Nigeria has several criminal organizations that conduct various illicit activities, including human trafficking, smuggling, drug trafficking, and cybercrime (Anisulowo, 2022). In the past decade, the Black Axe has become one of the most powerful and deadly criminal groups originating from Nigeria, with a presence throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America (Judah et al., 2021).
The global nature of Black Axe has led to different understandings of the group, and the media depiction of the organization varies depending on the geographical source.
Within Nigeria, Black Axe is presented as a violent group of young men who threaten the local community by committing murder, kidnappings, and human trafficking (Babajide, 2021).
Around the world, Black Axe has been described as a “new kind of mafia” or a “new mob” (The Mob Reporter, 2016). Focused on cybercrime, their illicit activities are mostly non-violent but still destructive.
By conducting a LexisNexis search on Black Axe and their culture, I have concluded three dominant themes: cult membership, secrecy, and space. By exploring these themes, I aim to describe the cultural understanding of the Black Axe as depicted in the public realm, concluding that Black Axe is seen as a mysterious threat shrouded in secrecy.
The following content analysis was conducted using a LexisNexis search on Google, cross-referencing with related articles from the Lloyd Sealy Library. Collecting information from public records and various data sources offered insights into Black Axe's cultural attributes.
After an initial search on Google using the keywords Nigerian criminal organizations and culture, it became apparent that Black Axe is one of the most prolific and widely-reported groups in Google’s top results and news stories. I further refined the search to include keywords such as Black Axe culture, how do the Nigerian criminal organizations work, Nigerian criminal organizations structure, and relationship between Black Axe and government Nigeria.
I repeated these search terms in the Lloyd Sealy Library, where three significant articles were listed for Nigerian criminal organizations and culture. These articles include Linking Organizational Justice to Organizational Commitment Among Nigerian Police Officers (Sun et al. 2021), Italian Cops Try to Stop a Sex Trafficking Gang Called Black Axe (All Things Considered, 2018), and Pirate Towns: Reworking Social and Symbolic Infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala (Simone, 2006).
Despite many Google articles and publications on Black Axe, there is very little information about the organization from academic sources, supporting the suggestion that the Nigerian criminal organization has not been studied, adding to the group’s reputation of secrecy.
Content analysis and discussion
Search results focused on the origins of Black Axe, how the group has expanded worldwide, and why they are seen as a significant threat. As several articles referenced Black Axe as a “new mafia,” I considered the comparison of Black Axe as a modern criminal syndicate to the traditional mafia, using the seven characteristics of the mafia as described by Reuter and Paoli (2020).
By exploring dominant themes of cult structure, secrecy, and space, it is apparent that Black Axe is not comparable to the traditional mafia despite global headlines.
A. Cult membership: Origins and cultural attributes of Black Axe
Before Black Axe was a known criminal threat, the Neo-Black Movement (NBM) of Africa began as a student fraternity founded in 1977 at the University of Benin in Benin City in Edo State (Luxury Drop, 2022). NBM initially aimed to oppose injustice and move against dictatorship (Höhn, 2021). NBM quickly evolved into a criminal splinter group known as Black Axe.
The NBM continues to exist by its own name as a legally recognized business with the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission, with a self-reported 30,000 members and connections to high-profile politicians and philanthropic activities.
Various publications reference the NBM and Black Axe as synonymous, such as the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (Refworld, 2012). However, the NBM has publicly disassociated itself from the Black Axe confraternity, notoriously known for dealing drugs, smuggling, and human trafficking (Daily Trust, 2021).
Typically referenced as a “cult” and “confraternity,” most of Black Axe's cultural attributes are speculated and/or unconfirmed. Reasons for joining Black Axe range from the potential to earn money and networking for safety (Luxury Drop, 2022) to forcibly recruiting members (Refworld, 2012).
Membership is reserved for educated males, and there is a stringent, secretive initiation process whereby recruits take an oath of allegiance. Once joining as a confraternity member, the commitment remains strong due to the spiritual link throughout the initiation process, which sometimes takes members to the verge of death.
