A Nigerian lady, Itunu Olajumoke Babalola, is reportedly being held in a Cote d’Ivoire prison for daring to pursue a case of alleged theft at her residence in 2019.
In September 2019, 21-year-old Itunu, a trader based in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire travelled to Nigeria to visit her sick mom in Ibadan.
Unknown to her returning 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 and that the items had already been sold.
Itunu reported this to the police who told her to return on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. The appointment later held on Wednesday, November 6.
There, she said, 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 5 PM 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 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 rejected the offer and chose to go to court instead.
She said 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 did this to avoid getting her family name mixed up in bad news and potentially upsetting her aged mom.
For the past one year and four months since her conviction, Itunu alias “Becky Paul” has become 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.
All Itunu’s savings have been exhausted over the past year, spending well over a million naira to clear her name, while the Ivorian justice system, as well as individual prison officials, collude to frustrate all her efforts.
According to her, she has lost hope and she has attempted suicide twice.
This is an appeal for the sake of an innocent Nigerian woman 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.
Replying to the outcry, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) said: “We will investigate and get back with our findings. Our Mission in Abidjan will also help out.
“The Commission has been to several countries such as Togo, Benin Republic, Brazil, South-Africa, etc to facilitate the release of some Nigerians wrongfully arrested and incarcerated.”