Franz Mananga, who holds a degree in economics, studied in Douala. He joined Alternatives Cameroun when it was founded in 2006. He was first a member, then secretary, and later treasurer. Now he is administrative director of the organization. This led him to meet Cameroonian government representatives on various occasions. In May 2013, he was invited by ILGA to take part to the Universal Periodic Review for Cameroon at the UN in Geneva and launched a dialogue with the government with a view to adopt the recommendations issued by other governments.
Interview by Stephen Barris.
On July 4th, 2013, fire was set to the headquarters of Alternatives, apparently criminally. Can you tell us more?
At about 7 AM, on June 26th, the staff of our organization saw flames coming from the paramedical office, where our psychosocial counselors are working. Without the intervention of neighbors and firefighters, the entire building would have been devastated by the fire. No one was killed, but the greater part of our working equipment has been destroyed – this includes desks, chairs, computers, ventilators, patients’ medical records and kitchen tools. There is nothing left.
The safety of all the people who are active in defending gay and lesbian’s rights in Cameroon is worrying. Alternatives was the victim this time – next time it will be another organization defending the rights of minorities. Every time we have the opportunity to draw attention to this fact, we do so. On the 1st of July, we stressed it in a press release issued jointly with Human Rights Watch and five other Cameroonian organizations, in which we firmly condemned the attacks that took place in Yaounde and Douala and recommended that these criminals be prosecuted. Many Cameroonians will be deprived of access to medical care because of the destruction of the Access Center in Douala.
Do the authorities react to this lack of safety?
So far, they have failed to denounce situations of this kind. They didn’t come to visit the wrecked premises or the people who were mugged. We didn’t even receive a phone call from the GTR (a regional office of the Health Department) or from a National Council against AIDS representative. This is all the more confusing since the work of these organizations is public service in accordance with the national strategic plan against AIDS, which includes men who have sex with men as a critical target group.
For the long term, given the importance of our activities in the field of AIDS screening and counseling, the Access Center should become a clinic dispensing antiviral drugs to people stigmatized because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. It is therefore absurd and inacceptable that people in charge of these issues show no reaction to these attacks. We urge the Cameroonian State to publicly denounce the attacks and take on its responsibilities. Moreover, given that we live in a democratic State of law, we would like the authors of homophobic acts to do so publicly. This way, we would know who they are and we would be able to consider sitting down and talking about rights and health for all, and, more generally, about social issues.
Why is the climate so tense when it comes to homosexuality?
The cause seems to be the international pressure to decriminalize sexual relations between consenting adults put on Cameroon by other countries. When I came back from the Universal Periodic Review in the UN in Geneva, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was verbally attacked because of the discourse he held in the Nations Room because it seemed to indicate that he favors moving forward. It seems clear that this was a purely political stance – here, the national opinion is influenced by sermons, prelates and various key social groups. National opinion views gays and lesbians as responsible for all problems taking place in Cameroon, be it the economic crisis, poverty, growing unemployment, or sects. Recently in Yaounde, two girls were sentenced to three years in prison with no remission because of their homosexuality. Two men, Jonas and Franky, were arrested and unfairly put in jail after having been violently attacked by the mob in the market place, even though no complaint was lodged. More broadly, people are often arrested or reported to the police on the basis of very flimsy or even inexistent evidence – such as a text message, because they were carrying lube, or as a result of a neighbor’s complaint. As there are no LGBT groups in some regions, like the far North or the East, and we do not have the means to go there, we can’t record cases of abuse or arrests on the base of sexual orientation taking place outside Yaounde and Douala.
In most countries, homophobic laws remain dormant and are not enforced. How do you explain the fact that the police and the judiciary enforce the law so strictly?
How did Cameroon get to this point? For me, homosexuality is the victim of a complex entanglement of representations. For one thing, there is the taboo associated with sexuality in general and with homosexuality more specifically. There is the homophobic climate, which results from ignorance about the question of homosexuality and from the confusion between homosexuality, crime, bestiality and pedophilia kept alive by a part of the media. There is also the broadly shared feeling, rightly or not, that homosexuality is used as a means to climb the social ladder in some areas of Cameroonian political and economic society. This reinforces the frustration of the people, which has been sorely tested by the economic crisis and poverty. Alternatives was actually founded in 2007 after the publication of a list of the “Fags of the Republic”, which included the names of high-rank State men who had allegedly reached top positions thanks to their sexual practices. In a country stuck in poverty, this was enough to stir public anger. Homosexuality is then seen as a scandalous means to move upward used inside a group or some kind of sect. Later, the government used the “crime of homosexuality” to its advantage and, thanks to this, was able to skirt real issues by throwing some poor souls to the mercy of public disgrace and police abuses. Meanwhile, no one talks about the lack of political change in the last 30 years, widespread corruption, or poverty.
