Stigma, criminalisation not deterring suicide
JOHN CHIKEZIE x-rays prevalent cases of suicide in the country and blames the law for the upsurge
Stories of people committing suicide have now become an end to a means among the young and the middleaged in the country, especially in a city like Lagos where the hustle and bustle have tremendous effects on the mental state of residents. In 2017, the numerous shocking and alarming media reports of people taking their own lives appeared to have created an awareness in the mind of every Nigerian but what most folks didn’t know is that attempting to kill oneself is illegal and an offence against the state.
The alarm was raised when the sad and disturbing case of a 33-year-old medical doctor, Allwell Orji, who jumped into the lagoon from the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge, was reported on March 19, 2017. The deceased, who was being driven by his driver in a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) with registration number LND 476 EE about 4:50p.m., was receiving a call when he suddenly asked his driver to park. According to the driver, the doctor asked him to pull over, came out of the vehicle and jumped into the lagoon.
His body was recovered two days later. But there was uproar on social media when a 51-year-old textile dealer at Balogun Market, Titilayo Momoh, was arraigned before an Ebute Meta Chief Magistrates’ Court on April 24, 2017 for attempting to jump into the lagoon on the Third Mainland Bridge. Momoh, who pleaded not guilty, was arraigned on a charge of attempting to commit suicide.
The prosecutor, Kehinde Omisakin, said that the accused committed the offence on March 24 about 10a.m. contrary to Section 233 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2015. Omisakin said the businesswoman was prevented by security operatives from taking her own life. It was further learnt that the accused had been having sleepless nights since she was allegedly swindled of N18.7 million by a Bureau-de-Change operator sometime in 2015. However, upon her arrest, Momoh pleaded with the Lagos State government to pardon her actions on the claim that the weight of her debt pushed her into the act.
Although Momoh was granted bail by Chief Magistrate A. T. Elias in the sum of N500,000 with two responsible sureties in like sum, government later withdrew the case from the court. The judge directed that the woman be taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.
Momoh’s attempted suicide and her subsequent arraignment brought to light Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, which stipulates that any person who attempts to kill himself is liable to imprisonment for one year, as many people were not even aware that such a law exists.
Looking into the implication of the suicide law as against successful suicides, is a pathetic story of a 42-year-old wielder, Wasiu Alowonle, who killed himself by jumping off a Lagos courtroom window on December 6, 2017; simply out of frustration.
Alowonle was accused of stealing an iron rod worth N40,000 and arraigned before Mrs. O. I. Raji of an Ogba Chief Magistrates’ Court. The prosecuting officer, Yumi Egunjobi, said the deceased was earlier arraigned on October 16 on a one-count charge of stealing and had been in custody at Kirikiri Prisons.
Egunjobi said the deceased was arraigned on December 6 for his trial to commence but no one could explain what made him jump off the window. However, a security guard, who witnessed the incident and pleaded anonymity, told New Telegraph that the deceased was manipulated by a spiritual force to commit suicide as he was already looking pale and frustrated when he was brought in by prison warders for trial. He said: “Although people claimed he killed himself out of frustration from prison officials’ treatment.
But I cannot believe that the man was in his right senses because it sounds ridiculous to say that it was an attempt to escape through a three-storey. Escape from a tall building through the window; that is impossible! “I believe that he was compelled by a spiritual force to kill himself. His action was not ordinary especially for someone who has been locked up in Kirikiri for months. He was wearing a white T-shirt, written ‘Fly Emirate,’ and a pair of blue jeans when he was led into the witness box for trial. “But for one reason or the other, the magistrate stood down the matter. He left the box and sat with other defendants on the front row of the court, close to the window.
“I was told he was meant to pay N40,000 to the man he allegedly stole from. But barely a few minutes after the next case was announced, the deceased pushed the other defendant beside him and ran towards the window.
“Before the prison guards could grab him, he had already jumped off and landed on the floor with his head. He died on the spot because his head was badly smashed while his right hand was fractured.” Hence, the worrisome question stuttering on the lips of everyone was what would have been Alowole’s punishment had he survived the suicide attempt?
Would the prosecutor have amended the previous charge to accommodate his attempted suicide? Or would he be re-arraigned on a fresh count of suicide? Another related incident is the case of a 31-year-old man, Hammed Olojo, who was arrested by the police on August 27, 2017 while attempting to jump into the Lagos lagoon in a bid to commit suicide but was quickly restrained. Olojo was prevented from taking his own life and charged before an Ebute Metta Magistrates’ Court, Lagos.
