Every age gets the conspiracy theory it deserves. Suitably, the current conjuncture in Italy has produced a new obsession on the far right, in the form of the Nigerian mafia. In a period in which immigration has dominated the political agenda, the murder of eighteen-year-old Pamela Mastropietro by a Nigerian man last January, on the eve of national elections, as well as a series of high-profile arrests of Nigerian gang members, have provided the Italian right a key tool for whipping up racist sentiment. And the obsession has spread. Today, the Nigerian mafia is subject of daily articles on local news sites, books by small publishers, investigations by carabinieri, and think-pieces by philosophers, anti-mafia authors, and neofascists alike. It has been described as the evillest of all criminal networks, the most bloodthirsty, even overtaking the horrors of Cosa Nostra.
Whatever their basis in reality, such theories are worth listening to. It was, after all, a little-read far-right blog that first accused international NGOs of colluding with Libyan people traffickers — a theory that provided the basis for former interior minister Matteo Salvini’s Security Decree criminalizing sea rescue. Here, a conspiracy theory had disastrous consequences — indeed, ones that the new government has still done nothing to mitigate.
Similarly, the far right has made legislative proposals responding to the fears being stoked by their own propaganda, for instance sending troops into Castel Volturno (a city with a large West African population, infamous for its crime syndicates) or creating special courts for trying the crimes of foreign citizens. Even though there are perhaps 100,000 Nigerian citizens in Italy, the presence of this small population is making waves throughout political life and beyond.
This poses the need to understand the court strategy being formed by a section of the police and judiciary in response to supposed criminality by Nigerian citizens, as well as the accusations coming from the far right. In the face of widespread focus on mysticism, black magic, and a heavily racialized understanding of violent domination, it is necessary to put the development of international organized crime in its proper context, setting it within the coordinates of contemporary, post-Fordist international capitalism. In so doing, we see how white supremacism and anti-Mafia legislation are combining to provide an ideological understanding of the phenomenon that erases the historical role of both the Italian and Nigerian ruling classes in creating the current violence.
The focus on organized crime by Nigerian citizens has received a certain impetus within the magistracy and the Italian right thanks to the latest six-month report by the Anti-Mafia Directorate, which includes a chapter entirely devoted to the Nigerian mafia.
Among others, this report has been picked up on by the right-wing press, with works such as Alessandro Meluzzi’s Nigerian Mafia: Origins, Rituals, Crimes, Fabio Federici’s The Dark Side of the Nigerian Mafia in Italy, and Leonardo Palmisano’s The Black Axe: The Brutal Intelligence of the Nigerian Mafia. These are fringe works, but are nevertheless gaining traction. Palmisano’s book has been favorably reviewed by Roberto Saviano, Italy’s most famous current mafiologist and one of Salvini’s most public opponents. Federici’s book is prefaced by Nando dalla Chiesa, the son of a carabinieri general murdered in the 1980s and renowned figurehead of the anti-mafia movement who has denounced state collusion with Cosa Nostra. Meluzzi’s book boasts a preface by the leader of the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia and at several presentations the author has been joined on-stage by the well-known commentator Diego Fusaro, a self-professed Marxist and often a mouthpiece for far-right ideas.
Meluzzi’s book provides a good overview of the coordinates of this new cultural phenomenon. First, it provides an exemplary regurgitation of the principal narratives, aphorisms and insults of the contemporary far right in relation to post-2012 migrant solidarity. Anti-racism is portrayed as — at best — the act of misguided bourgeois do-gooders haplessly assisting the entrance of hordes of rapists, traffickers, and criminals onto Italian soil, and at worst, active members in a bourgeois conspiracy for the substitution of the white, Christian race, whose enlightenment values were won through “tiring conquests.”
