By Debbie Ariyo


Standing on a roadside trying to flag down a taxi near Termini Station in Rome, Italy some years ago, the harsh reality of the humongous scale of Nigerian human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Europe was brought straight home to me. An unknown man was on the other side of the road waving frantically at me.  I wasn’t sure why he was waving as I didn’t know him. However, a closer look revealed his manhood was exposed, perhaps as a means to solicit for sex. This is the shocking reality for many black women in some European cities where the high number of African women selling sex on the streets has somewhat created a stereotype that most if not all black women are sex workers and are available for sex.

The trafficking of women from Africa to Europe for sexual exploitation has been ongoing for many decades. In my charity AFRUCA, over the past twenty years, we have worked with hundreds of young women who were trafficked to the UK, sometimes via another European country, to be exploited for sex and so have developed a strong expertise on Nigeria-Europe trafficking. While many agencies and NGOs are conversant with the activities of “madams”, the use of juju rituals to fuel the trafficking in persons, and the impact of human trafficking on victims, there is still a lack of clarity about the exact roles played by organised criminal networks operating between Nigeria and different cities across Europe. These criminal organisations are known to be heavily involved in human and drugs trafficking and in many cases have been linked to the very dangerous Nigerian “cults” or confraternities, due to the wide extent of their networks, reach, power, use of violence and intimidation of victims, rivals, ‘betrayers’ and enemies. As a result, organised Nigerian criminal confraternities are largely responsible for the huge numbers of Nigerian women and girls who are trafficked to Europe and other parts of the world to be sexually exploited for huge financial returns.  

The terms “Nigerian Mafia” or “Costra Negra” have been employed to describe the range of Nigerian confraternities operating across much of Nigeria and Europe with Italy and Nigeria as the epicentres and Nigerians as the victims[1]. These confraternities are the brain behind majority of the human and drug trafficking operations ongoing between Nigeria and Europe, with Italy as the European hub[2]. The 2020 US Trafficking in Persons Report on Italy asserted that these Nigerian confraternities “continued to grow more sophisticated, organized, and violent, particularly Nigerian gangs linked to the Black Axe, Supreme Eiye Confraternity, and the Vikings”[3]. Italy’s National Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor Frederico Cafiero de Raho said that: “the Nigerian crime world has sections in almost all Italian regions and all European countries,” and “right back to the migrant’s country of origin”[4]. An Italian Police investigation of some members of the Maphite Confraternity, a known Nigerian criminal confraternity led to the discovery of its “Green Bible” operating manual[5]. The contents have helped the Italian authorities to learn more about the organisation’s modus operandi and better understand how the Nigerian mafia are organised.


Background and History of Nigerian Confraternities

The Nigerian criminal confraternities or “cults” as they are called in Nigeria have their origin on Nigerian university campuses across the country where students are recruited as members using different methods including enticement, coercion, intimidation or deceit[6]. The first confraternity, the Pyrates Confraternity, was established at the University of Ibadan by the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and some colleagues in 1952.  The organisation had as its mission “to combat the social ills associated with the colonial order”[7].  Other break away organisations soon emerged as well as new ones on different campuses.

However, for a number of reasons, these idealistic organisations began mutating into more sinister and violent cults with criminal tendencies[8] and started to expand not just across the dozens of universities and other tertiary institutions across Nigeria, but in the wider society[9]. As a student at the University of Benin in the 1980s, I was aware of the existence of these groups or “cults” especially the Pyrates Confraternity and the Black Axe Confraternity and the enormous fear they created on campus, among staff and students alike. Even though these confraternities have been proscribed in many universities, they still operate with complete impunity[10]. Today, there are many different factions with a wide range of differences in their ethos, modus operandi, structure, aims and objectives.  Hence these different organisations are not necessarily aligned with each other and in many instances might actually be rivals or competitors, vying against each other for power and control of the very lucrative human trafficking criminal enterprise. This rivalry and differences in operations is one of the reasons it has been difficult to dismantle human trafficking from Nigeria to Europe – there are just too many players involved.

