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Long Overdue: Decriminalisation of Attempted Suicide in Nigeria

Abstract

Suicide has become more notorious in recent years, and is now reported regularly in the news. There is greater awareness of the challenge of suicide and attempted suicide partly as a result of increase in social media use. Attempting suicide is a criminal offence under Nigeria’s criminal laws. This law is currently enforced in several states in Nigeria. A legacy of old law from the era of British colonization, several other African countries have provisions in their criminal legislation criminalizing suicide attempts. This paper argues that this provision is retrogressive and unhelpful. It provides an overview of suicide in Nigeria, the factors that have been identified as leading to suicide and suicidal ideation and the state of the criminal law on attempted suicide in Nigeria, including the recent reforms in Lagos State. It argues that in light of current realities, better understandings of mental health, and the public health importance of preventing suicides, the provisions criminalizing attempted suicide in Nigeria should, as a matter of urgency, be repealed. It makes several recommendations relating to developing a national suicide prevention strategy and more robust approaches to addressing mental health from a legal perspective.

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Notes

  1. WHO, Mental Health: Suicide Data, online: <https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/>.

  2. WHO, Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative (Geneva: WHO, 2014) at 25.

  3. WHO, Suicide, online: <http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide>.

  4. See generally Alabi OO, Omolabake Alabi et al., “Suicide and Suicidal Behaviours in Nigeria: A Review” (2014) Dokita Editorial Board, online at <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271748010_Suicide_and_Suicidal_Behavior_in_Nigeria_A_review>.

  5. Ibid.

  6. The Nigeria Demographic Health Survey, for example, does not provide for suicide data.

  7. See, for example, Cornelius O. Ukah, Alexander M. Nwofor, “Issuing and Appropriate Completion of Medical Certification of Cause-of-Death Forms by Physicians at a Tertiary Teaching Hospital in Nigeria” (2017) 29:3-4 Orient Journal of Medicine.

  8. “N18.7 m debt: Textile dealer on trial over attempt to jump into Lagos lagoon”, <http://www.shipsandports.com.ng/n18-7m-debt-woman-trial-attempt-jump-lagos-lagoon/>.

  9. “Carpenter Bags 6 Months for Attempted Suicide” Daily Trust March 9, 2018, online: <https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/carpenter-bags-6-months-for-attempted-suicide.html>.

  10. “Attempted Suicide: Melaye Docked on Stretcher, Granted 90 m Bail” Vanguard Nigeria, <https://www.vanguardngr.com/2018/05/attempted-suicide-melaye-docked-stretcher-granted-n90m-bail/>.

  11. COP v Suleiman Ayuba MN/CR75/2019.

  12. WHO, Suicide, online: <http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide>.

  13. World Health Organisation, ‘WHO Mortality Database’ (World Health Organisation, May 2018), <http://apps.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/mortality/whodpms/>.

  14. WHO, Suicide Mortality Rate, http://www.apps.who.int/gho/data/node.sdg.3-4-viz-2?lang=en>.

  15. Eferakeya A.E., “Drugs and suicide attempts in Benin City” (1984) 145 British Journal of Psychiatry 70.

  16. Odejide A.O et al., “The Etiology of Deliberate Self-Harm. The Ibadan Experience” (1986) 149 British Journal of Psychiatry 734.

  17. Nwosu S.O et al., “Pattern of Suicides in Ile-Ife, Nigeria” (2001) 20(3) West African Journal of Medicine 259.

  18. Okulate G.T, ‘”Suicide Attempts in a Nigerian Military Setting” (2001) 78(9) East Africa Medical Journal 493. The findings from these studies are in tandem give credence to the fact that suicides are the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. See World Health Organisation, ‘Suicide Data’ (World Health Organisation, 2018), <http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/>, accessed 5 July 2018.

  19. See Adetoun Oladele et al., “Depression and Suicidal Ideation among College Students with and without Learning Disabilities in Nigeria” (2016) 16 The European Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences 2084.

