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Attempted Suicide: In Defence Of Titilayo Momoh ―By Reuben Abati

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, maybe I need not stretch this further. 

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