If you had to draw up a list of appropriate reactions to someone attempting suicide, putting them in prison for one year would probably not appear at any point.
Yet, this is the response recommended by Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act.
Section 327 stipulates that anyone that attempts suicide is guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to imprisonment for one year.
Is this law helpful?
In 2021, a 54-year-old man in Lagos tried to kill himself by attempting to jump off the Third Mainland Bridge into the lagoon.
He was saved by a team of police officers on patrol and taken into protective custody.
The Commissioner of Police ordered his prosecution in court because of the law.
Another 27-year-old man was charged to court on two separate counts of attempted suicide in 2018.
He was arrested after the first attempt in public and was in a police cell for days awaiting trial. He made the second attempt to kill himself inside that cell.
Can this be fixed?
A member of the House of Representatives, Francis Waive, has proposed an amendment to Section 327.
The amendment bill was passed for a second reading when it was presented on February 15, 2022.
The proposed amendment wants to replace one-year imprisonment with compulsory counselling for whoever attempts suicide.
Waive said, “Self-destructive behaviour is often a cry for help since suicide is mainly an indication of underlying mental and psychological disorder. The criminal laws are better suited for prosecuting criminal acts not an exhibited call for help and act of distress.”
As commendable as the amendment is, it also recommends that anyone that attempts suicide serves community service not less than six months, in addition to the counselling.
Why Section 327 needs to go
The current Criminal Code Act derives originally from the Criminal Code Act of 1916, which explains why it still houses such backward legislation.
But the National Assembly is allowed the power to review the code just like lawmakers are doing right now.
What is worse about Section 327’s continued existence is that it is loosely enforced.
There’s no public record of anyone convicted for attempted suicide.
But that it exists on the books at all makes life even more difficult for people who need help.
There have been campaigns to completely remove it from the Criminal Code. Many people want it updated with recommendations that are helpful for people that attempt suicide.
One of the biggest advocates for reviewing the law is Frank Mba, a commissioner of police.
He wrote in 2019, “Rather than criminalising failed suicide attempts, relevant authorities should, in fact, create support groups/lines to provide them with help. Such victims do not need to be labelled, stigmatised, nor do they need to be given jail sentence.”
What’s the status of the attempted suicide bill?
The amendment bill has been referred to the House Committee on Justice for further legislative action.
This action includes a public hearing where any interested parties can make recommendations on making the proposal better.
It would not be out of place if someone shows up there to have a word with them about that unnecessary community service proposal.
Nigeria needs a better understanding of mental health and the public health importance of not stigmatising people that need help.
More importantly, the laws need to reflect that understanding.
Section 327 does not belong in 2022.