Reuben Abati: In Defence of Titilayo Momoh – the Lady Who Attempted Suicide in Lagos
On March 24, one Ms Taiwo Titilayo Momoh, attempted suicide at the Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos. Both the police and concerned citizens rescued her from killing herself. The said Ms Momoh was arraigned on April 21, at the Ebute Meta Chief Magistrate Court on a one-count charge to wit: “That you, Titilayo Momoh on the 24th day of March 2017 at about 10.00 hours at the Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos did attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the river and thereby committed an offence under Section 235 C.17, Vol. 3 of the Criminal law of Lagos State 2015.” The accused person has since been granted bail in the sum of N500, 000, with two sureties in like sum. She is also required to undergo psychiatric evaluation. Her case has been adjourned till June 2017.
The Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Lagos State is hereby invited to take special notice of this case and to enter a nolle prosequi to ensure its discontinuance. The exercise of the power of nolle prosequi as spelled out in Sections 174(1) and 211 of the 1999 Constitution has been a subject of much debate. This is in spite of the Supreme Court’s position in The State vs Ilori, due to the tendency of some AGs to abuse such powers. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that by discontinuing the Titilayo Momoh case, the AG Lagos would have acted “in the public interest, the interests of justice and the need to prevent the abuse of legal process.” I state this with due regard to the right of the court to be seized of the matter in question, attempted suicide being an offence in the statutes. The key issue, nonetheless, is that there are related matters of public interest, beyond legalism.
Section 235 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State under which Ms Titilayo Momoh has been charged for non-fatal suicidal behaviour is in pari materia with Section 326 and 327 of the Penal Code and Criminal Codes respectively. The Criminal Code states expressly: “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor, and is liable to imprisonment for one year.” Thus in letter and spirit, the extant law on pari-suicide in Nigeria criminalizes the act. The only problem is that the law sounds like the law that is applied to the act of coup making.
If you plot a coup and you succeed, you get away with it, but if you make the mistake of failing, you find yourself in very serious trouble. The extant law on suicide deals with you if you fail, but the same law is helpless if you succeed. The only difference is that whereas a coup is an act of treason against the state, suicide is a coup against the self. Government exists because there is a society composed of people, living people who are happy to be alive and contribute their own quota to society. When people begin to kill themselves at will, and at the slightest provocation, the responsibility of government should be to inquire into the causes of such demolition of the right to life, and therefore make amends – so the cause of being-ness and the welfare of the people can be better addressed.
For this reason, the Nigerian legislature, including the State Houses of Assembly, should take a second look at the extant law on attempted suicide. In truth, the law has been rarely applied, the last publicized application being the case instituted against certain persons by the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) in 2013, persons who had formed the habit of travelling on the rooftop of trains, instead of buying tickets and taking proper seats. The NRC took some of those persons to court for attempting suicide. They ended up getting a slap on the wrist, they were asked to pay fines. It must have been obvious to the court that these were not suicidal cases, but persons who just wanted a free ride on the train, and could only do so from the roof.
The arraignment of Titilayo Momoh is however a serious matter. If she goes to trial, she could in fact be convicted, since hers is a clearly straightforward case. She had confessed with her own mouth that she wanted to die because she had too many financial debts to pay, a Bureau de Change also swindled her, she sought help from everywhere, including her church but nobody was willing to help her, and so, she decided to end it all. When she was rescued from jumping into the Lagoon, everyone sympathized with her. She suddenly got the help that society had previously denied her. She returned to her textile shop, and was beginning to pick up the pieces of her life again, only for the police to invoke the law and take her to court.
Her arraignment exposes the problems with the law. She now probably wishes she had actually committed suicide. The legal matter she is now battling with, could throw her into even greater debt: paying lawyers, sorting out logistics, and as the wheel of law still grinds slowly, she could experience worse depression. The same travails that drove her to the edge of the cliff have not been made any lighter. The other thing to note is that the relevant statutes in gender terms refer to “himself”. Can we possibly interpret the law strictly and literally and insist that the law on suicide only has the male gender in mind? So why is Titilayo, “herself”, being charged when the law says “himself”? I know what the canons of the rule of interpretation say, and how gender-insensitive the phrasing of the law is, so, may be I need not stretch this further. But another reasonable response by a common man to the Titilayo Momoh case would be to ask why she is the only one being targeted.
In the first quarter of 2017 alone, there were more attempted suicide and suicide cases than there were in the whole of 2016, and the figures keep increasing. Ms Momoh was rescued the same week alongside one Abigail Ogunyinka, who actually jumped into the Lagoon and was fished out by divers. In Mazamaza another woman, Emerald, was also rescued after she had jumped. Much earlier, Tiwa Savage’s husband, Tee Billz, was dissuaded by friends and concerned persons from jumping into the Lagoon. There have also been persons who succeeded in their suicide efforts and can no longer be reached by the long arms of the arm. There was Dr Allwell Oji, and reported cases from Ogun state (25), Ebonyi (10), Delta (4), Oyo (4), Kano (6), the latest case being that of a University of Lagos young undergraduate who killed herself after she was accused of stealing make up kit worth N2, 000 (the current equivalent of $5 or $6!).
