Emmanuel Freudenthal reflects upon the murder of Cameroonian LGBT activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, and the future of LGBT activism within the country. He argues that there is a desperate need for international NGOs to partner more equitably with a wider range of grassroots activists and organisations, if tragedies like Eric’s death are to become a thing of the past. Emmanuel is a human rights researcher in Central Africa.
Eric’s friends remember him as a man who lifted the mood of every room he entered. As a journalist and activist, he wrote outstanding articles about the issues faced by the LGBT community in Cameroon. His colleagues say he was a trusted resource for Yaoundé’s handful of LGBT organisations. On Saturday 13th July, Eric’s friends noticed he was missing. On Monday 15th July, at around 5pm, they found his dead body. They say that he was so brutally tortured that they could only recognise his feet: his head and testicles were swollen and hot-iron marks covered his body. They were at loss to understand how someone could be so cruel to another human being.
Since the discovery of his body, the murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe has drawn condemnations from the United States, the European Union, France and a number of local and international institutions. The news has been picked up by numerous media, including the Cameroonian press, the BBC, Guardian, Huffington post, Radio France Internationale, Libération, and numerous others. The Cameroonian minister of Communications reacted by organising a press conference, in which he refused to comment on or condemn the assassination and even went so far as requesting that the press refrain from discussing it.
Long before Eric’s murder, LGBT rights activists had regularly faced intimidation and violence. The Cameroonian Catholic Church recently issued a pamphlet against homosexuality, and others organised a ‘day against homosexuality’, whilst the government mostly turned a blind eye to the violence.
Currently, the highest echelons of government appear to be stuck between, on one side, a blind intolerance of homosexuals by some of their citizens, and on the other side, calls by the international community and donors to take steps to stop violence against LGBT people, repeal unjust laws and respect international conventions.
Those with a solid stomach can gauge the extent of the hatred towards homosexuality in Cameroon by browsing the comments sections of Cameroonian news websites. Raking through this vitriol, one can also unearth the misunderstandings surrounding homosexuality in Cameroon: It is often associated to dark rites aimed at securing power – the so-called ‘magico-anal’ – and seems to have come to symbolise the corruption of those in power. It is also equated in these discussions with sexual harassment, paedophilia, bestiality, etc.
The fact that western countries and institutions have expressed their outrage over the violence against LGBT people is used by the government to conveniently distract the Cameroonian public away from reports of other human rights violations. Homosexuality is thus falsely presented as an example of ‘western’ versus ‘African’ values. To support that claim, it is often argued that the Christian faith practised in Cameroon rejects homosexuality, which is ironic, given that this religion was largely imported to the region via decades of European missionary activities.
Most of the international press that covered Eric’s murder demanded that the murderer(s) be found. However, as the Police are one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, the chance of obtaining justice for many crimes in Cameroon is slim. This is particularly true when the crime is motivated by homophobia: members of the Police have been known to harass those perceived as homosexual, and occasionally use the law prohibiting homosexuality to blackmail people.
The investigation into Eric’s murder has not been serious so far: the Police do not appear to have even taken photos of the crime scene and their questions have mostly been aimed at ascertaining the sexual orientation of Eric and his colleagues. Some of his friends were even put in jail for several days. As they were neither witnesses nor accused in the matter, this was a completely illegal manoeuvre. It seems quite likely that the assassins will not be found.
Clearly, the defenders of LGBT rights in Cameroon have a heavy burden to shoulder. Nevertheless, with the flurry of press releases, condemnations, blog posts and tweets regarding Eric’s murder and the various international organisations working on LGBT rights, it seems that Cameroonian activists have many allies supporting them. Or do they?
In fact, most of the local organisations that provided the information regarding Eric’s death to the media report that they are struggling to make ends meet. They lack funds to keep free medical drop-ins staffed by non-homophobic physicians open, share information about HIV/AIDS, provide legal support to those who get arrested, investigate claims of violent intimidation, etc. This also means that they are facing grater risks themselves as they lack resources to have sufficiently secured offices, ask for legal support, or move to a safe place when situations become too heated. Many committed activists, like Eric, are doing this risky work on a purely voluntary basis, so they are struggling to get by, as well as receiving daily threats of violence and sometimes facing exclusion from their families and communities. The courage of many activists that I have met is outstanding. Their situation is what prompted me to write this article: After discussing the status quo with several LGBT organisations, they encouraged me to provide my own, ‘external’ perspective on the issues they currently face.
