You might well never have heard of Eric Ohena Lembembe, but after this article I want to make sure you never forget him. He was a man of immense courage, a fearless gay rights activist and Executive Director of the Cameroon Foundation for AIDS (CAMfAIDS). He was recently found dead in his home, having been tortured and killed. The world just lost a hero, and state sanctioned homophobia claimed yet another life in Africa.
Who was Eric Lembembe?
Eric Lembembe was an openly gay Cameroonian journalist and human rights activist. He was described by colleague Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch:
“Lembembe’s brand of activism was beginning to shake things up in Cameroon. Along with a cadre of other young, outspoken LGBT-rights activists in Yaoundé and Douala, Lembembe was impatient for change. Statements by President Paul Biya at a news conference in France and by Biya’s foreign minister at the U.N. Human Rights Council, to the effect that Cameroon was “not yet ready” for full equality for its lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender citizens, got under Lembembe’s skin. He did not see why he should be treated like a second-class citizen for one day longer.”
Just two weeks before his death, Lembembe was speaking out about the un-investigated attacks on offices of LGBTI rights advocates. On June 1st this year, the offices of the Central African Human Rights Defender Network (REDHAC) in Doula were burgled. On June 16th, the office of LGBTI defence lawyer Michael Togue was broken into, with confidential files and documents stolen. On June 26th, the offices of Alternatives-Cameroun, another rights based advocacy group were burned to a crisp.
Despite this spate of attacks and constant threats of death and violence against leading gay rights activist, the Cameroonian justice system has failed to adequately investigate them, making a grand total of zero arrests. This is the result of a justice system tilted against the LGBTI community, which it considers criminal.
Lembembe, in a written statement on July 1st, stated:
“There is no doubt: anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
Just two weeks later Lembembe failed to appear at a gay rights advocacy meeting he had organised. Unable to reach him by phone, friends and colleagues travelled to his home in Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. They found the front door padlocked from the outside but could see Lembembe’s battered body laying on his bed. After gaining entry, they found Lembembe with a broken neck and feet, his face, hands and feet burned with a clothes iron.
A raft of organisations and states including UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch and the US, French and UK governments have issued condemnations of the violent end to a truly courageous human being. But how did the state of Cameroon respond? It chose instead to condemn the media coverage of the murder for ‘dragging the image of Cameroon into the mud’. In a statement typical of this institutionally homophobic state, the government of Cameroon issued an explicit threat to domestic journalists that further ‘provocative commentary’ would be punished by the full force of the law.
In the first official response to the death of Eric Lembembe, government spokesman Issa Tchiroma said:
“Backed by certain civil society activists and at times by some of our compatriots, the international media have launched attacks on our nation, dragging its image into the mud…Any interference or untruthfulness of any nature and origin, notably in terms of information rendered public and propagated by the media, can be considered a violation of judicial secrecy or provocative commentary, which is against the law,”
While the anti-gay thugs, arsonists and murderers go unpunished, the state has instead turned its instruments of law and order against the victims. If Cameroon is so concerned about its international reputation, it might want to start acting like a civil society rather than the place where justice went to die.
Africa and Homophobia
This case serves to underscore the very sub-judicial status of LGBTI people in Cameroon and across Africa that Lembembe lost his life fighting against. Cameroon imprisons more LGBTI people than almost any other African state, with dozens arrested and jailed in recent years for consensual sexual relationships with adults of the same sex. The maximum sentence for “sexual relations with a person of the same sex” under article 347 bis of Cameroon’s penal code is five years in prison, with reports of torture commonplace among those imprisoned for the offence.
This is the state in which Lembembe was brave enough to advocate impatiently for the right to be treated equally under the law, on behalf of himself and all those LGBTI people facing criminalisation by the homophobic state.
But Cameroon is not alone.
Cameroon is nestled in the centre of the African continent. Its western neighbour Nigeria penalises ‘homosexual conduct’ with up to 14 years in prison. In Nigerian states which operate Sharia law, men found to have engaged in consensual sex with each other are stoned to death, while women face flogging and six months in prison. On its eastern border lay Chad, the Central African and Congo. The Central African Republic has not criminalised private gay relationships, but homosexuality is heavily stigmatised and ‘public demonstrations of love’ between same sex partners are criminalised. For instance, a gay couple holding hands would face imprisonment of six months to two years and a fine of $300-$1200.
