Why is attempted suicide a crime in 2019 Nigeria?

It might be time for Nigeria to repeal an old-fashioned law that's a colonial legacy.

Police officers take a man into custody after a failed suicide attempt on the Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos in January 2019 [RRS]

In fact, moments after she was stopped and taken into custody by officers of the Rapid Response Squad (RRS) of the Lagos State Police Command, she was still confused about why she was being treated like a criminal.

"I did not steal, I did not kill anybody. I only wanted to take my life. This policeman said I have committed a crime. Which crime? 

"How is my attempt to kill myself anybody's business? Is it not my life?" she snapped while she was being transported to a police station.

Many might say Momoh was right to think it was no one's business what she did with her life, but she was wrong about it not being a crime because according to Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, she had committed a misdemeanor that could land her in prison for one year, if convicted for attempted suicide.

Suicide in Nigeria has taken on a worrying dimension in recent times as stories of people killing themselves have become a mainstay in media reports.

According to the 2016 Global Health Observatory data repository by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there's an estimated 9.5 suicides per 100,000 Nigerians.

Suicide, and its apparent prevalence in Nigeria, is notably a complex issue. It's a consequence of various factors that include mental illnesses, substance abuse, relationship issues, financial difficulties and so on.

Momoh said she wanted to kill herself because she owed three Swiss textile dealers thousands of dollars, and that she was duped by a Bureau de Change dealer of the sum of N18.7 million. Her shop was also burgled and her son neglected her, leaving her with no one to turn to.

On the same day that Momoh was prevented from killing herself, another woman, Abigail Ogunyinka, 61 years old at the time, was rescued by divers after she jumped into the lagoon from the Carter Bridge.

She told authorities that she decided to commit suicide because two micro-finance banks she owed a combined N150,000 were troubling her.

"I have looked all through and there is no help. I don't want to face embarrassment," she said.

Like both women, many Nigerians that have committed suicide, or somehow survived attempts, have expressed a form of frustration or the other that pushed them into giving up on life.

However, like Momoh, many of them were unaware that surviving an attempt means they could land in prison.

80% of almost 1000 Nigerians that took part in an online poll conducted by Pulse said they had no idea that attempting suicide is a crime in the country.

This is despite the fact that the legislation is a holdover from when Nigeria was a British colony before it gained independence in 1960.

The stigmatisation against suicide stems majorly from religious and cultural sentiments.

Christianity and Islam, Nigeria's two dominant religions, frown sternly upon suicide.

Until very recently, many Nigerians believed suicide to be an alien practice that fellow Nigerians were biologically incapable of doing.

However, the suicide rate in the country remains a challenge despite its criminalisation.

Gafar Oderinde, the admin officer of the Homicide division of the Lagos State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (SCIID), believes Section 327 serves as an effective deterrent to others contemplating suicide.

Oderinde, an Assistant Superintendent Of Police (ASP), told Pulse that suicide attempts on the Third Mainland Bridge slowed down after Momoh was arraigned before an Ebute-Meta Magistrates' Court and charged for attempted suicide with bail set at N500,000.

He said around five different cases of suicide or attempted suicide were recorded the same week that Momoh was rescued.

"By the time we arraigned that woman (Momoh), that's when it (attempted suicide) ceased," he told Pulse.

Although Deputy Superintendent Of Police Bala Elkana, the spokesperson of the Lagos State Police Command, believes the wisdom behind Section 327 was to discourage people from taking their lives, he said it doesn't do much to stop people intent on committing suicide.

"They're aware that if I fail, I'll be charged, but people still take their lives," he told Pulse.

This is a position also held by Dr Cheluchi Onyemelukwe who has been campaigning for the repeal of Section 327 ever since she discovered, with Momoh's public case, that there was some form of implementation of the law.

Before Momoh, she said she didn't know it was a problem, because she had wrongly believed that, like several other provisions that Nigeria has in its criminal code, Section 327 was just there and not being enforced.

Since then, she and her Centre For Health Ethics Law and Development (CHELD) organisation have been advocating for the repeal of Section 327 so as to pave the way for a more humane handling of suicide survivors. 

She believes that the current legislation is not exactly serving as a deterrent as it doesn't necessarily address the root cause of what would compel people to take their lives.

She said, "However you look at it, I don't see what the benefits are. Typically, people who are driven to the point of suicide for any kind of problem are not in the place where they're thinking about succeeding or fearing prosecution if they fail. 

"They're intent on doing what they want to do. Is there really a deterrent? Most people who attempt suicide want to succeed."

It's important to note that despite the spectre that Section 327 creates for suicide survivors, arraignment in court is rare and conviction for the crime is even rarer. In fact, ASP Oderinde told Pulse that he's unaware of any convictions in the four years he's been in the Homicide division.

However, the legislation wields a damaging influence on the procedure for processing someone who has just survived a suicide attempt.

When Owolabi Ogunwande was prevented from committing suicide at the Lekki Phase 1 toll gate in June 2018, he was detained at Maroko Police Station. After four days in detention, Ogunwande, who said he was frustrated by his unemployment status, made another attempt to kill himself inside his cell. 

He was later arraigned before the Igbosere Magistrates' Court on a two-count charge, one for each suicide attempt.

Cases like Ogunwande's is enough to convince that even though Section 327 is loosely enforced, it is fundamentally damaging to the post-event handling of suicide survivors and could further worsen their state of mind.

"The law can be an instrument for providing help, and at the moment, we're doing the exact opposite of that with our law," Dr Onyemelukwe said about Section 327's impact.

It is noteworthy that Lagos State has amended its laws to review the punishment for attempted suicide from imprisonment to hospitalisation.

"Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a simple offence and the court shall make a hospitalisation order," reads Section 235 of the Criminal Law of Lagos. 

The state, according to Elkana, has many facilities with counselling units that can help people who attempt suicide. However, this is not the case in many other Nigerian states who lack the sort of resources available to Lagos.

Dr Onyemelukwe believes that the law can be a part of the process of helping survivors, not by criminalising their attempts, but by intervening in a humane manner proportional to their delicate status.

The major reason for this is that many people who attempt suicide are most likely suffering from one form of mental health problem or the other, ranging from depression to dementia. Depression, which millions of Nigerians suffer from, is a major trigger for suicidal acts.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Abdulaziz Abdullahi, disclosed in November 2018 that 20% to 30% of Nigeria's estimated 200 million people suffer from mental disorders.

This figure of around 60 million Nigerians suffering from mental disorders is alarming because it's more than the population of many countries across the world.

Despite how worrying the epidemic should be, there is a considerable neglect of mental health issues in the country, resulting in the lack of proper and adequate systems and facilities that address the situation in any significant way.

Nigeria's current mental health policy document was promulgated in 1991 and has not been properly implemented ever since.

A Mental Health Bill, introduced in 2003, continues to languish in the National Assembly years after it was withdrawn and re-introduced in 2013.

Dr Onyemelukwe believes passing that bill would go a long way in addressing Nigeria's struggles with suicide more than the legislation against it is currently doing.

"Within that mental health bill, we can then begin to consider how to manage people. We need to have a more proactive approach, rather than a reactive approach. 

"A more consistent approach that says that even people who amongst us are mentally ill are worthy of support, attention, and everything that can give them stability and a sense of well-being," she said.

While suicide can be triggered by something as serious as a mental health problem, Dr Onyemelukwe and DSP Elkana agree it can also be as a result of something as 'basic' as a cry for help.

Elkana told Pulse about how a young man tried to commit suicide because he couldn't raise N20,000 as capital for a business.

"Some of them actually raise alarm because they just need help and we go as far as looking at what can we do for them. There are instances where we gave them money. 

"I could remember one that was given N20,000. He needed just as little as that amount to start life; just to start one little training. And since then, he's fine," he said.

The Lagos Police spokesperson also recalled the story of a suicide victim, a young hawker, who killed herself over the theft of her life savings totalling N7,500; and a young man that committed suicide because he had difficulty paying his rent.

These are the kinds of frustrations that feature prominently in a place like Nigeria where, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over 98 million people are living in multidimensional poverty which encompasses deprivations across 10 indicators including poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, among others.

Dr Onyemelukwe says regardless of what triggers a person to attempt suicide, the solution is not to criminalise the act.

Decriminalising suicide is not an attempt to validate the act and make it appear a suitable solution for dealing with life's problems, as she said some critics have pointed out; it's merely to enable the implementation of better policies to tackle the problem in a more effective manner.

It speaks to the inadequacy of Section 327 that even law enforcement officers don't endorse it, partly or completely.

This month, the spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force, DCP Frank Mba, called on Nigerian lawmakers to amend Section 327 to ensure people who attempt suicide are not punished.

He said, "Rather than criminalising failed suicide attempts, relevant authorities should in fact, create support groups/lines to provide them with help, as truth be told, such victims do not need to be labelled, stigmatised, nor do they need to be given jail sentence!"

Even though he wasn't as categorical about abolishing the law, DSP Elkana also believes that Section 327 should be considered for a review.

"Every law has a purpose that it serves, so you'll look at the usefulness of a particular situation at a particular time and see whether it needs to be reviewed because the society itself is dynamic so the laws should be dynamic. They should change in line with the changes in our society," Elkana said.

Dr Onyemelukwe also told Pulse that many Magistrates are unwilling to send suicide survivors to prison and would readily release them to the care of volunteers, such as her organisation.

She said, "In the past year, we've been instrumental in getting a few people released from Police custody. Typically, what we do find is that we're all humane and the Magistrates don't even want to send the person to prison. 

"So, if you come up as an NGO and are willing to take a person and help them get back on their feet, the Magistrates are willing to allow you to go do that." 

Many Nigerians have been able to get off the hook for attempted suicide this way. Momoh was released to someone identified as Otunba, according to ASP Gafar, without the N500,000 bail set by the court.

The Lagos State Directorate of Public Prosecutions recommended that the case against her be dismissed and she was discharged by the court three months after her suicide attempt.

Elkana disclosed that a total of 16 people have been prevented from committing suicide in Lagos this year through several preventive measures put in place by the Police.

However, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, he believes more awareness campaigns must be raised around the subject of suicide in the country so as to hopefully curb the menace.

Dr Onyemelukwe agrees, telling Pulse that not a lot of people, organisations, development partners, and donors have shown enough interest that should pressure the government to act seriously. 

Moving forward, CHELD plans to visit selected states to convince their governments about the possibility of decriminalising attempted suicide and providing survivors with more humane help.

"The hope is that when others see others doing it, they'd begin to think about repealing that particular provision. It's such a low hanging fruit. Just throw it out," she said.

The ideas that birthed Section 327 existed at a time when the understanding of suicide was incomplete. However, many will agree today that it's not a piece of legislation that has a place in the present.

The continued existence of the legislation in Nigeria is laughable when you realise Britain went on to decriminalise suicide with the Suicide Act 1961, just a year after Nigeria's independence.

India, also a former British colony, repealed the provision on attempted suicide two years ago. The Mental Healthcare Act (2017) states that a person who attempts suicide should be presumed to have severe stress and is to be offered opportunities for rehabilitation from the government.

It might be time for Nigeria to do the same and repeal Section 327.


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