Secondly, this supremacist ideology is defended through a hodgepodge of factoids and overviews of various aspects of African history, ethnography, and criminology (from Nigeria through to Tanzania) in order to provide an image of an inherently cannibalistic and brutal race that cannot truly be blamed for acts of gruesome violence which are, however erroneously, conceived as acts of fidelity to pagan Gods. In this, the murder of eighteen-year-old Pamela Mastropietro in Macerata by a Nigerian man is constantly invoked as an exemplary action of brutality. The neo-Nazi mass shooting that took place immediately afterwards as “revenge” is never mentioned, however.
Finally, citations from Italian court cases and the aforementioned report by the Anti-Mafia Directorate are used to demonstrate how, through the mistakes or collusion of the Italian ruling class, this biologically criminal mindset has taken root on Italian soil and, indeed, enjoyed the tolerance or collaboration of “our own Mafia.” Added to this are the future threats that this deadly combination of immigration and African primitiveness might bring: further murders of white women, ritual cannibalism, organ harvesting, and Islamic radicalization.
Yet the tenor of the right-wing analysis of the Nigerian mafia is identifiable in much older discourses. The recipe is equal parts Julius Evola, Ku Klux Klan, and Raymond Chandler, with the formal structure of the narratives constructed by European and American journalists falling somewhere between film noir and Boys’ Own adventure stories. As Alta Jablow wrote of such British adventure tales: “in the imperial period writers were far more addicted to tales of cannibalism than Africans ever were to cannibalism.” And indeed for at least a decade, the Western press has been inundated with “exposés” of the Nigerian underground in European capitals, with a stock of classic characters: vulnerable young girls (“the damsel in distress”), evil madams (à la the Queen of the Night), magic potions, macabre murders, machetes, and bloodthirsty mystical cults, all set within cityscapes that recalls the rain-drenched pavements and hard-boiled cynicism of classic film noir.
What Are the Nigerian Cults?
The Anti-Mafia Directorate report has not only become an object of interest for crankish amateur anthropologists and sensationalist journalists, but also for a section of the police and judiciary.
Applying anti-Mafia laws to indict Nigerian citizens is establishing a legislative environment which provides for a new carceral approach to street-level crime: once the “Mafia-character” of Nigerian “secret societies” such as the Black Axe or the Vikings has been settled, participants can be jailed for up to fifteen years simply for being part of such an organization, over and above any sentencing for specific crimes, whether they be international human trafficking or — as is more frequent — small-time drug dealing and bar fights. This law was based on proposals by Pio La Torre, leader of the Italian Communist Party in Sicily, who was himself murdered by the Sicilian Mafia in 1982. His analysis of the Mafia linked it closely to Christian-Democrat politicians and the vast, corrupt construction sector speculation that was destroying Palermo’s historic fabric. He was little bothered about petty crime.
In order for Nigerian criminal organizations to fit the bill as “Mafia-like” organizations, the Anti-Mafia Directorate and others have provided a stock narrative of what Nigerian criminal organizations are and how they came to be.
The structure of these police histories of the Nigerian “cults” goes as follows: seventy years ago, in colonial Nigeria, young intellectuals formed a university club called the Pyrates on the model of American fraternities. This was a semisecret society that aimed for academic excellence and mutual support and included luminaries such as the writer Wole Soyinke. There were then various splits from this early group, particularly following the turbulent period of Nigeria’s independence and civil war, leading in the 1970s to the forming of other student fraternities.
The histories then go into the various groupings and splits of the different cults, with a certain joy in their strange names: the Vikings, the Buccaneers, the Seadogs, and so on. Over the 1980s these groups then became extremely violent, a development rarely explained but often superficially attributed to an increasing violence in Nigerian society more generally. This led to the campus groups effectively becoming street gangs, warring against each other and, over the last forty years, becoming the de facto organizations of Nigerian organized crime, including on an international level.
This story has many holes, and its constant repetition in courts and police offices is not helping to fill them in. The theory of history and of organizational development presented in the thesis is that even good-natured groups can go wrong if the context is violent enough. Yet violence did not just creep into the universities or randomly corrupt an innocent, scholarly society. Karl Marx described the bourgeoisie’s fascination with commodities as similar to West African religious belief in the magic of “fetishes.” Here, instead, it is the bourgeois explanation of the transformation of the campus fraternities from university apprentice into bastions of evil that mirrors black magic. What is missing here is the central factor of history, its motor, without which all transformations seem like juju and miracles: the motor of class struggle.
