THE NIGERIAN LAW ON SUICIDE: A TRAGIC RESPONSE TO A CRY FOR HELP.
Dr Caroline Mbafan Ekpendu*
It is a crime to commit or attempt to commit suicide in Nigeria. Those who
survive the sad ordeal are still further haunted by Nigeria’s legal system which
views attempted suicide as an offence under the law rather than a cry for help.
Survivors of suicide attempts rather run the risk of being prosecuted by the
government as criminals instead of being provided with adequate therapy, love
and care to prevent future attempts. This Article examines the origin of the
Nigerian suicide law that criminalizes suicide, it examines arguments advanced
against and those in favour of criminalizing suicide. The Article finds that both the
Criminal and Penal Codes as well as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of
Nigeria (as amended) have discriminatory provisions against persons who attempt
suicide. Against this backdrop, it recommends the repeal of the Nigerian suicide
law, suggests the decriminalization of suicide and views suicide as a mental health
issue with further recommendation for the adoption of the Mental Health Bill
2013 as Nigeria’s policy on mental health.
Suicide is a serious medico-social problem responsible for at least 800,0001 deaths yearly.
These deaths are in addition to an estimated 25 million annual suicide attempts2 and over 140
million annual suicide ideators worldwide.3 To clearly understand the severity of the problem
caused by suicide around the globe, suicide accounts for more annual deaths than AIDS,
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homicide, car accidents and war.4 As a medical problem, suicide is as a result of a medical
condition affecting mental health or as a result of deep emotional instability. It is proven that
people with mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality
disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, are at a far greater risk of attempting or
committing suicide.5 Health in general is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and
social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.6 Going by this definition,
one is considered unwell if they are unable to cope with the rigors of life due to a physical,
mental or social defect/imbalance. By extension, suicide is clearly a health (mental health) issue.
As a social problem, the risk of suicide in a population increases when the social context
fails to provide a healthy sense of purpose and belonging, contributing to an individual’s sense of
contribution and connection.7 In other words, suicide results when a society fails an individual in
some way or due to huge societal problems such as poverty, unemployment, war, hunger, social
injustice, political instability and so on. The World Health Organization additionally included
those exposed to violence, disaster, loss, isolation and vulnerable groups; refugees, migrants etc,
who experience discrimination as more prone to suicide.8 Durkheim9 in his classic sociological
text on suicide, developed a typology on suicide based on the concepts of social integration, and
moral regulation, and he identified four different types of suicide; altruistic (high integration),
egoistic (low integration), fatalistic (high regulation), and anomic (low regulation).
According to a 2018 statistical report published by the World Health Organization on
global suicide rates, Nigeria ranks 72nd on the table with an estimated suicide rate of 9.5 persons
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per 100,000 people.10 This statistic puts Nigeria as the country with the eleventh highest suicide
rate in Africa behind Lesotho which ranks as number one, Equatorial guinea, Swaziland,
Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Benin, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Togo.11 In 2019, there
was a surge suicide rates in Nigeria, especially amongst the youthful population. In fact, by June
of 2019 alone, there were a reported 42 suicides with 11 of them being students.12
The alarming surge in suicide rates in 2019 sparked a national debate on suicide that
resulted in awareness campaigns by numerous groups and governments on suicide, identification
of risk factors and prevention. The awareness campaigns also advised those who had suicidal
tendencies to seek medical help once noticed. The Federal government went a step further in
placing a ban on over-the-counter sale of ‘sniper’, an insecticide that had become a famous tool
of choice for those who sought to commit suicide.13 Still these efforts seem hardly enough in the
fight against increasing suicides and suicidal tendencies in the country because very little is
being done to cater for the mental health of the population by the government. Instead its archaic
laws and policies largely neglect the mental health sector and contribute to the stigmatization of
This article examines the Nigerian Law on suicide and the punishment meted out to
citizens who fail in their attempt to kill themselves. The article views suicide as a mental health
issue and a cry for help not punishment. In doing this, the article has attempted clarification of
basic terms, traced the origin of the law on suicide in Nigeria vis-à-vis mental health, discussed
the arguments in favour and against the decriminalization of suicide, examined the obvious
discrimination of the provisions of the Criminal and Penal Codes and the Constitution of the
Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) that sees attempted suicides as criminals to be
incarcerated and punished and not persons that need help. The article concludes with
recommendations and suggestions that if adopted will curb growing cases of suicide in Nigeria.
