Nigerians have condemned the reported incarceration of a 23-year-old woman, Itunu Babalola, by the Ivorian government over alleged theft.
Babalola, a trader based in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire, was said to have been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after a theft case she reported to the police was allegedly turned against her.
Our correspondent learnt that Babalola had been in prison since 2019 after she refused to grant the request of a divisional police officer to drop the case.
A journalist, David Hundeyin, who shared Babalola’s story on Twitter, explained that the victim’s flat was burgled and items worth over N300,000 stolen, adding that she reported the matter to the police and later travelled to Nigeria to see her sick mother.
However, upon Babalola’s return to Ivory Coast, she was notified that the thief had been caught.
Hundeyin tweeted, “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 (Babalola) reported this to the police, who told her to return on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. The appointment held on Wednesday, November 6. There, she says the DPO informed her that the suspect was 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 four 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 Correctional 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.”
Hundeyin, who noted that Babalola had spent her savings in trying to clear her name, said she had attempted suicide twice.
Nigerians on social media started a campaign, #JusticeForItunu, calling on the Federal Government to ensure her release from prison.
A Twitter user, @Sikowitz17, urged the government to also ensure that other Nigerians detained unlawfully were released.
He said, “As we get #justiceforitunu, please let’s reach out to other African countries to get our citizens wrongly accused out of their prisons too. Schooling in the Republic of Benin, I know how many Nigerians got arrested for practically nothing and are still in prison today.”
Another Twitter user, Joseph Yomi, said, “Whenever I read about how some African countries are hostile to Nigerians, it just makes me sad. Let’s create more awareness about this Ìtunu case until something is done about it. #justiceforitunu.”
Another user with the alias, Pontius Pilate, stated that Babalola’s case was one of many Nigerians unlawfully detained in Ivory Coast.
Reacting, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, through its Twitter page @nidcom_gov, promised to investigate the matter.
It tweeted, “We will investigate and get back with our findings. Our mission in Abidjan will also help out.”