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#JusticeForItunu: NIDCOM reacts as Nigerians demand justice for compatriot wrongfully jailed in Côte d’Ivoire

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The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) has promised to investigate the alleged wrongful 20-year imprisonment of a Nigerian woman, one Itunu Olajumoke Babalola, in Cote d’Ivoire.

Babalola’s plight came into the limelight after 2020 People Journalism Prize for Africa winner, David Hundeyin, shared a thread on Twitter detailing the circumstances that led to the woman’s incarceration in the West African country.

According to Hundeyin, Babalola’s journey to prison began in 2019 after a 14-year-old boy burgled her house and carted away items worth over N300,000. She reported the theft to the Ivorian police, who got the suspect arrested but the DPO demanded Babalola dropped the case because the boy is his nephew. The DPO was said to have offered her N100,000 as settlement but she refused.

The Nigerian was later arrested by the police and, according to Hundeyin, charged with theft of her own items. She was, consequently, sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Hundeyin wrote,

In September 2019, 23-year-old Itunu, a trader based in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire travelled to Nigeria to visit her sick mom in Ibadan.

Unknown to her, her return to Cote d’Ivoire would mark the start of a harrowing ordeal in a notorious Ivorian prison, which is still ongoing. Shortly before Itunu was due to travel, her flat was burgled and items worth more than N300,000 were stolen including her TV and gas cooker.

Despite the blow, she decided to travel anyway after reporting the incident to the police. She returned from her trip in October 2019. Upon returning, she was informed by a lodger she left in her flat that the thief had been identified.

The thief turned out to be a 14-year-old boy who lived nearby. His embarrassed dad apologised and admitted that his son was a habitual thief. The items had already been sold.

Itunu reported this to the police who told her to return on Tuesday, Nov 5, 2019. The appointment held on Wednesday, Nov 6.

There she says, the DPO informed her that the suspect was in fact his nephew. He then offered her a settlement worth roughly N100,000 to drop the case.

She refused the settlement, citing the disparity between the value of the stolen items and what was offered. Next, she says, the visibly enraged DPO tried everything to frustrate her into dropping the case, including making her travel to Abidjan for a police appointment.

In Abidjan, she hired a lawyer to attend the appointment with her, all to no avail as the police refused to cooperate. Frustrated, she returned home to Bondoukou.

Around 5PM the following day, a convoy of police vehicles showed up outside her house and publicly arrested her.

On getting to the station, she was charged with theft – the theft of her own items in her own apartment.

She spent the next 4 days in police custody, after which she was taken out of the cell and offered her freedom if she agreed to sign papers dropping her case.

For whatever reason despite the clear bad faith displayed by the Ivorian police, Itunu says she rejected the offer and chose to go to court instead.

She says she then overheard an officer saying “Elle est une Nigériane? Elle mourra ici!” (“She’s a Nigerian? She will die here!”)

The decision to go to court turned out to be a monumental error of judgment compounded by her own naivety about the Ivorian justice system.

The (French-speaking) court did not allow her adequate legal representation or give her a chance to properly state her case.

She was speedily convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Further complicating this was her decision to identify herself to the court as “Becky Paul”.

She says she did this to avoid getting her family name mixed up in bad news and potentially upsetting her aged mom.

As a result, for the past one year and 4 months since her conviction, Itunu alias “Becky Paul” has become, to all intents and purposes, a forgotten inmate at the notorious Maison d’arrêt et de Correction Bondoukou (Bondoukou Remand and Correction Facility).

When her Nigerian friends in Cote d’Ivoire approached the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan to provide consular assistance for her case, officials reportedly asked for N400,000 to get her a passport before anything can be done.

She says she has exhausted all her savings over the past year, spending well over N1m to try to clear her name while the Ivorian justice system, as well as individual prison officials, collude to frustrate all her efforts.

She has lost hope and she has attempted suicide twice.

This is an appeal for the sake of innocent Nigerian women stuck in a hostile foreign prison after being set up by corrupt officials to cover up a crime committed by an Ivorian DPO’s nephew.

Meanwhile, Nigerians reacting to Hundeyin (@DavidHundeyin on Twitter) demanded justice for Babalola and quick intervention by the federal government for her release.

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Reacting to the call, NIDCOM said on Twitter it would launch an investigation into Babalola’s case.

It said,

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