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YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — On the night of July 16, 2012, Roger Mbede walked out of the central prison in Cameroon’s capital city, having served 16 months of a three-year term for violating the country’s anti-gay law. Though Mbede, then 33, had entered prison a nobody, he was emerging an icon, a man whose story had come to exemplify the challenges facing sexual minorities in Cameroon and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
But the specific claims against Mbede were flimsy even by Cameroonian standards. Instead of being accused of having sex with another man, he was arrested on the basis of three amorous text messages he sent to a government official. One of these messages confessed “an attraction to men,” while another declared, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”
In the years leading up to Mbede’s arrest, activists had struggled to attract much attention to the lack of gay rights in Cameroon. It soon became clear that Mbede’s case provided an opportunity to make up for lost time. Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience, and the organization’s Write for Rights campaign generated up to 500 letters of support a day from all over the world, according to one of his lawyers, Alice Nkom. Human Rights Watch and All Out, a New York-based advocacy group, also took up the cause.
I pledge to continue to follow his story and do what I can to secure his safety.
Congressman from Rhode Island
The international pressure likely contributed to the decision to grant Mbede provisional release while his case was appealed. But he soon realized that any attempt to resume his normal life would be complicated by his newfound notoriety.
Mbede remained the face of gay rights in Cameroon even after he was let out. On the ground, however, in his home village of Ngoumou, he was impoverished and ailing, desperate even for basics such as money for food.
On Dec. 12, 2013, David Cicilline, the Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, delivered a statement about Mbede in the United States House of Representatives to mark Human Rights Day. “I pledge to continue to follow his story and do what I can to secure his safety,” he said.
Cameroonian officials have never properly investigated this claim, and the evidence to support it is thin. But the decision by global campaigners mourning Mbede to focus on the family’s role in his death obscured a less dramatic yet still disturbing story — one of an international activist community that placed a high value on the symbolic utility of Mbede’s case but did very little to help him cope with the price of exposure. While Mbede was clearly a casualty of a hateful, homophobic law, a less obvious truth is that activists probably could have, but failed, to save him.
Shouts and insults
Born in Yaoundé in 1979, Mbede never knew his father, and his mother died when he was young. He was raised by an aunt and uncle who had nine children of their own but nonetheless welcomed Mbede into their home on the outskirts of the capital.
In an interview taped after his release, Mbede said he first realized he was attracted to men when he was around 10. He said he recognized at an early age that homosexuality was widely abhorred and that this prompted him to “fight a battle, a tough battle.” Yet those who knew him, including foreign campaigners and members of the local gay community, say his role as an activist was entirely accidental. No one in the country’s 10 or so active lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations seems to have met him prior to his arrest, which was the first time he’d encountered any trouble related to his sexual orientation.
The official who eventually denounced Mbede to the police worked at the office of Cameroon’s president, and Mbede met him while applying for a job there. After a brief interview, Mbede sent the man a text message: “I feel a desire to sleep with men and I am attracted by your beauty.” After two subsequent messages from Mbede, the official arranged a meeting, then tipped off the police. Two plainclothes officers arrested Mbede not long after he showed up.
Mbede appeared before judicial officials one week after his arrest. “Everyone in the courtroom started to cry out and insult me — even the judge,” he later told Human Rights Watch. He had no lawyer at his trial the following day. “They didn’t ask me questions,” he said. “When I stood up to go to the bar, it was just shouts and insults.”
The case might never have attracted any publicity had it not been for Michel Togué, the only other local lawyer besides Nkom who regularly defends Cameroonians charged under the anti-gay law. Togué happened to be at the court the day Mbede was sentenced. Before Mbede was transferred from the court to the prison, Togué approached him and asked if he wanted to appeal. Mbede said yes, and Togué filed the next day. (Nkom joined Mbede’s team later.)
