Eric Ohena Lembembe was a prominent LGBT rights activist in Cameroon, where homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison. He was a fierce campaigner for equality when others fell silent and was among the first in the country to lead the fightback against a wave of homophobic prosecutions. And he was killed for it.
Lembembe’s body was found at his home in the capital Yaoundé on July 15. He reportedly hadn’t showed up for a meeting he had scheduled two days earlier and was not answering his phone, so friends went in search for him. The front door was padlocked, but through a window his lifeless frame was visible on the bed. His neck and feet looked broken, one friend said to Human Rights Watch, and it appeared his face, feet and hands had been burned with an iron.
The State Department condemned Lembembe’s “brutal murder” and urged authorities to “thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible.” That’s unlikely: Under the government of President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, Cameroon has become increasingly discriminatory, with anti-gay prosecutions picking up speed since 2005. An Amnesty International report from earlier this year detailed the violence, arbitrary arrests and detention that many who allegedly engage in same-sex relations face. Victims of harassment or abuse rarely seek aid from police, who often take part in the discrimination.
But Cameroon isn’t alone. Gay rights face an uphill struggle throughout much of Africa, where many countries still have archaic, colonial-era anti-homosexuality laws on the books. Another Amnesty report says that 38 African countries criminalize homosexuality, with a majority of local publics backing these laws. And a Pew survey in June found that most people in some of Africa’s most populous countries—Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda—think homosexuality is not societally acceptable.
President Obama tried to encourage tolerance during his visit in Senegal last month, signaling it was high time for many African nations to decriminalize homosexuality. “People should be treated equally, and that’s a principle that I think applies universally,” he said. Senegalese President Macky Sall rebuffed the pressure and said his country was not homophobic. “People are not refused jobs for being gay,” said Sall. “But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” Under Senegalese law, sexual acts with a person of the same gender can earn up to five years in prison.
For Lembembe, that all meant there was plenty of work to be done. He built a foundation as a journalist focused on LGBT rights and later formally transferred into activism when he became the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, a group dedicated to fighting AIDS and promoting equal rights. Just recently, he warned of “anti-gay thugs” after a series of break-ins, thefts and fires at the offices of a number of civil society organizations.
In late June, a local office of Alternatives-Cameroon, an organization that provides HIV testing and counseling services, was torched, and weeks earlier the office of Michel Togué, a prominent human rights lawyer, was ransacked and confidential information was pillaged. At the time, Lembembe said, “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.”
His death sparked outrage among friends, colleagues and human rights activists, as well as calls for African countries to face up to their own government-sanctioned inequities. It also led to touching remembrances of Lembembe and the movement he was pioneering. Neela Ghoshal of HRW recalled a moment when Lembembe tried to appeal to those against his cause:
“I am Cameroonian, like you,” he would say. “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?”