The cults did indeed begin as a playful form of student protest within Nigeria’s colonial, postwar university system, utilizing an argot of swashbuckling and piratical similes in the tradition of trans-Atlantic romantic rebellion. By the mid-1960s, writer Sowinke’s political activities led him to resign his university post, and he was later arrested for hijacking a radio station to try and broadcast news of government malpractice. The outbreak of the Biafran civil war in 1966 radically changed and eventually refounded the Nigerian state, a period which impacted every Nigerian institution (and to which we will return below). Yet just as radical a change came a few years after the end of the war, with the oil crisis of 1973, pushing the price of Nigerian oil high enough to open up new material possibilities, creating a petroleum-based “rentier state” and setting aside the old dependency on peasant surpluses. University enrollments rose from 3.5 million people in 1970 to 13.5 million by 1980, accompanied by a vibrant and politicized student movement.
But in 1985 Ibrahim Babangida seized power and installed the Structural Adjustment Program that effectively handed the country’s economic decisions over to the Reaganite economics of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Over the next decade, the Nigerian state used every method possible to implement extreme austerity measures, slash the number of universities, drive down wages, privatize the land, and encourage investment by multinationals. The death penalty was introduced for the crime of “economic sabotage.”
From the great student riots of 1989 through to the campaigns for democracy in the late 1990s, leading to the eventual restoration of democratic elections, the student movement and the lecturers’ unions played a pivotal role. This was also the most significant period in the transformation of the university confraternities into organizations for collective violence, as they were instrumentalized by the dictatorships to suppress the revolts. A quote from the 1996 newsletter of the Committee for Academic Freedom, an organization founded by George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici after their years teaching in Nigeria, gives a good feel for the times:
One of the most gruesome examples of what campus life is like in Nigeria comes from the University of Port Harcourt, where, on January 17 of this year, at 12pm, in full daylight, ten students hacked down another student at the convocation area while one thousand students and four lecturers were scared away from the scene of the murder with gun shots. As a result of the attack, which was described by a witness as “a Mafia-like action”, the student died four days later. Surprisingly, even a congress of the students’ union, on January 31, did not address the issue, possibly out of fear, or because students no longer hope the authorities will punish the culprits. Students say, in fact, that the so-called cult-members have virtual immunity and receive their weapons straight from the police, so that even when assailants are identified little is done against them.
“Mafia-like action” is a striking phrase, especially in the mid-1990s, the years of the Sicilian Mafia’s most well-known crimes. And here we really do see a parallel with the Sicilian Mafia, even if not the one that most suits current Italian law forces: both Nigerian and Sicilian organized networks have been used by the state as a method of repressing calls for socialist reform. For example, in Sicily, the postwar peasant movement that demanded land reform was bloodily repressed in Western Sicily by mafiosi; dozens of Sicilian communists were murdered or disappeared at their hands. Similarly, in Nigeria the most vocal opposition to capitalist restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s was organized labor.
The Role of Italian Capitalism in Nigeria
The twenty-first century saw another stage in the transformation of the cults, through the rise in armed conflict in the Niger Delta. As the scholar Omolade Adunbi describes, in the 2003 election politicians “recruited youth from underground fraternities to import arms and ammunitions and protect their electoral interest. Once power was won, that army of unemployed youth were dismissed from their dubious political roles and left to return to their villages, while holding on to their weapons.” Yet is impossible to understand the armed conflict in the Niger Delta — which has further militarized the cults and set a homicidal tone for an entire generation — without including the role of oil multinationals in the Nigerian petroleum fields.
