Black Axe Criminal Mobility
As borders have become more porous, criminal mobility has become more accessible, contributing to transnational crime. Let’s assess the push and pull factors contributing to Nigeria’s Black Axe migration to South Africa.

As borders have become more porous, criminal mobility has become more accessible, contributing to transnational crime. Let’s assess the push and pull factors contributing to Nigeria’s Black Axe migration to South Africa.

black axe criminality

Introduction to black axe

The Neo-Black Movement (NBM) began as a confraternity in Nigeria, Benin City. The group was established at the University of Benin during the 1970s as a student self-help association but gradually transformed into a criminal group in response to the political dictatorship in Nigeria, acting as a violent weapon to be used by political parties against the opposition.

The criminal splinter group became known as Black Axe and has since earned a notorious reputation for violence, murder, cult-like behavior, and transnational crime. While the legally-operating NBM has disassociated itself with Black Axe, many publications and research efforts still group the two organizations together. This analysis of their criminal mobility uses news articles, academic journals, and court documents to conclude that Black Axe began as an emergent criminal group due to political turmoil but has since developed to become a strategic, international organization. Headquartered in Nigeria, Black Axe “zones” are highly flexible, connected, and fluid, able to spread worldwide due to their flexibility and internal social bonds.

While most online literature focuses on Black Axe's presence in Italy, where they have been dubbed the “Nigerian Mafia,” I have selected to analyze their presence in South Africa due to my personal experience of witnessing Nigerian criminal organizations in action and my understanding of the South African landscape.

It is important to note that Black Axe's presence in Italy is strong, where criminal activity and methods differ greatly from that in South Africa — a discussion and analysis on its own.

General Impression of the Global Dimension of the Group

Since the 1980s, Nigerian organized crime has migrated worldwide, developing a strong presence in Italy and South Africa. Today, Black Axe operates across Africa and Europe, and they also target the United States of America via the Internet.

Push factors prompting migration of Black Axe

Initially, the international migration of Nigerian criminal groups developed due to a combination of three factors: the surge of wealth and accompanying corruption due to the discovery of oil in the 1950s, the second economic depression in the 1980s, and widespread corruption that led to mass migration.

Black axe

South African pull factors

Due to pull factors, Black Axe and other Nigerian criminal organizations were established in South Africa, a fragile state with a high corruption and gang violence rate, making it an ideal location for facilitating various transnational criminal transactions.

Earlier reports of Black Axe operations in South Africa refer to drug trafficking crimes, where Axemen established strategic, operational bases near target clientele, such as brothels, and took advantage of South Africa’s post-apartheid political and social transition to succeed. Groups sometimes overtook entire neighborhoods, such as Hillbrow in Johannesburg.

Over time, the group adapted to flourish in cybercrimes such as internet fraud, romance scams, and money laundering to target international markets and leverage legal knowledge to avoid extradition and capture. South Africa has also served as a strategic springboard for Black Axe members to access more lucrative countries, such as Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. However, this does not necessarily describe transplantation, as the criminal operations and methods differ from one location to another.

South African PUSH factors

It is important to note that the racial tension and inequality in South Africa have the potential to develop into a push factor, encouraging Nigerian criminal organizations to move (or perhaps adapt their criminal behavior) as xenophobia creates a hostile environment. Nigerian gangs (and non-criminal Nigerians) have been the victims of violent attacks, facing extortion and death.

Black Axe networks

Despite Nigeria’s consistency as a politically and economically unstable country, Black Axe remains headquartered in Benin City and operates in regional areas called “zones.” The development of trusted networks with shared criminal objectives is explained by Corentin Cohen, who says that “networks of individuals working together for solidarity, economic or political objectives became categorized as organized crime or as a mafia.” 

During an investigation into the pressing cyber threat in Africa, Rory Corcoran, acting head of Interpol’s new Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre, said, “We are dealing with a highly organized international network. These guys are not opportunists… We’re mapping them out around the world.”

Court documents allege that Black Axe maintains a pyramidal command structure with zones worldwide, with the worldwide headquarters based in Benin City in Nigeria. Although the headquarters are based in Nigeria, the organization is not localized, contradicting the existing research of a “mafia” organization.

black axe money laundering

Criminal Mobility of Black Axe Members

Initially, it appears as though Black Axe demonstrates a unique convergence of both the importation/deprivation model of criminal mobility (as members are “pushed” out of a volatile home country in search of a better life) and the strategic, rational, and highly mobile theory of criminal mobility as the organization overlaps with the NBM and recruitment process is fairly strict, reflecting that of a confraternity.

A closer assessment of the group’s global expansion, strategic use of South Africa, and connection with the NBM suggest that Black Axe is predominantly a highly mobile and strategic organization with an operational base in Nigeria and territorial “zones” worldwide. The specific criminal activity and control methods differ depending on the environment of these territories, suggesting that these “zone” leaders have some authority to orchestrate actions and make international connections to thrive in the specific environment.

Limitations in the analysis

There are limitations in this analysis, with the following being the most significant.

  • The overlap with the NBM makes it difficult to identify Black Axe members in leadership who buffer themselves from criminal activity. 
  • Sensationalized headlines mislead the reality of the group’s progression from dealing drugs to romance scams in South Africa, such as the BBC’s headline The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia
  • The secrecy surrounding the Black Axe confraternity cult’s origins and methods makes it difficult to investigate true motives, recruitment methods, and strategies for expansion. 
  • Using the example of Italy and South Africa, Black Axe, it is obvious that different primary crimes and methods in various regions make it difficult to assess the criminal organization as a whole. 
  • Alikening Black Axe and the “Nigerian Mafia” to the Italian mafia introduces misconceptions about the organization, including their origins and methods.


  • Becucci, S. (2022). Nigerian criminal groups in Italy: Organizational structure, drug trafficking and sexual exploitation. Quaderni Di Sociologia, (88–XLVI), 71–91. 
  • Bernardo, C. (2017). Migration of the Nigerian mafia. University of Cape Town News. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Burke, J. (2022). Gangs of cybercriminals expanding across Africa, investigators say. The Guardian. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Campana, P. (2011). Eavesdropping on the Mob: The Functional Diversification of Mafia Activities across Territories, European Journal of Criminology, 8(3), 213–228. 
  • Cohen, C. (2022). The “Nigerian mafia” feedback loop: European police, global media, and Nigerian civil society. Trends Organ Crim. 
  • Daily Trust. (December 29, 2021). Neo-Black Movement dissociates itself from cult group, Black Axe. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Dolley, C. (2022). Clash of the cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa. Maverick 451. Evans, J. (2023). Alleged ‘Black Axe’ scammers challenging extradition to US. News 24. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Hassan, T. (2022). Nigeria: Events of 2022. Human Rights Watch. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Hyman, A. (2021). Nigerian mafia leaders arrested after Hawks swoop in Cape Town. Times Live. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Interpol. (2022). Financial crime: South African fraud gang dismantled. Interpol News and Events. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Mail & Guardian. (2002). Nigerians dominate cocaine trade in SA. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Northcott, C., Judah, S., & Macjob, P. (2021). The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia. BBC. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • Nwakuonr, G.A. & Nwanne, C. (2018). Why South Africans attack Nigerians. The Guardian. Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • SAFLII. (September, 2022). Osagiede and Others v S (A95/22) [2022] ZAWCHC 166; [2022] 4 All SA 845 (WCC). Accessed on September 17, 2023, from 
  • United States of America v. Osagiede, 2021R00423/JLH/W. (United States District Court of New Jersey). Accessed on September 17, 2023, from