I last saw Eric Ohena Lembembe in March, on a sticky, humid evening in Yaoundé. We had released a joint report on human rights abuses against people accused of homosexual conduct in Cameroon two days earlier. The head of the gendarmerie – Cameroon’s military police – had finally agreed to meet with us. We wanted to raise the many cases we had documented of arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and torture of people alleged to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Eric had recently been named executive director of CAMFAIDS, a young civil society organization in Yaoundé. Its mission is to defend the rights of both LGBT people and those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Eric was smart, full of creative plans and a fierceness needed in Cameroon, where homosexual conduct is criminalized. People are arrested frequently and can get up to five years in prison. As a gay man whose activism had made him increasingly open about his identity – a bold stance in Cameroon – it was one of Eric’s goals to change this injustice.
This courage, this David versus Goliath spirit, has characterized CAMFAIDS, and Eric Lembembe, as long as I have known them. And so I should not have been surprised by Eric’s temerity when we went to meet the gendarmerie boss, who surprised us by bringing six colleagues to the meeting. Across a table, Eric and I, both small in stature, armed only with a stack of human rights reports, faced off against seven bulky men in uniform.
I began to tell stories: The story of Esther, held in custody because a man suspected her of having an affair with his wife. The story of Joseph, who told us that gendarmes beat him with an iron belt, made him swim in the gutter, and burned plastic bags on his chest to get him to confess to homosexuality.
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, suggested that as a foreigner, I was somehow misinformed.
When Eric 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?” Eric 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.
Eric’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, Eric was impatient for change. Statements by President Paul Biya at a news conference in France, or by Biya’s foreign minister at the UN 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 Eric’s skin. He did not see why he should be treated like a second-class citizen for one day longer.
After the meeting, we returned to my hotel to meet two other activists for a much-needed beer. We processed the week’s events and where the LGBT rights movement was headed, in Cameroon and throughout Africa. While Cameroon seems to enforce its anti-gay law with more gusto than anywhere else, such laws are on the books in 38 African countries. Nigeria and Uganda are even contemplating laws to criminalize speech in support of gay rights. But despite backlash, the movement is growing everywhere. Eric told me he was looking forward to attending a conference in Europe later in the year, where he would meet LGBT activists from around the world and share strategies. He never got that opportunity.
Over the next three months, we emailed on a weekly basis. We fiercely debated strategies to defend the rights of transgender youth. We collaborated on a news release after three human rights defenders’ offices were attacked in June. Eric said the government’s inaction in the face of such crimes was giving the impression that LGBT rights activists could be attacked with impunity.
We didn’t know that Eric would be next.
Eric’s friends couldn’t reach him all last weekend. They went to his house on Monday evening. They found the door padlocked from the outside; through a window, they could see Eric’s body on the bed. When the police broke the door down, they found that Eric’s body bore signs of torture. His neck and his feet were broken, a friend told me. His face, hands and feet had been burned with a clothes iron.
We do not know who killed Eric, or why. His friends suspect that in killing him, someone wanted to kill a movement. That Eric’s killers wished to stem the increasingly outspoken, courageous movement for equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We will only know the truth, though, if the Cameroonian police conduct rigorous investigations. I have my doubts. For the last year, LGBT activists in Cameroon have received death threats. They have filed police reports. But no one has been arrested, or even interrogated.
I don’t know whether Eric’s murder will be solved. But I do know that you cannot kill this movement. Eric’s legacy will live on. One day, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will live free and equal in Cameroon.