By Ebele Orakpo
On November 28, 2021, the sad news of a 12-year-old student of Dowen College, Lekki, Lagos, Sylvester Oromoni, who was alleged to have died of injuries sustained from beating from fellow students for his refusal to join their secret cult group, broke.
Since then, many parents, teachers and students have been speaking up and many revelations about what is really going on in schools, even primary schools, coming out in the open.
In this interview, a former US Marine and Assistant Vice-President, Security and Safety Operations, American University of Nigeria, Yola, Dr Lionel von Frederick Rawlins, speaks on what lures children into cultism and gangs; what schools must do to prevent cultism in their schools and many other issues. Excerpts:
First, how would you define bullying and cultism?
Bullying is a form of aggressive behaviour that is based on power and the power comes in different ways, shapes and forms. For example, it can be physical power. A boy, or girl who is much bigger than another pupil can use just the sheer size of his strength and his body to bully a much smaller boy or girl. On the other hand, it can happen at work; someone who just got promoted to a position of power, now became your boss, he can make your life a living miserable hell just by bullying and torturing you. So bullying has to do with power, who has the most power will be the bully.
On the other hand, the word cult comes from the word Occult, which means hidden and secretive. So cultism is based on a gathering of people who share the same religious philosophy, culture and attitudes. These are people who come together and do things in a secretive manner. They have signs, symbols, code words and names that they use. So there is a difference between cultism and bullying and even between cults and gangs.
Many people believe that bullying begins from the home, do you agree?
Yes, to a certain extent, it is correct. If a young boy saw his father beating his mother constantly, he will grow up to be a wife-beater. Most of them do and they become bullies not just to their wives but to other people like their sisters or girlfriends. However, a lot of those who bully their wives and other people did not just learn it in the home, they learned it in other places like school, a gang, prison or in the military so yes, most of them are from the home but a great percentage of it is learned in the socio-economic aspect of life.
How do kids get involved in cultism and bullying? It used to be a university thing, but these days, primary and secondary schools are involved.?
Cults offer children something they are not getting at home or in society. For example, a child who doesn’t have any friends can find friends in a cult or gang.
If your parents don’t treat you with the kind of affection or love you require, a cult will give it to you. If you are not being nurtured by your family members at home or your external family, you are going to get it if you join a cult. People are going to give you all the things you need.
You are going to get confidence, girlfriends, friends that you never thought you would have and then you will get to do some things that you will probably never do in life, like beat up people or kill someone. So you get things in the cult that you don’t get in other places.
That is why a lot of children join cults not just in high school but in the university. They join cults because something is missing in their lives and it is not just children, it happens to adults too. If you are not getting what you want out of life, you are going to find it elsewhere and it’s not just for illiterates, it’s for PhDs, Master’s degree holders, judges – they all join cults at some point in their lives because their life is meaningless, they are in search for meaning and they find somebody who is savvy, speaks well and can convince them to join their cult or group and they will give them what they want.
What signs should parents look out for in their kids as signs of a bully and a cultist?
They should observe the behaviour of the child. If the child was outgoing, friendly and had friends, and all of a sudden stops being outgoing, become insular or clannish and starts staying at home, in the dorm or room, that is a clear sign that something has drastically happened to that child, he has changed.
If the child was once a lover of sports; he loves to run, play football or basketball and then all of a sudden, he loses all interest, this is a clear sign that something has happened. If he is secretive, no longer talks to you, no longer open with you, it means something has gone wrong.
In this kind of situation, parents should start looking into the exercise books of the child, look through the school bag/work, you must see drawings of certain things, maybe animals, weapons, marijuana leaves; you might see drawings of the occult or certain signs and symbols, these are definite signs that will tell you that your son or daughter has gone to the dark side and don’t be afraid to search.
So when parents see such signs, what should they do? Should they confront the child?
Absolutely! You must confront the child but the child will deny everything because his friends in the cult would have told him that if he ever got into trouble, he must deny, he cannot give out any secrets or give out their names and if he does, they will hurt him.
Some may even threaten to kill him, so he is under a certain amount of pressure not to divulge any information to anyone because it can be deemed dangerous to him but you must confront the child. He will lie to you and at that point, you must bring in an expert – a psychologist, a criminologist, somebody who has worked in that field for some time, who can get into the mind of that child and find out what is going on.
Don’t just send him over to an imam or pastor because they are going to just pray and invoke God but you need more than that. You need the help of experts who know how to handle those situations.
