Both male and female same-sex sexual acts are criminalized in Cameroon. Since 1972, Article 347 Bisof the Penal Code punishes ‘homosexual offenses’ with up of 5 years imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 francs. The country remained silent on this issue until May 2005, when the arrest of 11 men at a nightclub under suspicion of sodomy became news on national TV. In January 2006, the local weekly Les Nouvelles d”Afrique published a “list of homosexuals of Cameroon”, followed by several other yellow press tabloids. Claims were made that men on those lists were a danger to society due to their alleged sexual orientation.
In an interview at the time when the list of suspected homosexuals was published, President Paul Biya said that the private life of citizens is no one else’s business. “This is a matter of privacy and people should respect that”, said Biya, who has maintained Cameroon”s close relationship with France, Cameroon’s former colonial ruler. However, according to the reports of local human rights organizations, over the past seven years, dozens of people have been detained and sentenced to prison on charges of homosexual contact. In their arguments, public prosecutors have raised the issue of homosexual identities as a Western import and an instrument for political destabilization.
The media frenzy over the names of presumed homosexuals, in the form of a “top 50” list, “was so advertised in the media that it put pressure on the government to do something. Cameroon was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to engage in national hysteria over homosexuality. Prior to 2005, there had never been a case in post-independent Cameroon of a national campaign to hunt down alleged or real homosexuals,” recalls S.N. Nyeck, a Cameroonian-born Ph.D. candidate at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Department of Political Science.
Many observers of contemporary sexual politics in postcolonial Africa would agree with Nyeck who points out that “in Cameroon, public discourse over gay issues is directly related to nationalistic ideas about colonialism. People say that homosexuality is a bad thing introduced by white people. What is interesting, however, is that in rejecting homosexuality framed around coloniality, people are actually protesting against the government and those in power, for selling out to neo-colonial influence. While in Cameroon conspiracy theories associate government corruption with homosexual conspiracy, in Uganda, anti-homosexual campaigning has been a demagogic strategy by allies of the government to win public support. This distinction is important to understanding the double protest in the political discourse against homosexuality in Cameroon. Public opinion is not just against homosexuality, it is also against state institutions perceived as corrupt and thereby attempting to impose homosexuality as a norm in the country through secret societies. Of course, these allegations have been circulating in Cameroon for decades but remain to date unsubstantiated,” she remarks.
Nyeck further argues that for Africa, advocacy efforts based on models of how an ideal state ought to operate, or on the way that sexual and reproductive health rights have been obtained – to the extent that they have – in Western states, are flawed. Instead, strategies need to be framed within a context that recognizes imperfection at all levels: imperfect state actors, imperfect civil society actors, imperfect relationships, and imperfect policies.
“The very imperfection that is found within state institutions may reveal spaces within which an iterative learning process can unfold, allowing sexual rights advocates to creatively match their strategies to domestic contexts and emerging realities. Further, these spaces provide an opportunity to examine assumptions about state authority and control in an African context,” says Nyeck, summing up one critique she formulated in a paper discussed at a Sexuality Policy Watch meeting in Rio de Janeiro last month.
S.N. Nyeck is in favor of mobilizing a “real debate” about human sexuality in Africa. “That debate needs to happen. But it cannot happen without engaging with society at all levels, including the government. And the debate will not happen if strategies remain solely confrontational, driven by international donors’ agendas, and do not address the safety of the people concerned, whose needs need to be properly understood. If you look at society as a bunch of homophobic people, what are you going to do? What good changing the law would bring?” She queries. This is no easy task: “You will meet people who close the door at your face and some people may want to kill you right away, but there will also be people that will say: – you know what? Maybe I’ll learn something’”, she believes.
Nyeck cautions that global discourse about sexual rights tends to ignite conflicts by framing them in binary terms, between disempowered LGBTQI individuals and powerful states. However, a state can at times be weak and certain actors in civil society sometimes also engage in the promotion of violations against sexual minorities. In her view, it is important that analysts pay attention to the role that state institutions and public policy play in the promotion of violence against members of a particular group. The job, however, does not stop there. The transnational and local logics of human rights activism also needs to be scrutinized, as sometimes they involve authoritarian practices and patronizing assumptions which make them insensitive to the delicate craft of local politics.
“A grounded and nuanced advocacy balances the very real human needs of queer citizens in a given country against the concrete political needs of government actors. The craft of sexual rights advocacy requires an understanding of the paradoxical nature of African political playing fields. That is, in Africa, the same state power that wounds, when wielded positively, is power that heals.”
In 2006, when the “list of homosexuals” came out and many people were arrested, Nyeck was in the process of editing an educational video documentary on sexual politics in Cameroon, which was later screened at Swarthmore College. Through her research team, she submitted two questions to the public in Cameroon after the publication of the list of suspected homosexuals in the media. The questions were: what do you think should be done to homosexuals, given the current debate? and what if that person is your father, your mother or your sister?
“For the first question, people overwhelmingly responded by saying ‘kill them’ or ‘this is really bad, this means the world is going to end’, ‘Jesus doesn’t want it’… etc”, she recalls. But for the second question, Nyeck says, responses were more nuanced. “Most respondents said: ‘if it was my mother, my brother, or my sister, I would talk to her/him.’ The discrepancy between these two reactions suggests that the more the subject is alien to the speaker, the more likely people are willing to pass harsh judgment. Although bringing the issue to more familiar grounds does not prevent passing judgment per se, it clearly deterred the use of violence to address the conflict. Thus, it is empirically inaccurate to label the whole country “homophobic” and distinctions need to be made between the politicization of homophobia and genuine social disagreements around issues, such as homosexualty, that remain imperfectly understood in Africa,” she concludes.