The thing that caught the police’s attention was the matching outfits.
High yellow socks and black berets that featured an emblem of manacled hands, and an axe breaking through the chain.
The two men were each being investigated separately, one in British Columbia and the other in Toronto, for fraud. But it was their presence together, in identical outfits, that sent investigators on a new trail in the summer of 2013, deep into the heart of a Nigerian subculture, the history of student movements, and the African nation’s political hierarchy.
Eventually, it led them to a man who said he was threatened with a knife and had watched his car being destroyed in front of him.
The man was frightened.
“He knew who all four men were who threatened him with a knife, but only gave two nicknames and misidentified the organization,” Toronto police Detective Constable Tim Trotter said.
“It’s a phenomenon we get when people in any community are intimidated. They’ll tell you what they think is enough to put you in the right direction, but they haven’t exposed themselves too much by telling you the whole truth.”
The whole truth has been hard to come by for investigators, but after two years of quietly observing and gathering evidence, they introduced Canadians to an organization most had never heard of: a Nigerian confraternity called The Black Axe, otherwise known as the Neo Black Movement of Africa (NBM).
At the end of October, they laid charges against three men who allegedly defrauded a Toronto woman of $609,000, including one who was linked to the Black Axe.
The elusive group, feared in Nigeria for its brutality, has been exerting “undue influence over the Nigerian diaspora” in Canada, as well as engaging in organized crime and violence, police said.
Aside from fraud and money laundering, police allege the outfit is involved in street-level crime — everything from intimidation to kidnapping to the large-scale movement of stolen goods on a transnational scale.
Last week, Toronto police laid an additional 640 charges and arrested another 18 people allegedly involved in the theft of over 500 SUVs, all worth about $30 million. Six more had outstanding warrants.
These weren’t “just thieves,” investigators said, but a highly sophisticated crime ring linked to the Black Axe that placed its people in shipping companies and at a government agency. An investigator used a PowerPoint presentation to explain the elaborate scam that involved a locksmith, a “fully operational chop shop,” and people receiving the cars in Ghana and Nigeria. In the course of making the arrests, the officers also found drugs and illegal guns.
Meanwhile, in June, York Region Police laid over 40 charges against 9 people, who defrauded victims of about $1.5 million. They’re now also looking for links to the Black Axe.
But conversations with Nigerians in Toronto — leaders in churches, community organizations, and businesses — generally don’t reflect the picture painted by police. Most deny any knowledge of the Black Axe’s presence in Toronto. Those who know of it say they don’t believe it exists outside of Nigeria.
One man who claimed to be a member and intimately aware of its inner workings suggested the arrests were the result of “a bad egg or two” in an otherwise altruistic organization.
Whatever the case, police concede that the lack of reliable sources from inside the community has made it especially difficult for them to understand the internal workings of the NBM, its symbols, and the cultural lens through which it’s seen. Fear of the Black Axe runs so deep among the Nigerian diaspora that for years, their criminal activities have gone undetected.
Police have also been unable to find a single Nigerian academic willing to speak openly about the Black Axe.
“You try to be objective, and you think, am I wrong? Am I chasing a ghost?” said Trotter.
It was the spring of 2014, when a 63-year-old Toronto widow met a man online who claimed to be a high-ranking military officer in Afghanistan. They talked often on the phone and over Skype over several months, quickly becoming close and planning a future together. Eventually, they decided that “the general” would come to Canada to live with her.
So, when he told her he’d been given $2 million for saving a man’s life and needed to bribe officials in Afghanistan to let him take his reward out of the country, she believed him and sent the money. Then his story changed: the money had gotten him arrested, and now he needed to bail himself out. She came through again, after a friend of his who claimed to work for the United Nations and had an ID to prove it, vouched for him in person.
That friend was actually Akohomen Ighedoise, one of three Toronto men now charged with fraud and one of six indicted by the FBI for his involvement in a scam to defraud victims of $5 billion.
For the woman, the ordeal has been economically devastating, police told reporters. When they visited her in the winter, her heat was barely on, and she was wearing a jacket, mittens, and a hat inside, they said.
Ighedoise faces a third charge for laundering money for a criminal organization. Police allege he is the bookkeeper for the Black Axe’s Canada zone.
Born in 1977 at the University of Benin, the Black Axe started out as a benign group with “high-minded,” progressive ideals, like blackism and pan-African unity. They’ve since transformed into violent, criminal enterprises with significant clout in the Nigerian political system and “zones” around the world, experts say.
The Black Axe has been linked to powerful politicians in Nigeria, some of whom enlist members, known as Axemen, as foot soldiers and enforcers. They’re known to forcibly recruit new members and violently clash with each other on a regular basis, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report. Newspapers in Nigeria are filled with stories of Axemen allegedly kidnapping, raping, and killing rival cult members — and innocent people who get in their way.
While there isn’t a reliable total of how many people have been killed through cult violence (Black Axe or otherwise), about 200 students and teachers lost their lives between 1996 and 2005, HRW reported. News reports, as well as Facebook and Twitter posts by alleged Axemen show that violence is ongoing.
