On Citizen Itunu Babalola

IT is difficult to come to grips with the recent, painful death behind bars of Citizen Itunu Babalola, a Nigerian who was wrongly accused and convicted by a court in Cote d’Ivoire. The ugly incident exposes the underbelly of the Nigerian government, Nigeria’s embassy in Abidjan, and perhaps its embassies across the world capitals. The incident showcases to the entire world the huge mileage the government still needs to cover in order to achieve proper valuation of its citizens in the scheme of things. Babalola reportedly got entangled in a legal battle when she reported to the police that her house in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire, had been burgled. Sadly, however, the police did not only treat her complaint with levity but they also turned around to file charges that were diametrically unrelated to her complaint against her. She was said to have been charged to court and the prosecutor, in collaboration with the police, allegedly compromised the original complaint she lodged and accused her of human trafficking. Babalola was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 10 years but the young woman eventually died in prison under controversial circumstances.

Babalola’s matter was a case of the accuser becoming the accused. And the most concerning and displeasing angle to the incident is that there are strong indications that she was sentenced and incarcerated for a crime she did not commit while the crime of burglary committed against her, to which she personally brought the attention of the Ivorian police, was left unattended to. In other words, her incarceration and death would have been avoided in a decent and  just society. This is a classic case of double jeopardy. It is terrible. Prior to her death, some Nigerians reportedly drew the attention of the Nigerian authorities to her predicament. The Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan under whose nose the atrocious event unfolded and culminated in a tragedy reportedly showed a lukewarm disposition towards the travails of the young woman.

Indeed, not a few believe that the role of the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan was curious and suspect while Babalola’s suffering lasted. And that has raised a litany of questions by many a Nigerian. For instance, the trial of the poor woman took months to conclude. What was the embassy doing all the while?  Is taking care of their  citizens/compatriots in other lands not the first job of Nigerian missions abroad? Could that be the awful way the Nigerian embassies construe their primary mandate, or is the embassy in Abidjan just an outlier? Ambassadors are treated as heads of state and enjoy all necessary rights and privileges. And it is expected that they would latch onto those special rights and privileges and wield same to take care of and protect their law-abiding compatriots sojourning in the countries where they serve. That should be the honorable essence of the special treatment they are accorded by their host countries; it shouldn’t be for personal aggrandizement.

Sadly, the Babalola episode speaks to the fact that Nigeria as a country does not value citizenship; that the Nigerian government believes that Nigerians are bad and so could not care a hoot about how they are treated in or outside Nigeria. And it is apparent that the Nigerian embassies have taken a cue from their home government’s ill-informed disposition and lackadaisical attitude to the plight of Nigerians living abroad. It is really sad that it was only at the point of death that there was a move to intervene in Babalola’s case via the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), whereas a process led to her predicament and the miscarriage of justice. Pray, why didn’t the embassy get lawyers to intervene? Why was she left in the lurch in a situation where early diplomatic intervention could have averted the tragedy?

There is a sense in which the way a country treats its citizens home and abroad impacts on its international  image and the respect  accorded to it and its citizens outside its shores. You cannot call your precious calabash a broken and battered calabash and expect your neighbours to call it by a more dignifying name.  Strong and prosperous nations earn respect for themselves and their citizens across the globe not necessarily or solely because of their military prowess or economic prosperity but because of  the importance and priority  they accord the lives and well-being of their citizens home and abroad. If a country treats its citizens shabbily and  in a manner that suggests that their lives and welfare do not matter, it should not be surprised if others treat them similarly. We note the intervention by the leadership of NIDCOM and urge it to, in liaison with the Nigerian embassy in Abidjan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, weigh in more powerfully on Babalola’s case, cause the case to be reviewed, and get justice for her even in death.

We strongly appeal to Nigerians in diaspora to always conduct their affairs with utmost decency and respect for the laws of their host countries. It is  also worthy of reiteration that it is the primary duty of Nigerian missions abroad to intervene promptly and diplomatically each time they sense or receive reports that their compatriots living within their jurisdictions are at the risk of being discriminated against or punished unjustly. One of the surest ways Nigeria can earn respect for itself and its citizens and ensure they are not mistreated in foreign lands  is  for the government to be seen as valuing citizenship and prioritizing the sanctities of life and the well-being of Nigerians living anywhere in the world.

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