As Nigeria becomes increasingly socially polarised due to poverty, economic deprivation, lack of opportunities and massive youth unemployment, these criminal cults have become an attraction for the teeming youth due to the prospects of building wealth, respect among their peers and the acquisition of power[11].

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Nigerians both in Europe and in Nigeria are members of these confraternities or involved in their criminal operations but the figures are estimated to be quite high indeed. For example, the Italian authorities estimated membership of one of the cults – the Maphites to be about 5,000 throughout the country[12]. At least five Nigerian confraternities – the Black Axe, the Supreme Eiye Confraternity, the Buccaneers, The Vikings and the Maphites are known to have extensive operations in Italy – which by my estimation means that at least 25,000 members of these groups are in Italy alone. In Nigeria itself, membership is very prevalent across universities in the South of Nigeria but also among non-students. There are over 50 universities in the Southern part of Nigeria[13] with an estimated student body of 30,000 in each university at any one time. As cult or confraternity membership is permanent and for life as described below, then it is possible that there are close to tens of millions of members of these confraternities in different sectors across Nigeria, and other countries, including in Europe.


Characteristics Of The Nigerian Confraternities

The Nigerian confraternities have specific characteristics and modus operandi that distinguish them from other criminal gangs but that also help to sustain and strengthen their roles in the human trafficking chain. ECPAT France in its report: “Religious, Social and Criminal Groups in the Trafficking of Nigerian Girls and Women: The Case of Shrines, Ladies Clubs and Cultist Groups”[14] identified some of the core characteristics of these criminal groups.

First is the excessive use of violence. The confraternities are well known to employ excessive violence and brutality in every aspects of their operations both in Europe and across Nigeria. Violence is a key element in the recruitment and initiation of victims of trafficking as well as cult members, which can include physical abuse, rape, excessive use of force and torture[15]. Violence is employed in the course of trafficking and exploitation of victims who are beaten, raped and mentally tortured in different ways to make them compliant and obedient. Violence and death are also used against members of rival groups[16], as a form of reprisal against those disobeying orders[17] or their family members[18], to punish enemies and “traitors”[19], or those who break the cult’s secret codes or who refuse offers of protection[20] or membership[21]. The Director of Italy’s anti-mafia Intelligence Agency Giuseppe Governale asserted that the Nigerian mafia has earnt the respect of the Italian Mafia. This is because they are afraid that the Nigerians have the capacity to exercise the same magnitude of violence[22].

Use of traditional religion is at the core of confraternity operations. The confraternities employ the use of traditional religious practices in recruitment and initiation rites, including blood rituals, oath-taking rituals to “purge the initiates of weaknesses and instil bravery in them”[23]. Traditional rituals are also employed as the main tool of recruitment, compliance, loyalty and psychological control of female victims of sex trafficking, as seen in many cases across the UK and many other trafficking cases across Europe. Many victims of human trafficking who have been made to undergo juju rituals as part of their recruitment are petrified of breaking these oaths due to the perceived terrible consequences on them, including “running mad” or experiencing a horrible, violent death.  This is perhaps a key reason many victims do not co-operate with the authorities – for fear of the repercussions of breaking the oath sworn. A recent declaration by the Oba of Bini, in Edo State where he cursed human traffickers and those using traditional religion to recruit victims only helped to displace the problem with different sets of victims now targeted in other parts of Nigeria[24].

Thirdly, the confraternities are major and experienced organised criminal networks with special interests in human and drug trafficking, but also passport forgery[25], internet and money scams originating from Nigeria, especially the so called “romance scam” targeting elderly European women looking for relationships by “charming” them into parting with cash[26]. With access to tens of thousands of operatives, members and financial resources, they continue to expand their criminal enterprises across Europe and across many African and Asian countries.