What should school authorities do? Like in the case of Dowen College, when the authorities found out what was going on, they tried to cover it up, saying the child sustained injuries while playing football?
This is what gets schools in trouble. They like to hide the truth. They hide these activities because they want to make the school look like it is appealing, safe and sound. Tell the people the truth, tell the people that: ‘Yes, there was an attack on the boy by some older boys, a cult or gang or whatever name they want to call it, but don’t lie because today, the truth comes out a lot quicker than 50 years ago when the truth will never come out. Today, there is social media, everyone is savvy and smart.
They can examine the wounds on the body and they can tell if it is from playing football or from a beating by someone. Someone like me and doctors can figure it out. Schools have a tendency of covering up because they think it will make the school look bad; they don’t know it is the complete opposite.
Parents want the school to be forthcoming. ‘Tell us what went wrong.’ By the way, the moment the school had some sort of suspicion that something was wrong, they should have acted quickly.
You cannot wait until somebody is hurt or dies, to go and fix it; you must be proactive, not reactive. Proactive is the word. That is what schools need to do.
In Nigeria, we don’t really know where to draw the line. Bullying has been a recurrent decimal in virtually all schools. In those days they saw it not as bullying but a rite of passage from the junior to the senior class and when you get to the senior class, you can punish the junior ones.
It has taken a new turn now, with the cult angle coming in. Is it a sign of the times or a reflection of the state of the nation as those involved were not afraid of the consequences?
I just think it’s a sign of the times. You know as a boy, I went through that myself; it’s a rite of passage where the bigger boys beat up on the smaller boys and then when you become a bigger boy, you beat up on the smaller boys. Again like I said earlier, you learn to do unto others what was done to you.
But that was then. Now we are living in the 21st Century, we cannot continue down that road, it’s a road that leads to destruction.
You cannot continue to do that to children and believe you will get away with it. You will not get away with it, there are too much social media. Somebody will see the child’s body while taking a bath and see the wounds and welts on the body, he takes his cell phone and takes the picture and it’s all over and people will begin to ask questions.
The schools need to train the teachers to look at these children and figure out what is wrong. Why is he walking like that? Why is he behaving like that? Why are his eyes puffed up? Of course, the child is going to lie because he must have been warned that ‘if you told the truth, you, your sister or brother are going to be hurt because that is what cults do and everybody is afraid of the family members getting hurt. You don’t mind getting hurt; you just don’t want your brother or sister getting hurt.
You worked as the Executive Director of a facility that housed teenage female gang-members involved in drugs, prostitution and extremely violent crimes and also the administrator of another facility for extremely violent adolescent boys affiliated with gangs.
Could you share your experiences?
Yes, these were violent boys and girls. Many of them attempted to kill people. Some of them were there for attempted murder and because they were so young, instead of putting them in prison, or in a juvenile hall, they put them in a Level-14 home where criminologists, psychologists and psychiatrists will work with them to get them through the straight and narrow way and out of a life of crime.
Most of these boys and girls came out of gangs and in those days, they had the creeps, the black gangs, white gangs and the Latino gangs so it was quite an interesting experience for me and we had to learn how to deal with these people. It is almost like what is going on here in Nigeria with cultism in the universities and the different types of cults but it was a fantastic experience. I saw the worst in children that most people should never see.
I worked with kids who killed their parents, their siblings, and other people and they were between 12 and 15 years. It was a terrible moment but we tried our best. That was how I got to learn about cultism and gangs and I went into the minds of these people to find out what it is they did. It was a terrible experience to see a 14-year-old girl who just killed both parents! And now, she is just living life.
What could have gone wrong?
They are children and they are regarded as such. A schoolboy recently shot up some friends at a school in Michigan, USA. His parents bought him a gun, they knew that his psychology was unbalanced, that he should not have had the gun as he is not mentally prepared for a weapon but they gave it to him anyway.
They even had some inclination that he was going to shoot and kill people and they didn’t do anything. So, this boy is now being charged as an adult although he is under-18. I totally agree with the court to charge him as an adult. To me, when you have that kind of hatred, that kind of premeditated malice that drove you to kill people, you should be tried as an adult, not as a juvenile.
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You wrote a book called Satanic Cults and Ritualistic Crimes, what inspired the book? I was writing a dissertation for my criminology degree and everyone was writing about gangs and white-collar crimes and blue-collar crimes.
I wanted to write something different and so I thought about all of these things that not many people knew about and I decided to go and find something to write about that most people have never experienced and most people do not know. So I decided to write about Satanists, people who kill people and children in the name of Satan/Lucifer, people who kill people just because they believe that they are empowered by Satan to kill.
