The Police in Benin Republic, Nigeria’s western neighbours, are demanding a bribe of 800,000 CFA to free Damilola Ayeni, whose arrest since last week became public knowledge only in the early hours of Tuesday.
Ayeni was on a trip to the Republic of Benin for the second leg of fieldwork on a Nigeria-Benin environmental journalism report when the Beninese authorities arrested him.
A man who identified himself as the ‘Commissioner of the Central Police Station of Parakou in Benin’ subsequently reached out to FIJ, announcing that Ayeni was being held at Commisseriat Central, Parakou Police Station.
Writing via WhatsApp with the number +22946066050, profile name ‘Agnisso Lounko’, he said: “Hello sir, I am the Commissioner of the Central Police Station of Parakou in Benin. Do you know Mr. Damilola of Nigerian nationality?
“He is arrested in Penjari [sic] Park in northern Benin for jihadist [sic]. He would [sic] be presented to the prosecutor and sent to prison. He risks 10 to 20 years in prison. What do you think of his situation, sir?”
When FIJ insisted — and sent evidence — that the person being held is a journalist and not a jihadist, Lounko replied: “Where are you now sir?”
After securing an answer, he continued: “I am the Central Commissioner of Parakou in Benin. Jihadist case in Benin is complicated, what do you think of his current situation?”
When he was asked to give options from which a decision could be made, he replied: “I ask you to send a lawyer for his defense, I will ask the OPJ (Judicial Police Officer) to listen to him again before presenting him to the CRIET Prosecutor in Porto-Novo. Thank you.”
FIJ’s response was: “How did a Nigerian journalist become a jihadist in Benin? Did you find a gun, sword, knife, grenade, bomb or any other arm or ammunition on him?”
But Lounko doubled down on his claims, saying: “Do you want his release? If so, reconsider your reaction or send a lawyer to defend him.
“We are all human beings, and I also have relatives in Nigeria. Send 800,000 CFA to my number allowing me to see my colleagues again and the released [sic].”
FIJ’s contacts in Benin Republic said 800,000 CFA is the equivalent of N1.2 million.
“We are in the fight against the jihadists,” Lounko reiterated, insisting on the 800,000 CFA compensation.
Ayeni is not only FIJ’s editor, he is an environment expert and activist.
He was on the longlist for the 2023 edition of the One World Media Awards’ International Journalist of the Year category. He was also shortlisted for the environment category of the 2021 Thomson Foundation Young Journalists (FPA) Award.
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