June 14, 2024

You Cannot Cure Sickness with Incarceration: An Examination of the Counterproductive and Abysmally Woeful Provision of Section 327 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act

L-R: Taiwo Martha Ojelade, Teri Wellington

Teri Wellington

Taiwo Martha Ojelade


When a man is down and literally struggling to free himself from the shackles and hold of depression, and he sees death as the only option left to get some respite or rest and he moves to actualise the only goal which his feeble mind can conceive, should such a man be punished for being helpless and at the mercy of his distorted mind? Well, natural justice, good conscience and equity would almost entirely, answer this question in the negative.

Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides thus:

‘Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year’

Now, the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides for the right to life in Section 33. Section 33 provides that every Nigerian citizen has a right to life and none shall be intentionally deprived of their life save in the execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence for which such a person has been found guilty in Nigeria. Also, in instances where a felon tries to escape from rightful detention and other allied circumstances, the right to life could be deprived of an individual. 

In all the instances wherein a life can be taken, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not make reference to suicide, be it attempted or assisted etc. The Constitution is utterly silent on instances where a person seeks to take his or her own life. 

Now, let us examine the right to life and an interesting exception to the right to life in a common law jurisdiction like Nigeria. 

In the persuasive case of Sue Rodriguez V. AG British Columbia (1993) in the common law jurisdiction of Canada, an activist (Sue Rodriguez) was diagnosed in the year 1991, with the destructive Lou Gehring disease which is characterised by a rapid deterioration of muscular coordination and abilities. Sue filed to have a medic assist her in fulfilling her wish of choosing the time of her death. The Court ruled in the majority in her favour and held that Sue indeed, has the right to die and can validly exercise same right. Sue eventually chose to die in the year 1994 after she won her landmark case in 1993.  

If the Constitution gives you the right to life and does not stipulate that it is unlawful for you to take such life away, then it is our humble opinion that the criminal code is a little bit presumptuous in criminalising individual or assisted requests or attempts to be killed or to die. 

The ratio in the case examined above seemed to be that if indeed, the right to life is inalienable and sacrosanct, then people, ideally, should be able to choose whether to continue living or to outrightly end their lives. They should be able to decide when life should be called to a halt. The interference of the State would be limited to the exceptions provided in section 33 of the Constitution, (taking Nigeria as a case study) Most constitutions that provide for the right to life provides for instances wherein same right could be denied and taken away. 

No government wants its citizens to go on a suicide spree hence the seemingly draconian measures put in place to curb the malady that suicide or euthanasia seems to be. However, it is our humble submission that imprisonment for attempted suicide makes no logical sense and should be expunged from the body of Nigerian laws. 

If a man seeks to cure himself from a ravaging illness by means best known to him, would plunging such a man back into sickness ever be the solution for bringing him out of the illness that held him down in the first place? If a suicidal man is sent to the average Nigerian Prison, they would easily find a way of killing themselves within the dangerous walls of the Prisons that are ordinarily meant to serve reformative purposes. 

We all know how herculean survival is in present day Nigeria. Imagine a man struggling to fend for his family, after lots of dead ends, he falls into depression, attempts to kill himself, he is saved. Then the State who probably is a major contributor to his depression, comes forward with an iron hand to send such a man to prison? Imagine if the man is a widower or his wife has fled with men of easy virtues engaged in fraud or some other obnoxious means of raising livelihood funds? How would the children of such a man survive while he is incarcerated? Is the Nigerian state capable of fending for the children pending the hardening of their father in our woeful correctional facilities?

It is high time, there be a radical legislative reform by the Nigerian legislative bodies on laws which have lost touch with the present times and circumstances. It would not be a bad idea for the Nigerian government to couch section 327 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act thus: 

‘Any person who attempts to kill himself is inadvertently guilty of a misdemeanour and should upon investigation confirming that such a person indeed attempted to commit suicide, be referred to a qualified psychiatrist or psychiatric facility for adequate care, treatment and attention’

We do not seek to become emergency draftsmen via this publication. We however, see section 327 of the Criminal Code in a radically different light and we believe the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can do well to overhaul all counterproductive provisions of the Nigerian Criminal Code and all other laws that govern the lives and existence of every citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 

Teri Wellington is the Managing Partner of The Wellington Practice, Lagos. He pecialises in Human Rights Law, Entertainment Law, Property Law & Management.

Martha Taiwo Ojelade is an Associate in The Wellington Practice. Her area of specialisation is Entertainment Law and Energy Law.

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