BENIN CITY, Nigeria Daddy P and the Don swagger into the hotel like Hollywood gangsters, but when they sit down,
their faces look hunted.
"You know we have our brothers all around here, armed," says the Don, scanning the grounds. "If this turns into an opera, it will be big trouble."
The Benin University students, who would be arrested if their identities were revealed, are local leaders of the Supreme Eiye Lords, a group spawned at the university that police say is one of Nigeria's biggest gangs, or "cults," as they're known locally. With names like the Greenlanders, the KKK and the all-female Black Bras, many of the groups sound like they've stepped from the pages of a comic book.
But the gang members' lives are deadly real, as they murder, rob and rape their way across Nigeria. As instability grows ahead of Nigeria's elections next year, experts say unscrupulous politicians will increasingly turn to them as enforcers.
"In a city where there is no rule there is bound to be anarchy," the Don said.
The students say that a corrupt police force, inefficient campus authorities and the availability of weapons forced them to join the Eiye - which means "bird" in Yoruba - for protection.
"Even the lecturers are in on it. Even the politicians," said the Don, the son of a lecturer himself.
Daddy P, a 23-year-old medical student, said: "I never thought it would be like this. I came to get an education. I want to graduate, get a job, get married and have kids. But you need this to protect you."
Dimieari von Kemedi, a Nigeria-based conflict resolution expert who has written extensively on the cults, says that the groups were originally formed in the 1970s to protect students' rights against a military regime, but the breakdown of law and order in Nigeria let them spread far beyond the campuses that first nurtured them. He says they are now active everywhere from church groups to professional guilds and politicians frequently use them as hired thugs.
"Their activities constitute a fundamental problem in society, given the role they play in rigging elections and disrupting community life," says Kemedi. He cites an incident when one cult leader telephoned a rival so he could listen as his father was tortured to death as proof of the groups' brutality.
Daddy P and the Don insist that they do not instigate violence and their group is a fraternity, not a cult. Neither do they wish to discuss politics too much, although when prodded the Don admits the Eiye Lords were implicated in fraud during the 2003 elections.
"There was a local government election in Edo state where some ballot boxes were removed," he admits. "There is no such thing as a clean and fair election in Nigeria."
The Don insists members given guns by politicians have returned them and the brotherhood has decided not to cooperate with politicians during next April's elections. But in the next breath he asks, "What can we do? They know we need the money and many of us are unemployed."
The situation in nearby Rivers state demonstrates how quickly things can escalate. After one gang alliance apparently fell out with government, a rival faction was allegedly armed and given the go-ahead to target them. According to Amnesty International, 500 people died in a single month. One Rivers gang leader who says the government gave him money and logistics is now being hunted in connection with kidnappings of foreigners.
But until candidates are announced for next year's elections, most fights are local, like the clash between the Eiye Lords and the Black Axes last week. Six students died. At Benin police headquarters, police parade suspects. Some of them have the same pattern of scars on their bodies as Daddy P and the Don, a ritual that is supposed to make them bulletproof.
"This is not a national issue. It's local criminals," said Commissioner Bala Hassan. "Do you have cultism in Kaduna? Sokoto or Zaria?" he asked, naming universities in the Muslim north which are largely free of gang violence but under strict Islamic law.
Officers displayed a collection of rusty axes, homemade pistols and swords confiscated from suspects. They say laws passed six years ago outlawing cult membership are having an effect, but not enough.
"If you renounce cultism, you are seen as a sellout and you'll be hunted," says Emmanuel Nwanze, the Vice Chancellor of Benin University. "It's like breaking the omerta in the mafia."
He set up a program to provide protection and employment for students who leave the gangs after a student was murdered with ax outside the library and others abducted from campus, but it's a difficult struggle. The Eiye Lords insist once initiated, a member will have to pay at least US$1,500 (about EU1,200) to get out the group - around three times the annual salary of an average Nigerian. They say their reach is national and their branches are spreading beyond Nigeria.
"We have nests in Italy and Birmingham, among others," says Daddy P, as he demonstrates a secret sign with his beer bottle indicating Eiye membership.
He and the Don try to count up the number of friends who have died in the last few years, but stop when they run out of fingers. But Daddy P insists that he is in no danger and the deaths have left him untouched.
"We will cry, drink beer, pour wine on their graves," he said. "But there is nothing we can do. They are gone."