It is with eyes filled with tears and a heart completely saddened that I write you this letter. Please go cancel the appeal. I don’t want to suffer any more from constant persecution from my enemies.
writing to his lawyer from prison
Yaoundé’s central prison is by all accounts a rough place, and Mbede fared especially poorly. Inmates familiar with his story refused to share a cell with him, and he was often expelled to the courtyard, exposed to the sun and rain, said Lambert Lamba, a Cameroonian activist who became close with Mbede. Some called him “pédé,” a derogatory slang word derived from “pedophile” or “pederast,” and “diaper wearer,” a slur hurled at gay men based on the belief that anal sex renders them incontinent. Guards did little to protect him from violence, Lamba said. At the time of his release, Mbede had a scar on his brow where, he said, he had been hit with a wooden bench.
Mbede’s correspondence from prison suggests he wasn’t eager to embrace a struggle larger than his own. A letter to Nkom written in February 2012, nearly a year after his arrest, indicates he wanted only to keep his head down until his prison term was over. “It is with eyes filled with tears and a heart completely saddened that I write you this letter,” he began, lamenting that the system seemed stacked against him. “Please go cancel the appeal. I don’t want to suffer any more from constant persecution from my enemies.”
Upon his release, Mbede’s health was his first priority. He underwent badly needed surgery for a testicular hernia, but the procedure was not entirely successful, according to friends and activists. He also tested positive for HIV. It was unclear where he contracted it, and he never got on a treatment plan.
Mbede had been working toward a master’s degree at a local Catholic university, but resuming his studies also proved difficult. The university had become a hostile environment. One friend recalled that someone posted a sign on Mbede’s door that read “Dirty Pédé,” and Amnesty reported that he was later assaulted by four unknown men just off campus.
Fearing for his safety, Mbede moved in with Lamba for three months and then returned to his village. The relocation indicates that he was still figuring out what kind of life he wanted. Though he was primarily attracted to men, he sometimes slept with women and, about 10 years ago, fathered a son. When he returned to the village, he was accompanied by a woman who identified as a lesbian but, in need of a place to stay, had agreed to pose as Mbede’s girlfriend. Mbede told his family he was no longer gay. The woman, who asked not to be named, would become pregnant with Mbede’s second child inside of six months.
'A bit of negligence'
In December 2012, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, a global federation pushing for sexual-minority rights, held its world conference in Stockholm, Sweden. By this point, most activists were aware of Mbede’s case and concerned for his welfare. Conference organizers decided to invite Mbede as a “special guest,” knowing he would then seek asylum, according to French activist Thomas Fouquet Lapar. The idea was hatched late, however, and it was not possible to process Mbede’s visa application in time, Lapar said.
On Dec. 17, the day after the conference came to a close, an appeals court upheld Mbede’s verdict. Mbede went into hiding, and his ambiguous legal status complicated subsequent efforts to get him out of Cameroon.
Jean-Eric Nkurikiye, a former Amnesty campaigner who worked on Mbede’s case, believes Mbede’s conviction made it illegal for him to leave, meaning the organization was in no position to help. But Togué, the appeals lawyer, said Cameroonian authorities would have needed to issue a specific order barring Mbede from traveling if they didn’t want him going anywhere. There is no evidence they did so.
In late 2012, a regional organization, the Central Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, drew up budgets for two possible escape plans for Mbede, both of which involved overland travel to Chad to avoid altercations with airport authorities, who were more likely than border officers to stop Mbede. From Chad, he would fly either to Europe or the United States. However, Patience Freida, who works on LGBT issues for the organization, said it lost contact with Mbede while the budgets were being approved. “There was a bit of negligence in this case,” she said. Because members had no news of Mbede, she added, “We said to ourselves, ‘He must be out of danger.’”
In fact, Mbede believed his situation was becoming more precarious. In a January 2013 email to an activist at All Out, he reported having received a letter the previous week — it was apparently “slipped under his door” — that included a threat: “Be very careful and don’t be stupid. You risk losing your life, while those who are encouraging you will remain living.”
Around this time, Lapar, the French activist, turned to Dignity for All, a program run by a consortium of rights organizations that provides emergency assistance to activists and human-rights defenders endangered because of their work on LGBT issues. The program was created in September 2012 and receives significant funding from the U.S. State Department. Generally speaking, while the fund was designed for activists, exceptions for people like Mbede are possible, said senior program officer Mindy Michels. Lapar said Dignity eventually approved Mbede’s case and agreed to provide him with about $5,000, more than enough to pay for his travel, though the money was not disbursed until August 2013.
