The case of Itunu Babalola, a Nigerian jailed in Ivory Coast will initially appear to be a scene out of a movie script by an imaginative writer of fiction but, sadly, it happened to a Nigerian citizen based in Ivory Coast. From evidence gathered from the media, Babalola had gone to the police authorities there to report a case of theft of her property worth N300,000 but ended up being sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
There are missing links in her story that need to be filled properly, if the course of justice and fairness is to be served. Evidentially from the news report, Itunu seems to be a victim of some witch-hunt or vendetta. Questions relating to the twist in her circumstances need urgent answers that should meet standard diplomatic procedure. Her case is deserving of serious investigation of which the Nigerian embassy in Ivory Coast, the ministry of Foreign Affairs and other relevant agencies should be interested.
According to media reports, she reported the case of burglary of her house to the police and she was later notified that the thief had been caught. It turned out that the thief was the 14-year-old son of her neighbour. The embarrassed father of the boy had apologised to her but said the items had been sold. She duly reported this to the police who gave her an appointment to return to the station. A twist to the tale was however introduced on her return on the appointed date. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) told her that the thief was his nephew and sought an out of court settlement. The DPO allegedly offered her N100,000 to bury the case but Babalola refused noting that what was stolen from her was worth more than that.
From the point of her refusal, the case took a worrying dimension when a detachment of police officers stormed her home in Bondoukou and arrested her. She was charged for theft of her own property and detained for four days after which she was again asked to drop the charges against the 14-year-old boy. She refused again and the police pressed on with the charge against her and the court sentenced her to 20 years’ imprisonment. On her part, she had apparently made an error of judgment by identifying herself as Becky Paul in the course of the proceedings thereby making herself open to charges of impersonation. Even then, for somebody who had been unjustly and illegally deprived of her property, isn’t she entitled to some form of justice?
Whatever the case against her may be, the procedure for her conviction does not appear to be transparent given the vested interest of the DPO. She has also alleged that she was denied adequate legal representation or even a chance to properly state her case in the French-speaking court.
Given the non-transparent course of her trial, conviction and imprisonment, her case should be revisited to ensure justice and fair play for the Nigerian citizen. The alleged vested interest of the DPO should also be investigated and factored into the proceedings. The question must also be raised about what happened to the 14-year-old boy whose father had owned up to the theft and had apologised to Babalola. These and some other questions must be laid bare before any proper conviction can be achieved in the case. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to have been done.
The case becomes interesting given many tales of open hostility against Nigerians by neighbouring West African countries. This is also a wakeup call to the Nigerian Embassy in Ivory Coast and elsewhere to take the welfare and safety of Nigerians much more seriously. When this saga was unfolding, where were the Nigerian embassy officials? They should be reminded that the primary purpose of being there is to protect the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians.
It is also important for Nigerians in Diaspora to conduct themselves properly and avoid situations that may compromise their integrity and wellbeing. It is only then that their interests and rights can be protected. Nigerians in diaspora should see themselves as good ambassadors of Nigeria as they are likely to be the first mirror through which citizens of the host country will view Nigeria.
It is reassuring that the Nigerian Diaspora Commission has promised to wade into the case. Hopefully, this will be done speedily to shorten the ordeal of Babalola and restore her dignity. Let us be reminded that each time an injustice is visited upon any Nigerian in other countries, it is injustice against Nigeria as a corporate entity. Nigerian officials must be alive to their duty to protect Nigerians always whether inside or outside the shores of this country. We call for justice for Babalola and all other Nigerians languishing unjustifiably in prisons in various countries.