I remember going to my adviser and he advised against me doing it because he said that this is one of those things that he will not advise me to do because it would mean I would have to get very close to the Satanists; I would have to do the things that they do.
I have to see the things they do and may participate in. So he advised against it. But then something happened. There was a cult that the FBI attacked in Waco, Texas and the university did not have anyone with expertise in cultism, Satanism, witchcraft, necromancy, vampirism and draculaism and all of that. So they came to me and asked me to help. I started doing the research and that was how I got involved in studying and writing about it.
The more I studied and the more I wrote, the more I noticed that it was getting deep and heavy and to be honest with you, it is a scary matter. It’s a scary thing for people to be involved in the occult or cultism because you have to go down the dark road to see what is really happening. I will not recommend it to people.
Do you think the Dowen College incident could be called a ritualistic crime?
No, that is not a ritualistic crime at all. Ritualistic crime is what ritualists do, they will kill the victim and take the body part in honour of some devil or Satan or some god from the dark side. They must do something with the body.
If a real Satanist were to commit a ritualistic killing, it would be in honour of Satan; they are trying to appease Satan in a certain way. What happened in the school with the young man is that a bunch of young boys carried something too far; they went too far with whatever initiation they were trying to do.
They were trying to initiate him, the head of the cult, I am sure he probably wasn’t so much involved, he sent other people to rough up the boy so that he will learn his lesson so that he can come and join them and see what he had to do but they did not do that. Instead of doing it in a proper fashion, they went overboard.
They beat him and gave him stuff to drink; from what I heard, he didn’t know what it was but it contributed to the demise of the young man.
We have not seen law enforcement going after these ritualists and cultists; you hear about cult killings but we don’t hear about law enforcement going after them for murder. Is it that ritualistic killings cannot be proved in a law court?
First of all, murder is murder, it doesn’t matter whether you got murdered by a ritualist to get your heart to appease Satan and so there is nothing in the law books or in the court of law that says this is satanic, ritualistic, cult or gang murder.
Murder is murder and it is defined by Murder 1, 2 and 3..first, second and third-degree murder so that is how it is defined. Whenever a murder happens, if the body is eviscerated, if the heart is ripped out, the stomach is ripped out, the pancreas, the spleen is torn out ritualistically, if they caught the person who did it, they will charge the person with murder, not ritualistic murder. So there is no push for the Police department/unit specifically trained to go after ritualistic crimes and murders.
Many Police departments in the US now have a department that is working primarily on ritualistic crimes and because it has become so rampant, these people need to be trained and get certain skills because there are certain things to look for that would determine whether a crime is a natural crime, unnatural crime or it was committed by a witch, witchcraft, by vampires, werewolves, you know there are people who think that they are vampires and some think they are werewolves.
That is what they think in their mind so when these things happen, there have to be trained policemen who know where to go, what to look for and how to effect a capture but they will never be tried as cult murderers or cult murder. It will always be murder.
What do the AUN authorities do to ensure zero cases of bullying? Do you monitor the students?
Absolutely! We do not have any cults at the university. You know everyone is afraid of Boko Haram and ISWAP. I am more afraid of cults than I am of Boko Haram and ISWAP.
Boko Haram and ISWAP are like 5-6 hours drive away from where we are and we are surrounded by very good law enforcement, the police, military so we don’t have to worry about them, we are well protected and insulated by the security forces and we have a well-trained security force on the campus that is trained every for these situations so I worry more about cults and cultism because when cults develop in schools, that is when the problem begins.
You may go to the cafeteria and there is a cult their group and they say: ‘This is my turf. You guys cannot come.’ Another group selects another turf and say:
‘This is ours and no one dares walk across here.’ So we monitor all of these students to make sure there is no act of cultism 24 hours a day. And we know exactly what to look for because I have an expertise in cultism and gangs so my officers know what to look for and the moment we find somebody who is trying to form a cult, or is a part of a cult from some other school he or she once attended, we kick him out. We have zero tolerance for cultists and cultism.
You make one mistake and you get identified as a cultist, you are out. There is no second chance. All schools should adhere to that policy. Create the policy, stick to a zero-tolerance policy against cultism and they will see how quickly this thing comes to an end.
But once it is started and it starts to grow, you are in trouble. Once it gets on your campus and you wait until it’s been there for two or three years, to eradicate it, you are in trouble, it is a lost cause. Prevention is better than cure. Do not allow it to get on your campus.