The court of law is not under any strict obligation to embark on a hunting expedition for cases by itself and it is no defence in law to play the victim by asking why the neighbor who committed the same offence has not been charged to court: the court deals only with what is duly brought before it. But even if there is a case to answer, Ms Momoh, the accused in the present case is likely to wonder why she is the only special target for litigation. Research on para-suicide informs us that persons who failed in the first attempt are at a high risk of a second attempt. By seeking to put failed suicide attempters to trial, is government encouraging all such persons to succeed by all means? The shaming and trial of such persons may even drive them underground, away from public places where the attempt may be noticed and stopped.
It is partly for this and other reasons, principally the recognition that persons who attempt suicide need help rather than vilification, and that prevention is better than cure, that many countries of the world have de-criminalized suicide attempts. The latest country to do so is India. In 1961, the British who offered us the common law origin of our own law on suicide attempts de-criminalized non-fatal suicidal behaviour. Other countries where suicide attempt is no longer a crime include Egypt, Botswana, Cameroon, Angola, South Africa, Eritrea, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organization recognizes depression as the leading cause of suicide in the world. Globally, more than 300 million people are suffering from depression and related disability. The Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) has also disclosed that 90% of reported suicide cases in Nigeria are traceable to depression. At the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, 10% of all referrals are attempted suicides. This year, WHO chose as the theme for the World Health Day on April 7: “Depression, let’s talk”. Persons suffering from depression are advised and encouraged to talk about their problems within the community and seek help from existing institutions and from professional counselors including psychologists, psychiatrists, mental hospitals and sociologists. Depression is a form of mental psychosis, attributed to such existential issues as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sadness, low self-esteem, poverty, marital crisis, indebtedness, loss of a loved one, and so on.
In Nigeria and other African countries where mental ill-health is regarded as lunacy simpliciter, most persons who are depressed find it difficult to talk about it. Any form of mental ill-health in Nigeria is still covered by the colonial law, called the Lunacy Act, 1958. That law dehumanizes anybody that requires mental healthcare. A Mental Health Policy 1991 has tried to state the basic principles in line with international conventions, but the Act of 1958 remains the enabling law. Since 2003, three attempts have been made to introduce a Mental Health Bill, but each time it was tabled, the National Assembly did not consider it important enough.
Further, there are just about eight mental health hospitals in Nigeria, some psychiatric units in major hospitals, and less than 150 professional psychiatrists to a population of nearly 200 million. Similarly there are no enough psychiatric nurses or professional counselors. Out of the few psychiatrists we have in the country, some have since left the profession to go into politics. The hospitals are poorly staffed, poorly equipped and poorly referenced in popular culture and conversation. And at the few mental hospitals that we even have, those who are expected to help other people are busy fighting among themselves – the internal politics at the Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Uselu, Benin City for example is worse than the politics of Nigeria! As it were, anybody who is depressed in Nigeria is at the risk of suicide. “Lunacy” is a taboo subject, and yet the people face more problems daily that require mental health counselling.
The sudden increase in attempted suicide cases in our country should provide the needed impetus for review and introspection, not the vilification of persons who are already society’s victims. It is even surprising that The Lagos State Police Command will choose to scapegoat Titilayo Momoh and take her to court. In 2016, Ms Dolapo Badmos, the Lagos State Police PRO (as she then was) had announced that the police was not interested in taking any person who attempted suicide to court out of the recognition that such persons needed help. In line with this, the Lagos Police Command set up a special unit to patrol the bridges in Lagos, to prevent people from jumping into the rivers.
The Lagos State Government also set up an Aquatic Rescue Unit, and it is this unit that helped in rescuing at least two reported cases between January and March 2017. Two hotlines have also since been announced to assist persons in need of urgent help (08062106493, 08092106493). Is it likely that the Lagos State Government in collaboration with the police, and civil society groups has taken these preventive and emergency rescue steps in order to capture persons who attempt suicide so the courts can have cases to handle? If true, it is ill-advised because this will neither reduce cases of suicide, nor prevent people from committing suicide. Governments at all levels should “talk about depression” and help the people – through good governance – to reduce the number of people seeking to die at the slightest emotional provocation.
Titilayo Momoh’s place is not in the court-room. She should be set free and assisted. The extant laws on attempted suicide should be revised. Para-suicide should be de-criminalized and de-penalized. I do not include in this appeal however, all such attempted suicides related to terrorism or incidental to other expressly criminal activities.