Gay Rights Activist Eric Lembembe Tortured to Death: Africa Just Killed One of It’s Finest

EL1 

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?

 EL2

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

 EL3

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

 EL4

The death of Eric Lembembe continues the trend of prominent gay rights advocates murdered for their commitment to a more equal world.

ELkato

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.

ELnogwazaNoxolo 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.

Campaigners say that 31 lesbians have been murdered because of their sexuality in the past decade and more than 10 lesbians a week are raped or gang raped in Cape Town alone.

ELmbeBack 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

 EL5

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. 

Take Action

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?

11 thoughts on “Gay Rights Activist Eric Lembembe Tortured to Death: Africa Just Killed One of It’s Finest

  1. Pingback: Scriptonite Daily’s Round Up Of The Week’s News | Scriptonite Daily

  2. I am in two minds about this post. I am a huge huge huge fan of everything of yours I’ve seen so far. I am also disappointed by this being the first article about Africa I’ve seen on Scriptonite Daily so far, and that if other readers are also recent followers, this is the image of Africa they will have. I’ll articulate (too!) fully my concerns.

    1) As someone of African descent, it’s too close to agreeing with the discourse about backwards Africa and Africans.
    2) It neglects to mention the real political capital to be gained from politicians finding an issue on which they can act which their constituents will perhaps not detest thoroughly them
    3) It de-contextualises homophobic laws and attacks; does law enforcement look the same in Cameroon as it does in England? Is political violence more or less common? Moreover, a link I followed from the article took me to an amnesty report stating that as of 2006 South Africa’s legal system allowed for adoption for gay couple and gay marriage. That would put them ahead of the UK in terms of progressive politics I believe, but doesn’t get a mention in your article.

    None of this is said to take away from the work and death of Eric Lembembe; you have just introduced me to him and his organisation and for that I am grateful. Please note, I do not talk about context as some sort of excuse-making exercise. I am stressing that you have a responsibility to ensure your readers have the full picture; is Cameroon a country where speaking out against the government is usually rewarded? Are elections there always ‘free and fair’? Are civil liberties widely respected and it a safe place for political activism generally? Is it an election year in Cameroon? You also lump the activities of Cameroon’s 20m, with everyone else in a continent home to a billion people which is annoying to those of us who have to explain that Africa is a continent not a country. I have addressed this problem in a Caribbean context in an article on my blog called ‘All Caribbean Men Dress Up As Women: Carnival in Martinique’ as it seems the entire Caribbean is included in the discourse about Jamaican homophobia, which itself is problematic.

    Racists and people who are not anti-racists do not have a problem imagining that Cameroonians and all Africans are more homophobic than other people because they are black and therefore backwards, with a proclivity for violence and religious fanaticism and so cannot be expected to contribute to social change, let alone progressive thinking. Sort of like ignoble savages. I’ve read your work and would be astonished to find you subsribed to those ideologies. However with more articles about African social justice activism and issues on this blog, this article would sit far more comfortably with me.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and don’t worry, you don’t always have to agree with me.

      Firstly, I am of afro-caribbean descent, and gay, so am not writing this from without, but within.

      Secondly, I do hint at SA in the section on David Kato, but the reality of SA is not glossy. Legislatively great gains have been made, but equally the conditions for LGBTI in townships and cities is still very precarious – highlighted by the cases of ‘corrective rape’ and murder.

      The truth is, whether we like it or not, suggesting the African continent has an issue with homophobia is fair – given as a continent of 55 countries, 38 of them have outlawed homosexuality. If this was the case in North America or Europe, I would challenge in the same way. The irony is, that this homophobia, as I refer in the final paragraphs, is itself a colonial hangover. Those who argue some case of moral relativism/imperialism to challenge those calling African states out on their institutional homophobia fail to understand that sexual conservatism is ITSELF a relic of cultural colonialism of the continent.

      Some foolish bigot might well use the very real issues across particularly sub saharan Africa as a means of making some case of ‘savages, all of them’ – but that is not the case I am making.

      I primarily write on UK topics but have covered the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia and global matters so do have a snaffle over the last 4 years of back catalogue if you’d like a better understanding of where I come from on these issues.

      I think it is critical that we do not allow ourselves to stifle LGBTI aspirations under a misguided effort to ‘be seen’ not to be racist. I think it seriously dishonours the lives being lost on a pretty routine basis to argue we can’t point out that 38 out of 55 states on a continent outlaw gay people. I cannot say whether people in African states are more homophobic routinely than people other places. But what we can say with authority, is that African STATES behave in an extremely homophobic way and I have repeated this point several times in the article ‘institutional homophobia’ ‘state homophobia’ etc. They are amongst the very worst conditions in the world for gay people to find themselves, that is just a fact. It’s a particularly unpleasant fact for those of us with a personal connection to the continent. But a fact nonetheless.

  3. “This case serves to underscore the very sub-judicial status of LGBTI people in Cameroon and across Africa”

    This is lazy racist stereotyping. What about South Africa?

Leave a Reply