Most religious groups, including the Catholic Church, to which a majority of Cameroonians adhere, condemn and reject homosexual people. The Church manipulates the public opinion and deliberately creates confusion. This creates a climate unfavorable to the gays and lesbians, in which they have become society’s scapegoats. Homosexual people are under a lot of social pressure from their families. The young, in particular, see their future compromised by this rejection – they are often thrown out of the family house and can’t go to school anymore.
Last but not least, HIV/AIDS primarily affects vulnerable populations. In 2011, a behavioral and epidemiological study about men who have sex with men could at last be conducted in Douala and Yaoude. It showed that HIV/AIDS is highly prevalent in these two cities (24% in Douala and 44% in Yaounde, which is about ten times more than the national average).
No less than six local organizations have contributed to the submission to the UN of a report on homosexuality. Activists are very active in the country…
Indeed. It is a report named “Guilty by Association”, which was co-written by the LGBTQI working groups from Cameroon. The community is very active and united in Cameroon. However, it is faced with many challenges such as rarefaction of financing and growing homophobia, even within organizations which fight for human rights or against HIV.
Allies are not that numerous and the existing ones are development partners such as Care-Cameroun, USAID, diplomatic representations… but they follow us only on HIV and health issues and do not want to really implicate themselves in respect to the rights of sexual minorities.
It is dangerous for a homosexual to act as such in the media. At Alternatives, many of us were interviewed on TV to talk about our action in Cameroon and about the situation here. We never spoke about our private or sex life. A young man from the community already tried that on TV, by making public his sexuality. There has been a quick cover-up since this person was risking lynching at the place where he lived. A former journalist based in Paris also made statements in the press about his sexual preferences and the Cameroonian hypocrisy regarding this issue. These are however isolated episodes, even extremely rare. One has to be discreet here: there is only one gay club in Cameroon. Some other places are also attended by homosexuals, but secretly, and they are not listed as gay clubs. Members of the homosexual community usually meet in any place open to the public, like pubs, bars and restaurants, where you will find upper class homosexuals. We also have places where clients are mainly or exclusively homosexual. They open here and there and often close overnight under the influence of police repression.
In 2009 you submitted a petition to the Parliament in order to decriminalize homosexuality. When it took its first Universal Periodic Review in 2008, the government refused many recommendations made by other governments. It seems hopeless. How can you explain such blocking?
A petition was launched by Alternatives, Adefho and All Out, and we collected nearly 50,000 signatures from all over the world. We sent this petition to the President of the Republic. As of today, we are still waiting for an answer. Considering our experience with a Cameroonian society that refuses to express itself on certain issues, we often opt for mobilization of our lobby network in order to push up decisions. A strategy aiming at moving key people and resources prevents stirring up Cameroonian public opinion which is immediately dead set as soon as an issue is openly raised and which distorts the debate and the true issues. Nevertheless, we are planning to set up a big mobilization.
Do you feel the situation could improve? What can generate changes according to you?
We place a lot of hope in a change in the Cameroonians mentality as to sexuality in general and homosexuality more specifically. The situation can only improve if we – sexual minorities – can count on other development partners and key groups of the Cameroonian civil society, such as media people, clergyman and lawyers… Speeches, according to which homosexuals are responsible for the economic and politico-social situation in Cameroon, may change to our advantage if we can demonstrate that this population is not a problem but a part of the solution.
How do you feel about the idea of facing diplomats of your government at the UN?
A bit scared to see all these people – but very confident because I know I shall not be alone in this battle. I shall be surrounded and supported by NGOs like ILGA and others. I also know that our organization’s strategy avoids confrontation in order to not shock because we know the Cameroonian authorities. We shall rather make a discreet plea so as not to risk our lives and these of our members up here.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) started by the UN in 2006, aims at reviewing the situation of human rights in a given country. The first round for all countries ended in 2011; the second cycle started in June 2012 and forty-two countries are to be reviewed each year, meaning that within four and a half years all UN Member States will be reviewed.
The reviews develop in five stages: drafting and filing of the report, interactive dialogue with Member States, adoption of the draft report, formal acceptance of the report, implementation and monitoring.
Each procedure involves states, national and international NGOs, national institutions for human rights protection.
In May 2013, the 16th session of UPR reviewed Cameroon and thirteen other countries. NGOs reports were sent, as requested, seven months before the beginning of the session.
Translated by Romain Muller and Christian van Dieren