Furthermore, the confraternities have very strict membership codes and are highly secretive. Membership is also permanent and for life as described above. Members are expected to demonstrate a high sense of loyalty and solidarity to the confraternity and other members. There are severe consequences, including automatic death sentences for “betrayers, cowards, traitors and deserters” as written in the Maphite’s “Green Bible” mentioned above. This document also has graphic descriptions of punishments to be meted out to such people, including: “the use of electric power drills on the bodies of the guilty and the chopping off of their tongues to be sent to their wives”. Members might use a range of secretive symbols, coded words and mannerisms to self-identify[27].

The above, in addition to the fear of juju, accounts for why many victims of human trafficking are fearful of approaching the authorities or talking about their experiences, as we have seen at AFRUCA. The thought of putting themselves and their family members at risk of harm from the confraternities are enough reasons to stay silent, stay put and work hard to pay off the huge debt the traffickers claim is owed them.

Perhaps the key factor in the success of the confraternities is that they are very versatile, very well organised criminal networks, very quick to adapt and change their modus operandi as the situation requires. These networks are broken down into cells with hierarchical membership structures. Each cell has well run operations in different countries in Nigeria, other African countries and across Europe. A typical cell might consist of an agent who acts as the main recruiter of victims who are usually known to him or her. The agent will arrange travel documents, ritual ceremonies involving a traditional medicine man and prepare the victim for travel. Next are the ‘trolleys’ or ‘coyotes’ whose key role is to accompany victims on their journeys so they do not escape or get stolen by other traffickers.

‘Madams’ are responsible for putting the victims to work, housing them and collecting payment from them. These madams themselves were victims of sex trafficking who have paid off their debt and gone into the business. This is not surprising as over the years, they would have learnt a lot about the business, how it operates and especially how to control and engage with the victims, based on their own experiences of trafficking and exploitation. Additionally, for these women, deploying their knowledge of the business in this way is a guaranteed source of wealth.

At the head of the network or cell is the ‘Don’ or ‘President’ who is responsible for the overall operations of the group. In recent years, the authorities in some European countries like Spain, the UK and Italy have been successful in the arrest, prosecution and conviction of some key leaders of the confraternities, although there is always someone else ready to take their place – a testament to the highly organised nature of these groups.

Lastly, the confraternities have gained reputation across Nigeria and among diaspora Nigerians in European countries like Italy and Spain as brutal, violent, powerful criminal groups. Ironically, many of them also operate as bona fide registered charities with trustees and members in different echelons of the Nigerian society, having joined as university students in their younger days. This means that confraternity members may be powerful people in Nigeria itself – a theory that is not too far-fetched bearing in mind the capacity the confraternities have so far demonstrated in circumventing the Nigerian authorities to build their criminal enterprises.

The confraternities have become so confident and audacious that in 2015, about 400 members of the Supreme Eiye Confraternity attended the group’s international convention in Geneva – a city where many United Nations agencies and other key international organisations are based – without detection by any security agency[28].

While there is some information in the public domain about the activities of the confraternities in countries like Germany, France, Spain and Italy, not much is talked about in relation to some other European countries. However, there is strong evidence that the confraternities are very much alive and operational in countries like the Nertherlands, Belgium and the UK. Indeed, in 2016, a BBC report covering a Catalan Police investigation in Barcelona into one of the confraternities involved in sex trafficking – the Supreme Eiye Confraternity claimed “the gang is now using London as the gateway to Europe”[29]. When one considers that most of the individuals convicted of sex trafficking of Nigerians in the UK are Nigerian nationals with links to criminal networks, there is no doubt that these dangerous groups are present in the UK and have ongoing operations in the country.