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The American Psychological Association defines suicide as the act of killing yourself,
most often as a result of depression or other mental illness.14 It is described as death caused by
injuring oneself with the intent to die.15 Attempted suicide on the other hand is when someone
harms themselves with the intent to end their life, but they do not die as a result of their actions.16
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) defines attempted suicide as a
nonfatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the
behavior.17 Attempted suicide may or may not result in injury.18 It is estimated that about 20
percent of global suicides are due to pesticide self poisoning most of which occur in rural
agricultural areas in low and middle income countries or developing nations.19 Other common
methods include hanging, cutting of wrists, drug overdoses, and use of firearms.
There are varying opinions of the word ‘crime’. Cross and Jones expressed the views that
crime is a legal wrong for which the offender is punished at the instance of the state.20 Gledhill
referred to crime as a human conduct which the state decides to prevent by threat of punishment
and through legal proceeding of a special kind.21 Durkheim is of the opinion that the collective
conscience of the people defines crime.22 By inference, he commends that crime could be
determined from what is collectively considered to be morally wrong or not. There are those who
insist that the legal definition of crime is too restrictive and argued that crime is a violation of
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cultural norms which is sometimes beyond mere violation of the law.23 In addition, Black’s Law
Dictionary defines crime as an act that the law makes punishable the breach of a legal duty
treated as the subject matter of a criminal proceeding. Also termed criminal wrong.24
The Nigerian Law on Suicide and Mental Health
The Lunacy Ordinance enacted in 1916 and drafted about four and a half decades before
Nigeria’s independence from British rule in 1960 still remains Nigeria’s policy on mental health
and suicide.25 The colonial influences in the terminology and expectations of the Lunacy Act of
1958 are thus very obvious. In addition, the law fails to adequately define mental health and does
not meet current global policy standards and regulations set by the United Nations on mental
health which has evolved drastically over the years. The Act was found to confine the mentally
ill in non-therapeutic, overcrowded, unsanitary, and dilapidated facilities around the country.26
Even as the latest versions of the law have minor alterations in terms of language and certain
stipulations, the principles of the ordinance have remained largely unchanged and has failed to
address the stigma often associated with mental health issues in Nigeria.
The Lunacy Act 1958 emphasizes the way and manner in which mental health patients
are treated. The Act views mentally ill patients as ‘lunatics’ who constitute a danger and nuisance
to the society and pose a danger to themselves as well. The Act prescribes that they be locked up
in secluded facilities where they pose no harm to themselves and others without dignity and
bereft of their basic human rights.
In a bid to reform the moribund Lunacy Law, the Mental Health Bill (2003) was
sponsored by two Nigerian Senators who were also medical practitioners and of whom one was a
psychiatrist (now deceased).27 Unfortunately the law was unable to successfully sail through
before the expiration of the tenure of the Senate at the time. In 2013, the bill was re-introduced
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but is yet to be signed into law many years later. The bill, if signed into law will successfully
repeal the Lunacy Act of 1958 and catapult Nigeria’s mental health sector into the future.
Although the Mental Health Act if passed into law will revolutionize the mental health
sector of the country and bring the needed care to mental health patients in the country, the Act
remains silent on the criminal status of a mentally ill patient who fails in a suicide attempt that
remains a criminal offence under the Criminal Code and the Penal Code of Northern Nigeria
since the focus of the Mental Health bill (2013) and policy is centered more on the treatment and
rehabilitation of the mentally ill.
Nigeria is one of the eight African countries that criminalize suicide.28 In the bid to deter
it, Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act criminalizes attempted suicide and it carries a penalty of
up to one year in prison. Section 327 provides as follows;
‘Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor, and is liable to
imprisonment for one year’29. While Section 231 of the Penal Code Act provides that; ‘whoever
attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be
punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.’