Some sources claim that Axemen are stripped naked and forced to lie in mud while enduring severe physical abuse, crawl through their tormentors’ legs in a process known as “devil’s passage,” and drink blood (Luxury Drop, 2022). Other sources suggest that initiation ceremonies include bonfires, drugs, and the rape of women (Refworld, 2012). These descriptions instill an image of fear, violence, and cultism.
Axemen are identified by their clothing: black pants, a long-sleeved white shirt, a black beret, and a black coat with the axe insignia (Refworld, 2012). The black axe is also present in their logo, which features a black axe cutting the chains of a black man, with the word “AYE” below. For this reason, the “street cult” group is also called “the Aye” (Anazia, 2017).
Black Axe is known to use the threat of death against members wanting to leave or break the silence fundamental to the group’s membership and initiation process (Judah et al., 2021). The group is not revered by Nigerian people but feared as the Black Axe has a history of confraternity and connection to cultism, kidnappings, violence with rival gangs, and killings (Simwa & Walubengo, 2022).
B. Secrecy: Political connection and organization hierarchy
Despite the information available on Black Axe, the group remains mysterious. There are alleged links to politics, with a few known Black Axe members holding high positions in politics or business (Höhn, 2021). Yet the goal of Black Axe is not to achieve political domain but to penetrate politics to empower their own criminal agenda. Reports mention Nigeria has a long history of electoral violence (Carboni & Serwat, 2023), and Black Axe members play a significant role in instilling fear among voters (Shehu, 2021).
Examples of known Black Axe members who hold (or have held) political power include Augustus Bemigho and Tony Kabaka (Ukpong, 2021), the latter of who was briefly revered by the youth only to have his home riddled with bullets.
There is also reference made to Black Axe receiving money from officials, which has further aggravated rival-gang violence (Refworld, 2012). These corrupt political connections have contributed to hundreds of unsolved murders and multi-million dollar internet fraud globally (Sahara Reporters, 2021), with a lack of conviction for corruption (Hoffmann et al., 2016). It appears that Black Axe is working with (and in) the government but not for the benefit of the Nigerian people.
C. Space: Global expansion and misaligned reputation
Black Axe has become one of the most notorious criminal groups worldwide, with a presence throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. With an estimated membership of over 30,000 people, their expansion has been credited to meticulous planning, dividing geographic areas into zones, and designation of local chiefs. These zonal chiefs collect dues from persons in their jurisdiction (similar to membership fees) and forward the money to leaders in Nigeria (Luxury Drop, 2022).
While Black Axe is known for violence, cult killings, human trafficking, and smuggling in Nigeria, its global reputation seems less violent. Most international reports describe the “mafia-like network of cells” (Shehu, 2021) as a Pan-African movement that has lost its way (Williams, 2012), presenting a criminal threat through highly sophisticated cybercrime efforts, among other crimes including sexual exploitation (Becucci, 2022).
Black Axe has been described as one of the “gangs behind online fraud” (Vice, 2021) and has inspired the collective efforts of Interpol, national criminal investigation units, and other intelligence agencies.
Ultimately, Black Axe is seen as a mysterious and sinister cult-like mafia group with secret initiation ceremonies. Their cultural identity in Nigeria seems to differ from their identity abroad. Foreign media portrays Black Axe as a new type of mafia or mob, as their criminal activities are viewed through a European understanding of criminal syndicates.
While it is apparent that Black Axe operations and targets differ depending on their geographical location, there is insufficient academic research and certainty about Black Axe dynamics to dive deeper.
- Anazia, D. (July 15, 2017). Worrisome, rising cases of street cultism. The Guardian, Nigeria. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://guardian.ng/saturday-magazine/worrisome-rising-cases-of-street-cultism/
- Anisulowo, J. (September 25, 2022). Criminal gangs that have terrorized Nigeria over the last 5 decades. Skabash! Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.skabash.com/criminal-gangs-in-nigeria/.