  20. Akin Ojagbemi, “Suicidal Behaviour in Old Age – Results from the Ibadan Study of Ageing” (2013) BMC Psychiatry 1.

  21. See Monday Igwe et al., “Factors Associated with Depression and Suicide among Patients with Diabetes Mellitus and Essential Hypertension in a Nigerian Teaching Hospital” (2013) 13(1) African Health Sciences 68.

  22. Godwin Onyebueke et al., “Depression and Suicide Risk among HIV Positive Individuals Attending and Out Patient HIV/AIDS Clinic of a Nigerian Tertiary Health Institution” (2015) 18(1) Journal of Psychiatry 14.

  23. The World Bank, “Poverty & Equity Data Portal” (The World Bank, 2018), <http://www.povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/country/NGA>, accessed 20 July 2018.

  24. See Abiodun Adewuya et al., “Prevalence and Associated Factors for Suicidal Ideation in the Lagos State Mental Health Survey, Nigeria” (2016) 2 BJPsych Open (2016) 385.

  25. S.A.U Offiah et al., “Pattern of Suicide in Nigeria: The Niger Delta Experience” (2014) 9(1) Journal of Medical Investigations and Practice 8.

  26. Ibid.

  27. See Abiodun Adewuya et al., “Prevalence and Associated Factors for Suicidal Ideation in the Lagos State Mental Health Survey, Nigeria” (2016) 2 BJPsych Open (2016) 385.

  28. Another being treason.

  29. Section 231 of the Penal Code.

  30. The Constitution in the First and Second Schedules, the Exclusive and Concurrent Lists. Matters which fall outside of these lists are residual matters over which the States have absolute authority to legislate.

  31. Section 327 of the Criminal Code.

  32. Section 206 of the Gambian Penal Code.

  33. Section 57(2) of the Ghanaian Criminal Offences Act of 1960.

  34. Section 226 of the Kenyan Penal Code.

  35. Section 229 of the Penal Code of Malawi.

  36. Section 217 of the Tanzania Penal Code.

  37. Section 210 of the Ugandan Penal Code.

  38. Section 57(2) of the Ghanaian Criminal Offences Act of 1960 which provides that “Whoever attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”, only differs slightly in form from the provision of the other laws.

  39. Emily Jackson, Medical Law: Text, Cases and Materials (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 879.

    Wilbur Larremore, Suicide and the Law (1904) 17: 4 Harvard Law Review 331 at 332. See also, See Gerry Holt, ‘When Suicide was Illegal’ BBC News (London, 3 August 2011) <https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14374296>.

  40. See, for example, section 4 of the Criminal Code Act, Nigeria.

  41. See Gerry Holt, ‘When Suicide was Illegal’ BBC News (London, 3 August 2011), <https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14374296>.

  42. Emily Jackson, Medical Law: Text, Cases and Materials (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 880.

  43. Section 2 of the Suicide Act, 1961.

  44. See Mensah Adinkrah, ‘Anti-Suicide Laws in Nine African Countries: Criminalization, Prosecution and Penalization’ (2016) 9 African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 279.

  45. See Paul Iyoghojie, ‘Man Sent to Prison over Attempt to Commit Suicide’, PM News (Lagos, 3 July 2018) <https://www.pmnewsnigeria.com/2018/07/04/man-sent-to-prison-over-attempt-to-commit-suicide/> accessed 11 July 2018. See footnote 9.

  46. As part of the CHELD Project, ‘I No Commit’ I have worked to help secure the release of persons charged with the offence of attempted suicide.

  47. Section 235 Criminal Law of Lagos State, Ch.C17, Laws of Lagos State, 2015.

  48. See Mensah Adinkrah, ‘Anti-Suicide Laws in Nine African Countries: Criminalization, Prosecution and Penalization’ (2016) 9 African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 279.

  49. H Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. * and Michele Malloy, ‘Suicide and Assisting Suicide: A Critique of Legal Sanctions’ (1982) 36 Sw L.J. 1003.

  50. Medical and Dental Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal v Okonkwo (2001) (2001) LPELR-SC.213/1999 Supreme Court.

