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Lost artifact: Stealing of Nigeria’s history, identity

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It has been pretty difficult to repatriate Nigerian artifact stolen by colonialists centuries ago, writes Tony Okuyeme

 

 

The importance of artefact as a source of education and an enabler of tourism cannot be over emphasised.
The arts and culture of ancient civilisations tell the story of the evolution of mankind spanning thousands of centuries. They also serve to document for prosperity the rich cultural heritage of the times and various events such as traditional rites, the period of reigns of different dynasties and kings, wars, natural disasters, etc.

Nigeria, indeed, has a rich cultural heritage spanning centuries and from all the diverse ethnic communities that make up the nation. The nation’s traditional art, the works of forefathers bear testimony to skilled craftsmanship and creative ingenuity of the great dynasties that once existed in the country.

The works include the NOK terra-cotta and the related terra-cotta of Sokoto and Katsina; Esie Soap Stone; terra-cotta and bronzes from the North-East of Nigeria, the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terra-cotta sculptures from Ile-Ife, South-West Nigeria, the very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory, and terra-cotta of Benin among others.

These are heads or whole figurines, mainly effigies, but occasionally representations of animals (in most cases snakes). They are all of variable sizes from almost life size heads to other smaller representations.
African art has a special problem because the continent was colonised at a point in history. It experienced the slave trade that lasted about three to four centuries. It had an encounter with missionaries and explorers, apart from colonialists.

According to Prof. Tunde Babawale, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, and former Director/Chief Executive of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), these encounters came with some negative experience which includes the looting of artefact and heritage materials belonging to the continent by those who came to colonise the continent.

He said: “We remember readily, for example in Nigeria, the 1897 Benin massacre, where Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was exiled, the Benin Kingdom was destroyed. And one of the things that the Benin Kingdom had in abundance was heritage materials, artefact, art works. Substantial percentage of them were looted by the invading British soldiers and taken away to Europe and other parts of the world.

They are all still there till today.”
The Benin ivory mask is a miniature sculptural portrait in ivory of the powerful Queen Mother Idia of the 16th century Benin Empire, taking the form of an African traditional mask. The likeness was worn however, not as a mask, but as a pendant by her son, Esigie, who owed his kingship as Oba of Benin to the Queen Mother’s military aid.

Two almost identical masks – one at the British Museum in London and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – feature a serene face of the Queen Mother wearing a beaded headdress, a beaded choker at her neck, scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead, and all framed by the flange of an openwork tiara and collar of symbolic beings, as well as double loops at each side for attachment of the pendant.

There are also examples on the same theme at the Seattle Art Museum and the Linden Museum, and one in a private collection, all taken during the British Benin Expedition of 1897.
The British Museum example in particular has also become a cultural emblem of modern Nigeria since FESTAC 77, a major pan-African cultural festival held in 1977.

The Benin Pendant Mask has become an iconic image of Benin art, and the British Museum version in particular was featured on Nigerian one Naira banknotes in 1973, and was chosen as the official emblem of the pan-Africanist FESTAC 77 cultural festival in 1977, so that this design is often known in modern Nigeria as the FESTAC Mask.

The Nigerian government was unsuccessful in securing a loan of the work from the British Museum, and commissioned Edo artist, Erhabor Emokpae, to recreate the mask as a 20-foot tall bronze centrepiece for the festival (on display at the National Arts Theatre since 1979). He also designed a FESTAC flag with the mask as central charge on an unequally banded black-gold-black vertical tricolour, and being responsible for the event’s extensive graphic design. Another Edo artist, Felix Idubor, was commissioned to carve two replica masks in ivory for the Nigerian National Museum. A 150kg bronze reproduction was also donated to UNESCO in 2005.

The Met’s Queen Mother Pendant mask is considered among the museum’s most celebrated works. African art historian, Ezio Bassani, wrote that the profile of the Met’s mask was “at once delicate and strong” with a “musical rhythm”, and that its use of iron and copper inlay was both “discreet and functional”.

He wrote that the Metropolitan and British Museum masks were among the most beautiful ivories carved in Benin, and that their artist was both refined and sensitive. Kate Ezra wrote that the mask’s thinness showcased the “sensitivity and solemnity” of early Benin art.

Ilé-Ifè Art
Among these are the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terra-cotta sculptures, as well as glass beads, of Ilé-Ifè, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400 A.D.
Bronze and terra-cotta art created by this civilisation are significant examples of naturalism in pre-colonial African art and are distinguished by their variations in regalia, facial marking patterns, and body proportions.
A major exhibition entitled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures of West Africa, displaying works of art found in Ife and the surrounding area, was held in the British Museum from 4 March to 4 July 2010.

Benin art
The Benin Empire was very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory,and terra cotta. They were used principally to decorate the royal palace, which contained many bronze works. The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand commemorative metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Benin Kingdom in modern-day Nigeria.

The decline of Benin art occurred in the 19th century after the “punitive expedition” by the British on February 18, 1897, to capture Benin City. The palace was burned and looted in February 1897, and the Oba was exiled to old Calabar.

To break the power of the monarchy and to end ritual practices, the British confiscated all of the royal art treasures, giving some to individual officers but taking most to auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition.

The Ibis bird was just one of 3,000 bronze artefact removed by the British military from the Oba’s Royal Palace in Benin, Nigeria in 1897, the majority of which are in the British Museum to this day with hundreds scattered about various museums in Europe.

Nok Art

Nok art refers to huge human, animal and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, found throughout Nigeria. They represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa, dated between 500 BC and AD 500; and they co-occur with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert. However, efforts by nations, especially Nigeria, to repatriate their works of arts looted by the colonialists over a century ago, have not yielded any significant result.

Indeed, due to the complex nature of the issues involved such as national and international laws, conventions, politics and diplomacy, campaigns for the repatriation of cultural objects of Nigerian origin, ‘illicitly exported,’ have been ‘long and drawn’. According to Kwame Opoku, “this is because the rich nations of the West holding the cultural patrimony of other countries have been unwilling to see their museums and galleries emptied as a consequence of returning these works of art.

Nigeria especially, being so rich in material culture, is among the hardest hit.” Hundreds of these works adorn various museums and monuments especially in Europe and America, where the host countries are unwilling to release them.

However, a strategy initiated by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) about 10 years ago to recover the looted national cultural objects is no doubt yielding results, as no fewer than 120 objects worth billions of naira were repatriated from five countries.

This initiative essentially has to do with opening communication channels with the countries/institutions holding its objects within the context of UNESCO, ICOM and other bilateral and multinational frameworks. Dialogue, collaboration and cooperation are the main ingredients of this approach.

Some of them were on display at the National Museum, Lagos, in an exhibition aptly titled ‘Return of the Lost Treasure’. In the words of the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Alhaji Yusuf Abdallah Usman, a few years ago they took measures to evaluate the approach and came up with a new strategy that is more pragmatic, reconciliatory and collaborative in line with the foreign policy pursuit of the government.

“Consequently a Repatriation Unit in the office of the Director General was created to serve as the implementation vehicle of this new strategy. As a first step, a dialogue group involving some European Museums and National Commission for Museums and Monuments was initiated as fallout of an exhibition on Benin works in Austria in 2009.

