Nigeria’s Angry Children of Suicide – Reuben Abati

I once wrote about Nigeria’s “children of anger”, but the country seems
to have progressed from anger to clinical depression, resulting in a
rise not merely in social aggressiveness, but a determination by certain
individuals to escape from it all. The percentage of Nigerians seeking
escape through suicide nonetheless remains small relative to the size of
the population, but the sharp increase in the number and frequency of
reported suicides in the last two years alone speaks to a certain
dysfunctionality requiring closer inquiry.

Suicide is an act
of self-destruction, an escape from the self, an act of self-defeat.
Whether the suicide is anomic or fatalistic, due to loss of job, broken
relationships, dis-inhibition, economic deprivation, environmental
factors, disability or psychosis, it usually arises from an awareness of
the inadequacy of the self. What Germans call “weltschmerz”, that is, a
discrepancy between personal expectations and the reality of personal
space, which for many may result in anger, aggressiveness, a feeling of
rejection, isolation, inadequacy and ultimately a revolt against the
self.

It is often assumed that poverty is synonymous
with this resolve to deconstruct the self but the highest suicide rates
are actually found in countries with wealth, and better environment, and
all ten of the most popular spots for suicide in the world are in
developed countries. What is certain however regardless of the place and
time, is that human beings decide to abbreviate their own mortality
when they resolve that they can no longer live with the discrepancy
between what they are and what they would like to be, or what they have
been and what they have suddenly become or what they expect and what
happens to them eventually, all of this basically in the context of the
imagined stigma, shame, disgrace or disappointment.

What is
instructive in our own circumstance, however, is that suicide has always
been frowned upon in our society: It is forbidden by law, religion,
society and tradition, to the extent that in local communities, persons
who commit suicide are not given any decent burial, they are thrown into
the evil forest to serve as a deterrence to others, and the affected
family is stigmatized. It is for this reason perhaps that suicide cases
used to be very few in our land. Besides, Nigerians are known for their
optimism and resilience.

We were once described as one of the
happiest people on earth, and one Dictionary describes a segment of our
population, the Yoruba as the “fun-loving people of the South West part
of Nigeria.” Nigerians love life so much they describe virtually every
funeral as a “celebration of life” and every life, including the poorest
is advertised in funeral posters as “a life well spent.” The cemetery
is seen as a desolate, lonely, outside corner of the social space where
no one is in a hurry to go. But all that has changed; or appears to be
changing, for in the last two years, suicide seems to have become
fashionable among seemingly ordinary folks.

I use the phrase
“seemingly ordinary folks” advisedly, because the other kind of suicide
that is known to Nigerians remains even surprising, and I refer here to
the terrorism, religious fundamentalism-inspired suicide attempts of the
likes of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Boko Haram agents. When the news
broke in 2009, that the former had been uncovered as a suicide bomber,
Nigerians were shocked. The reaction then was that it was impossible for
a Nigerian to willingly decide to die for, of all reasons, ideological
or religious reasons. We were soon proven wrong when Boko Haram began to
deploy both male and female, mature and teenage, suicide bombers who
turned Nigeria into an extension of the killing fields of al-Qaeda. This
trend continues, with the hope within the larger society, that it is
something that would end someday.

What the emerging literature
shows is that the conditions for every suicide vary in time and space,
but in Nigeria, the reported cases point to too many cases of
self-deconstruction on the basis of economic deprivation, loss of
status, debt, helplessness. The responsibility of government is to
ensure the security and welfare of the people. There has been a great
failing in this regard, with the people driven further below their
perceived reality, which reinforces the causative principle earlier
defined. Some of the recently reported cases are as follows: a man ended
it all because he could not give his wife “chop-money”, another woman
chose to die because she could not pay off her debts, in one week in
Lagos, a doctor, two women and an elderly man chose the Lagoon as their
death-spot. With the way the Lagos Lagoon has suddenly become a popular
spot for suicide in Nigeria, it may well in due course, become one of
the most popular suicide spots in the world.

It is noteworthy, if
I must say so, that the ten most popular suicide spots on earth are
associated with the sea, and bridges, with perhaps the sole exception of
the Aokigahara Forest-Mount Fuji in Japan where suicide rate is as high
as 100 per year. The Japanese may tolerate suicide and consider it
supernatural, but here in Nigeria, it is a growing trend that should be
discouraged. Some priests have said the Lagos Lagoon is angry and that
is why it has been attracting persons to jump into it: if indeed
whatever spirit that controls the Lagoon is hungry, the Oba of Lagos and
his chiefs should hurry up and feed that spirit with whatever it eats. I
assume that this would be a more useful venture than the partisan
declaration by the Oba of Lagos that nobody should contest against the
incumbent Lagos State Governor in 2019! But how about the other
unreported causes of suicide, far away from the Lagoon? This is where
the dilemma lies and where our constructive social theory, and the
admissibility of every piece of evidence, empirical and customary, meets
a brick-wall.