  51. Esanubor v Faweya.

  52. Re W (A Minor) (Medical Treatment) [1992] 3 WLR 758.

  53. See note 49.

  54. Section 23 of the National Health Act, 2014.

  55. Bouvia v Superior Court 179 Cal App 3d 1127 (1986).

  56. Marc Stauch and Kay Wheat, Text, Cases and Materials on Medical Law and Ethics (Routledge, 2015) at 98.

  57. P D G Skegg, Law, Ethics and Medicine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

  58. Selfe v Ilford and District Hospital Management Committee (1970) 114 SJ 935; Kirkham v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police (1990) 2 WLR 987; Savage v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust [2008] UKHL74.

  59. The English case of Home Office v Robb [1995] 1 F L R 412, where the court held that a prisoner of sound mind has the same right to carry on a hunger strike to death as other citizens suggests that allowing such a person to carry on would not be unlawful.

  60. Section 33 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.

  61. Section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.

  62. Rabone v Pennine [2012] UKSC 2; Reeves V Metropolitan Police Commissioner [2000] 1 A C 360; Kirkham v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester [1990] 2 Q B 283.

  63. Under the Criminal Code, this carries a penalty of life imprisonment. See section 326 of the Criminal Code. In the Penal Code, any person who abets the commission of suicide by “persons under 18, an insane person, a delirious person, an idiot, or a person in a state of intoxication” is punishable with death; if the person does not fall within these classes, then they are to be punished with ten years imprisonment and a fine.

  64. Before colonization, some tribes in Nigeria recognized suicide in certain contexts. Wole Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman, depicts such a situation where a king’s horseman had to willingly be buried with their master, the king, upon his death. This was abolished by the English after they colonized Nigeria. See also, Marcelo Suicide as Self-Determination of Citizenship Within the State,” (2017) Rev. Bioét. vol. 25 no. 2 Brasília May/Aug.

  65. Tarek M Shraour et al., ‘Suicide Attempters in Abu Dhabi: Is Criminal Prosecution Associated with Patients’ Guardedness?’ (2018) 42:10 Death Studies 636-639.

  66. My organization, CHELD’s, interactions with persons arrested for allegedly attempting suicide bears out this assertion.

  67. Shivanand Kattimani et al., “What do Suicide Attempters think about the Legal Status of Suicide in India” (2015) 57 Indian Journal of Psychiatry 103.

  68. COP v Ogunwande (2018) Suit No R/45 Magistrate Ct.

  69. “Carpenter Bags 6 Months for Attempted Suicide” Daily Trust March 9, 2018, online: <https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/carpenter-bags-6-months-for-attempted-suicide.html>.

  70. See Peter Bartlett and Ralph Sanford, Mental Health Law: Policy and Practice (4rd Edition) (Oxford University Press, 2014).

  71. The Police Act Cap P19 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

  72. Section 39 (1) (b).

  73. Section 39 (2) and (3).

  74. Lagos State Health Management Scheme Law, 2015.

  75. See Section 11 of the National Health Act, 2014.

  76. Stephanie Busari, “Locked up for trying to take his own life, in a country where suicide is still a crime” <https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/30/health/imprisoned-suicide-illegal-nigeria-intl/index.html>.

  77. Deborah Kahn et al., “Efforts to Decriminalize Suicide in Ghana, India and Singapore” (2013) 4 Suicidology Online 96.

  78. Ibid.

  79. WHO, Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative (Geneva: WHO, 2014).

  80. Ibid.

  81. However, there is evidence that this ban is not yet been effectively implemented, with sniper still very much available in the open market.

  82. WHO, Preventing Suicide: A Community Engagement Toolkit (Geneva: WHO, 2018).

  83. WHO, Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative (Geneva: WHO, 2014) at 11.

  84. D Rossadini et al., “Has the Italian Law “Save Suicide” Had Effect?” (2018) 28 European Journal of Public Health 194.

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*Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, Associate Professor, Babcock University; Director, Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development. e-mail: cheluchi7@yahoo.com

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Onyemelukwe, C. Long Overdue: Decriminalisation of Attempted Suicide in Nigeria. Crim Law Forum 31, 225–249 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10609-020-09392-z

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