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My professional calling, my beliefs

By Francis Ewherido

Although I could not conclusively verify it, when life insurance was in its embryonic stages, it did not seem to have made provisions for payments to beneficiaries of policyholders who committed suicide. It was probably not in the contemplation of the pioneers and protagonists of life insurance.

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It was probably excluded from insured deaths, just as it was frowned at in many cultures. In fact, in some parts in Africa, before you allow your son/daughter to marry from or into a family, you investigate whether the family has a history of suicide, among others. But you would have noticed that the Western world has become less critical of suicide and now even seem to accept it as a form of normal deaths.

When someone commits suicide in the west, you see the following statement from the family: “Mr. John Johnson Peters Schultz has died at the age of 50. At this critical time, the family wants its privacy to be respected and left alone to grieve its loss… .”

If he is a celebrity, the media will shift focus from the cause of death to his accomplishments, tributes and the funeral; end of story. So, it is not surprising these days that life insurance covers death via suicide. If a policy holder commits suicide, his beneficiary gets paid the sum assured (benefit). The only deterrence that has been incorporated into the policies is that the policyholder must have had the policy for over two years.

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That is, for his beneficiary to be entitled to any benefit, he must have operated the policy for two full years and is on its third year and more. They reason that even if the person had intention to commit suicide, he would have a change of heart over the two-year period before his beneficiary becomes entitled to the benefit. But some companies pay benefits after one full year of the inception of the policy.

I have always believed that with the way we still view suicide negatively in Nigeria, suicide will remain an exception in our life policies, but how wrong I was. Insurance is an international business and profession, and what happens abroad somehow finds its way into our shores over time. Moreover, competition in the insurance industry is intense. Insurance companies are always looking out to add value and gain market share.

So far, the policies I have come across in the Nigerian insurance market make provisions for payment of compensation to the beneficiary if an incident occurs after the policy has been renewed for at least two years. I learnt some have reduced the time to a year.

I have asked some of my professional colleagues if they have ever drawn the attention of policyholders and prospects to this provision. The response has been negative. I am not surprised. Ours is a deeply religious society, even if the religiosity goes with a huge dose of hypocrisy and a monumental lack of spirituality. Go and market life insurance and tell your prospect that even if he commits suicide, payment will be made to his named beneficiary and see what will follow!

Until a few years ago, I used to jokingly tell people around me that “Naija man no dey commit suicide; we too like life.” That was before Boko Haram took to suicide bombing and an uncomfortable number of Nigerians chose to take the easy way out by committing suicide instead of confronting life’s challenges. Even at that, you do not market life insurance policies and put the suicide provisions among the policy’s selling points.

For me, marketing life insurance with benefits to the named beneficiary of the policyholder, who commits suicide, is dead on arrival. I am not under any obligation or compulsion to market that aspect of life insurance. In fact, I would rather the insurance company deleted that provision and gave my client lower rates. You do not run with the hare during the day and hunt with the hound at night. I am a member of a Mental Health NGO, HELP-A-SOUL-ALLIANCE (HASA) led by Prof. Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos. In two words, the objective of the group is suicide prevention. I also have sympathies for the pro-life group.

Their argument is that only God gives life, man does not give life, neither should he take it, including his own life. One of my favourite sayings is, “suicide is not an option.” I was rankled recently by a young friend who dared to mention suicide because he is unemployed. I was so angry I refused to talk to him for a while. After my anger subsided, I called him and counselled/scolded him.

Real men face their challenges, they do not run away. After your parents spent their last kobo to see you through the university, you think their reward is a dagger into their hearts?

According to the National Bureau of Statistics: “As of Q3 2018, 55.4% of young people (15-34) were either underemployed or unemployed (doing nothing)…” Out of this number, a negligible number will be employed within the next one year to fill new vacancies and openings as a result of retirements, expansions, new businesses and deaths. Some other youths will get a brainwave or find their niche and start something that will make them gainfully.

We are in a period when people need to dig deep, go into their inner recesses and make meaning of their lives. The times are tough and only the tough can get going. Confront any situation that torments you until it surrenders.

Like the widow in the gospel, who tormented the fearless judge to submission, do not relent until you achieve your goal. Negative thoughts can easily lead to a slide downhill.  Our unemployment figure is a national embarrassment and disease; but do not personalise it and contemplate suicide.

I do not, however, blame the insurance companies that have life insurance products with benefits for beneficiaries of policyholders who commit suicide. They are in the business of providing succour for bereaved families. In truth once a breadwinner is gone, how the family he left behind survives becomes paramount, not how he died. It is just that this aspect of life insurance we are discussing rubs me the wrong way.

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Even with the two years deterrence in place, some people are not likely to be deterred. Knowing that their families will still get benefits if they die might help them to decide on taking the parth of suicide after over two years of taking the policy. Now, some insurance professionals are even pushing for six months.

There lies my headache. The deterrence is good, but not good enough. If I had my way, I will expunge payments to beneficiaries of policyholders, who commit suicide, from life insurance policies. Choose life, suicide is not an option.

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