The Nigerian law also criminalizes the aiding and abatement of suicide. According to
Section 326 of the Criminal Code, ‘any person who; (1) procures another to kill himself; or (2)
counsels another to kill himself and thereby induces him to do so; or (3) aids another in killing
himself; is guilty of a felony, and is liable, to imprisonment for life.’ The Penal Code also has a
similar provision but with a lesser punishment. Section 228 of the Penal Code provides that ‘if
any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide shall be punished
with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine’. But
despite the law, numerous Nigerians continue to die as a result of suicide. Infact, the World
Health Organization (WHO) statistical profile states that over 5000 people died through suicide
in Nigeria in 2012 alone, regardless of the law which primarily seeks to deter suicidal individuals
from actually following through. This statistic and the rising cases of suicides in the country
clearly points to the fact that the law has failed in its principal objective of deterrence and other
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approaches, medical, legal and social, should be explored to better understand and tackle the
Arguments for the Criminalization or Decriminalization of Suicide
The arguments for the criminalization or decriminalization of suicide have raged on for
so many years, not just in Nigeria but around the globe. The arguments have presented with
complexities stemming from the numerous perceptions on suicide spread across religious, ethnic
and moral boundaries.
Arguments in Favour of the Criminalization of suicide in Nigeria
The first major argument for the criminalization of suicide is deeply rooted in the
religious belief of God being the giver of life and only God has the right to dictate its course and
eventual end. The general religious belief is that suicide pervades the design of God and is a sin,
therefore suicide should be criminalized. Biblically, the Holy Bible of the Christians frowns upon
the act of committing suicide and acknowledges it as a sin.30 Islam as well; through the Quran,
teaches that suicide is a ‘haram’ and forbidden. It teaches that Allah is the giver of life and only
He could take it. It goes further to stipulate that any person who committed suicide was destined
for eternal damnation.31 Many other religions as well join in the condemnation of suicide, some
even linking it with demonic possession. In Hinduism, it is believed that death by suicide do not
lead to the achievement of salvation (moksha).32 For most members of these religions, they argue
that the act of attempted suicide besides being a sin should be criminalized.
Secondly, on the ethnic side of the debate, those in favour of the criminalization of
suicide argue that suicide goes against their traditional norms and values. Different ethnic groups
in Nigeria have various views and punishments or repercussions for those who commit or
attempt to commit suicide. Sometimes, these punishments or repercussions spread to the family
of suicide victims as well which contribute to the stigma against suicide attempt survivors. The
Yorubas of the South West of Nigeria believe that those who commit suicide will have their souls
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wondering in the vacuous cosmos until the appointed time while those who fail in the attempt to
commit suicide will be punished for attempting to change “Oludumare’s” destiny for him.33 The
Igbos of South Eastern Nigeria also believe that life is sacred and suicide is a betrayal of their
ethos. Those who committed suicide were buried in the bush or ‘evil forest’ and the family of the
victim were made to perform certain rituals to cleanse themselves and the entire community of
the evil deed.34 The Hausas of Northern Nigeria; who are predominantly Muslims, follow the
teachings of Islam concerning the subject.
` The third major argument by those in support of criminalization of suicide is that, the fear
of such punishments of financial penalties or imprisonment will act as a deterrent to suicidal acts.
They believe that people will desist from engaging in suicidal behavior if they are aware of the
steep consequences should they fail to succeed. They also argue that the decriminalization of
suicide will lead to an increase in suicides as suicide ideators and suicidal persons will consider
suicide as a legitimate option to escape their personal problems.
Finally, opponents of the decriminalization of the current anti suicide law also argue that
forceful confinement of those who failed in committing suicide in prisons or cells will prevent
the individual from repeating the attempt and provide them with ample time to think about their
Arguments against Criminalization of Suicide in Nigeria
Those who argue against criminalization of suicide in Nigeria view suicide as a symptom
of treatable mental illness, despair, and economic or social problems and not as a criminal matter.