As a country, society and government, we would
always have to deal with deviant behaviour, into which category suicide –
the ultimate act of violence and rebellion against self and society
falls in this particular context, what is crucial is society’s level of
preparedness to reduce the scope and range. In Nigeria, we are not
prepared at all. When people fall into depression in other countries,
they visit counselors and psychiatrists. In Nigeria, a prominent leader
once dismissed psychology as a useless course that should be removed
from the curriculum. Graduates of psychology end up doing something
else, or they end up offering pro bono counseling on social media like
my in-law, Joro Olumofin, but with people dying for no just reasons and
jumping into the river or hanging themselves or killing their spouses
and family members, this is a country in urgent need of professional
counselors. Psychiatry is another relevant discipline that has been
utterly neglected.

I once gave a keynote address at the
Psychiatric Hospital, Aro in Abeokuta and I was again Keynote Speaker at
the 100th anniversary of Psychiatry in Nigeria. Nothing has changed
since then. We don’t have enough psychiatric doctors or hospitals in
Nigeria. The few psychiatric hospitals are poorly funded, psychiatric
doctors are poorly treated, the discipline is disregarded, and yet this
is a country of psychotic cases at all levels, the more serious cases
are in government, making decisions that create more problems of bipolar
disorder in the larger society. Nigeria is a victim, like many other
developing countries, of a one-sided embrace of globalization and its
gains and evils. People watch TV and they are socialized into a new form
of thinking that is disconnected with local values and culture. They
become anti-heroes in the process. Suicide or attempted suicide has not
fetched any one or any family any kind of honour in our society.

Given
this sociology, greater attention needs to be paid to the increasing
incidence of suicide, in the North and the South particularly, with the
most vulnerable states properly identified and strategic intervention
measures put in place. A preliminary observation indicates that the most
affected persons in the North are radical Islamic extremists used as
pawns by the Boko Haram, while in the 10 most affected states in the
South, the cause is basically existential. This observation is based on
reported cases, but with the increasing frequency, it is safe to hazard a
guess that there are many more unreported cases, which may provide
additional or different sociological conclusions.

Whatever the
case may be, this rise of despair in the country needs to be managed.
Suicide prevention hotlines have been announced, but the thought of
suicide should be discouraged in the first place, through better
governance, opportunities for professional counseling, and better
management of mental health. Most Nigerians don’t even know who to go
to, or talk to when they are depressed! And if they know, they don’t
want their private secrets to be known. When the suicide succeeds or
fails, the relatives are in need of help: they will need counselling, to
deal with the frustration and the shame.

I believe that
suicide-related problems can be fixed. The challenge is to convert the
people’s pessimism into optimism through people-centred governance and
to deliver the much-expected, much-trumpeted change in their
circumstances. Disappointment leads to frustration, to anger, to
despondency, to losses, to despair and ultimately to self-destruction
for the weak-hearted. But suicide is not a solution. And to those who
doubt this, Teebliz, Tiwa Savage’s husband is a living testimony. Not
too long ago, he wanted to jump into the Lagoon. He said his wife, the
award- winning singer, had disappointed him. He accused her of many
better-unmentioned-again-things. He could not take it anymore and he
wanted to self-destruct.

His suicide attempt was more or less
televised, because it was everywhere on social media – it is not every
suicide that is so televised- eventually he was prevented from taking
the plunge, and he raved and ranted afterwards and then went quiet.
Months later, he has been shown taking photographs with the same woman
for whom he wanted to play a Romeo without a Juliet. In their most
recent outings, they have been shown with their son, Jamil who looks
like his father’s twin, and last weekend, the boy had his Christening at
a church in Lekki. Teebliz has been pictured bonding with his son and
beaming with fatherly pride.

If he had jumped into the Lagoon
when he wanted to do so, he would have been long dead and forgotten. But
Teebliz looks much happier now, and deep within him, he must be
grateful to the persons who did not allow him to jump. He must be
particularly happy seeing his son growing up into a fine young kid.
There is nothing in this life that cannot be fixed and there lies the
futility of suicide.