While one or two LGBT organisations in Cameroon have accessed long-term institutional funding by international donors, the majority rely on small and precarious resources. Donors mostly prefer to provide a few large grants to well-established organisations, which are easy to manage. As a result, most donors seem to focus on the same few organisations. In some areas, such as indigenous rights, international NGOs aim to partner with several local organisations and thus channel large grants to them to promote their long-term growth. This is, unfortunately, not the case with LGBT rights in Cameroon and this issue seems widespread in other sectors of ‘international development’.
The multi-million dollar HIV-focused programs, funded by USAID and the Global Fund, use LGBT activists to help with their outreach to LGBT people, but they shy away from the harder rights-based questions that face these groups and individuals and do not provide institutional support for LGBT organisations. After Eric’s murder, Cameroon’s main LGBT NGOs have halted their work within these projects as a reaction to what they see as ‘a partnership which reduces identity organisations to a mere workforce and keeps them in insecurity and precariousness’. Indeed, to my knowledge, many of these international organisations offers ridiculously small payments for risky activities on very short-term contracts. The main reaction to Eric’s murder by the large health-focused organisations was to ask for how long the implementation of their project would be suspended. It seems unlikely that these organisations will change their mindset to support local activists in the long term.
It also appears that there is a gap in the mission statements of international human rights NGOs. Neither the general human rights NGOs, nor those focusing only on LGBT rights tend to have the long-term support of local organisations as one of their objectives. Nevertheless, all of them rely on local activists for the information on which they build their media and fundraising campaigns. Meanwhile, the ‘hypermediatisation’ of LGBT issues in Cameroon has rendered local activists a lot more visible and it is clear that they are bearing all of the risks that come with this attention.
Cameroonian activists have a limited input in these media drives, despite their very direct stake in the outcomes of such campaigns. They explain that they are often asked to sign reports or press releases only once they have already been finalised. They feel that they cannot refuse to sign, because non-cooperation could be interpreted as a lack of commitment; the betrayal of a common cause. I have witnessed a number of cases where activists provided information on the explicit condition that it remain confidential, only to see it later appear in articles and press releases. Others are not made fully aware of the consequences of allowing their names and/or photos to be published in reports, articles and movies on LGBT issues.
Of course, generally speaking, the international LGBT rights activists have the right motivations. Moreover, the alliance between international organisations and local ones can be very productive: while having a common goal, they each have different skills and perspectives. For example, international organisations can be more vocal without exposing themselves to excessive risk as they are not based inside the country. However, they do not have the legitimacy to speak certain truths, they are unable to offer daily support to victims of violence, and they do not fully understand the complexity of the local cultural context. Most importantly, international organisations will never be able to substitute themselves for change coming from within Cameroonian society.
I believe that the approach of international organisations working with LGBT people needs to change drastically in order to be much more inclusive and respectful of local organisations, their views and their safety. I do not think that I should provide recommendations to solve these issues because I believe that these solutions have to come from a discussion of all stakeholders working in Cameroon. Firstly, this discussion should seek to fill the gap in the mandate of international organisations to enable them to support their local counterparts in the long term. Secondly, this engagement needs to establish more balanced relationships between local and international partners, and enable local organisations to be involved in projects from their conceptualisation to their implementation. Such discussions will also require local organisations to speak clearly and without too much discord amongst themselves.
The need for these radical changes is undeniable. The shock of Eric’s murder could be the trigger for all of us to become much more effective in ensuring that the human rights of all Cameroonians are respected. This is the goal for which Eric was willing to risk his life.
 When lists of alleged homosexuals in positions of power was published in newspapers in 2006, the government’s reaction was to say that everyone’s sexuality should remain a private matter.
A related issue is that local organisations have difficulties collaborating and there is a lot of infighting and competition between them. This means that the larger organisations rarely distribute funds to the others and that the smaller ones struggle to band together to submit stronger proposals to donors.
This includes local and international organisations working on the issue of human rights and health of the LGBT community. This discussion should take place within the institutions as much as between them.