A Human Rights Lawyer Describes What It's Like to Defend Cameroon's LGBT People
In a country where gay men are subject to anal examinations in police cells and imprisonment because of text messages, Alice Nkom has dedicated herself to helping people find justice in a homophobic system.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In 2011, a 30-year-old gay Cameroonian man, Jean-Claude, met someone he was interested in. The feeling was, apparently, reciprocated. They swapped numbers, agreeing to exchange text messages at a later date to arrange a meeting. Only, when Jean-Claude texted the man he thought was a potential partner, the message was read by the police.
This man had organized for the police to be present when Jean-Claude's text was received, then waited for him to arrive at the house where he believed an encounter was going to happen. Jean-Claude was arrested and taken to the police station. Here, he was stripped naked and given an anal examination. The officers decided he was gay because "his anus was too open," says human rights lawyer Alice Nkom. Her face shakes as she recalls the abuse her client suffered in the judicial system.
Nkom fought for Jean-Claude's release on the basis that there was no proof of intercourse: "If you are a good judge how can you condemn someone and convict them for homosexual acts on the basis of a text?"
Jean-Claude went to jail for three years. Nkom defended him and eventually secured bail. Following release he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and returned home to his family, but, because he was gay, the strict Catholic community shunned his medical needs. He died soon after.
"Cameroon is one of 38 African countries criminalizing homosexuality," Nkom tells me. "You can be jailed for five years. The country is one of the highest for arrests for homosexuality, but nobody knows that. Everybody is focused on Kenya and Uganda because they have introduced recent bills increasing penalties."
I meet Nkom in a central London hotel. She's here on one of her frequent visits to Europe, meeting other human rights activists, raising awareness and funding for her work. In 1969, she was the first black woman to be called to the bar in Cameroon. She spent the next several decades creating a formidable reputation for herself as a respected voice in its legal system. All that changed in 2003. A chance meeting with some young gay Cameroonian men who had been living in Paris opened her eyes to the human rights abuse the LGBT community was suffering in her native country.
"I wanted them to know that what they used to do easily and freely in Paris, they cannot do back home in Cameroon," she explains. "When they came out of the meeting they were sad, I could see it in their faces. I thought, 'What did I do?' Is it just enough for me to tell people, 'Please never show that you are happy, that you are in love'?"
She wanted to do more than just warn these men. "What about our kids when they travel to the USA, Paris, or Belgium to study, where homosexuality is not criminalized, and then they want to go home to Cameroon and show what they have learned? What should we then do? Do we ask them to go back because the only places we have kept for them are prisons?"
Her words are compelling. Not least because she's dedicated herself to a repressed community that she's not directly a part of and does not need to fight a battle for.
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"I used to tell people on the TV, 'I am gay.' But they cannot arrest me just because I say that I am gay," she says. Nkom has children and grandchildren and is heterosexual, but she says this to highlight the fact that the constitution in Cameroon is ratified with a human rights treaty, which inclusively protects all its citizens—including LGBTs. Technically, being homosexual is not a crime, however, a "provision" was added into the law in 1972 making homosexual acts illegal. Nkom uses this awareness of the more superior law—the original constitution—to get people out of jail.
"If you followed the law to the letter, none of these people should be in jail. It's only same-sex sexual conduct that is criminalized, not being gay. People are going to jail for sending a text. As such, the laws are being used illegally."
The police and judges in Cameroon rely on their victim's lack of education to prosecute them. "Ignorance is very bad, because [the victims] don't know their rights. This is why they don't arrest people in Doula, where I live there. The police don't want to face me. They know that if they arrest someone, they call me, and I go and we have a serious discussion."
After their experiences of prison, and following a long court battle where often the victims don't have the funds to pay for legal representation, people are entitled to compensation. "They never follow it up," says Nkom. "When they are freed, they just want to get away and be forgotten." Because Nkom finances her clients' trials, she can't "run after them and say we can continue," because she has "other cases to challenge."
"This is my own money and the money of my family," she advises. "But with what I have, I do what I can do." She founded ADEFHO (Association for the Defence of Homosexuality) in 2003 as a non-profit international organization that applies for funding. As she cannot fund the foundation from within Cameroon, she looks outside her home country for help. Past supporters have included the European Union, from which she received a €300,000 [$322,000] grant. She was later threatened with arrest by a representative of Cameroon's Ministry of Communication for accepting it. "I don't want to stop what I have decided to do. I want to show [the Cameroon government] that if you are determined to do something because it is right, because it is a good thing to do, they cannot stop me."
Despite its homophobic laws, Nkom tells me her homeland is "a very beautiful country."
"It is the heart of central Africa," she says warmly of her homeland that has been colonized twice before, by France and Great Britain. "We have deserts in the north, forests in the south, and seas. We have everything to be happy. We have enough oil, we produce cocoa. We are a very diverse country, but very united."
Nkom receiving an award at Amnesty International
The main problem she cites with Cameroon is how its controversial president, Paul Biya, has retained control since 1982. "He's been in power for 33 years. This is not good because we have a problem in setting up a democracy with the possibility for people to change, because everything is blocked."
