, there was no effective means to check them. Hence, while it is easy to lay the blame at the feet of the military who taught their societies to wield weapons of violence, it is also important to acknowledge that the societies themselves made that possible.
The problems with cultism perhaps reflect a broader ailment that assails Nigeria. Violence and banditry appear to be the order of the day. Crimes continue to be on the rise and insecurity is sadly still a hot-button topic several years after the return to civilian rule. As long as these conditions continue to be prevalent, cultism and all its ills will continue to exist. This is why even after repeated efforts by university authorities to stamp out cultism, vestiges still remain. To solve the problem for good, we need to solve the Nigerian problem wholly. However, at this moment, this remains but a nascent dream.
Joshua Chizoma is the winner of the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize and a Finalist for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He writes from Enugu, Nigeria.