Nigerian Confraternities in the UK and BREXIT

To further explore the activities of the confraternities here in the UK, there have been a number of successful arrests, prosecutions and convictions of Nigerian human traffickers linked to international criminal networks. For example:


  • In 2011, Anthony Harrison, described in court as “a key player in a sophisticated network of West African people traffickers operating in the UK” was jailed for 20 years in the UK’s first case of trafficking people to other European countries[30].
  • In 2012, Osezua Oselase, another organised network member, was jailed for 20 years on three counts of trafficking girls from Nigeria to Europe for prostitution[31].
  • In 2016, Franca Asemota was convicted and jailed for 22 years for trafficking girls from Nigeria and forcing them into sexual exploitation in European countries like Spain and France[32]. Her associate Odosa Usiobaifo was jailed for 14 years for similar offences.
  • In 2018, Josephine Iyawu was the first person to be convicted under the UK Modern Slavery Act for trafficking of Nigerian women and girls to Germany and was identified as part of a network of organised crime[33].


A common denominator in the above UK cases is the fact that each of the traffickers were involved in international criminal networks spanning at least three countries on two continents. The fact that these networks have become very adept at running their operations across Europe should be a major concern for the UK as the country leaves the European Union. This is because of concerns raised about the impact of visa free entry, law enforcement, security and safety in the aftermath of the UK losing access to the European Police (Europol), without the ability to enforce European Arrest Warrants, and with no access to the EU database of alerts about wanted or missing persons[34]. Certainly with BREXIT, Nigerian confraternities operating across Europe might find their activities and operations aided in a large part due to the reduction in immigration and law enforcement co-operations between the UK and other European countries.


Nigeria As A “Failing State” and Impact on Human Trafficking

The current socio-economic situation in Nigeria itself lends credence to the belief that human trafficking from the country to Europe will continue to grow, despite the myriad of immigration constraints put in place by the European Union.

The Financial Times in a recent article on 22 December 2020 described Nigeria as being at risk of becoming a ‘failing state’[35] – a country “where the government is no longer in control”, and where there exists a gradual breakdown of law and order. The facts on the ground seem to support this assertion, with severe consequences for the progress, albeit small, in the fight against human trafficking.

Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa, with an estimated total population of 208 million people as of 14 December 2020[36]. The country has the seventh largest population in the world[37] with over 60% of its population comprised of people under the age of 25 years – precisely the age range of disaffected citizens at risk of trafficking and exploitation.

Figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics[38] and accessed on Naira Metrics website[39] show Nigeria has one of Africa’s highest unemployment rate at 27.1% and an underemployment rate at 28.6%, a combination of 55.7%.

Youth unemployment rate stands at 34.9% – which means about 13.9 million people between the ages of 15 and 34 year old are unemployed. 2.9 million graduates and postgraduates are out of work. Many young people with good qualifications up to tertiary levels are unable to find employment, sometimes years after graduation, leaving many to experience high levels of inequality of opportunities and income, leading to high levels of poverty and deprivation. According to Al Jazeera, 40% of Nigerians live below the poverty line and more than 82 million Nigerians live on less that $1 a day[40]. In 2018, the World Poverty Clock identified Nigeria as the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world, with over 91 million people living in extreme poverty[41].

This dire state of affairs is a direct result of the economic crisis experienced across the country. The fall in oil prices and the impact of COVID 19 have significantly affected economic growth[42] and in September 2020 led the government to announce a series of increases in the prices of fuel and electricity – worsening the hardship already experienced by many Nigerians[43], millions of whom have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. The Vice President of Nigeria Yemi Osibajo actually predicted a job loss of about 39 million by December 2020 due to the pandemic[44] – increasing the risks factors and vulnerability of more people to human trafficking.

Growing crime and criminality were already major problems before the pandemic and direct consequences of the economic crisis experienced across the country, exacerbating the security challenges caused by insurgency, terrorist activities in the North East but also militia activities across the North West and Central regions. Increasing violent crimes including armed robbery, “cultism” or violent gang membership, kidnapping, car-jacking as well as internet based scams known locally as “419” or “yahoo-yahoo” are all too common, with the security forces seemingly unable to curtail these criminal acts[45]. Many young Nigerians, unable to find decent paid employment are resorting to such illegal and criminal activities in order to earn a living.