- Babjide, A. (December 02, 2021). Black Axe, Eiye cult clash claims six lives in Ondo. Daily Post. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://dailypost.ng/2021/12/02/black-axe-eiye-cult-clash-claims-six-lives-in-ondo/
- Becucci, S. (2022). Nigerian criminal groups in Italy: Organizational structure, drug trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Quaderni Di Sociologia, (88- XLVI), 71–91. https://doi.org/10.4000/qds.4839
- Carboni, A. & Serwat, L. (February 22, 2023). Political violence and the 2023 Nigerian election ACLED. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://acleddata.com/2023/02/22/political-violence-and-the-2023-nigerian-election/
- Daily Trust. (December 29, 2021). Neo-Black Movement dissociates itself from cult group, Black Axe. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://dailytrust.com/neo-black-movement-dissociates-self-from-cult-group-black-axe/
- Hoffmann, L., Smith, P., Clapham, C, & Vines, A. (May 06, 2016). Tracing the origins of Nigerian organized crime: Politics, corruption, and the growth of criminal networks. Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/events/2016-05-06-tracing-the-origins-of-nigerian-organized-crime.pdf
- Höhn, J. (April 07, 2021). The Nigerian mafia and human trafficking. Hope for the Future. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.hopeforthefuture.at/en/the-nigerian-mafia-and-human-trafficking/.
- Italian Cops Try To Stop A Sex Trafficking Gang Called Black Axe [Radio broadcast transcript]. (2018, May 16). All Things Considered, NA. https://link-gale-com.ez.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A539736725/OVIC?u=cuny_johnjay&sid=primo&xid=3f4d8b80
- Judah, S., Macjob, P.Northcott, C. & Northcott, C. (December 12, 2021) The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia. BBC News. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59614595.
- Luxury Drop. (August 14, 2022). Black Axe: Global Nigerian Underworld Group. [Video]. YouTube https://youtu.be/suTJJgtIPSs Refworld. (December 03, 2012).
- Nigeria: The Black Axe confraternity, also known as the Neo-Black Movement of Africa, including their rituals, oaths of secrecy, and use of symbols or particular signs; whether they use force to recruit individuals (2009-November 2012). Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.refworld.org/docid/50ebf7a82.html
- Reuter, P., & Paoli, L. (2020). How similar are modern criminal syndicates to traditional mafias? Crime & Justice 1, 223-287.
- Sahara Reporters. (December 13, 2021). Black Axe: BBC Africa Eye investigation links Edo politicians to cult group. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://saharareporters.com/2021/12/13/black-axe-bbc-africa-eye-investigation-links-edo-politicians-cult-group
- Shehu, I. (December 13, 2021). Report: How Black Axe cult group is infiltrating Nigerian politics. The Cable. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.thecable.ng/report-how-black-axe-cult-group-is-infiltrating-nigerian-politics
- Simone, A. (2005). Pirate towns: Reworking social and symbolic infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala. SAGE Journals 43(2), 357-370. https://doi-org.ez.lib.jjay.cuny.edu/10.1080/00420980500146974
- Simwa, A. & Walubengo, P. (July 20, 2022). Types of cultism in Nigeria and their symbols: Interesting facts. Legit. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.legit.ng/1117694-types-cultism-nigeria-symbols.html
- Sun, I. Y., Wu, Y., Otu, S. E., Aro, G. C., Akor, I. C., & Nnam, M. U. (2021). Linking organizational justice to organizational commitment among Nigerian police officers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 49(2), 220–238. https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211036177
- The Mob Reporter. (November 21, 2016). Police in Italy tackle new kind of mafia: The Black Axe. [Video]. Youtube: https://youtu.be/oGgUJ4sfOzQ
- Ukpong, C. (December 14, 2021). Investigation links Nigerian politician to fraud, cultism. Premium Times. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/500831-investigation-links-nigerian-politician-to-fraud-cultism.html
- Vice. (December 15, 2021). The gangs behind online fraud: The business of crime. [Video]. YouTube https://youtu.be/3Jfh3Ct9VI4
- Williams, S. (August 05, 2020). The Black Axe: How a pan-African movement lost its way. Harper’s Magazine. Accessed on April 23, 2023, from https://harpers.org/archive/2019/09/the-black-axe-nigeria-neo-black-movement-africa/