“There’s no reason to despair,” Cameroonian president Paul Biya told journalists in January 2013. They had questioned him, at a Paris news conference, on Cameroon’s startling level of arrests and prosecutions for same-sex conduct – by some accounts, the highest number of “homosexuality” prosecutions in the world. “Minds are changing,” Biya reassured the journalists. He mentioned a recent case appeals court ruling overturning the conviction of two transgender people, Jonas K. and Franky D., who had been sentenced to five years in prison.
Biya’s words provided little solace, however, to Roger M., a graduate student in Yaoundé. His three-year sentence on homosexuality charges, unlike Franky and Jonas’s, had just been upheld by the very same appeals court. Roger’s crime? Sending amorous text messages to a male acquaintance, concluding with a timid confession: “I’ve fallen in love with you.” He was beaten by gendarmes during interrogation, and confessed under duress to having had sex with men. None of the elements of a crime were present – prosecutors could not prove whom he’d had sex with, where, or when – but a judge, perhaps moved more by personal biases than by an objective evaluation of the evidence, condemned him.
Even for Franky and Jonas, freed in January after a year and a half in prison, Biya’s optimistic prognosis on the evolution of attitudes toward homosexuality rang patently false. After being released, they were chased by a mob and received menacing text messages. If minds are changing in Cameroon, it is not happening fast enough – not for the many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Cameroon who live in fear, risking beatings, prosecution and jail time simply because of whom they love.
Attitudes on sensitive issues like sexual orientation and gender identity do take time to evolve. In much of Africa, laws prohibiting same-sex conduct date to the colonial era, imposed by British rulers to reflect a Victorian ideology of sexual purity. In other countries, like Cameroon, such laws are even more recent constructions: then-president Ahmadou Ahidjo banned “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” by executive order in1972, for unclear reasons. But opportunistic politicians have fed the public a myth, widely embraced, that homosexuality was never accepted in Africa.
When human rights are in the balance, the role of leaders is not to throw up their hands and wait passively, hoping public opinion will develop such that injustices can be undone without any political risk. The role of leaders is to take a bold stand to uphold universal human rights, to protect minorities, to lead, and to call on the public to follow. Biya, it seems, is not ready to exercise this leadership.
In the meantime, despite Biya’s cheerful reassurances, LGBT Cameroonians do despair. At least 28 people have been prosecuted for same-sex conduct in the last three years, and in most cases, convicted, based on little or no evidence. A new report by Human Rights Watch and three Cameroonian organizations – Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians (ADEFHO), and the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) – found many of those arrested for homosexual conduct in recent years have been tortured. One man told us he was tied to a chair for eight hours, while gendarmes passed in and out of the room, beating him with the butts of semi-automatic rifles. Another said police beat him so hard on the feet that his toenails fell out.
Some men suspected of homosexuality have been subjected to intrusive, humiliating anal exams, which are of no scientific value, but are regularly carried out by military doctors at Cameroon’s gendarmerie brigades. A woman, arrested based on rumor alone, confessed under pressure after gendarmes lied to her, saying she’d be released if she confessed to lesbianism. Several people arrested on homosexuality charged told us they were denied the basic right to call a lawyer.
In 2006, when homosexuality allegations first flared up in the Cameroonian media, with editors viciously naming names in an effort to outdo one another, Biya protested, calling on journalists to respect the right to privacy. But his government has done precisely the opposite. Biya should move beyond offering vague hopes of attitudinal change, and should stick to his word, getting the state out of Cameroon’s bedrooms. Cameroon should decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct, drop charges against those with pending cases, and release those sentenced to prison on homosexuality charges. And the government should send clear messages to both law enforcement officials and the general public that violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is never acceptable.
Only then will LGBT Cameroonians and the human rights activists who support them begin to emerge from their state of despair.