In the midst of all the security challenges, many Nigerians and international observers have faulted the inability of security forces including the Police Service to combat the increasing crime levels and provide protection for citizens. There are accusations that in lieu of providing the much needed safety and protection for the population, the Police Service has actually become more of a security risk to citizens – as signified by the October 2020 #EndSars demonstrations and campaigns against the police which resulted in demonstrators being shot and killed by security operatives.  

The point of the above is to demonstrate the very fragile situation in Nigeria and the ready-made environment for the confraternities and their human trafficking enterprises to continue to thrive. There is just too much supply of potential victims for this not to be the case and the country is not well equipped to address the myriad of issues confronting it, as highlighted above. As the Nigerian mafia grows in strength, its range of criminal activities has expanded to other countries in Africa[46] including, Ghana[47], Burkina Faso[48], Kenya[49] and South Africa[50] where its hallmark juju and oath ritual model of recruitment has been identified in victims.


The Nigerian Confraternities and “Fortress Europe”

More recently, strict regional immigration policies have curtailed the direct movement of people from Africa, including Nigeria, to Europe, especially via the Mediterranean sea.  However, this has not actually stopped or deterred human trafficking. This is simply because demand for “cheaper and younger prostitutes” has not abated, despite government or regional immigration policies[51]. With the increasing challenges of moving and trafficking victims via Libya and the Mediterranean sea, the confraternities have devised new methodologies to traffic women. It seems that direct trafficking from Nigeria has been displaced with more victims originating or carrying the passports of other African countries, but with the stamp of the Nigerian mafia all too visible. Earlier in 2020, a government agency in the UK reported the case of four Ghanaian girls trafficked into the country under the influence of witchcraft and juju rituals – a hallmark of the involvement of the Nigerian mafia.

It seem very clear that the Nigerian confraternities are able to function and profit based on the laws of demand and supply. As long as there are throngs of desperate young Nigerians there will always be a supply pool of victims of trafficking to help meet the demand for cheap, exotic and younger sex workers on the streets of Europe where prostitution is not illegal in most countries.



Nigerian human trafficking gangs linked to criminal confraternities or “cults” are very powerful, brutal and violent in their operations. These confraternities have millions of members spread out across Nigeria and in different European countries with strict codes of loyalty and solidarity and with the use of traditional religion as a hallmark of their business operations. The deteriorating socio-economic situation in Nigeria is creating a growing pool of potential victims of human trafficking. “Fortress Europe” is not a deterrent to Nigerian human traffickers based on their extensive operations in multiple countries as well as demand for cheap, young and exotic prostitutes in Europe.


Debbie Ariyo is CEO of AFRUCA – Safeguarding Children, a UK anti-trafficking NGO and an Advisory Member of the Journal of Modern Slavery. January 2021


[1] African Mafias Work Together In Italy, National Prosecutor Says: Info Migrant:

[2] Tricked, Trafficked and Sold: How Criminal Gangs Are Bringing Women To Italy. Info Migrants:

[3] US Trafficking in Persons Report 2020: Italy:

[4] African Mafias Work Together In Italy, National Prosecutor Says: Info Migrant:

[5] Nicholas Farrell: Costra Negra. 2019:

[6] Nigeria’s Campus Cults: Buccaneers, Black Axe and Other Feared Groups. BBC Online:

[7] Religious, Social and Criminal Groups in the Trafficking of Nigerian Girls and Women: The Case of Shrines, “Ladies Clubs”and “Cultist Groups”. Page 114. ECPAT France:

[8] Ben Bergman: From Fraternal Brotherhood to Murderous Cult: The Origins and Mutations of Southern Nigeria’s Confraternities from 1953 onwards. In The Journal of Undergraduate Research, University of Tennessee. Volume 7, Issue 1. April 2016.

[9] Institute of Current World Affairs: Thriving Cults Are Harming Young People In Nigeria.