“They’re involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, racketeering, and killing in second nature,” said Jonathan Matusitz, a University of Central Florida professor who has studied Nigerian gangs, calling this one a “death cult.”
While Matusitz doesn’t believe people in the West should be concerned about the Black Axe, he says the whole network of confraternities is dangerous because it influences high-profile figures like politicians, bribes them, and places them in power. In turns, politicians turn a blind eye to the cultists’ criminal activities.
“It’s a network of evil,” he said.
While police believe the Black Axe has been active in Canada since 2005, the group didn’t land on their radar until that photo surfaced in 2013. Police estimate there are 200 members across the country, with a “substantive presence” in Toronto and Vancouver.
Other suspected members in Toronto have been linked to up to 20 incidents of violence, according to police. These include someone being hit by a car, a man being kidnapped and assaulted with a bottle in an empty building, and an Axeman being knocked to the ground as an internal disciplinary measure.
Trotter also described an incident in which a man was attacked by four others.
“He went into the bathroom to clean himself up, they followed him in there and beat him up again,” he said. “It was only at the insistence of the girlfriend that someone from that location called.”
Trotter said despite a bar full of witnesses, the investigation couldn’t continue because no one would cooperate.
“You try to be objective, and you think, am I wrong? Am I chasing a ghost?”
Investigators in Toronto have been working on compiling a list of suspected members in the city. Through social media, detectives have found other members in uniform and monitored their activities. After tailing a suspected member to a funeral one day, Trotter said police saw “multiple people wearing regalia at the time the body was placed into the hearse.”
Police are using six criteria to determine whether or not someone is a member — if they meet three, they most likely are, said Trotter.
Requests from VICE News to various Nigerian community organizations in Toronto went unanswered or were rejected on the basis that no one had any knowledge of the organization. A priest from the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, for example, said he knew one person who might be willing to talk, but that person refused the request.
Public perception of the group is made all the more confusing by the image the NBM itself puts forth.
A member of the group’s Canada zone, reached through its Facebook page, squarely rejected how police have described the organization.
For one, the man, who would only identify himself as Obie, said NBM isn’t the same as the Black Axe, although the two names are used interchangeably in academic research and in the media. He said the NBM is a non-profit charitable community organization that started in the university system.
“They were pure nationalists, pan Africans,” he said of the founders. “They also had a worldview that someday this organization, it will go from being just a campus organization to something that deals with contemporary world issues.”
In Canada, he said the NBM is involved in community organizing and volunteer work, adding that the group worked with Doctors Without Borders during the Ebola crisis and donated cash and toys to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children two or three times.
A Sick Kids spokesperson said, however, that the organization donated toys just once, while a Doctors Without Borders Canada representative said she’s never heard of the group.
Police have also noted a chronic habit of “over-reporting their charitable donations, and underreporting their other stuff”, according to Trotter.
The Sick Kids donation, for example, “looks like it was a big thing” with members photographed in full regalia, but in reality, they “donated a couple of toys,” he said.
Obie said it’s not a matter of how much was given, but “the willingness to give and to give freely without expecting anything in return.”
Obie also said Ighedoise was suspended as an NBM member “many months” ago, immediately after the group found out about his alleged involvement in criminal activities.
“It is unfortunate that sometimes, some people in authority give a dog a bad name to hang it,” he wrote in an email, adding that there is “zero tolerance” for violence in the organization.
“Any organisation that have [sic] been in existence for a remarkable length of time with diverse members are prone to have a bad egg or two, people that have a different philosophy from the organisation,” he wrote.
A YouTube comment left under the video of the Toronto police’s press conference reflects his comments, and urges police to treat Ighedoise as a “criminal in his own personal entity.”
“He’s not even a member because according to our records, he’s been excommunicated from the organization for over one year due to some bad conducts […] NBM is an African organisation, and it’s none of your business as a Canadian.”
But Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board has had to make it its business on various occasions. At least five people sought refugee status in Canada, claiming they were running from the group.
In 2007, a Nigerian man seeking refugee status in Canada, who claimed his father forced him to join the NBM at 18, said his initiation involved being beaten and saying an oath with his eyes closed while incantations were recited around him. In 2008, another man said he had to take an oath and take part in a blood ritual that involved him cutting his own finger and sucking his own blood.
The extremely graphic yet gleeful posts of people gruesomely murdered, hacked to death, are common in the group’s social media presence, which Toronto police say disappeared almost immediately after their October press conference.
“One thing we talk about is the disconnect between the persona they want to have and what people perceive them as, especially in the Nigerian diaspora,” said Trotter. “You can see Axemen’s Facebook accounts back home, where they’re much less culturally sensitive, and they’ll put up pictures of guys hacked apart, and it’ll have like, 43 likes and refer to the victim as a fool.”
He, too, has wrestled with the possibility that the Black Axe was an organization with a few bad people. On the one hand, the group has noble stated aims, he said, but there is no proof they have done anything to further those goals.
Meanwhile, newspapers in Nigeria are rife with claims the “Black Axe is everywhere, that they run government, that they’re used by the government as thugs and enforcers,” he said. “It’s clear there’s a presence in the government too. How do you reconcile their stated objectives with that? I can’t. What is their final goal? I can’t say.”