Cameroon: Murder of LGBT Activist Illustrates Plight of Gay Rights in Africa

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Erasing 76 Crimes / Handout / AP

Prominent gay rights activist Eric Ohena Lembembe

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?”

20 comments
violallewellyn
violallewellyn

Horrendous and abominable.  This is ignorance at the highest level.  What people do at night in the privacy of their homes has nothing to do with anyone.  These same bible bashing Jesus kissing, televangelist following freaks are the ones judging God's sacred creation, "the human being of free will" who we are instructed to not judge.  come on Africa!  Wake the hell up and focus on your more immediate problems.  Being Gay is not catching, it is barely a choice!  It is just a part of who you are.  Nothing more.

CameronRobert
CameronRobert

Many of the countries that the US, UN, WHO, GAVI and the Gates Foundation support, especially in Africa and Asia, oppress, discriminate against, persecute, prosecute, imprison, torture, and even murder their own citizens who happen to be homosexual. Instead of the UN and other international organizations pouring money into these bigoted countries, the organizations should tell the countries to take the money they use to harm their gay citizens and use that money to buy vaccines and medicines instead. These disgusting countries should not be using their scant resources to destroy the lives of innocent citizens who happen to be homosexual when there are more positive and productive things these bigots can use the money for to help all their citizens, including those citizens who are born gay. The US, UN, WHO, GAVI and the Gates foundation should be absolutely ashamed to support the harassment, oppression, imprisonment, torture, and murder of so many innocent people. Until those practices are ended, no country, group, or individual should provide any aid or assistance to these countries. These disgusting countries should be boycotted, sanctions should be brought against them, and they should be treated as pariah nations. And it is patently unfair that gays and their loved ones should be devastated by discriminatory actions, while the bigots and their loved ones go about enjoying their lives as if nothing has happened. It's time to start making bigots pay for the discriminatory actions they take. When they have to pay a price, they might start to rethink their actions. We need to attack heterosexuals from Cameroon, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, and other bigoted nations, in our countries. Start with embassy personnel. Then target politicians, the police, prosecutors, judges, prison personnel, and their loved ones, that persecute the homosexuals in the bigoted countries.

ojism
ojism like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TIME, Sad, however, sexuality is least important in à country where thé majority of thé population are unemployed or have no food to éat.

AndreBlacknall
AndreBlacknall

@TIME Like brutality of white minority rule in Africa. This brutality should be met with withdrawl of US funding of African Nations.

AndreBlacknall
AndreBlacknall

@TIME government policies which promote inequality are unworthy of US tax dollar and support in Africa or anywhere else.AmericansfotJustice

apiyor
apiyor

@Mwirigi @TIME Homosexuality is obviously evil to normal humans who are not exposed to hollywood and porn. So the activists is just as evil

dith_fisch
dith_fisch

@TIME HELL-OOOooooOoo?!??? Kate Middleton is in labor!!!!!! Get with it!!!!

who_is_laurie
who_is_laurie

@TIME @TIMEWorld 「みんなが自分らしく生きる権利」がどこの国でも、どんな場所でも、認められるようになったら良いのに。

anyaigo
anyaigo

@TIME . That's going too far but Africans made it clear that gays/lesbians are abominable in their areas. It's a threat to the normal family

violallewellyn
violallewellyn

@anyaigo @TIME Just how is this a threat?  Aren't these gay people born of straight parents?  Could we say then that straight people are the cause of gay people?  Should we exterminate straight people for giving birth to gays?  Think about it!  Are you straight because your parents are?

LelioRisen
LelioRisen like.author.displayName 1 Like

What is truly abominable is that the hate in your heart for others you do not understand passes for 'normal.' 

InisMagrath
InisMagrath like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@anyaigo -- gay people a not a threat to anyone or anything. Vicious self-appointed judge-jury-executioner murderers, however, are a threat to every decent peaceful law abiding human being.