[10] Nigeria’s Campus Cults: Buccaneers, Black Axe and Other Feared Groups. BBC Online:

[11] Institute of Current World Affairs: Thriving Cults Are Harming Young People In Nigeria.

[12] Nicholas Farrell: Costra Negra. 2019:

[13] List of Universities in Nigeria.

[14] ECPAT France: Religious, Social and Criminal Groups in The Trafficking of Nigerian Girls and Women: The Case of Shrines, Ladies Clubs and Cultist Groups. March 2019.

[15] Nigeria’s Campus Cults: Buccaneers, Black Axe and Other Feared Groups. BBC Online:

[16] Italian Police Bursts Nigerian Cult Gang, Arrests 15. The Punch.

[17] Nigeria’s Campus Cults: Buccaneers, Black Axe and Other Feared Groups. BBC Online:

[18] The World of Nigeria’s Sex Trafficking Air-Lords. BBC Online.

[19] Nicholas Farrell: Costra Negra. 2019:

[20] Italy’s Nigerian Mafia Hit By Major Police Raid. The Local.

[21] Italian and Nigerian Gangs: A Deadly Alliance. The Independent:

[22] In a Ruined City On The Italian Coast, The Nigerian Mafia is Muscling In On The Old Mob: ABC News.

[23] Nigeria’s Campus Cults: Buccaneers, Black Axe and Other Feared Groups. BBC Online:

[24] PM News: Human Trafficking: Oba of Benin Places Curses on Sorcerers, Cultists. March 2018:

[25] The World of Nigeria’s Sex Trafficking Air-Lords: BBC Online:

[26] Sean Williams: The Black Axe: How A Pan African Movement Lost Its Way. In Harpers Magazine.

[27] Nicholas Farrell: Costra Negra. 2019:


[28] The World of Nigeria’s Sex Trafficking Air-Lords: BBC Online:

[29] The World of Nigeria’s Sex Trafficking Air-Lords: BBC Online:

[30] Man Jailed For Trafficking Nigerian Girls Out Of UK. BBC Online.

[31] Sex Trafficker Jailed for Smuggling Nigerian Orphans Into Britain. The Guardian.

[32] Female People Smuggler Who Used Threat of Witchcraft To Force Kids Into Sex Trade To Be Jailed For 22 Years: Sun News Online.

[33] Nurse Josephine Iyamu Handed 14 Year Jail Sentence For Trafficking Women For Sex. Birmingham Mail:

[34] Thomson Reuters Foundation News: Britain’s Anti-Slavery Efforts At Risk Unless It Maintains Co-operation With Police Across The European Union, Activists Warn:

[35] Financial Times: Nigeria Is At Risk of Becoming A Failed State. Editorial Board. 22 December 2020.

[36] Population of Nigeria:,of%20the%20total%20world%20population.


[38] National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria:

[39] Naira Metrics: Nigeria’s Unemployment Rate Jumps to 27.1% at as 2020 Quarter 2:’s%20unemployment%20rate%20as%20at,%25)%20is%20a%20combined%2055.7%25.

[40] Al Jazeera: 40% of Nigerians Live Below The Poverty Line:

[41] Quartz Africa: Nigeria Has Become The Poverty Capital Of The World.

[42] World Bank:
[43] Buhari to Nigerians: ‘Low’ petrol price unsustainable, just compare prices with Ghana, Saudi, others. Premium Times:
[44] How COVID Is Hitting Employment In Nigeria – And Pushing People Into Poverty.

[45] Nigeria Crime and Safety Report 2019:

[46] Global Initiative Against Trans-National Organised Crimes:

[47] Aljazeera: Nigerian Women Exploited In Ghana by Smugglers, Madams, Priests. August 2019:

[48] US Trafficking In Persons Report on Burkina Faso 2020:

[49] US Trafficking in Persons Report on Kenya 2018:

[50] Best of Africa: South Africa and The Inner World of Sex Trafficking Syndicates. September 2019.

[51] DW: How The Nigerian Mafia Exploits African Women In Europe:

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