Another worry for Nkom is the war with extremism that she sees looming, spreading slowly into Cameroon from Nigeria. "We are very afraid whether our president can face a war because we have always lived in a very peaceful place. Managing peace is not the same thing as managing a war. And when you have war, it's never a good place for human rights."
Nigeria is very rich in terms of oil, and Nkom says Cameroon's people are facing the same danger of Boko Haram "and we don't know how to deal with it." Nigeria also passed a bill to criminalize homosexuality just a year or so ago, she says, "but they also have a lot of states where they have established Sharia law, so this can spread and give a very bad example to Cameroon where, up to now, we were living in peace with Muslims, Christians, and Catholics everywhere. It was very harmonious."
Among the many cases Nkom is working on is the defense of a lesbian who has been jailed for five years. "She was alone, there was no other woman arrested. I'm trying to get her out, but it's a very long process to gain her freedom."
Such individual cases are upsetting, but Nkom does not believe homophobia to be widespread among the Cameroonian people. "Homophobic people used to say that the majority of Cameroon is against homosexuals, which I don't agree with. The problem is the people who disagree with homosexuality speak louder."
Her use of terminology in reference to LGBT people is interesting. What about life as lesbian or trans in Cameroon? "We have only one word for this: 'homosexuality.' You can be jailed if you are trans or lesbian as well. The trans community has to hide. They cannot live their life freely and openly as they do here."
The concept of individual LGBT identity is a luxury of Western culture; life in Cameroon for the non-heterosexual community, however people identify, is devoid of celebration. On top of this, the sexual health and HIV needs of the gay community in Cameroon are ignored because doctors cannot be trusted to deliver treatment as the medical profession sees it as giving aid to men who are involved in criminal acts. Nkom shakes her head again as she speaks. "The doctors say to me that they are being asked to treat sexual behavior that is prohibited by the law. I say to them, 'You are a doctor. What did you swear on? That if I am a criminal I don't deserve treatment?' Cameroon receives a lot of money from the global fund to eradicate HIV, but it doesn't go to the needs of gay men."
"Somebody has to do this work. I am black, I am a woman, and I am a lawyer, and I speak loud." – Alice Nkom
Nkom explains how religious factors also played their role in riling the anger of an uninformed population against homosexuality. "In 2006 the Archbishop of Yaoundé decided to point his finger at the gay community as the people responsible for issues like unemployment, which is when homophobia became aggressive." She identifies the Archbishop's comments as the turning point that saw national newspapers take it upon themselves to start publishing the names of gay people, which fueled homophobic hysteria. "Before that the population were living comfortably with gay people," Nkom recalls.
It's this warped injustice, coupled with a love for a country that was built on the basis of independence from colonialism and on the foundations of a recognized human rights charter, that spurs Nkom to continue her work.
I cite the words of fellow Cameroonian human rights activist Joël Gustave Nana Ngongang who said, "As Africans, we feel the vestiges of the long European colonial presence in our continent. We feel them when other—Western, European, 'international'—LGBT organizations speak on our behalf and we are left unheard. Only Africans can speak for Africans."
Nkom disapproves of this position. "I don't agree with him at all," she says, sighing heavily at his suggestion that the continent's former colonialist rulers should not interfere in the internal struggles of Africa. "We had independence in 1960. We had no criminalization of homosexuality then, we had no mass media, no television, nothing, and they never put homosexuality as a behavior that can be the cause of prejudice and barbarity to others."
She reiterates how colonial laws were rejected for a greater, more accepting human rights charter. "As sexual minorities defenders, we are accused of being agents of the West to exterminate African people so you can come and steal our natural resources. We are [accused of] receiving a lot of money from you to do this 'dirty' job because homosexuality is not African. Which is not true, homosexuality is human."
It's easy to view countries like Cameroon and their confused laws with sadness and fear. But people like Nkom prove that there is hope—even if its glimmer is faint. There's hope that, even as the homophobes and fear-mongers shout, there are brave people like her who are allies to the LGBT cause because they believe in justice for all. The question remains: When she could be comfortably retired as she approaches her 70th birthday, why does she continue this seemingly unending, lonely battle? "I knew I would be alone for a while. You cannot ask people to get into such risky work," she says. "They have all to lose. I face a lot of discrimination myself—many doors are locked behind me. This is a full-time job I do today and I cannot work like a normal lawyer who has a paying client. I don't have time for that. This work is huge and I want results before I leave this earth. I'm 70 and I want to reach the stage when I have a definitive decision in the Supreme Court."
Due to the situation of non-democracy, the parliament in Nkom's country cannot remove the anti-gay "provision" in the law held in place by President Biya's majority party. So she follows the "judiciary road to fight in the Supreme Court" to challenge the situation. "Somebody has to do this work. I am black, I am a woman, and I am a lawyer, and I speak loud. I am a result of the battle of former generations that engaged to free me today, and it's a very heavy debt I owe to new generations."
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