Gay rights – or lack thereof – in sub-Saharan Africa (and indeed, parts of Asia and the Middle East) are becoming an increasing cause for concern among human rights groups, campaigners and forward thinking governments around the world. Many states punish those perceived as homosexual with hefty fines, lengthy prison sentences, torture, and sometimes even death.
At least 40 countries criminalize same-sex behaviour for both men and women, and an additional 35 or more criminalize it just for men. There have been several high profile cases of human rights abuses amongst gay communities in Africa in recent years, and this has drawn international attention to the backward policies of those states which perpetuate state-sanctioned persecution of individuals, who have a preference for members of the same sex.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the central African state of Cameroon. Sandwiched between the West African coast and the large central African states, Cameroon enjoys an equatorial climate and incredibly diverse wildlife and ecology, earning it the moniker ‘little Africa’ or ‘Africa in miniature’.
However, underneath the surface, all is not well in Paul Biya’s coastal republic.
Homophobia in Cameroon is endemic and state sanctioned. Section 347a of the penal code states: "Whoever has sexual relations with a person of the same sex shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years and with a fine ranging from 20,000 Francs CFA [£27] to 200,000 Francs CFA [£270]."
The Cameroon government has introduced a bill to the national assembly that would give formal, political backing to section 347 of the country’s penal code that criminalises consensual sex between adults of the same gender.
The case of Jean-Claude Roger Mbede is just one example of an individual imprisoned on supposed charges of ‘homosexuality’. Mbede was initially arrested in March 2011, upon his meeting with a male acquaintance. He was found guilty of homosexuality and attempted sexuality in April 2011 and sentenced to three years in prison.
His cause has been taken up by several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, who state that the imprisonment of Mbede because of his perceived sexual orientation is a violation of international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Mr. Gideon Assa of the Organisation for Gender, Civic Engagement and Youth Development
(OGCEYOD) an NGO based in Limbe, Cameroon, states that homosexuality in Cameroon is an extremely sensitive subject, and essentially tantamount to taboo. ‘Catholicism is extremely influential in Cameroon’ he says, ‘and the incumbent president, Paul Biya, is a Catholic himself.’
The Catholic Church in Cameroon has an incredibly strong anti-homosexual doctrine, and the constant stream of rhetoric is outstanding. Even at a wedding I recently attended in Buea, South-West, the pastor couldn’t resist a ten minute spiel on the evils of homosexuality.
Many Cameroonians merely deny the existence of homosexuality; others dismiss it as an illness or even the result of witchcraft or voodoo. Bizarrely, for a country that carries such harsh penalties for LGBT communities, men holding hands on the street it common.
It is perhaps a mark of how convinced the people of Cameroon are about the non-existence of gay people, that this behaviour is perceived as entirely normal.
However, homosexuality has been traced to well before precolonial times in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including Cameroon, as well as Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, and Uganda, by examining local folklore, oral tradition, and other research Reliable statistics concerning the prevalence of LGBT communities in Cameroon, and Africa in general, are notoriously difficult to track down.
In Africa, the term ‘homosexual’ is mainly used in describing a rather queer, feminine man who likes to play the passive sexual role. Homosexuality itself connotes transvestitism and transsexuality.
Although there are many same-sex partners in West Africa, only a small portion of them will identify themselves as homosexual. Sex between men is not automatically labelled as homosexual behaviour.
Mr. Assa thinks that the solution to the problem of anti-gay legislation and opinion in Cameroon is sensitization and education, something his NGO is actively working towards.
He also points to the burgeoning gay night-life scenes in Yaounde and Douala as evidence of a slow shift towards the acceptance of homosexuality, at least in the metropolitan centres. He goes on to speak about Alice Nkom, perhaps the most prominent and high-profile gay rights campaigner in the country.
Educated in France, and a prominent Cameroonian lawyer, Ms. Nkom has received threats to her profession and ever her life for her work defending those accused of homosexuality in her home country. She has taken up the case of Roger Mbede, much to the consternation of the minister of justice, who wants her struck off the professional register.
Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. stated at the 2000 annual conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”
Twelve years down the line, it seems we are still a long way away from achieving Mrs. King’s vision of a world free from prejudice and homophobia, especially in Cameroon and sub-Saharan Africa.