The prosecuting officer, Kehinde Olatunde, said Olojo, who pleaded not guilty, was charged on a one-count charge of attempted suicide contrary to Section 235 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015.
He was also granted bail by Magistrate O. O. A. Fowowe-Erusiafe in the sum of N50,000 with two sureties in like sum and the matter was thereafter adjourned till November 16, 2017 for mention.
Late last year, Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Imohimi Edgal, directed the prosecution of a member of staff of China Construction Company of Nigeria Limited (CCCN), Mr. Folarin Odukoya, for attempted suicide. Odukoya allegedly attempted to take his own life about 11p.m. on December 17 by jumping into the lagoon near the Ebute Ero Jetty but was rescued by divers and handed over to the Ebute Ero Divisional Police.
However, when interrogated, Odukoya claimed he decided to kill himself because his employer allegedly refused to issue him a document he believed would augment his career. Nigeria, despite being ranked as sixth happiest country in Africa and 103rd in the world on March 20, 2017, according to World Happiness Report 2017, has witnessed more suicides than happy endings.
The giant of Africa, well known for its agility in business and perseverance despite economic hardship, recorded a large number of shocking attempted and completed suicides in 2017 than any other year since its history. However, according to a report made available by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a global initiative launched by the United Nations, Nigerians were ranked sixth happiest people in Africa despite the country’s challenging economic recession.
According to the SDSN Director and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General, Jeffrey Sachs, the happy countries refer to those with a healthy balance of prosperity in terms of social capital; like acquiring a high degree of trust in the society, low inequality measure and confidence in the government.
According to Sachs, the rankings of happiest countries are based on six essential factors such as per capital gross domestic product, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business.
Unfortunately, such happy records soon became a pale shadow when Nigeria, from being one of the happiest people, sunk into the rank of the most depressed country in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports on April 7, 2017. Barely a month after ranking as one of the happiest on earth, WHO arrived at a conclusion that Nigeria has 7,079,815 people suffering from depression, about 3.9 per cent of the population.
The figures were released in a report ahead of the World Health Day (WHD) entitled; “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.” According to the report, “4,894,557 Nigerians, which is 2.7 per cent of the population, suffer anxiety disorders. Depression is the leading cause of disabilities worldwide, and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. “Depression can lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15 – 29 globally. Consequently, the condition can lead to more suicide cases in the country.
“Nigerians are the most depressed in Africa because, since the number of persons with common mental disorders globally is going up, particularly in lower-income countries, the population is rapidly growing and more people are living to the age when depression and anxiety most commonly occur”.
A suicide attempt is often described as an act where a person tries to commit suicide but survives. Hence, most suicide attempts, in some countries, are often based on a terminal or chronic illness. The alarming rate of suicides in the world has varied in several countries while its sanctions still remains a greatly debated concept.
The law against suicide has reigned since antiquity and is believed to have emanated from a religious doctrine which claims that God is the sole determinant for the death of humans (meaning that God has the legal right to determine who and when a person should die).
According to the tales, especially in ancient Athens, persons who deliberately killed themselves were denied the honours of a normal burial. At the time, the punishment for anyone who commits suicide without an approval from the state entails that the person would be buried alone without a headstone or marker, on the outskirt of the town or city. Sometimes, the family of the deceased would be stripped off their belongings and handed over to the state.
Suicide, also referred as selfmurder, within the religious and moral objections, was a mortal sin in the eyes of the church and also a crime under the common law in England in the mid-13th Century. However, before the enactment of the Suicide Act 1961, an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and jailed. Even the families of those who succeeded were equally not left unpunished but could also face prosecution.
The 1961 Suicide Act, however, decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales to enable people who failed while attempting to kill themselves escape prosecution.
Although the states abolished the penalties imposed by the common law (property forfeiture and humiliating burial), it was solely to spare the innocent families and not to legitimise the act. Recent studies on criminal codes of several countries around the world revealed that while most western countries decriminalised suicide acts, suicide attempts still remain a criminal offence in most Islamic countries. In Africa, where the legality or criminality of suicide attempts are mostly deduced from moral standards and religious tenets, several countries like Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe still legalise both attempted and completed suicide.
But in stark contrast, others like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda enforce stringent punishments for offenders. Unlike in Japan where suicide is considered illegal but not punishable, offenders in Nigeria are not left unpunished but are arrested and charged to court for prosecution.