This group agreed to work together in a collaborative manner to share data among themselves of Benin works in their inventories,” he said. According to him, this collaboration opened doors for fruitful engagements with museums and other public institutions around the world with significant Nigerian art works in their collections which has made it possible for some of the lost works to be returned.

He noted that many individuals and groups have contributed greatly in this new culture of collaboration and partnership in our repatriation efforts which make it difficult to name them all here. Usman called on Museums and other public institutions around the world illegally holding on to Nigerian antiquities to toe the path of honour and hand them over the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, adding that “as proud Africans we are willing to make them available for the education and enjoyment of all”.

He, however, noted that the pressure for the return of these objects must be intensified as repatriated collections presently in the possession of the Commission is like a drop of water in the ocean compared to the huge number of antiquities outside the country, and that “for this all hands must be on deck”.

Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in his address at the opening of the exhibition, noted that as part of an ongoing process, his ministry has been engaging and continues to engage in the process of identifying and repatriating artefact that were stolen from our country.

“I would, however, also be remise to acknowledge the significant contribution of the governments of the United States of America, South Africa, Switzerland and France for their efforts in collaborating with the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in ensuring that these artefact are returned to their rightful home.

I would also like to commend the leadership and officers of the Nigerian Customs Service for their diligence, professionalism and sense of patriotism in ensuring that some of the artefact which are being exhibited today were not smuggled out through the Seme border. “I must thank you the more for respecting the International laws and in particular the respect of the Red-List Agreement of 1997 that has declared the export of these Nigerian cultural properties illegal.

“It is a great concern that this trade is booming in Africa and in particular Nigeria. We shall through a determined effort continue to fight against the illicit trafficking in Cultural Property.” The minister tasked the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to more than double its efforts now in checking this illicit trade in cultural property.

He added: “It is my wish that the NCMM will begin to look at means and opportunities to re-invigorate its export and clearance permit operations and even devise other methods of checking the illicit trafficking in cultural property.

I was reliably told that there was the system of taking the pictures of all the objects leaving the country and the passport numbers of those exporting non-antiquities out of the country. I think the NCMM should go back into all of the systems that can be used to stop, check and stem the illicit trafficking in cultural property of Nigeria.”

Former Director/Chief Executive of CBAAC, Prof. Tunde Babawale, in an interview with New Telegraph, underscores the significance of the repatriation of stolen artefact, saying that when you steal these artefact that bear testimony to our history, you are also stealing a part of our history as a people.

“When you talk in terms of artefact, which constitute part of the natural heritage of a people, you are talking about what constitutes the cultural, natural property of a particular people which confers on them the identity that they carry along with them; it tells their history, their story.

So, when you take seriously the issue of artefact, you are talking about those elements of a people’s history that bear testimony to how they came about, and give identity to those people. That’s why these artefact are important; they not only tell a story, they tell people who you are. So for you to neglect them is to neglect your identity, your history,” he said.

Babawale noted that the experience Africa, and in particular Nigeria, has had about encounters with explorers, encounters with colonial forces have led to the looting of artefact in the country; and “we have been battling with that since the period of independence”. “It was the struggle that we waged to recover and retrieve the stolen artefact which led UNESCO to introduce some conventions, especially the 1970 Convention which talks about the return of stolen artefact and property. “Unfortunately, in spite of the existence of that convention which Nigeria is a signatory, those who put together the convention were so smart that they ensured that the applicability of the provisions of that convention does not have retroactive applicability.

“That is, although the convention frowns about stealing of artefact and empowers country that can make a case to have them return but that convention only covers the period that the convention came into existence. So those artefact that have been stolen as far back as the 19th century were not covered; and that creates a lot of problems for us.

“We have lost count of the number of art works which could have a lot of our history. Don’t forget that much of our history – our ancient history – was not written. We rely on oral tradition and some of what supports the oral tradition and history which were not in written form, are those artefact which have been stolen. So it means that when you steal these artefact that bear testimony to our history, you are also stealing a part of our history as a people.

And when you take them elsewhere, it is even easy for you to appropriate them and make them appear as if they were not made in Africa, given the prejudice that Europeans and others have about Africa, they are likely to even deny us ownership of those artefact, which is denying them their identities that are authentically African.

“These are some of the things we have suffered. And in any case, if we have them, we would have displayed them, make them objects of tourist attraction which could have also helped in attracting tourists into our country and be part of the sustainable development process of our great country, because it could enhance our revenue earning capacity. We could decide to adorn our museums with them like we have today. And a lot of our children and generations that are yet to come could still have benefitted from what we used to have.

“I always cite the example of the Queen Idia mask which is called the FESTAC mask, which the original is in British museum. That particular artefact was part of the ones stolen from our country,” he said.
On his effort, in his capacity then as DG of CBAAC, to repatriate the artefact, he recalled that in 2007 when they wanted to celebrate 30 years of FESTAC, one of the first steps that he took was to get in touch with the British Museum in London.

Babawale said: “I wrote a petition to the Director of the British Museum asking him to use his good offices to ensure that the Queen Idia mask, which was the symbol of FESTAC, be returned for us to celebrate the 30 years of FESTAC with it. And I wrote a strongly worded letter telling him the origin of how it was stolen and how, morally and politically, Britain needed to return it. Unfortunately, Neil Macgregor’s response was evasive.

He did not come out clearly to say they were going to return it; he merely said, ‘yes Nigeria and Britain, especially the British Museum, enjoy very warm relationship, and he thought that what was important at that point in time was for us to strengthen the relationship.

And that they were trying to help in rehabilitating our museums through the provision of some grants, and they are working with the National Museum, which was neither here nor there. And then we organised a group of Nigerians and encouraged them in London to go to the British Museum and protest, asking that the artefact be returned. Indeed, I think that it was part of the protest that led to Neil Macgregor sending a reply to my petition.

“But after that, we’ve organised quite a number of lectures to talk to about the need for us to advocate for the return of stolen artefact, and for us to ensure that the conventions that UNESCO itself has put together, such as the one I talked about, the 1970 convention which prohibits illicit importation and acquisition of artefact; the 1995 convention which talks about stolen and illegally imported cultural property.

All of these were discussed and we felt that African countries like ours should take advantage of those conventions to formally request for the repatriation of stolen artefact, because before my letter that I sent to the British Museum in 2007, I did not find it on record any formal request from the Nigerian government requesting for the repatriation of that particular mask. At least, no reference was made to that, and I didn’t find it in the books.
“So, I expect that after that, maybe the National Museum would have taking that up, and many more others.

I thank God that now, the Nigerian government through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is now alive to its responsibility in that regard, working feverishly to ensure that all over Europe those artefact that have been stolen and are there, which are being used by others tom make money for their country, because people pay money to go to the British Museum and even in France, in Strasburg, Frankfurt, Brussels, and even in private collections in houses, people whose parents probably had an experience here, came here for some mission and ended up stealing and purchasing illegally, these artefact, are repatriated.”

On what government needs to do in this regard, he erudite scholar stressed that there is need to “step up our advocacy on the importance these properties to our history and the significance of such artefact in bringing us together as a people. And by so doing, we should also try to draw up an inventory of artefact that have been stolen which we can always refer to very easily, at a snap of the fingers.

There must be an inventory of all stolen items. We must also address the question of our people that compromise our security and the security of those items. There are insiders who collaborate with outsiders to sell these artefact, what are we doing about that? And we must develop the capacity of our museums and cultural agencies to make request to recover these stolen items.

And maybe we should commission more studies and do more research; although I know Prof. Ekpo Eyo and a few others, Adeoba Yemi, the late Director General of the National Museum, Oluyemi Omotosho, all of them have done some work in this area.

“But we can also try to do more research on how we can provide proof of ownership for some of these stolen items, and emphasise the fact that the provisions of these conventions must be modified such that they cannot be restricted to period when the conventions came into force because the real act of direct looting was done and committed before these conventions were put in place.”

He also emphasised the need to congratulate NCMM at least for bringing this to public consciousness, noting that “this is the first time we have the Museum organising an exhibition on artefact that have been stolen and recovered. I think it is a good step in the right direction. It means they are challenged to do more than they have done up till now.

So we must encourage them to step up their action; that is where the media has a big role to play, and the general public too, to tell these agencies to step up action and campaign because it is the intensity of the campaign in the countries that are affected, especially in Africa, is what will spur organisations like UNESCO to do more to assist us in getting those looted artefact back into our country.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU

    January 4, 2018 at 11:13 am

    I hope you have also seen my articles on the internet,especially in modernghana that deal with the restitution of African artefacts held by western museums.
    DR.KWAME OPOKU

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Insight

Delta Steel: Prostate from mismanagement

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CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK

 

Despite efforts to revive it and restart production of steel for local and export purposes, the multibillion naira Delta Steel Company (DSC) has remained comatose, writes YEKEEN AKINWALE, who visited the firm situated at Owvian, Aladja town, Delta State, in this concluding part

 

“When that place was flourishing, they said it was federal character; northerners were there, southerners were there, but when it was run aground, people accused us of folding our arms and being naive. We say no, before people accuse us again.” The case is still ongoing.

 

The communities want the court to issue an order restraining Premium Steel from continuing to take over the assets of Delta Steel without a valid sale and/or transfer of the company. Short-changed by AMCON and Premium Steel and mines management Former workers who worked at the plant between 2005 and 2012 when Global Infrastructure Company unsuccessfully managed it are demanding the payment of their entitlements.

 

 

The new investors will know no peace, they have vowed, until their debts are defrayed. At the time the new investors took over from AMCON in April 2015, the company had a backlog of seven-year unpaid salaries, which the workers say was calculated to be N3.2 billion – but AMCON says the amount is far less: N2.1 billion.

 

Other liabilities, according to findings, are indebtedness to contractors put at N2.5 billion, indebtedness to foreign suppliers placed at $4.4 billion and liabilities to statutory bodies and corporate creditors such as Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), which alone make up N12 billion.

 

AMCON, it was gathered, has settled some of these liabilities; particularly debts owed the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC), which recently restored electricity to the plant after seven years of darkness. The workers argue that the difference of N1.1 billion was due to the omission of some names and figures in the report submitted by the consultant hired to compute their entitlements.

 

They accuse AMCON of short-changing them despite their years of sacrifice at the company. Peace Oputu, chairman of Iron  and Steel Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ISSSAN), reveals that efforts to make AMCON adjust the figure to N3.2 billion were fruitless.

 

 

 

“We (the workers) gathered ourselves and met with AMCON. We talked but the meeting was fruitless because they didn’t agree to our terms,” says Oputu, disappointed in how workers have been treated by the Federal Government after the collapse of the steel company.

 

“They calculated certain amount, N2.1 billion as what is owed DSC workers, but we have EDP that takes care of all expenditures and all the money that comes in for the company. “When we met with the committee set up by Delta State government, we made it very clear to them that our money is much more than that.

 

“Then we calculated the money with the EDP, and came out with N3.2 billion. This was what we took to AMCON in Lagos. AMCON said their own was just to acquire; they had paid the debts owed by the company and as a result, they didn’t have any other thing to give us. “They were just going to part with N600 million, representing 22.5 per cent of the N3.2 billion. So, the meeting was deadlocked because we were not happy.”

While waiting for their entitlements, ICIR gathered that about 500 retired staff of the steel company died in the 13 years that followed, that is 2005 till date.

 

This explains why, when AMCON came to disburse the N600 million in March 2017, those still alive ignored the directive of Oputu-led ISSSAN and Steel and Engineering Workers Union of Nigeria (SEWUN) not to collect the money. Though it was obvious that they had been underpaid, the workers, who were dying of hunger and sundry illnesses, could not resist the temptation of the AMCON payment.

 

“Hunger is there, you cannot tell anybody not to collect the money. We the union came out and instructed them that nobody should go out to receive it but the next day people went out. You can imagine the level of poverty among our people,” laments Oputu. But ISSSAN and SEWUN are insisting on the payment of 100 per cent allegedly agreed by the unions and AMCON, through its receiver/manager. They allege that AMCON acted without consulting them in the calculation and payment of “25 per cent of their total entitlements”.

 

Adewale Okeshola, general secretary of ISSSAN, laments that AMCON reneged on the agreements reached at the meeting with its receiver/manager. “We later gathered that AMCON through the receiver/manager was holding meetings with some disgruntled elements within the workforce in DSC who paraded themselves as seeking the interest of the workers who have suffered delay in the payment of their salaries for over five years now,” he says.

 

“These groups, we gathered, entered into an unholy alliance with the management to short-change the workers in the payment of their terminal benefits. After a protracted wait, we were shocked that the workers had been paid 25 per cent of their entitlements as final payment.

 

“This is not only a far cry from the agreement reached between the two unions and the receiver/ manager appointed by AMCON, but also unacceptable. We want to say that SEWUN and ISSSAN were not carried along in this decision.

 

We have made several entreaties through correspondences to the concerned authorities to rescind this dehumanising decision and honour every agreement both parties reached for the interest of peace and harmony. Up till now, our efforts have fallen on deaf ears, thereby creating tension and restiveness by workers.” Efforts by the state government to intervene have yielded only little result, at least not in assuaging the worries of the aggrieved former workers.

 

A committee on Delta Steel Company Affairs set up by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa and headed by Moses Odibo, wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari requesting N5 billion bailout for AMCON to offset the salaries and other indebtedness so that the company’s new owners could resume produc-tion in November 2016.

 

The amount requested was not released. Rather, the President, it was learnt, referred the letter to AMCON to defray the debt since that is its statutory responsibility.

 

A breakdown of the sought N 5billion is as follows: N3.2 billion for staff salaries, N1 billion as part payment of N7.5 billion indebtedness to PHCN/BEDC, N198.7 million owed Nigerian Gas, N500 million for general supplies and N58 million to offset scrap supplies.

 

Despite these calculations, particularly the debt to workers, AMCON paid only 25 per cent of N2.1 billion that it said was the workers’ entitlement.

 

The workers argue that from the time when the Federal Government took over the company from Global Infrastructure Company till date, no letter was given to any staff regarding disengagement, retirement or any related matter. “Invariably, the government is not coming closer to us and we don’t know what is happening with this company for now,” laments Oputu.

 

“My members are working there because what gets to your mouth gets to your stomach. My people are dying in the township there. We lost minimum of three people every day.

When the new investors came in, they made several publications that they were going to turn Delta Steel Company around, promising to spend billions of dollars. “But today, that is not what we are seeing. If they don’t live on the account of the school; they won’t survive.

 

The proceeds from the schools are what they use to run the plant and one of the schools, school II, is grounded.

 

“We were over 5,000 when the company was working well, but we were reduced to almost 2,000 when Global Steel came in. Several people have died, more than 700 since 2011.” Jude Nwauzor, manager, Corporate Affairs of AMCON, did not respond to questions on the allegation of short-changing the former workers.

 

While he promised to get back, he referred the journalist to Joseph Nwobike, AMCON Receiver/ Manager for the company. In an SMS, Nwobike, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said he would not respond to gossips and unfounded allegations.

 

“Thank you for contacting me. I really do not respond to gossips and unfounded allegations. The records are there for all to see,” he says. But when he was further asked to make the record available by this journalist, he went mum.

 

AMCON, though, says it ensured that all verified former workers who were eligible and also participated in the agency’s verification exercise were fully paid directly. Following their inability to liquidate the debts they owed several banks, AMCON took over the assets and undertakings of Delta Steel Company Plc (DSC)/Global Infrastructure Nigeria Limited (GINL) and appointed a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Ajibola Aribisala, as the receiver/ manager of the company.

 

However, in 2015, AMCON replaced Aribisala with Nwobike, who subsequently engaged the services of an audit firm to carry out a verification of the former staff. “At the exercise, only those who were staff of DSC/GINL at the time of the take-over by AMCON were audited,” AMCON says in the report.

 

“At the conclusion of the exercise, Nwobike engaged the representatives of the staff – an engagement that led to an agreement to accept as full and final settlement of their outstanding salaries and gratuities, a percentage of the verified sums.” It was, however, gathered that although the percentage agreed to be paid was below the workers’ expectation, AMCON says the arrangement was the best in the circumstance, seeing that DSC/GINL was insolvent.

 

 

According to AMCON, over 1,600 staff were screened and paid in the exercise, which lasted between March 13 and 31, 2017. Hunger, sickness, deaths…the plights of ex-workers “My wife dey house now, to eat dey hard us; na so so quarrel. I don’t know where to start from and I get seven children.”

 

That is the lamentation of Francis Agbonkaro, who worked at the plant as a plumber for 25 years. With three university graduates and four undergraduates and a wife to cater to, life has not been easy for him since his retirement in 2005 from the company without the payment of his benefits.

 

The whole family, he reveals, lives on the petty trade run by his wife in the Steel Camp – the residential quarters constructed for staff of the company. “Na my wife just dey do small small thing wey we take dey survive. I get seven children. Three graduate, four no graduate, dem don already finish secondary school because no money to sponsor them. I no fit calculate how much dem owe me,” he says. But he is happy despite his poor condition of living because several of his colleagues who worked at the plant have died of hunger and treatable ailments.

 

“Population wey don die, dem no dey fit talk that one. I even fit say the population wey die dem plenty pass people wey dey alive. Some house dey here, the husband die, the wife die,” Agbonkaro continues in Pidgin, apparent signs of poverty all over him. Still, he can be said to be lucky. His colleagues, Salami Omokha and Osifo Mathew, are already cursing the day they joined the steel company – they have lost their sights due to years of exposure to high temperature without protective gears as con-casters at the plant. Omokha, who also retired from the company in 2005, was a melter of iron ore.

 

“Melting has to do with converting iron ore, which has been reduced to direct iron, and then you convert them to liquid steel, you convert them to any grade of steel you want,” he explains. Before iron ore can be converted, the melter must attain the temperature of about 1740 degree centigrade.

 

That, Omokha says, was usually done by him and others in that section “and not that you have the safety devices to look at those things”. “Those are the things we looked at and today now we are having the adverse effects; we cannot see.”

 

Trained in Germany and Italy for iron ore melting, he says 90 per cent of those that worked there “have this problem I’m having now; the problem of sight”. “I went to Germany and Italy in 1980 and 1981 where I was trained as an electro handler, melter, and caster. I trained many people on the job when I returned, and many of them today are happy to identify with us now that we gave them good training.”

 

Life after retirement has not been rosy, as according to him, “the situation after retirement is hopeless”. “We are surviving through charity, particularly from friends who are better placed. My children are not grown up yet; even the ones that have graduated have no jobs. Our wives are the ones jumping from places to places, converting whatever they have to money. We are also hoping for a better tomorrow whether the Federal Government will remember us.

 

“We are not getting our retirement benefits. I’m in my condition now, the plant is also in its own condition; we don’t know who to speak for who. Whether the plant is to speak for me, because the plant is also in the same condition in which I am now; the plant is sick. “I wish the Federal Government can have a little rethink and come back to that place to see exactly what they have there. They should not allow it go fallow the way it is now. People are there now but nothing meaningful is coming out of there. It is like the government is not taking the issue of Delta Steel Company seriously.”

 

When reminded that the plant had been handed over to a pri-  vate investor, he asks: “How can you give the company to a private investor without following up, without knowing its profile and without know what they are doing there? “The government is weak in this area.

 

There are so many of their projects that are abandoned. Come to where we are residing in Township, schools have been abandoned, taken over by weeds. It is a nonchalant attitude by the government.” On whether the Premium Steel and Mines Limited has the capacity to transform the moribund plant, Salami retorts: “Those are not steel makers; if they are still makers we will know. The same government that allowed them in is the same government that owes us.

 

“My health challenges are numerous; one, I cannot see far objects. Doctors told me that there are cataracts in my eyes and these are the manifestations of areas where we worked. Again, the pains are there all over. Many of the people that worked with us have long died. “Government should live up to its responsibility and pay us our money, our entitlements, so that we can also straighten our heads and maybe we can live longer. With better treatment, nobody will know that you are sick; meaning that there is a solution to your problem. We have problems and the solution is there; only that we cannot afford it.”

 

Of the trio, Osifo Mathew is the worst hit; he has been suffering from stroke and has lost his sight. With his eyes wide opened though laced with mucous to suggest there are problems with them, Mathew could not recognise his friends. Twenty-five years of exposure to high temperature as a con-caster at the steel company is responsible for his battle with glaucoma. With such debilitating health condition, he is also not paid his entitlements after retirement from the company. Looking straight at this reporter as if he could actually see him, he says, “I worked at con-cast. We started the steel company and I was retired in 2005.

 

But up till now, I have not collected my entitlements. I have problem with my eyes. In fact, when the eye problem started, I was first affected by stroke. “The eyes have been bad for the past four years.

 

They said they cannot operate it because it is glaucoma. “They recommended drugs and eye drop. I can see just faintly. The last eye drop I bought was N9,000 and used it for two weeks.” Osifo makes one final plea to the journalist: “I want government to pay my money so that I can treat myself. As you are talking to me now, I’m just looking at you like a film. I’m not seeing you; I can’t describe the shirt you are wearing.”

•Akinwale is a snr investigative reporter, ICIR, Abuja

 

CONCLUDED

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Delta Steel Company: Dashed hope of a nation

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Sick workers, comatose firm, helpless stakeholders

Two years after the Federal Government handed over the Delta Steel Company (DSC) to Premium Steel and Mines Company Limited – a consortium of private investors – to revive the company and start production of steel for local and export purposes, the multibillion-naira outfit is yet to take off. YEKEEN AKINWALE, who visited the company situated at Owvian, Aladja town, Delta State, finds out that the company is still grappling with crises which look intractable

 

“Warri no dey carry last, na wetin we dey always talk, but for this Delta Steel Company matter, we don carry last,” quips Justice Iyasere, who looks towards the massive structure of the steel company with disappointment clearly etched on his face.

Although Iyasere, a community leader and local government chairman aspirant in Udu Local Government, is not one to give in to pessimism, he admits that it will take more actions than precepts to get the company running again – especially in the face of unending crises ranging from war by ex-workers, to huge debts to suppliers and threats from other interest groups.

Years of politicking, mismanagement and lack of interest by the Federal Government, he says, led to the collapse of what was once the pride of Delta State. If it were alive and running, Nigeria’s reliance on imported steel and aluminium products ought to have significantly reduced.

Its sales to Premium Steel and Mines Limited under the Federal Government’s privatisation programme, besides being opaque, is already a subject of litigation – communities hosting the company in Udu have instituted a law suit against Federal Government and Premium Steel and Mines Limited, to contest the sale.

At the moment, Nigeria spends N887 billion (about $4.5 billion) annually to import 25 million tons of steel and aluminium products. This is not going to end soon except steel plants such as DSC start producing steel locally.

In 1980, when the plant was established and inaugurated under the leadership of Fred Aghogho Brume, pioneer general manager, it was designed to produce one million tons of liquid steel per year. It never attained this maximum production output. Its best performance was in 1983, when it produced 500,000 tons. Since then, the plant has been aground.

“In 1985, the highest steel production a day was 23 heats in the whole of Africa and that year, Delta Steel was producing 21,” says Sam Agberhiere, one of its pioneer staff.

“If government is actually serious about steel making, by now we should have been one of the leading countries in the business. But the reverse is the case.”

From conception, DSC was designed to place Nigeria in the comity of manufacturing countries, particularly giving it an edge in the automobile sector. The Foundry Section, which earlier manufactured brake discs, drums and other parts for Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN), Kaduna, has long been shut down.

“PAN in Kaduna was making order in 2002, 2003 and 2004. From here we made brake drums, engine blocks and other accessories in good quality,” says a former staff of the company who did not want to be named because of a running battle with the new management over unpaid entitlements.

The Phase II of the plant, designed to manufacture flat sheets for production of car bodies such as bonnets, car doors, roofs and booths, never took off. The natives who donated the land to government for the company to build the Phase II have reclaimed it.

“In one word, I’d say what killed DSCL is politics. They played politics with the plant. That’s why we have found ourselves where we are today. Warri don carry last here,” Iyasere adds.

Robinson Akpodovhan, retired manager, Shipping and Logistics at the plant, would also not spare government of blame. He says government did not effectively monitor the company.

“You cannot rule out the hands of government from the failure of the company,” he says. “Ajaokuta is over 40 years now and still grappling with construction, and it is also owned by the government.”

Truly, a desolate edifice of the company sandwiched by bush says much about its years of misfortune. Before now, the company supplied billets to Jos Steel Rolling Mill, Katsina Rolling and Oshogbo Rolling Mill. All three rolling mills are also dead.

 

Haunted by ex-workers, heavy debts, unseen forces…the face of a deserted plant

With a gun-wielding soldier and other private security guards manning the gate, a visitor without prior appointment will not have his way in. “Gaining access to the plant is not an easy task; you have to come back in two weeks’ time,” a security guard tells this journalist.

An insider says the new management of the company is haunted by aggrieved former workers who have vowed never to allow operation in the plant except their entitlements are paid. So, the main gate is under tight security against any unforeseen invasion by former workers. But its former owners, Global Infrastructure Holding Limited, is also laying claim to the company and indeed pressing to take it over.

 

Save for a few employees working on an excavation across the main gate of the company, there is actually no movement of heavy duty trucks that could suggest any activity going on in the company. No deafening sounds of iron casting coming from the plant or the razzmatazz that characterises a steel company.
It wears an old look, all the welcome signposts along the dual carriageway erected by the new management notwithstanding. Keen visitors get the impression of a company not working right from the corridor of the same highway.
The road was constructed purposely to connect the steel plant to the Warri Port, in order to enhance easy evacuation of finished iron products. But the road is not only deserted; it is dilapidated.
A trailer park a few kilometres away from the main entrance of the company that once served as the assembly point for heavy-duty trucks taking finished products is long gone; it has been taken over by bushes; no ancillary business along the road is visible. Business life of the area apparently died with the steel plant.
“As an A-Level student of Federal Government Warri, we were taken to DSCL on excursion; the noise there was deafening – noise of steel production and presence of heavy-duty trucks waiting to evacuate iron products such as iron rods, billets and other products were sights to behold,” recounts Onwuka John, a resident of Owvian.
“In those days, oil workers were resigning. I saw them join the steel sector. Many resigned from Shell to join Delta Steel because everything about the company was too attractive for anyone not to eye its workforce; housing estate, schools, football team and even hospital were owned by the company.
“No company impacted the lives of the Deltans like the steel company, but all that is history now,” he adds.
“It was operating three shifts and you need to see staff buses conveying workers from Steel Town for their shifts to the company. But now, the plant is just like a ghost town.”
The units within – harbour, Direct Reduction (DR) plant and the pellet plant, Lime Plant, Rolling Mill, Electric Air Furnace, and the Continuous Caster – are littered with wreckage and waste, while other auxiliary units of the plant such as the foundry, electrical and mechanical maintenance workshops and water supply system, have all been overtaken by elephant grasses.
Creating an impression of work in progress, however, are a few workers here and there strapping their safety helmets and putting on some dusty factory boots. But there is arguably no steel processing going on in the company.
Waiting for the promised facelift by the new owners, Premium Steel and Mines Limited, the brownish rusty bodies of the equipment and the broken-down or abandoned machines all over the place are relics of a dead giant.
In March 2017, a group of investors from the United States of America and Morocco were reported to have visited the plant, proposing a N600 billion investment to help revamp it – an indication that the new owners too might be in need of financial muscle to run the plant, like their predecessor, Global Infrastructure, which failed to turn it around.
But Victor German, general manager, Government and Community Affairs at the company, denies any such proposal from any investor. He says the Indian investors have both financial and technical abilities to operate the company.
This claim is already being contested. Ebhaleme Pius, a former employee of the company who worked there when it was sold to Global Infrastructure Holding Limited, says the management of Premium Steel and Mines, under the leadership of Prasanta Mishra, lacks not only the technical knowhow and financial muscle to run it successfully but also has no record of steel making.
“Those are not steel makers,” says Pius. “That’s why they are yet to manufacture a pin for the past two years. They cannot manufacture anything there because they don’t have experience in steel making.”
When its new owners took over in 2015, they promised to revive the comatose steel plant with N370 billion. Back then, with an established elaborate plan for the company’s revival with N70 billion in new investments in the first phase and N300 billion in the further phases, it looked like the company was going to have a new lease of life.
German admits that Delta Steel Company, as it is still called by the locals despite change of ownership and nomenclature, is still haunted by many known fears from disenchanted former workers who have vowed never to allow new investors take over the company until the N3.2 billion due to them is paid.
The workers are insisting that all industrial issues be settled, especially backlog of salaries and allowances, before the company can operate. German also confirms that the plant has been bogged down by demands of the former workers. “We met some rigid situations,” he says.
The basic reason the company has not resumed operations, according to him, is the delay in bringing the former workers on board.
“These former workers are waiting, but these issues of liabilities are also there. We have about 100 of them working with us now,” he says.“What we have been doing is trying to meet the demands of the former workers; those who worked with Global Infrastructure. You don’t just come and start work. They are asking for the payment of debts owed the workers.”
According to German, who is also a gas engineer, the management of the company is almost done with the resuscitation of its rolling mill, after which other sectors such as Steel Melting Shop (SMS) would be revamped. But there are arguably no signs that the mill will start work anytime soon.
“We are resuscitating the rolling mill, we are going to buy billets or get them from outside the country,” he adds.
Pius says the steel plant management will not succeed by revamping the rolling mill first because “Delta Steel Company is an integrated plant”.
“You can’t revive the rolling mill that ought to come last in the line of production first. It must be the last stage after they might have revived units like SMS and others. They can’t operate that plant; it is not a rolling mill.”
He alleges that the Indian investors have different plans for the plant. “They want to convert the building to a rice depot or a hotel,” he says. “You know they are Vaswani Brothers and we know their history in this country. They converted Volkswagen to rice depot.”
The payment of some debts by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) in April what was needed for the management of Premium Steel to gain access to the plant and commence its resuscitation.
“We started that April this year and we have gone far. We are almost through with the rolling mill. One hundred and sixty workers are going to be employed for the rolling mills when it is operational,” says despite all these commitments, the management of the company still has a lot of bridges to cross. A case before a Federal High Court, Warri Judicial Division, by Udu community, might be a major huddle to cross.
The host community says the details of the transaction between PSML and Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), which gave the company to the new investors, was not made open.
“We do not know the extent of purchase; we do not know what AMCON sold and what they didn’t,” says Sam Odibo (Otota), Prime Minister of Udu Kingdom.
The communities claim they are stakeholders, having been allotted 22 million ordinary shares in the company, representing 10 per cent of its total shares at its privatisation.
Part of their complaint, according to Odibe, is that the Federal Government has continued to shut them out in the privatisation process while dealing with the assets of Delta Steel.
“When BPE concessioned the company some years back, the community did not even know that they had some percentage to be paid because the Indian company, Global, ran the place solo,” he says.
“We say no; we want to know what they sold to you because AMCON sold what was used to borrow money from the bank. Did they reserve anything for the community or is it that they sold everything in spite of huge expanse of land the Federal Government took from us in the name of national interest. But we believe that the Federal Government would not be stupid to sell everything off.”
Before heading for court, the host communities said their efforts to get both the BPE and the AGF to account for the privatisation process were shrugged off. Now, they want the court to declare that they are entitled to 22,000,000 ordinary shares, representing 10 per cent of the total shares of Delta Steel Company, and that both the BPE and the AGF have no right, power or authority whatsoever to sell or transfer to Premium Steel either directly or through any of the agents of the Federal Government, more than 80 per cent of the shares of Delta Steel.
The court, they argue, should also declare any purported sale and/or transfer of more than 80 per cent of the shares of Delta Steel to Premium Steel by the Federal Government, null and void.
“AMCON is done on the matter; they are not talking to us, same way nobody talked to us in the previous deal that allowed those Indians to run the place aground,” says Odibe.

•Akinwale is a snr investigative reporter, ICIR, Abuja

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Suicide law: When the dead is guilty

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Stigma, criminalisation not deterring suicide

JOHN CHIKEZIE x-rays prevalent cases of suicide in the country and blames the law for the upsurge

 

Stories of people committing suicide have now become an end to a means among the young and the middleaged in the country, especially in a city like Lagos where the hustle and bustle have tremendous effects on the mental state of residents. In 2017, the numerous shocking and alarming media reports of people taking their own lives appeared to have created an awareness in the mind of every Nigerian but what most folks didn’t know is that attempting to kill oneself is illegal and an offence against the state.

The alarm was raised when the sad and disturbing case of a 33-year-old medical doctor, Allwell Orji, who jumped into the lagoon from the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge, was reported on March 19, 2017. The deceased, who was being driven by his driver in a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) with registration number LND 476 EE about 4:50p.m., was receiving a call when he suddenly asked his driver to park. According to the driver, the doctor asked him to pull over, came out of the vehicle and jumped into the lagoon.

His body was recovered two days later. But there was uproar on social media when a 51-year-old textile dealer at Balogun Market, Titilayo Momoh, was arraigned before an Ebute Meta Chief Magistrates’ Court on April 24, 2017 for attempting to jump into the lagoon on the Third Mainland Bridge. Momoh, who pleaded not guilty, was arraigned on a charge of attempting to commit suicide.

The prosecutor, Kehinde Omisakin, said that the accused committed the offence on March 24 about 10a.m. contrary to Section 233 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2015. Omisakin said the businesswoman was prevented by security operatives from taking her own life. It was further learnt that the accused had been having sleepless nights since she was allegedly swindled of N18.7 million by a Bureau-de-Change operator sometime in 2015. However, upon her arrest, Momoh pleaded with the Lagos State government to pardon her actions on the claim that the weight of her debt pushed her into the act.

Although Momoh was granted bail by Chief Magistrate A. T. Elias in the sum of N500,000 with two responsible sureties in like sum, government later withdrew the case from the court. The judge directed that the woman be taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

Momoh’s attempted suicide and her subsequent arraignment brought to light Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, which stipulates that any person who attempts to kill himself is liable to imprisonment for one year, as many people were not even aware that such a law exists.

Looking into the implication of the suicide law as against successful suicides, is a pathetic story of a 42-year-old wielder, Wasiu Alowonle, who killed himself by jumping off a Lagos courtroom window on December 6, 2017; simply out of frustration.

Alowonle was accused of stealing an iron rod worth N40,000 and arraigned before Mrs. O. I. Raji of an Ogba Chief Magistrates’ Court. The prosecuting officer, Yumi Egunjobi, said the deceased was earlier arraigned on October 16 on a one-count charge of stealing and had been in custody at Kirikiri Prisons.

Egunjobi said the deceased was arraigned on December 6 for his trial to commence but no one could explain what made him jump off the window. However, a security guard, who witnessed the incident and pleaded anonymity, told New Telegraph that the deceased was manipulated by a spiritual force to commit suicide as he was already looking pale and frustrated when he was brought in by prison warders for trial. He said: “Although people claimed he killed himself out of frustration from prison officials’ treatment.

But I cannot believe that the man was in his right senses because it sounds ridiculous to say that it was an attempt to escape through a three-storey. Escape from a tall building through the window; that is impossible! “I believe that he was compelled by a spiritual force to kill himself. His action was not ordinary especially for someone who has been locked up in Kirikiri for months. He was wearing a white T-shirt, written ‘Fly Emirate,’ and a pair of blue jeans when he was led into the witness box for trial. “But for one reason or the other, the magistrate stood down the matter. He left the box and sat with other defendants on the front row of the court, close to the window.

“I was told he was meant to pay N40,000 to the man he allegedly stole from. But barely a few minutes after the next case was announced, the deceased pushed the other defendant beside him and ran towards the window.

“Before the prison guards could grab him, he had already jumped off and landed on the floor with his head. He died on the spot because his head was badly smashed while his right hand was fractured.” Hence, the worrisome question stuttering on the lips of everyone was what would have been Alowole’s punishment had he survived the suicide attempt?

 

Would the prosecutor have amended the previous charge to accommodate his attempted suicide? Or would he be re-arraigned on a fresh count of suicide? Another related incident is the case of a 31-year-old man, Hammed Olojo, who was arrested by the police on August 27, 2017 while attempting to jump into the Lagos lagoon in a bid to commit suicide but was quickly restrained. Olojo was prevented from taking his own life and charged before an Ebute Metta Magistrates’ Court, Lagos.

The prosecuting officer, Kehinde Olatunde, said Olojo, who pleaded not guilty, was charged on a one-count charge of attempted suicide contrary to Section 235 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, 2015.

He was also granted bail by Magistrate O. O. A. Fowowe-Erusiafe in the sum of N50,000 with two sureties in like sum and the matter was thereafter adjourned till November 16, 2017 for mention.

 

Late last year, Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Imohimi Edgal, directed the prosecution of a member of staff of China Construction Company of Nigeria Limited (CCCN), Mr. Folarin Odukoya, for attempted suicide. Odukoya allegedly attempted to take his own life about 11p.m. on December 17 by jumping into the lagoon near the Ebute Ero Jetty but was rescued by divers and handed over to the Ebute Ero Divisional Police.

 

However, when interrogated, Odukoya claimed he decided to kill himself because his employer allegedly refused to issue him a document he believed would augment his career. Nigeria, despite being ranked as sixth happiest country in Africa and 103rd in the world on March 20, 2017, according to World Happiness Report 2017, has witnessed more suicides than happy endings.

The giant of Africa, well known for its agility in business and perseverance despite economic hardship, recorded a large number of shocking attempted and completed suicides in 2017 than any other year since its history. However, according to a report made available by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a global initiative launched by the United Nations, Nigerians were ranked sixth happiest people in Africa despite the country’s challenging economic recession.

According to the SDSN Director and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General, Jeffrey Sachs, the happy countries refer to those with a healthy balance of prosperity in terms of social capital; like acquiring a high degree of trust in the society, low inequality measure and confidence in the government.

 

According to Sachs, the rankings of happiest countries are based on six essential factors such as per capital gross domestic product, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business.

 

Unfortunately, such happy records soon became a pale shadow when Nigeria, from being one of the happiest people, sunk into the rank of the most depressed country in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports on April 7, 2017. Barely a month after ranking as one of the happiest on earth, WHO arrived at a conclusion that Nigeria has 7,079,815 people suffering from depression, about 3.9 per cent of the population.

 

The figures were released in a report ahead of the World Health Day (WHD) entitled; “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.” According to the report, “4,894,557 Nigerians, which is 2.7 per cent of the population, suffer anxiety disorders. Depression is the leading cause of disabilities worldwide, and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. “Depression can lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15 – 29 globally. Consequently, the condition can lead to more suicide cases in the country.

 

“Nigerians are the most depressed in Africa because, since the number of persons with common mental disorders globally is going up, particularly in lower-income countries, the population is rapidly growing and more people are living to the age when depression and anxiety most commonly occur”.

 

A suicide attempt is often described as an act where a person tries to commit suicide but survives. Hence, most suicide attempts, in some countries, are often based on a terminal or chronic illness. The alarming rate of suicides in the world has varied in several countries while its sanctions still remains a greatly debated concept.

 

The law against suicide has reigned since antiquity and is believed to have emanated from a religious doctrine which claims that God is the sole determinant for the death of humans (meaning that God has the legal right to determine who and when a person should die).

 

According to the tales, especially in ancient Athens, persons who deliberately killed themselves were denied the honours of a normal burial. At the time, the punishment for anyone who commits suicide without an approval from the state entails that the person would be buried alone without a headstone or marker, on the outskirt of the town or city. Sometimes, the family of the deceased would be stripped off their belongings and handed over to the state.

 

Suicide, also referred as selfmurder, within the religious and moral objections, was a mortal sin in the eyes of the church and also a crime under the common law in England in the mid-13th Century. However, before the enactment of the Suicide Act 1961, an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and jailed. Even the families of those who succeeded were equally not left unpunished but could also face prosecution.

 

The 1961 Suicide Act, however, decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales to enable people who failed while attempting to kill themselves escape prosecution.

 

Although the states abolished the penalties imposed by the common law (property forfeiture and humiliating burial), it was solely to spare the innocent families and not to legitimise the act. Recent studies on criminal codes of several countries around the world revealed that while most western countries decriminalised suicide acts, suicide attempts still remain a criminal offence in most Islamic countries. In Africa, where the legality or criminality of suicide attempts are mostly deduced from moral standards and religious tenets, several countries like Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe still legalise both attempted and completed suicide.

 

But in stark contrast, others like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda enforce stringent punishments for offenders. Unlike in Japan where suicide is considered illegal but not punishable, offenders in Nigeria are not left unpunished but are arrested and charged to court for prosecution.

 

However, self-induced deaths have no judicial penalties, but suicide attempts still remain a criminal offence in Nigeria. Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act, Chapter 77, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 stipulates a one year imprisonment sentence for offenders. While Section 235 of the Criminal law ChC17 vol.3 Laws of Lagos State, 2015, prescribes a hospitalisation order for an accused.

The same chapter of the Criminal Code also criminalises aiding suicide; Section 326 states that any person who procures, counsels, induces another in killing himself is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for life. The implications of these laws interpret that anyone who attempts to harm his/her body, under any circumstance, shall be treated as a criminal and duly prosecuted.

 

Hence, anyone guilty of the offence shall face same treatment similar to an awaiting trial or convicted criminal like a murderer, an armed robber or kidnapper etc. Doctor speaks According to Dr. R. A. Adebayo, a former Acting Medical Director of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, suicide occurs when an individual wilfully or deliberately attempts to end his life and eventually succeeds; while a failed attempt, whether by strangulation, hanging on a rope, taking a poisonous substance or jumping into a lagoon, is called deliberate self-harm (DSH).

 

Adebayo, who is also a clinical psychologist and consultant psychiatrist, said that suicidal acts should not be treated as criminal cases but as an abnormal mental disorder since 80 per cent of the indulged victims suffer from depression.

 

While advocating the decriminalisation of suicide attempts, the doctor said that suicidal patients were being admitted into the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital on a weekly basis but because the society decided to criminalise it, people barely heard of the reported cases. Adebayo maintained that suicide patients should not be tagged as criminals but as patients or victims who need to be accessed and medically examined.

 

According to him, what suicide patients need is an intensive medical care for their condition and not prosecution or a prison sentence. He said: “We should never criminalise suicide acts expect those who attack others through bombing.

 

Suicidal victims need treatment and not prisons because they are diseased. It would be inhuman to jail people with mental disorders since their condition is a pathological process. “It’s high time we de-stigmatised mental disorders. Hauling people with mental disorders into prisons would never solve their problems rather the Federal Government should provide more opportunities for treatment.

 

Prison sentence should only serve as punishment to suicide bombers whose intentions are to harm others in the process of taking their own lives. “There are medical factors which induce suicide such as: substance abuse (otherwise called drug addiction), epilepsy, terminal or chronic medical conditions like cancer, stroke and schizophrenia.

 

“Other non-medical causes of suicide include tough financial debt or condition; honour killings common in Japan and Middle East countries (a situation where someone, whose guilt and shame over an offence committed, kills himself in order to honour or cleanse the disgrace he brought to the image of his family); and suicide attacks in the Islamic states like Boko Haram.

 

“All these causes of suicide are induced by depression, aside suicide attack which is an element of religious indoctrination. But, on the contrary, suicide is a medical issue and not a criminal act as pointed by the law.

“A successful suicide victim cannot be prosecuted by the law since the person is dead already but the one who attempts cannot also be reported as a result of the fear of being stigmatised, tagged as a criminal and charged to court.

 

It is certain that more than 15 per cent of suicide attempts won’t be reported. “This, however, makes suicide attempts under reported or shrouded in secrecy. In this hospital, I have witnessed several cases of deliberate self-harm (DSH) patients especially those with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a major psychotic disorder where a patient claims to hear strange voices. This condition is also referred to as auditory hallucination.

 

“According to patients who suffer from this condition, these strange voices tell them to kill or harm themselves. Some of them adhere to that instruction while the lucky ones run into hiding or seek help. There are cases of patients who heard voices and thereafter jumped from a storey building or into a lagoon.

 

“There was a peculiar case of an epileptic patient who got tired of her condition and decided to end it by jumping into the lagoon. She jumped from the Third Mainland Bridge but fortunately she was rescued. Another lady also jumped into the same lagoon after hearing strange voices but she was rescued as well.

 

“Now, in the eyes of the law, these ladies have attempted suicide, but medically we call it a DSH. This is because when the cause of such behaviour is examined, we realise that depression or the strange voices prompted the act.”

Adebayo also explained that after the rescue, rehabilitation, and recovery from such illness, some of these patients eventually come to terms with the damage the illness has done in their lives and might still attempt suicide. He said: “Some of them may not want to continue or brace up with life simply because of shame or guilty.

 

Some might be ashamed of the things they experienced during the illness or the pain or harm they might have caused either to themselves or their families. So in order not to live with the trauma incurred by that illness, they wilfully choose to kill themselves. This realisation is called post schizophrenic depression.

 

“There are certain determinants to aid in identifying a suicidal person like previous at- tempts of harming self, family history of depression and child abuse (especially among teenagers)”. Lawyers speak A legal luminary, Prof Itse Sagay, SAN, said that the basic argument by most people is that if a person succeeds in the act of suicide, then he cannot be punished. But if he fails and is punished, then it sounds unreasonable. Hence, they imply that the person who fails is the one who gets punishment and not the one who succeeds in the act.

 

Sagay said: “I think that the purpose of that law is to serve as deterrent; to discourage a person from taking his/her own life. But the reason I agree with those who say it should be removed from our law books is that it doesn’t really act as deterrent. This is because a person who wants to kill himself is determined to succeed even though he may fail. So, he has no fear whatsoever. “It’s only after he fails that he realises that he could be punished.

But when he embarked on it, his mind was totally made up and firm that nothing else follows. “So, I think that the position of our law on suicide is unreasonable and there’s no justification for enforcing it. Instead, we should have a more robust provision for monitoring people, for tackling psychological problems, in order to discourage people from even desiring to commit suicide and not when the person fails.”

A human rights activist and Director of Access to justice, Joseph Otteh, who also shared same thoughts with the learned SAN, said that “the criminalisation of suicide in our laws is an incident of both our colonial experience as well as, ironically, our slow pace of reassessing the expediency or relevance of inherited colonial laws”. Otteh also called for a review of the suicide law.

He said: “The retention of the offence of suicide in federal statutes possibly hearkens to the fact that there has never been any systematic effort to review wholly, federal penal legislation since Independence from Britain. What has happens mostly are piece meal reviews, additions and few subtractions, leaving the body of colonial laws substantially intact?

“The Lagos position is a lot more thoughtful, sensible and realistic and offers a compassionate physiological and legal response to the problem. It regards attempting suicide as a possible mental health problem, and offers care in dealing with it.

“This is the way the problem should be addressed. It unwarps and unloads the historical political baggage associated with the criminalisation of suicide, and focuses on the needs of the person attempting it rather than perpetuating the flawed historical reasons associated with its use some centuries ago.

“In that era, criminalising suicide was seen to reflect the anger felt by the state at the use of suicide as a form of political defiance of its authority.

The countries where this began have abolished it as an offence, so why should we blindly continue to enforce it?” But Chief Gani Adetola-Kazeem, SAN, disagreed with anyone calling for the review of the suicide law while arguing that, “should people be permitted to willingly take their own lives?”

He said: “I don’t think there is any sufficient reason for someone to take his own life or be permitted to do so. We all have faith in God Almighty who gives life and has the ability to take it. “The point is, in principle, whether it involves taking one’s own life or that of another person, a believer must remember that he has not the power to give life and therefore has no responsibility in taking life. “It’s not for an individual to decide on terminating his or another person’s life. Even if it involves a terminal illness, they should be helped to get out of it and not encouraged to annihilate themselves.

“If there is a medical condition that warrants euthanasia or assisted induced deaths, which of course is not allowed, but generally, the health practitioners should know what to do in order to pacify or ease the pains affecting such a person.

“Aside those who commit suicide out of frustration, depression and medical challenges, there are those who also do same after committing a crime because they feel the best way to escape punishment is to take their own lives. Would you also say that such suicide is right? “I don’t support suicide neither do I think it is right to decriminalise attempted suicide.

I think that the law against attempted suicide should stand just like the law that makes manslaughter and murder a crime. I stand in support of the law against attempted suicide as a believer and not just as a lawyer”. Also speaking in favour of the law, Yusuf Ali, SAN, said he is in full support of the law against attempted suicide.

He said: “I support the law because it’s not right for a man to take what doesn’t belong to him. Life wasn’t created by man so why should he wilfully take it? “Attempting is what the law punishes since those who succeed are never alive to face prosecution. I do not support any form or type of suicide.” The reality of suicide seems to be catching up with other criminal counterparts like murder and manslaughter, but its stringent punishment to impede further actions remains a questionable approach.

If hospitals are built for the sick in order to aid health challenges and prisons serve as rehabilitation centres and reorientation facilities for lawbreakers and offenders; what happens when a mentally impaired person, instead of being taken to a psychiatric home, is arrested, prosecuted and jailed on the premise of an uncoordinated insanity? How do we punish someone who sees suicide as the fastest way or solution of putting an end to a life’s threatening challenge?

These are obviously questions begging for answers in view of the Federal Government’s reviewing of the law on suicide and its implications.

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