They argue that rather than criminalize the behavior, the government should put in efforts to
tackle issues that give rise to suicides like poverty, unemployment, poor mental health facilities,
depression, etc. they insist that rather than lock up survivors of suicide, psychological counseling
or psychotherapy, monetary assistance amongst other things should be provided by the
government to these individuals. For example, the cases of the University of ‘Ibadan Lecturer’
who was battling depression for years due to challenges in his home and career. He had been on
his PhD programme for 22 years but had supervised a lot of people who had overtaken him on
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the rung while he remained rooted to the same spot.35 And that of the medical Doctor, Dr. Allwell
Orji, who committed suicide at the third Mainland Bridge in Lagos.36 Both cases could have been
averted if the above argument was considered.
Supporters of the decriminalization of suicide also point to the available statistics that
indicate that the law criminalizing suicide is not doing much to deter, prevent or even reduce the
rate of suicides in the country. Internationally, research on the impact of anti-suicide legislation
has yielded mixed results. In 1992, Lester compared suicide rates in Canada in the 10 year
periods before and after the decriminalization of suicide in the country and found no increase in
the rate of suicide following decriminalization.37 Similarly, no change was observed in New
Zealand during the decade before or after the decriminalization squashing the argument that the
decriminalization of suicide will lead to a surge in suicide cases.38 Lester also compared the
suicide rates in seven countries (Canada, England and Wales, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, New
Zealand, and Sweden) five years prior and after the decriminalization and observed an increase
in the suicide rates after decriminalization.39 Although this statistic is in favour of those pushing
for criminalization of suicide, the rates can be explained due to better reporting of such attempts
as they could have been reported as accidents to prevent legal hassles.
There is also the argument that the criminalization of suicide instead prevents at risk
individuals from receiving the necessary help they need to prevent suicide attempts. Survivors
and at risk individuals of suicide are instead stigmatized in the process hampering any hope for
an improved situation.
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Obvious Discrimination of the Laws on Attempted Suicides.
The law on suicide and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is highly
discriminatory against persons suffering from mental health problems and or attempted suicides
in many ways:
First, the insanity defence which is provided for in the Criminal and Penal Codes
operating in the Southern and Northern States respectively, remove criminal liability from an
individual who at the time of committing an act was proven to be in a state of mental disease or
natural infirmity. Section 28 of the Criminal Code provides that:
A person is not criminally responsible for an act or omission if at the time of
doing the act or making the omission he is in such a state of mental disease or
natural mental infirmity as to deprive him of capacity to understand what he is
doing or of capacity to control his actions or of capacity to know that he ought not
to do the act or make the omission.
Similarly, Section 51 of the Penal Code provides as follows:
Nothing is an offence which is done by a person who at the time of doing it, by
reason of unsoundness of mind, is incapable of knowing the nature of the act, or
that he is doing what is either wrong or contrary to the law.
From the provisions of Sections 28 and 51 of the Criminal and Penal Codes respectively stated
above, and having already established that those who contemplate, attempt or commit suicide do
so because of mental health issues, emotional instability or extreme psychoache40, victims of
attempted suicide should not be criminally liable as suggested in Sections 327 and 231 of the
Criminal and Penal Codes respectively which criminalizes and penalizes victims of attempted
suicide but rather as victims who need support, care and help.
Secondly, the insanity plea has been raised and upheld in trials involving serious offences
such as murder and manslaughter. If such persons are proven to be mentally unstable to be liable,
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why then should attempted suicide survivors who have been established to be in such a category
be referred to as criminals and considered liable rather than persons in need of help and care?