As our starting point was the presence of Nigerian organized crime in Italy, it is instructive to take a look at Italy’s own involvement in Nigeria (a similar tale could be told for British, American, and French involvement). The Italian state oil company has been a part of Nigerian oil production since 1962 and was thus also present in an important moment in the civil war: in 1969, the Biafran army accused Italian oil workers at the Okpai field in the Niger Delta of passing information to the Nigerian state army. Eighteen employees — including eleven Italians — were taken hostage and sentenced to death in a revolutionary court; Biafrans forced Italy to recognize their new revolutionary state in order to negotiate the Italians’ release, with the undersecretary for Foreign Affairs flying out for the negotiations. The Biafran minister for information announced that “Oilmen are more dangerous than mercenaries. These are the people responsible for our suffering.”
The oil boom around 1973–1983 saw not only the continued involvement of Italian state petroleum interests but also the rise of Italian-born billionaire Gabriele Volpi, whose company Intels has in recent decades been increasingly responsible for a large part of the logistics sector for all of the multinational oil companies present in the Delta. In the early 1990s, during the period of IMF-dictated austerity measures, a new Delta leader came to international attention, Ken Saro-Wiwa, proclaiming peaceful protest by the Ogoni people for the ownership of oil and the protection of the environment.
The Niger Delta has long been victim to environmental disasters not only through oil spills and extraction, but also toxic waste dumping, such as the scandal uncovered by Nigerian students living in Italy. Despite international activist support, Saro-Wiwa’s attempts at a peaceful solution to the environmental catastrophe was ignored: in November 1995 he was executed by the Nigerian state. This repression of a large, nonviolent movement essentially rang the death knell for the Nigerian proletariat’s use of peaceful tactics.
It was in the early 2000s, as we have seen, that a new militarization came to the Delta in the form of electoral, clientelist politics. Politicians organized an influx of small arms to create semi-recognizable militia to secure their voting base and harass voters on election day. And of course, the Italian ruling class played its part yet again through close personal links between Sicilian construction companies and the figures of the new regime. A decade after Sawo-Wiwa’s execution saw the founding of a new armed coalition of indigenous Delta groups, whose first acts included bombings of Italian-dominated security facilities, naval vessel and flow stations across the Delta.
The Italian oil sector has been part of every stage of post-colonial Nigerian history. When the Delta protests were peaceful, Saro-Wiwa was executed. When the protests were armed, Italian oil interests colluded with Nigerian security forces to up the conflict.
The so-called Nigerian mafia about which the Italian right is so alarmed is the consequence of the militarization of Nigerian society through the repression of the student movement and the Nigerian left during the implementation of austerity measures, the arming of the confraternities by the dictatorship to repress the social movements and later by supposedly democratic politicians to maintain power in the Delta. Far from “unprecedented violence,” “ritualistic killings,” and mystic organization deriving from some murky black African past, this is a very modern violence encouraged by capitalist powers — including a section of the Italian ruling class — in order to integrate the African proletariat into the global market and to maintain neocolonial control over African resources.
The Cultist Bourgeoisie
This litany of crimes of the Italian ruling class in Nigeria — its role in labor exploitation, resource destruction, neocolonialism, kleptocracy, the destruction of women’s rights, the implementation of the death sentence, the creation of an endemic violence within politics — is not intended to put the blame at the door of “Italians.” This would play the same game as the far-right, attempting to construct a race war when what we are witnessing is a class war. For the predations of the Nigerian and Italian ruling classes within Nigerian territory have been the same, an alliance which is now coming back, boomerang style, to Italy itself.
To understand what a left-wing response to the Nigerian mafia might be, we can turn to Umberto Santino, whose half-century of Marxist investigation into the Sicilian mafia provides us with a range of analytical tools. Santino was a close collaborator of Peppino Impastato, the Sicilian autonomist activist who denounced the Mafia in the 1970s — including members of his own family — an act for which he was murdered in 1978.
