Criminal Law

Towards the Decriminalization of Attempted Suicide in Nigeria

Introduction

In the world today, at least one person dies every 40 seconds as a result of suicide. Over 800,000 suicide deaths are recorded on a yearly basis. Studies also show that one-third of all suicide attempters repeat the acts which may eventually lead to their deaths. In the past two decades, the rate of suicides all over the world has increased to an alarming 63%. Suicide is fast becoming a global health issue that demands an imperative response. At the brink of this threshold, many countries have reacted to this tragic backdrop by criminalizing unsuccessful suicidal attempts.

However, in recent years, there seems to be a noticeable trajectory among some countries in decriminalizing suicidal attempts. Nigeria, notwithstanding, still criminalizes suicide attempts without making efforts to curb the menace. In light of this, many questions on the efficacy of this legal measure boil down to answers. How effective has the criminalization of suicidal attempts curbed this menace? Should the criminalization remain, or is it high time that Nigeria followed the contemporary trend of decriminalizing suicidal attempts given the overarching circumstances?

Suicide is a manifest outcome of convoluted factors having psychological, sociological, and personality pathologies that push suicide actors to the cliff of mental disequilibrium. It is a tragedy not only to the actor but also brings immense pain to the hearts of the actor’s family, friends, communities, and the entire nation. Suicide, more often than not, is a result of severe medical conditions affecting the mental health or emotional stability of the victim.

Oftentimes, people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders are more prone to suicidal attempts. On another scale, suicidal attempts are also prompted as a result of the societal context of the attempter. In a society where poverty, unemployment, hunger, economic instability, and injustice thrive, suicidal attempts are more likely to be on the rise.

Suicide in Nigeria

Beyond a doubt, Nigeria is a suicide hotspot. In 2012, over 5000 suicide deaths were recorded.  In 2018, about 18,000 suicides were recorded in Nigeria. Globally, Nigeria is ranked 6th among the countries with the highest rate of suicides, while it is ranked 1st in Africa. Even though the cases of suicide in Nigeria are underreported, new cases of suicides and attempts abound in the news almost on a daily basis. The most recent case of suicide in Nigeria is that of one Olalere Odunare, a 21-year-old father and husband in Epe Local Government Area of Lagos State who jumped into the Lagoon on 15th December 2021 allegedly as a result of depression.

Nigeria is amongst the eight African countries that criminalize suicidal attempts. By virtue of Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, attempting suicide is punishable with an imprisonment term of one year. Section 231 of the Penal Code Act also provides that attempted suicide shall be punished with a one-year imprisonment term or with a fine or with both. Despite strict anti-suicide laws in Nigeria, suicide is on the rise with an estimated rate of 10 suicides per 100,000 people. There is, therefore, a call for the decriminalization of suicidal attempts. Against this backdrop, the controversial question burning for an answer is: should criminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria stay or go.

Pro-Criminalization Stance

Justifications abound for the criminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria. It is axiomatic that “life is sacred”. It is also a widely held belief amongst the Nigerian societies that living one’s life, however miserable it may be, is a natural instinct and same should not be truncated by self-murder attempts. Accordingly, God is the giver of life and only He can determine its end. This perspective equally has backings in Islam and Christianity.

Moreover, various customs and norms in the Nigerian traditional societies vehemently oppose suicide and its attempt. In some ethnic groups, severe punishments are meted on suicide attempters, or where the suicide is successful, the families of the suicide victim are attached with stigma. Bodies of such persons are buried in ‘evil forests’ or, in most cases, his family members are made to go through thorough cleansing rites. These historical notions, coupled with the British colonial relic – anti-suicide laws, firmly entrench the criminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria. 

Also, criminal laws generally have preventive and deterrent effects. The criminalization of suicidal attempts will instill fear of punitive consequences such as jail terms and fines in the mind of a person contemplating suicide. Should suicide and its attempt be decriminalized, suicide idealizers may consider suicide to be a legitimate option. The justification for the criminalization of suicidal attempts, therefore, is that people will desist from attempting suicide being aware of the steep (legal) consequences of a failed attempt.

 Another rationale for the criminalization of suicidal attempts seems to be that by temporary incarceration of suicide attempters, such individuals will be made somber to reflect upon their lives and think about their misdeeds which will then prevent them from repeating suicidal behaviour.

How valid are these arguments in light of the Nigerian situation? The statistics of suicide cases in Nigeria totally negate the efficacy of the ‘criminalization’ approach.

Towards the Decriminalization of Attempted Suicide

Many countries have decriminalized attempted suicide. In the world, only about 20 countries still criminalize suicidal attempts. Nigeria is amongst the eight African countries that still criminalize suicidal attempts. There have been clamours by individuals and organizations for the decriminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria. In light of this trend, is it high time that Nigeria decriminalized suicidal attempts?

Firstly, it is rational that treatment rather than punishment should be administered to suicide survivors. Most people that attempt or commit suicide are usually embattled with treatable mental illness, agony, despair, psychological travails, or depression. Rather than compounding the affliction and anguish of suicide survivors by penalization with imprisonment and amercements, material assistance, counseling, monitoring, and psychotherapy should be rendered to them.  Instead of regarding suicide attempters as criminals, they should be regarded as victims of mental stress and should be offered opportunities for rehabilitation and reformation.

Moreover, suicides and attempts are on the rise in the country despite strict anti-suicide laws being incontestable. Of what effect are the anti-suicide laws when a person has thought it all over to end his life? Suicide attempters are generally not swayed by the legal repercussions upon failed attempts because their minds have been braced up for more fatal consequences. On the whole, the criminalization of attempted suicide has no significant impact on curbing the occurrence of suicide or its attempt.

Another justification for decriminalization is that cases of attempted suicide are underreported as a result of the punishment. Criminalization inhibits prompt medical response and assistance to suicide survivors, which help to prevent the recurrence of suicidal attempts. The criminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria is also responsible for the under-reportage of cases of attempted suicide. Thus, criminalization hinders suitable interventions and the implementation of suicide prevention programmes.

Additionally, as a result of the criminalization of suicidal attempts, survivors of suicides are ostracized and treated with stigma in the society, while their families are also given similar treatment. This may degenerate into recurring cases of depression and mental distress of family members, making them potential suicide attempters. As priorly recommended, rather than criminalization, survivors of suicide should be regarded as victims of mental distress and the society should avoid stigmatization.

Other measures

Asides from the decriminalization of suicidal attempts, there are other viable measures that can reduce the occurrence of suicides and suicidal attempts in Nigeria.

Firstly, hospitalization measures instead of penalization in cases of attempted suicide are recommended. Similarly, suicidal attempts can be best prevented if access to the means of committing suicide is reduced. For instance, the use of pesticides such as ‘Sniper’ for committing suicide is prevalent. Government should regulate the access to these products. Also, youths and teenagers who are mostly victims of suicides can be engaged to develop essential life skills so as to improve their resilience, tolerance, and self-esteem. Responsible reportage of suicide-related news will go a long way in avoiding ‘copycat suicides. Majorly, the government should strive to make better policies that engender a good economy, security, and stability which will reduce abject poverty, unemployment, and economic hardship. Importantly, sensitization on mental health and literacy should be intensified by the government, stakeholders, and NGOs.

Conclusion

Glaringly, suicide is fast becoming a growing crisis in Nigeria. Preventing suicide and suicidal attempt requires the collective efforts of governments, stakeholders, NGOs, and individual citizens. Based on the foregoing, the criminalization of suicidal attempts in Nigeria should rather go than stay. If there could be an appropriate time to decriminalize suicidal attempts in Nigeria, it is now.