However, self-induced deaths have no judicial penalties, but suicide attempts still remain a criminal offence in Nigeria. Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 stipulates a one year imprisonment sentence for offenders. While Section 235 of the Criminal law ChC17 vol.3 Laws of Lagos State, 2015, prescribes a hospitalisation order for an accused.
The same chapter of the Criminal Code also criminalises aiding suicide; Section 326 states that any person who procures, counsels, induces another in killing himself is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for life. The implications of these laws interpret that anyone who attempts to harm his/her body, under any circumstance, shall be treated as a criminal and duly prosecuted.
Hence, anyone guilty of the offence shall face same treatment similar to an awaiting trial or convicted criminal like a murderer, an armed robber or kidnapper etc. Doctor speaks According to Dr. R. A. Adebayo, a former Acting Medical Director of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, suicide occurs when an individual wilfully or deliberately attempts to end his life and eventually succeeds; while a failed attempt, whether by strangulation, hanging on a rope, taking a poisonous substance or jumping into a lagoon, is called deliberate self-harm (DSH).
Adebayo, who is also a clinical psychologist and consultant psychiatrist, said that suicidal acts should not be treated as criminal cases but as an abnormal mental disorder since 80 per cent of the indulged victims suffer from depression.
While advocating the decriminalisation of suicide attempts, the doctor said that suicidal patients were being admitted into the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital on a weekly basis but because the society decided to criminalise it, people barely heard of the reported cases. Adebayo maintained that suicide patients should not be tagged as criminals but as patients or victims who need to be accessed and medically examined.
According to him, what suicide patients need is an intensive medical care for their condition and not prosecution or a prison sentence. He said: “We should never criminalise suicide acts expect those who attack others through bombing.
Suicidal victims need treatment and not prisons because they are diseased. It would be inhuman to jail people with mental disorders since their condition is a pathological process. “It’s high time we de-stigmatised mental disorders. Hauling people with mental disorders into prisons would never solve their problems rather the Federal Government should provide more opportunities for treatment.
Prison sentence should only serve as punishment to suicide bombers whose intentions are to harm others in the process of taking their own lives. “There are medical factors which induce suicide such as: substance abuse (otherwise called drug addiction), epilepsy, terminal or chronic medical conditions like cancer, stroke and schizophrenia.
“Other non-medical causes of suicide include tough financial debt or condition; honour killings common in Japan and Middle East countries (a situation where someone, whose guilt and shame over an offence committed, kills himself in order to honour or cleanse the disgrace he brought to the image of his family); and suicide attacks in the Islamic states like Boko Haram.
“All these causes of suicide are induced by depression, aside suicide attack which is an element of religious indoctrination. But, on the contrary, suicide is a medical issue and not a criminal act as pointed by the law.
“A successful suicide victim cannot be prosecuted by the law since the person is dead already but the one who attempts cannot also be reported as a result of the fear of being stigmatised, tagged as a criminal and charged to court.
It is certain that more than 15 per cent of suicide attempts won’t be reported. “This, however, makes suicide attempts under reported or shrouded in secrecy. In this hospital, I have witnessed several cases of deliberate self-harm (DSH) patients especially those with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a major psychotic disorder where a patient claims to hear strange voices. This condition is also referred to as auditory hallucination.
“According to patients who suffer from this condition, these strange voices tell them to kill or harm themselves. Some of them adhere to that instruction while the lucky ones run into hiding or seek help. There are cases of patients who heard voices and thereafter jumped from a storey building or into a lagoon.
“There was a peculiar case of an epileptic patient who got tired of her condition and decided to end it by jumping into the lagoon. She jumped from the Third Mainland Bridge but fortunately she was rescued. Another lady also jumped into the same lagoon after hearing strange voices but she was rescued as well.
“Now, in the eyes of the law, these ladies have attempted suicide, but medically we call it a DSH. This is because when the cause of such behaviour is examined, we realise that depression or the strange voices prompted the act.”
Adebayo also explained that after the rescue, rehabilitation, and recovery from such illness, some of these patients eventually come to terms with the damage the illness has done in their lives and might still attempt suicide. He said: “Some of them may not want to continue or brace up with life simply because of shame or guilty.
Some might be ashamed of the things they experienced during the illness or the pain or harm they might have caused either to themselves or their families. So in order not to live with the trauma incurred by that illness, they wilfully choose to kill themselves. This realisation is called post schizophrenic depression.