Since his earliest essays, Santino has written of a “Mafia bourgeoisie,” a borghesia mafiosa. By this he doesn’t mean the bourgeoisie within the Mafia (though any crime syndicate certainly has its internal class dynamics and hierarchies) but rather the Mafia-character of the Italian bourgeoisie itself, in its entirety. Santino rejected the idea of the Mafia as external to the Italian state. Rather, he sees it as an element essential to Italian capitalism, representing the state’s mode of controlling the Italian South, of repressing the peasants and then exploiting ground rent, of rechanneling capital into the hands of an elite, of maintaining the regional inequalities of wealth on which the Italian state is founded. For him, this meant that truly destroying the Mafia is impossible without refounding the state itself.
The Nigerian state can be read in a similar way: the “cults” are part and parcel of the Nigerian state as founded after the Structural Adjustment Program and the exploitation of the Niger Delta. They form part of the means by which the government repressed protest, destroyed the unions, destroyed the welfare state, and now implements a new clientelism in the place of democratic structures. If Santino spoke of a “Mafia bourgeoisie” then perhaps we might speak of a “cultist bourgeoisie” in relation to Nigeria: a bourgeoisie that relies on the methods of the cultists, that has transformed and refounded the university confraternities throughout its history to unleash an anti-leftist, antidemocratic violence.
It would be both foolish and Eurocentric to claim that the Nigerian mafia is a creation of Western state intervention: not all histories ought to be traced to a central mind in a CIA back-office, nor explained through the consequences of colonialism alone. What we can say, however, is that the Nigerian mafia, like the Sicilian version, is integrated into an international ruling class, part of a planetary method of integrating an international workforce and defeating proletarian demands.
The Role of Nigerian Organized Crime in Italy
A further question ought to be raised however: is crime by Nigerian citizens, and its possible organizations, functional to the Italian ruling class and the Italian state? In an important article from 1982, written in an important historical juncture after the assassination of General Della Chiesa, when the narco-trafficking of the Sicilian mafia entered a new moment of recognition as a “national question,” Santino attempted an analysis of the level of organic cohesion between the Italian state and the Sicilian Mafia. In a section on the “model of Mafia rule,” he described the Mafia as “building consensus through an ability to pragmatically respond to the needs of the masses, and to influence the definition and channeling of their behavior.”
On the one hand, the Sicilian mafia could provide money, loans, jobs, and protection to a section of the Sicilian masses for a good part of the twentieth century, especially during the 1970s and 1980s through the profits of the heroin trade. On the other hand, however, the Mafia effectively helped form other needs, other behaviors and attitudes, which provided the consumer basis for the markets in which they acted as locally dominant business within an international network of criminal monopolies, first and foremost heroin consumption.
Are Nigerian criminal syndicates building consensus in such a manner in Italy? Do they respond to certain needs? Do they create certain behaviors? Given their limited wealth in Italy, the Nigerian community certainly has little to offer the Italian masses in terms of creating jobs, guaranteeing material survival, etc. It does however hold the capacity to respond to the needs of non-Italian masses in this manner: the drug and sex markets are providing desperately required jobs for the lowest rank of Italy’s five million immigrants. Once one sets these markets alongside care work — a sector in which the African working class is increasingly important — one sees that Italy’s immigrant population has thus become central to the social reproduction of the masses and their ability to at least tolerate, if not enjoy, depressed wages. To provide some examples: long-term youth unemployment is mitigated by the offer of cheap drugs; depressed wages for workers on long hours or holding down two jobs are mitigated by the ability to hire a cleaner at €1/hour; the social pressure of an aging population and mass youth emigration is mitigated by cheap care-workers for the elderly.
If it is the case that the Nigerian mafia organizes a part of this workforce, then it effectively would hold a position of domination, of command, within a section of Italian society that is in turn functional to Italian capitalism more generally.