The provisions of Section 35 (1) (e) of the Constitution41 provides that;
Every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be
deprived of such liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a
procedure permitted by law… in the case of persons suffering from infectious or
contagious diseases, persons of unsound mind, persons addicted to drugs or
alcohol or vagrants, for the purpose of their care or treatment or the protection of
From the above provision, it is clear that persons of unsound mind can be
deprived of their personal liberty for the purpose of their care or treatment or the
protection of the community. However, the same Constitution provides for the dignity of
the human person under Section 34 (1) (a-b)42 which states that;
(1) Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and
(a) No person shall be subjected to torture or to inhumane or degrading treatment;
(b) No person shall be held in slavery or servitude…
Thus, the same Constitution that provides for the right to the dignity of the human person
has in the same Constitution taken same away in Section 35 (1) (e) to deprive the mentally ill
people of their right to liberty without their consent.
Thirdly, Nigeria’s law on Suicide comes under the category of crimes defined under
Chapter 27 of the Criminal Code and Chapter XVIII of the Penal Code. All the offences in this
category include those affecting the ‘human body of the other person’ and suicidal attempt is
included in the same category. The act of suicide is inferred on the basis of intention, which is
inferred from circumstances. But the intention may be unclear or ambiguous in many cases. In
Mohammed v Commissioner of Police,43 on appeal, Reed CJ held that for a conviction under
section 231 of the Penal Code there must be evidence of an act ordinarily likely to cause death to
establish the offence of attempted suicide. The facts of this case were that, the accused, a soldier,
had struck his head against a wall in a cell and when questioned, stated that he wished to kill
himself. It is clear that his action merely bruised his head and the court could not think of a man
killing himself in this way.
It is therefore submitted that it is unfair that suicide is considered a crime and put in such
category. In 1985, in a landmark judgment, Delhi High Court Per Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar
in The State v Bhatia,44 in India, one of the countries criminalizing suicide, commented that, the
continuance of section 309 IPC (criminalizing suicide) is an anachronism unworthy of a human
society like ours, suicide hardly fits in the definition of crime.
Lastly, it makes no sense that suicide still remains in our statute books as a crime in
Nigeria, when the British from whom the law was imported and adopted has since repealed its
suicide law since 1961 recognizing instead as a mental health issue.
It has been argued in this article that suicide and mental health issues are inter-related
medico-social issues in Nigeria as in other parts of the world. Therefore, the criminal status for
those who need mental health assistance and those who proceed to commit suicide is blurry by
virtue of the suicide laws in force in Nigeria. The Criminal prosecution and imposition of
penalties on those convicted of suicidal behaviors constitute an affront to human dignity and an
abuse of the Constitutional right to dignity contained in Section 34 (1) (a-b) and as such, the
suicide laws should be repealed. This is because in a great number of cases, as discussed earlier,
suicide is a symptom of psychiatric illness, depression or an act of psychological distress, all
indicating a cry for help and not punishment or imprisonment.
Furthermore, suicidal behavior many times is as a result of factors that are beyond a
person’s control such as endogenous biological causes, socioeconomic causes such as poverty,
financial difficulties, failed relationships, etc which have an effect on the state of mind of an
individual. It is cruel to imprison such persons instead of providing help.
Sanctions on those with suicidal behavior will only increase their depression and anxiety
levels which may lead to a repeat of the behavior. Repealing the law will prevent the
exacerbation of the situation via prosecution and imprisonment and pave way for psychological
or psychiatric assistance.
In order to remove the fear of stigmatization attached to attempted suicides, cases of
attempted suicides are reported to the police as accidents by families of the victims in order to
avoid prosecution and the resultant stigma attached. This prevents victims from getting the
necessary assistance that they need. The decriminalization of suicide will remove this fear and
combat the stigmatization. Inaddition, decriminalization of suicide will result in better reporting
of suicide cases which will enable the government obtain important and accurate statistics that
will help in the prevention of suicide.
Suicide and mental health issues are related. Nigeria adopted its suicide laws from
England and criminalizes or punishes attempted suicides. While England has since 1961
amended their law to see attempted suicide as a mental health issue, suicide still remains in our
statute books. This Article suggests a repeal of Nigeria’s Anti-suicide laws and an adoption of the
Mental Health Bill 2013 (yet to be passed), as Nigeria’s policy on Mental health. With such
adoption and the recommendations made herein, more focus can be put in identifying the root
causes of suicide and providing the necessary care and help for such persons rather than