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In September 2019, 21 year-old Itunu Olajumoke Babalola a trader based in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire traveled 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 5th, 2019. The appointment held on Wednesday Nov 6th.
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).
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.
Yesterday, Itunu could no longer take it all. Being a Nigerian cost her her soul and her life.
A real country would have fought and defended her and pulled her out of jail. Her heart stopped beating yesterday morning.
She died in prison from an infection she contracted there. The nation failed her. What’s the point of everything then if being a Nigerian is as worthless as mere audio sound?
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