Homosexuality is outlawed in no fewer than 38 sub Saharan African countries. In Sudan, Mauritania and Somalia (alongside Nigeria) gay people face the death penalty if discovered. The Ugandan government has been attempting to pass such laws since 2009, held up only by the threat of donor countries to withdraw aid. Liberia also passed a rash of tougher anti-gay laws last year.
The movement for equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans and Intersex people across Africa is heavily criticised by religious and nationalist groups as some sort of secular, western imperialism. This is hogwash. In her stirring tribute to Lembembe, Neela Ghoshal recalled the fallen advocate battling this very idea in a showdown with Cameroonian police.
“Each time I tried to begin a story, each time I said the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘transgender,’ the gendarmes began to snicker. They cut me off and suggested that as a foreigner, I was somehow misinformed.
When Lembembe spoke, their snickers trailed off. ‘I am Cameroonian, like you,’ he said. ‘Let’s be serious. We all know that gay people exist in Cameroon. In fact, they exist in all of our families. And we all know that they are mistreated. Would you tolerate this abuse if this were your brother? Would you laugh at it, if this were your sister?’ Lembembe picked up the stories where I had left off, and the gendarmes listened. They didn’t commit to taking action, not at this initial meeting, where defenses where high, but they listened.”
Africa’s LGBT Kill List
The death of Eric Lembembe continues the trend of prominent gay rights advocates murdered for their commitment to a more equal world.
Ugandan activist David Kato had been galvanised by successes campaigning to decriminalise homosexuality in South Africa, and returned to his native Uganda in 1998 to continue the fight there. Kato took on the country’s Rolling Stone newspaper after it began publishing photographs and details of gay people (including Kato) urging ‘Hang Them!’
Shortly thereafter, Kato was found bludgeoned to death in his home, with serious head injuries.
Noxolo Nogwaza was a South African lesbian and leading gay rights activist. She was on the organising committee of Ekurhuleni Pride, helping to organise marches for Kwa-Thema and nearby townships in Gauteng province since 2009. In 2011, her body was found. According to the Guardian:
“The 24-year-old’s face and head were disfigured by stoning, she was stabbed several times with broken glass and evidence suggested she was raped. A beer bottle, a big rock and used condoms were found on and near her body”. Nogwaza had apparently been a victim of a growing trend against lesbian activists of ‘corrective rape’.
This tragic death came just three years after a similarly depraved rape and murder to South African women’s footballer and openly gay Eudy Simelane.
Back in Cameroon, fears are mounting for the safety of leading human rights activist and head of REDHAC Maximilienne Ngo Mbe. Mbe has been receiving threats of violence and death by phone and text message for months. There has been a serious escalation recently with Ngo Mbe’s family being targeted in attempts to intimidate her into silence. In September last year, her niece was kidnapped and raped by men wearing Cameroonian security and military clothing, apparently the ‘men’ confused the niece for Ngo Mbe’s daughter. Then on 5th April this year, assailants attempted to kidnap her son from his school.
Unfortunately, Ngo Mbe cannot turn to the authorities for support, as these death threats are coming from the authorities themselves. A collection of rights groups in Africa have united to call for the protection of Mbe. Many fear it will be her that we are memorialising next.
This Must End
This ceaseless and senseless killing of LGBTI people and their advocates must end. The complicity and encouragement of anti-gay thugs by homophobic states must end. The daily threat of torture, imprisonment and hatred against consenting adults on love across the continent of Africa must end. Arguments of imperialism are moot. Equality is not the preserve of the West, it is a fundamental and universal human right. It is highly ironic that many arguing the anti-imperialism case for homophobic behaviour from within Africa wear a crucifix around their throats, the greatest emblem of cultural imperialism on the African continent.
While we seek justice for those lost, we can all be responsible for making our world a safe place for people regardless of their gender or sexuality. We can all, wherever we are in the world, be a voice for equality. We can tackle our own prejudices and we can refuse to be party to anyone else’s. This simple every day behaviour will be the ultimate death of bigotry – here, there and everywhere.
Sign the All Out Petition for Cameroon’s President Biya to take action on his murder.
Keep updated on this case via Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch on twitter
Follow and support the incredible work of Human Rights Watch
DID YOU APPRECIATE THIS ARTICLE? HOW ABOUT TAKING TWO SECONDS TO MAKE A ONE CLICK DONATION TO SUPPORT THE BLOG?