One of the most outspoken and public lgbt and AIDS rights activists, Cameroon’s Eric Ohena Lembembe, was found in his home dead on Monday, July 15, with graphic signs pointing toward torture and murder.
His death comes less than two weeks after President Obama toured Arica speaking to leaders about many issues including a partnership between the U.S. and African countries, as well as lgbt equality throughout the continent.
Lembembe was recently named the director of CAMIFAIDS, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, after being a journalist for the organization. His work had focused on detailing violence, blackmail, and arrests of queer people in Cameroon, where he would then publish the details to spread awareness about the country and its horrid policies and homophobic attitudes. He also contributed frequently to the bog “Erasing 76 Crimes” about countries criminalizing homosexuality, wrote several chapters in a book on lgbt rights around the world titled From Wrongs to Gay Rights, and collaborated closely with organizations like Human Rights Watch, Alternatives-Cameroun, and the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals.
The country doesn’t have a very good track record with lgbt issues. Right at the end of President Obama’s tour, Human Rights Watch published a press release detailing three recent attacks targeting human rights and lgbt activists. Prosecuting more people for gay sex than in any other sub-Saharan African country, and with homosexuality punishable with a prison term of up to five years, Lembembe and other activists in the country had much to work against. Police participate in abuse and torture of lgbt people, and the government and media continually drum up hatred for queer people, seeing them as “unnatural” and “un-African.”
The U.S. Government was quick to issue a press release, saying that “We condemn this terrible act in the strongest terms and urge the Cameroonian authorities to thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible for his death.”
Neela Ghoshal, the senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch, wrote a passionate article about her colleague Lembembe’s passing, describing his attachment to his country and his drive to change it into something better. She ends the article by saying that, if those responsible for Lembembe’s murder are trying to dismantle the lgbt-rights movement in Cameroon, “I don’t know whether Lembembe’s murder will be solved. But I do know that you cannot kill this movement. Lembembe’s legacy will live one. One day lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people will live freely and equally in Cameroon.”
Many have called on the Cameroonian government to investigate Lembembe’s death and comment on the situation, but nothing has been forthcoming as of yet. The government will have to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September of this year following up on a periodic review in May, where several member nations called on Cameroon to improve its human rights standards, specifically citing the treatment of queer people within the country.
As unfortunate as the situation is, Lembembe is leaving behind a legacy in Cameroon that will hopefully create changes for greater equality not only in the country but in the entire region as well.