The drug market is perhaps the easiest to analyze in the manner: the supply of emotion-inhibiting drugs, functional to dampening the aggressive spirits of an abandoned generation and channeling them into an individualized numbness, is certainly something that the Italian bourgeoisie has no desire to stop. Recent government moves to close legal cannabis stores and markets (those selling products with an insignificant proportion of active substances) leaves the illegal drug market not only untouched but actually enhanced. What we are witnessing is therefore what Vincenzo Scalia has termed part of the “post-Fordist” reorganization of the mafia: outsourcing the dirty work to other groups, so that the more dangerous labor that lies in the police crosshairs can be covered by foreign groups, while the homegrown Sicilian Mafia can continue with its financial activities — such as sweeping up government contracts for asylum-seeker hostels.
A more complex and careful argument must be made around the sex market. First and foremost because the organization of Nigerian sex-work in Italy is not run on a centralized or particularly hierarchical manner: many women work independently, even if paying protection money or debt installments to some form of boss. Again, the model is a post-Fordist network, not that of the international crime syndicate. Yet Nigerian citizens have also managed to wield influence over Italian society by tapping into a libidinal consensus. The panicked, often salacious writings of right-wing journalists and pseudo-psychologists attest to the power the sexualization of the black female body is having on a section of Italian culture, with all its colonial overtones. There can be no doubt that the frenzied prose describing intoxication, sexual encounters, and sexual violence is due in part to — or at least derives from some of the same factors as — the increasing demand for Nigerian sex-work that Italy has seen along with the rise in supply.
Refounding the World
What is entirely unclear, however, is that this control over a section of the immigrant population, and the creation of behavior and desires within the population more generally, is being planned through a hierarchical criminal network of the kind described by Italian anti-Mafia legislators, right-wing conspiracy theorists, and many international journalists. It is far from proven that we have the necessary elements to define Nigerian crime syndicates in Italy as being, as a rule, implicated within a social unit of the kind identified by anti-Mafia law — a code of honor and secrecy (“omertà”), involvement in economic affairs such as the corrupt acquisition of public contracts, and a strict hierarchical structure.
Furthermore, any accusation of vote-buying or undue influence over democratic structures would describe a situation so far from the reality of the Nigerian community in Italy, most of whom have no voting rights at all, and no political connections, that the application of this same law would be, at best, misled. The question should then be asked: to what end is the judiciary making out these small, street-level gangs to be part of an international Mafia-like conspiracy?
The vast majority of the cases that have been brought to the courts thus far do not point to the kind of large-scale drug trafficking which we know is conducted through Naples by the Camorra; they do not point to the use of guns, never mind arms-trafficking; no Nigerian citizen has been involved in the awarding of a public contract, never mind corruption. Whatever the evidence might be from other countries and moments, nor do the Italian court cases of the last few years point towards the kind of financial activity expected of a twenty-first-century international criminal organization. This is not to say, by any means, that we ought not oppose violence and especially the extreme, devastating sexual violence being organized by a group of Nigerian citizens across Europe — alongside, of course, their European business partners and willing queues of European male clients who are somehow left outside of the juridical equation.
What then should our response be? We are only beginning a discussion at this point. Yet we are not without leads. The Italian Communist Party historically followed a legislative route to combating the Sicilian Mafia, defining conspiracy through decrees and allying with liberal judges and police generals. But following the dynamite and bloodbaths of the 1990s, Umberto Santino claimed that it was useless to speak of the Sicilian Mafia as a cancer, as a corruption of the state, something that could be fought with handcuffs and gavels. Its roots into the state were too profound, its collaboration too integral to be dismissed as a sideshow: for Santino, the Mafia is a part of the state, and in his words the only way to destroy it would be to “refound” the state. If this is the conclusion of a revolutionary critique of the Sicilian Mafia, then any progressive criticism of Nigerian international organized crime must reach for the same exit: a political refoundation that creates the international conditions for freedom and democracy.
In struggling against the carnage caused by the Italian and Nigerian ruling classes in both countries, internationalists must stand together against capitalists’ global tactics — legal or otherwise — without recourse to prisons and mysticism. There is no need for turning to black magic for explanations: the world of the bourgeoisie has produced evil enough.