Daniel went to the local bar with his friends on that fateful night of May 1, 2019 to watch a football game. It was something he did routinely. He had already made up his mind, win or lose, tomorrow will be a new day. He had no idea that his life was about to change. If he did he probably would have stayed at home instead.
As we speak, Daniel is currently in Cotonou Civil Prison detention facility. His crime? He was accused of being a mercenary. He was picked up from the local bar he went to on the May 1. He’s been waiting to be charged to court. The problem? He has been waiting for more than a month. He remains optimistic, hoping that someday he will be released from his predicament and will be able to return to Nigeria.
That is why he could not contain his joy when the Mission led by the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to Benin Republic, His Excellency, Ambassador Oguntuase Kayode and the Chairman/CEO, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa paid a courtesy visit to the Prison on July 31, 2019 and assured him that his matter would be given high priority. He is this close to getting freedom. He can hardly wait.
Also amongst the delegates on this day were the Minister of Consular Affairs Mr S. S. Anche as well as Defence Attaché Colonel A. A. Babalola and my humble self. The delegates were interested in the welfare of the Nigerian inmates, what they were in the prisons for, what challenges they faced, and where possible, see what it would take to secure release for any of the inmates with minor cases of misdemeanour.
The Comptroller of the Cotonou Civil Prison, Jöel Feliho received the Mission and applauded the delegates for taking time to visit the “Roundabout” (the nickname given to the prison due to the nature of the offences the inmates were brought in for). He explained that many of them were first-time offenders who had unfortunately found themselves in the system. He also assured the Mission that the Nigerian inmates were of exemplary behaviour, and they were not subject to any form of discrimination.
Daniel is an example and typical of the 39 Nigerian inmates currently in Cotonou Civil Prison, inclusive of five women and two boys, all within the ages of 16 years to late 60. What are they accused of? They are alleged to have committed various criminal offences such as robbery, immigration offences, obtaining funds under false pretence, drug and human trafficking, rape and facilitating rape of minors, just to name a few. Like Daniel, there are 16 Nigerians also awaiting trial by the courts in Cotonou. Inmates like Kalu W and Okeke S (accused of armed robbery) have been awaiting trial for 10 years. They would have been released earlier, had they been able to pay One Million, Five Hundred Thousand West African CFA (a little over Nine Hundred Thousand Naira) which is required to secure their bond to be released on bail. One of the boys, aged 16 (accused of raping a minor) has been awaiting trial for 20 months and counting.
Those awaiting trial do not have the means to get legal representation, and as such are forgotten in the prison system. Those who have been tried and convicted are currently serving their prison sentence. Some have appealed their sentences, but nothing has been done with their appeals. The Ambassador has assured them that he will liaise with the Ministry of Justice, to see what can be done for the Nigerian inmates.
Before they left, the Ambassador and the Chairman of NIDCOM dipped their hands into their pockets and gave the inmates a little token to support their upkeep in the prisons. As the Ministry bid the inmates goodbye, the inmates expressed their heartfelt gratitude as they sang and danced to the popular praise and worship song “My Helper.” Hopefully help has come for the inmates in the Cotonou Civil Prisons, and their time there will soon come to an end, especially for inmates Mrs K, who with a payment of fifty thousand naira can soon reunite with her family members in Nigeria.
•Inyang Essien Inyang III, Esq.
Legal Officer, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission.