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‘Tribal marks, our identity, our pride’

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Like many of Africa’s traditional practices, tribal marks are fast outdated and many of those who have them loudly complain that the age-long traditional practice is negatively affecting their personality and fortune, reports MURITALA AYINLA

 

Even from his childhood days, Dr. Jacob Adeyanju, a lecturer in the Department of Educational Management at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), was loved and adored by his classmates and teachers alike. Because of his brilliant academic performance in his primary and secondary schools, encomiums and recognitions naturally came his way like bees to the honeycomb.

And after replicating outstanding traits he exhibited during his undergraduate years at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in Ile-Ife, Osun State, he was rewarded with instant employment in UNILAG where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). But Adeyanju, a man that always brims with confidence and optimism, got the shock of his life recently while at a forum in Manchester City, United Kingdom, for an academic conference.

Being the only black in the midst of attendees numbering about 300, he knew instantly he would be the cynosure of all eyes. What, however, did him in was not his distinctive black complexion; it was his conspicuous facial marks that nearly became the theme of discourse at the conference.

“Virtually, everyone looked at me with disdain and derision because of my facial marks,” he said. But when it was time for him to address the gathering, he took the participants by surprise with what was described as a “superb presentation.” He ended his session with a standing ovation. Reminiscing over the Manchester City incident, the academic agreed that it was a blessing in disguise after all.

Prior to his presentation, a number of the participants, who managed to speak to him, had rudely confronted him and asked why his face was “mutilated” with facial marks. “For me, what saved me from humiliation was my oratory skills and competence in the subject of discourse, which I think were more important than my physical appearance,” Adeyanju said.

But, at last, his physical appearance, which nearly stole the show of the conference, suddenly became irrelevant such that almost all the participants wanted to be his friends as they asked for his phone numbers and email address after the conference. Although the erudite scholar was able to ward off stigmatisation issues and prove to the world that his facial marks couldn’t encumber or be the yardsticks for his accomplishments, many with bold marks on their faces are not that lucky.

One of such unlucky ones is 30-year-old Olalere Sharafa, a fresh graduate of Communication and Language Arts of the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State. Up till now, Sharafa frequently blames his parents for “defacing” him with ‘Gombo,’ a set of multiple straight and curved lines of marks of about a half an inch apart inscribed on the cheeks on both sides of the mouth.

Despite making a Second Class Upper Division (2.1), he continually blames his scarified face for his inability to secure a job over the years. Still in the dark as to why his tribal marks terrify would-be employers, Sharafa cited a recent example of a job interview session that suddenly went awry when it was his turn to face the panel in an oral interview. Having passed a written test and scored the highest point, he was shortlisted in an advertising agency in Lagos for a modelling deal, leaving him ecstatic that he would soon secure a means of livelihood.

However, like a flash in the pan, his joy was short-lived as the job seeker was thoroughly disappointed when the panellists refused to attend to him for an oral interview, leaving the venue with “the worst humiliation in my life” instead of an appointment letter.

“The moment I stepped into the conference room, venue of the interview, the panellists were shocked to discover that someone who scored the highest point in the written test had tribal marks. They asked several times if I was Olalere Sharafa, I responded in affirmative and then I was asked to step aside,” he said.

That was one of many moments of dashed hopes, as the Ibadanborn applicant was bluntly told by the panellists that someone with facial marks was not needed for the job; his brilliant performance in the aptitude test notwithstanding. “I never knew that my facial looks could limit my potential as regards job even with my brilliant credentials.

Since then, I have become selective while searching for jobs,” he lamented. Although she has suffered a fate similar to Sharafa’s while growing up, Shade Olowoporoku learnt early how to cope with negative public reactions to her tribal marks.

With three longitudinal lashes known as ‘Pele’ on each of her cheeks and another three horizontal lines of marks beside her eyelids popularly called ‘Idoko,’ the 40-year-old stylist said she was chosen to undergo facial marks among her siblings due to her position as the first child of the family. According to her, every first child in her family, which is the popular Jagun family in Oyo town, must have a tribal mark regardless of whether the child is male or female.

This, she said, was a traditional sign of honour and a clear indication that the child is not a bastard. She added that while growing up, she encountered a lot of challenges, especially stigmatisation and embarrassment among colleagues and friends in school, while many called her all sorts of nicknames to deride and embarrass her. However, with the passage of time, she explained that she overcame the inferiority complex often induced in her by the undesirable public response to her tribal marks.

“There was a time I felt if I had the choice, I would have preferred to erase the marks and be regarded as a bastard to continuously have these marks on my face. It nearly ruined me if I had not fought the esteem-killing effect it had on me. “I remember when I approached people back in the days as a young lady, the expressions on their faces were often depressing if not discouraging for an ambitious young lady like me. Some will look at me and say: ‘Who is this?’ Some people would have already concluded that I am an illiterate person, just by merely looking at my face. Those days, I always wished I could wipe it off, because I felt I was losing a lot of relationships,” she narrated her ordeal.

But it is a case of different strokes for different folks for Ibrahim Gobir, a native of Kebbi State. He was indifferent about the effect of facial marks on his fortune, saying proudly that the ‘Gobirci’ on his face, comprising multiple slashes drawn from the eyelids and head region to the jaw with another one running from the nose to the right cheek, has nothing to do with his potential and fortunes in life.

According to the Lagos-based 38-year-old man, the ‘Gorbici’ mark is culture of the people of Bagobiri in Isah Local Government Area of Kebbi State, insisting that he had resigned to fate instead of bothering about stigmatisation and the possible adverse perception by anybody. This, he said, is the only way he can always make himself happy since there is nothing he could do to erase the marks. “How many people will I explain to that tribal mark is symbol of honour, riches and influence in my region? With or without marks, I will fulfil my destiny. So, as for me, I see no difference between someone with and without marks,” he concluded.

Genesis of facial markings

According to folktales, the historical background of tribal marks varies from one tribe or ethnic group to the other. Some historians said the art of marking the face dated back to the fifth Century B.C., when some foreigners who lived in Egypt began to mark themselves by cutting their foreheads with knives in an attempt to prove that they were not Egyptians.

Some history books conclude that the practice, which differentiated the foreigners from their hosts, was later adopted in other African countries. Another version of history debunks this assertion, saying facial marking began at the time when traditional kingdoms were invaded and people kidnapped, especially when slave trade crept into Africa. As such, clans started marking their members to distinguish themselves and enable them to know where an individual belonged to, should they have the privilege of returning home.

Reasons for facial marks

While tracing the genealogy of facial marks in Yoruba land, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, a renowned Ifa priest and cultural ambassador, agreed that the tribal marks have been in existence from time immemorial. He explained that the basic reasons for the marks were for identification and beauty, which Yoruba people proudly adopted as culture with time.

Elebuibon, who is a visiting lecturer of African Culture and Religion at San Fransisco State University, California, United States (US), explained further that there are spiritual dimensions to facial markings because some families in Yoruba land have it as a mark of tradition to consult Ifa Oracle before embarking on the marks to know if the facial marks won’t lead to the untimely death of their babies. Corroborating Elebuibon, the Alado of Ado Awaye Kingdom, Oba Demola Olugbile Folakanmi, said that tribal marks in Yoruba land was more than just a cultural practice for identification.

In Ado Awaye, a sprawling town in Oyo State, facial markings are part of criteria used, especially in the royal families, to ascend the throne of their forefathers, stressing that any prince who wishes to ascend the throne must as a matter of cultural imperative have facial marks.

The respected monarch told New Telegraph that was one of the reasons the royal stool of Ado Awaye remained vacant for almost 34 years due to litigations from different contenders gunning for the stool of the kingdom. He concluded that his ‘Gombo’ marks were among other things considered by the kingmakers before nominating him as the new king after the court’s ruling on the choice of the next ruling house. He said that his emergence as the 13th Oba of Ado Awaye was as a result of the ‘Gombo’ mark which was the type peculiar to the royal ancestors of the kingdom.

“Tribal marks are one of the things that qualified me above other contenders. Although due to a series of controversies, having facial marks is no longer strong criteria in the selection of king in parts of Yoruba land; the facial marks remain the benchmarks for choice of kings in Iseyin and Oyo kingdoms.

A would-be king must bear the ancestral facial marks in the ancient towns. As far as I know, all the sons of Alaafin of Oyo have the tribal marks regardless of the first or last. For royal family with this strong history of tribal marks, facial identity is what we don’t joke with,” the monarch said. Another usefulness of facial markings, according to the monarch, is that they are also used to settle paternity scores and identify the true biological father of the baby whose paternity is mired in dispute. In the days of yore when there was no DNA facility, family tribal marks given to a baby with questionable paternity issue were enough to douse the tension because the baby would not last for seven days after the marks.

Although tribal markings are no longer popular among the educated elite who reside largely in the cities, it is a practice that is yet to fade out completely. Findings show that the cultural practice is still somehow prevalent among the rural dwellers. For instance, as this reporter found out in the course of reporting this story, one can hardly see 10 people without two or more people bearing facial marks. From Ogbomoso to Oyo, Ilorin to Iseyin, Ondo to Abeokuta, Ibadan to Offa, facial markings as a cultural practice is still carried out for different reasons.

While some families and towns marked the face of their first child in order to retain their identity, others see the practice as sacred things and such, regard it as the first criterion for anyone to become the king or hold a chieftaincy title in their lands.

This, it was discovered, was one of the reasons why those from royal families, especially in some parts of Yoruba land must always appear in their deep and glaring marks on their face, without which they could be denied the royal stool. In this part of Nigeria, tribal mark is popular to the extent that most traditional rulers, particularly in the areas noted for the marks, have the facial marks. The marks, like in the Northern ethnic group, are in different sizes and patterns depending on the area.

The only notable difference is that Northern marks are thinner than Southern marks. Hence, Soju, Jaju, Bamu, Keke, Abaja, Pele, Gombo, Mefa Omoba, are common marks in the Yoruba land. In the Northern region, particularly among the non-educated Hausa/Fulani ethnic group, facial scarification is part of fashion which every son and daughter must proudly bear on their faces irrespective of what any civilisation ideology holds. Hence, aside from Bille and the Chika Baki marks among the Fulani ethnic group, some parts of the North, especially people of Argungu and Magoro are also at ease with Bagobiri and Gobirci marks. Others such as Zube, Yan Baka, Doddori are also adopted by Northern clans.

While the Kemberi (another type of mark ranges from 10 to 11 slashes) holds sway among the Kontangora Emirates in Niger State. For the Fakai people in Zuru Emirate, the Gobirci, the multiple strokes of marks with a vertical slash across the nose, is a beautiful mark to behold. In the Igbo land, the marks are not so commonly practiced as it is among Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani tribes but the short two lines of marks are usually inscribed close to the left side eyelid of most people of Anambra State.

But while the facial mark inscription is commonly done with male and female circumcision together in some places, the intense campaign against the practice, especially female genital mutilation by government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other international agencies is forcing the people and facial marks specialists to drop the female circumcision. According to Baale Oloola of Ibadan land, Pa Iyiola Alade Alabede, who claimed to be 156 years old and the oldest facial marks specialist in Ibadan, Oyo State capital, the marks and the genital circumcision are commonly inscribed with Abe, a sharp object used by the specialists, on the body of the bearers as early as 6a.m. to avoid loss of much blood and for speedy recovery.

The chief specialist said that black powdery substances made of healing herbs and ointments are applied on the marks for speedy healing of the scarification. He boasted that the specialists hardly experience complications when they mark or circumcise. Findings also reveal that both genital circumcision and facial mark are carried out on the children from day five to the age of two or above.

Explaining the reason for carrying out the facial marks inscription and circumcision at early stage of the child, Nurudeen Kasali Alabede, 40, another Ibadan-based specialist, said that it was easier for the specialists to perform the art on the babies and children at their infancy, adding that the older the bearer, the difficult it is for them to inscribe the mark on them and the longer it will take for the mark to heal. “Some families demand our service on four-day-old babies while some prefer the child to be up to two years before the circumcision and facial scarification is done,”Kasali added.

Facial mark patterns

While tribal marks vary in patterns and styles, depending on the ethnic or the family practicing the culture, they are not always restricted to the faces. Beyond the cheeks, the marks are also inscribed on other parts of the body such as abdomen, hands, legs, thighs, forehead, jaw, wrist, chest, back and other unimaginable places in the body.

These facial mark types in Yoruba land are also slightly different from one another. For instance, Abaja, a three or four horizontal stripes on the cheeks, is typically known among Egba in Ogun State. It is also slightly different from the type adopted in other parts of Yoruba land. The Pele of Ijebu, also in Ogun State, is also shorter than that of Ekiti State; while the Ila Oragun‘s version of Pele in Osun State is a bit wider than that of Owu people in Abeokuta, Ogun State.

So also is Gombo of Ogbomoso from the Egba in Ogun State. Investigations revealed further that in some parts of ancient settlements such Oyo and Iseyin in Oyo State and other parts of Osun State, birthdates of the bearers are inscribed on the abdomen. In some instances, others draw animals such as lizards or scorpions on the stomach or other parts of the body to show important historical background of the drawn object in their respective clans. Something similar is also noticed among the Yoruba in Ilorin, Kwara State.

The locals showed inscriptions on their abdomen, which were traced to be the names of the great-grandfathers or chief facial mark specialists, also known as Olola or Alabede, in their clans. Variety is also noticed in the number of marks inscribed on the body. For instance, aside the facial horizontal marks on each of the cheeks of tribal mark bearers, a plethora of marks equally dot their body parts. “I can’t count the number of marks on my face and other ones in other parts of my body,” said a man who identified himself simply as Sulaiman in Ilorin.

Same goes for bearers in the famous Alanamu Family in Ilorin. Many members of that illustrious family have nothing less than 200 marks on their face, comprising 100 on each cheek. Sulaiman, who claimed to be a brother to Nigeria’s former Minister of Works, the late Major General Abdul-Kareem Adisa, said other parts of his body were also marked with three slashes at both right and left side of his body from head to toe.

“Besides the visible vertical facial marks, which make people to call us ‘Kwara 11,’ there are other three slashes on all other parts of the body. In fact, I have it on all my joints – three on the right and left side. Like the late minister, most Ilorin indigenes have the marks,” Suleiman said.

Marked for success

While many bemoan the marks on their face, some famous personalities with scarification hardly complain that the marks they bear have anything to do with their attainments in life. In the political firmament, one notable face is former President Olusegun Obasanjo, an Owu man from Abeokuta in Ogun State who proudly wears his Owu marks like a badge of righteousness.

“Not many people know that I have three identity cards. The first is the international passport; the second is the national identity card and the third is my tribal marks,” he proudly declared in November 2014, as he collected his electronic national identity card from the National Identity Card Commission (NIMC). The former President has six lines on each side of his cheeks, marks peculiar to Owu indigenes.

It is also on record that some of the nation’s founding fathers had tribal marks. The list included Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, late Tafawa Balewa; the premier of the defunct Western region, late Ladoke Akintola; Ahmadu Bello, late Alhaji Sule Maitama; former military head of State, late General Sanni Abacha; former Kwara State Governor, late Rear Admiral Muhammed Lawal and former Sokoto State Governor, Attaihiru Bafarawa, among others.

The list equally extends to some of Nigeria’s best lawyers, medical experts, engineers, actors and musicians – many of whose contributions to national development will remain indelible. Prominent among such illustrious names with tribal marks are Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN; Niyi Akintola, SAN; juju music maestro, King Sunny Ade; Olaniyi Afonja popularly called Sanyeri; Ebun Oloyede, among others.

Nailing the coffin of tribal markings

A research work published in 2013 in the African Press Agency listed some ethnic groups it identified as those that traditionally have “some of the most invasive scars.” They included Jarawa in Plateau State, Igala in Kogi State, Yoruba (Oyo and Ondo), Hausa, Kanuri, and Nupe, among others.

The researcher also established the fact that tribal marking was practiced among Hausa and Igbo groups, noting that whether a person has tribal markings would depend not only on their ethnic group but also on traditional practices prevalent in their compound and family. However, with increasing access to education and Western values, many Nigerians have changed their attitude towards tribal markings, viewing the practice as primitive and unnecessary in these modern times.

Perhaps in a bid to respond to the prevailing public mood, political leaders have joined the fray by putting legislations in place at both the national and state levels prohibiting scarification of any kind on any Nigerian. One of such landmark legislative measures to discourage tribal markings came into effect in 2003, when the National Assembly enacted the Child Rights Act.

Among other profound provisions, the Act declares that “no person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child.” It Section 24(1) defines a “skin mark” as “any ethnic or ritual cuts on the skin which leaves permanent marks.” And for violators, the law prescribes a fine of up to N5,000 or a prison term of up to a month, or both. Several international and local bodies have since thrown their weight behind Nigeria’s efforts to make tribal markings a thing of the past.

For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which provides assistance to disadvantaged children and mothers worldwide, mounted campaigns encouraging all the 36 states to domesticate the Child Rights Act without any further delay. In 2011, the global humanitarian body said the Act superseded all other legislations relating to the rights of the child, including legislations enacted at the state level, urging every state to just “formally adopt and adapt the Act for domestication as state laws” and to amend or annul existing laws that contravene the Act.

The National Human Rights Commission, established in 1995 to monitor human rights and assist victims of rights violations, also called on all the 36 states in 2013 to adopt the Act with immediate effect. Interestingly, the campaigns have not been in vain because there is nothing to suggest that the law was not greeted with cold shoulders in most of Nigeria’s 36 states. As at 2011, no less than 26 states had passed and domesticated the Child Rights Act into law in their own jurisdictions. The list includes Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Benue, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Ekiti, Imo, Jigawa, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Nasarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers, Taraba, Ebonyi and Bayelsa states.

As at 2013, Amnesty International reported that 12 states were yet to adopt the legislation. Although there is yet to be any record of violators to the law, there seems to be enough signs that the tradition of tribal markings is fast waning, especially in urban areas since the prohibition came into effect – though some still have attachment to their tradition.

Those who wish the practice dead often point to the medical risks associated with the procedure, as well as the stigma that is now associated with tribal marks. While other hold a contrary view, many sociologists and other researchers insist that their findings point to the direction that the practice’s popularity has declined generally among the populace. Reasons they often cite to back up their claim that tribal marks “no longer have a wide appeal” include the following: many historical reasons for having tribal marks are no longer relevant; people do not need the marks as means of identification because people are no longer being kidnapped in ethnic wars; society’s definition of beauty has changed over time, and belief systems have changed over time due to the influence of Christianity and the Western education.

Now, efforts are afoot towards upping the ante. In March, a new bill specifically meant to exterminate the soul of tribal marks practice was sponsored by Senator Dino Melaye, elected on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), representing Kogi State. If eventually passed into law, the bill, which had scaled the hurdle of second reading, would finally put an end to the “inhuman treatment of children” in the name of tribal marks.

He said reasons why Africans give marks such as identification and paternity claims could no longer be tenable in the face of civilisation and technological advancement. Describing the marks as emblems of disfiguration, the lawmaker said most bearers have developed low self-esteem while some are treated with scorn and ridicule, including rejection by the female folks.

“The irony of these marks is that it makes victims subjects of mockery by friends. Imagine someone being called a tiger because of the thick cheek resulting from facial marks. These people have been subjected to different reactions. Many of the grown up adults have confessed that the most terrific debacle of their lives is their tribal marks. Some have become eunuchs because of this stigma. Imagine a boy in the class of the 25 pupils carrying tribal marks. His mates will call him the boy with railway lines.

“These tribal marks have become emblems of disfiguration and have hindered many situations of life. Some have developed low selfesteem, they are most times treated with scorn and ridicule…many innocent people, mostly children… had inadvertently been infected with the deadly HIV virus. Sharp instruments used by the locales to inscribe the tribal marks were not sterilised, thus exposing kids, even adults, to the risk of HIV/ AIDS,” the senator said.

Like the lawmaker, Maroof Olumuyiwa, a Lagos-based psychologist, said that an individual with facial marks mostly feel reduced in terms of beauty and this could make such person to become unnecessarily reserved, as they sometimes have the impression that they are different from others. “It is natural that most people with tribal marks have the notion that their beauty had been tampered with.

Consequently, in terms of socialisaton or networking with people, they might experience inferiority complexity. Many of them might not be able to interact freely with people, even in situations where they have what is expected of them. Mockery words like: ‘Owala’ or ‘Okola’, ‘you fight lion?’ often discourage them but those with strong determination are not usually affected by this.

It is not uncommon that pupils with facial marks are always subjects of ridicule among their peers. Take for instance, if a 12-year-old boy with facial marks was to mingle with pupils of one of the super-rich schools in Nigeria for a debate or quiz competition, there is no way he will not feel inferior seeing other kids without facial marks no matter how brilliant he is,” the psychologist said. As for the Chief Executive Officer of the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency (LASCA), Dr. Oluseyi Temowo, the health hazards involved in the process of tribal markings cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand, since they are often carried out with “unsterilised sharp objects.”

His concern is that the child being adorned with marks at a very tender age could easily contact HIV virus aside the pains he or she would undergo as a result of the marks. According to him, the marks, if not well taken care of, can be infected with tetanus which can endanger the life of the child. “Hepatitis B or C is another risk involved in the practice aside HIV.

This is because most of the facial marks specialists are not so educated; they do not believe in the existence of micro-organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eyes. Hence they take issue of sterilisation with levity, thus endangering the lives of their clients with contagious diseases. So it advisable people patronise orthodox medical facilities for circumcision, if necessary,” he added.

But Pa Alade Alabede debunked allegation of unsafe practices among the local facial mark specialists for circumcision and tribal marks, boasting that some orthodox medical practitioners patronise them when they experience complications in the course of circumcising the babies.

The aged man said that aside the healing powder and ointment applied to the mark or circumcised genital organ, they also invoke some incantations to put ‘things’ under control when necessary. The facial specialist, however, blamed the gradual extinction of the cultural practice on the campaigns against the practice and their patronage, lamenting that it was almost a year that he last inscribed facial scarification. Unlike the time when the practice was hugely popular, many tribal marking specialists said they hardly circumcise or inscribe facial marks in three months. According to Pa Alade Alabede, unlike the olden days when an average specialist could perform circumcision and markings for about 15 children or more in a day, there is virtually no work for them to do nowadays.

Going by the fears expressed by the aged specialist, who said he built houses from proceeds from tribal marking and circumcision, it appears their trade and services are no longer needed in the society such that none of their members now relies on the job as a means of livelihood. “With the current development, our survival is threatened; our cultural heritage and values are fading out.

I can’t remember the last time I inscribe facial marks on somebody; I only did male circumcision about six months ago just for N1,500. With the civilisation and advent of orthodox health facilities, the world is no longer embracing our services,” he added. Does this signal the final interment of a tradition that used to be a source of beauty and pride among various ethnic groups in the country?

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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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