“There are certain determinants to aid in identifying a suicidal person like previous at- tempts of harming self, family history of depression and child abuse (especially among teenagers)”. Lawyers speak A legal luminary, Prof Itse Sagay, SAN, said that the basic argument by most people is that if a person succeeds in the act of suicide, then he cannot be punished. But if he fails and is punished, then it sounds unreasonable. Hence, they imply that the person who fails is the one who gets punishment and not the one who succeeds in the act.
Sagay said: “I think that the purpose of that law is to serve as deterrent; to discourage a person from taking his/her own life. But the reason I agree with those who say it should be removed from our law books is that it doesn’t really act as deterrent. This is because a person who wants to kill himself is determined to succeed even though he may fail. So, he has no fear whatsoever. “It’s only after he fails that he realises that he could be punished.
But when he embarked on it, his mind was totally made up and firm that nothing else follows. “So, I think that the position of our law on suicide is unreasonable and there’s no justification for enforcing it. Instead, we should have a more robust provision for monitoring people, for tackling psychological problems, in order to discourage people from even desiring to commit suicide and not when the person fails.”
A human rights activist and Director of Access to justice, Joseph Otteh, who also shared same thoughts with the learned SAN, said that “the criminalisation of suicide in our laws is an incident of both our colonial experience as well as, ironically, our slow pace of reassessing the expediency or relevance of inherited colonial laws”. Otteh also called for a review of the suicide law.
He said: “The retention of the offence of suicide in federal statutes possibly hearkens to the fact that there has never been any systematic effort to review wholly, federal penal legislation since Independence from Britain. What has happens mostly are piece meal reviews, additions and few subtractions, leaving the body of colonial laws substantially intact?
“The Lagos position is a lot more thoughtful, sensible and realistic and offers a compassionate physiological and legal response to the problem. It regards attempting suicide as a possible mental health problem, and offers care in dealing with it.
“This is the way the problem should be addressed. It unwarps and unloads the historical political baggage associated with the criminalisation of suicide, and focuses on the needs of the person attempting it rather than perpetuating the flawed historical reasons associated with its use some centuries ago.
“In that era, criminalising suicide was seen to reflect the anger felt by the state at the use of suicide as a form of political defiance of its authority.
The countries where this began have abolished it as an offence, so why should we blindly continue to enforce it?” But Chief Gani Adetola-Kazeem, SAN, disagreed with anyone calling for the review of the suicide law while arguing that, “should people be permitted to willingly take their own lives?”
He said: “I don’t think there is any sufficient reason for someone to take his own life or be permitted to do so. We all have faith in God Almighty who gives life and has the ability to take it. “The point is, in principle, whether it involves taking one’s own life or that of another person, a believer must remember that he has not the power to give life and therefore has no responsibility in taking life. “It’s not for an individual to decide on terminating his or another person’s life. Even if it involves a terminal illness, they should be helped to get out of it and not encouraged to annihilate themselves.
“If there is a medical condition that warrants euthanasia or assisted induced deaths, which of course is not allowed, but generally, the health practitioners should know what to do in order to pacify or ease the pains affecting such a person.
“Aside those who commit suicide out of frustration, depression and medical challenges, there are those who also do same after committing a crime because they feel the best way to escape punishment is to take their own lives. Would you also say that such suicide is right? “I don’t support suicide neither do I think it is right to decriminalise attempted suicide.
I think that the law against attempted suicide should stand just like the law that makes manslaughter and murder a crime. I stand in support of the law against attempted suicide as a believer and not just as a lawyer”. Also speaking in favour of the law, Yusuf Ali, SAN, said he is in full support of the law against attempted suicide.
He said: “I support the law because it’s not right for a man to take what doesn’t belong to him. Life wasn’t created by man so why should he wilfully take it? “Attempting is what the law punishes since those who succeed are never alive to face prosecution. I do not support any form or type of suicide.” The reality of suicide seems to be catching up with other criminal counterparts like murder and manslaughter, but its stringent punishment to impede further actions remains a questionable approach.
If hospitals are built for the sick in order to aid health challenges and prisons serve as rehabilitation centres and reorientation facilities for lawbreakers and offenders; what happens when a mentally impaired person, instead of being taken to a psychiatric home, is arrested, prosecuted and jailed on the premise of an uncoordinated insanity? How do we punish someone who sees suicide as the fastest way or solution of putting an end to a life’s threatening challenge?
These are obviously questions begging for answers in view of the Federal Government’s reviewing of the law on suicide and its implications.
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