Going undercover to expose prison rot

After ’Fisayo Soyombo’s investigation into prison corruption was published, he got word that the Nigerian Correctional Service wanted to arrest him.

“Fortunately, the plan was leaked to me. I fled my house immediately,” he said.

Social media activists responded with the Twitter campaign #KeepFisayoSafe. He believes this forced the authorities’ hand and they abandoned the plan.

To produce Drug abuse, sodomy, bribery, pimping … The cash-and-carry operations of Ikoyi Prisons, the second of his three-part series the Nigerian online newspaper, TheCable, published in October 2019, Soyombo spent close to two weeks in a police cell and in Ikoyi Prison.

Before going undercover, he grew his hair “to blend with artificial dreads”. “One look at me and the typical policeman would have mistaken me for a compulsive hemp smoker, an incorrigible internet fraudster or a serial drug abuser,” he wrote.

’Fisayo Soyombo

He was arrested after supposedly failing to pay the outstanding amount for a car he had bought.

A cousin’s experience sparked the idea for the investigation. “[His] business failed in 2015 and one of his creditors showed him no mercy. He was arrested, arraigned in court and remanded in prison in 2016. When he got out, he told me the rot in the prison system needed to be exposed.”

Before the investigation, Soyombo didn’t know “things were that bad. I didn’t know prison-yard corruption began with the warders stationed in courts.”

Of the scenarios he and his backup team planned for, he says he knew he wasn’t going to die, “but I feared how prisoners were cramped up like sardines in the welcome cell, especially because I’m a lazy sleeper. I feared sodomy too.”

After the series was published, the head of the prison service said he would launch an investigation.

“The conversations generated by the story were intense,” said Soyombo.

“I also took personal responsibility for the kind of change I want to see in Nigeria’s criminal justice system.”

He did this by donating the N500,000 he won as his share of the inaugural People Journalism Prize for Africa, which he co-won for this series on prison corruption, to The Justice Project (TJP), for the release of awaiting-trial prisoners “who have no business in prison”, he said, and invited his Twitter friends to quadruple the amount.

Soyombo is a former editor of TheCable and a former managing editor of Sahara Reporters, an online news agency with a focus on citizen journalism.

Last year, he founded the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit that “combats injustice, holds power to account and speaks for the voiceless”.

His multiple awards include being a three-time winner of the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting. His writings have been translated into German, French and Arabic.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Featured image: Nigerian Prison Service Headquarters. Image: Supplied