The plan then was for Mbede to travel to France. Dignity does not provide help with the visa process, however, and the French embassy in Yaoundé dragged its feet. Lapar, who is based in France, said he found little help on the ground in Cameroon as he tried to get Mbede’s papers in order. Local organizations had few resources and little influence, and international groups failed to coordinate their efforts, wasting valuable time.
To Lapar, this inability to mobilize at a time when Mbede was perhaps most in need of assistance reflects poorly on the priorities of global activists. “People can say a lot of things — ‘Oh, we’re so indignant about the sentence that he faced’ — but when it’s just about picking up a phone and calling an ambassador of a country to say we need this guy to be out, no one does it,” he said. “And it’s so easy.”
There are competing versions of how Mbede’s final weeks unfolded. In the most widely accepted account, Mbede’s family removed him from the hospital and held him in the village against his will, waiting for him to die. The source of this information is Lamba, who went to the village in early January, days before Mbede’s death, for a visit that quickly turned chaotic.
Soon after Lamba arrived, dozens of people gathered around as members of Mbede’s family questioned Lamba about their relationship as well as the extensive interest in their relative’s case. Lamba felt threatened. Two of Mbede’s cousins had machetes, he said, adding that they kept him there “for nearly 10 hours.”
At no point was Lamba permitted to see Mbede. Lamba said he left the village convinced the family had decided to let Mbede die. Several days after Mbede’s death, Lamba told The Associated Press that, during the course of his visit, family members “said they were going to remove the homosexuality which is in him” — a claim that is central for those who say Mbede’s death was the direct result of his family’s homophobia.
Today, though, Lamba says that because of the general confusion of the scene, he doesn’t remember anyone saying these things in so many words. “Nobody said that explicitly,” he recalled. While his broad claims may be accurate, his version of events appears far from the definitive account activists portray it as being.
Noel, a cousin with whom Mbede was particularly close, provides a different version of what happened. He said he understands why Lamba may have been intimidated during the confrontation. But he said Mbede’s relatives and neighbors were simply trying to understand what was wrong with him to see if there was any way to help. Noel denied his family wanted Mbede dead. To the contrary, he said, they simply couldn’t afford to pay for Mbede’s medical care.
The woman who was posing as Mbede’s girlfriend might have been able to provide an account of Mbede’s final days. However, she had left the village several weeks before, just four days after delivering their daughter. She said she was trying to find a place where Mbede could recover from his illness, since he seemed to be faring poorly at home.
What she does recall, though, undercuts Noel’s claim that Mbede faced no threat in the village. She said she remembers getting a call from Noel a few days before Mbede’s death, warning her to stay away. She said Noel told her there were certain members of his family who thought Mbede was cursed and might harm him. This woman said she is not surprised Noel neglected to disclose this information himself, citing his apparent wish to protect his family’s reputation.
Given how much time has passed, and the absence of an official investigation, it may prove impossible to ever determine which story — Lamba’s or Noel’s — is closer to the truth.
Mbede was buried hastily in his family’s village, in a makeshift coffin cobbled together with wooden planks. Noel suggested waiting to see if some of Mbede’s international contacts would send money for a proper service, but the family concluded this was unlikely, given what was being said about them, and they were reluctant to pay to continue keeping his body in the morgue. They decided to just get on with it.
Activists honored him in different ways. All Out organized a “virtual vigil”: a petition calling on world leaders to do away with anti-gay laws. In Cameroon, one LGBT organization has paintings of Mbede hanging in its office. Another named a conference room after him.
These gestures mean little to his relatives and friends, however, one of whom lamented that Mbede was buried “like a dog.” The lack of help on the part of Mbede’s international contacts in honoring someone who attracted so much attention while he was alive is an enduring mystery for the family, Noel said. “The entire world knew my brother. Ambassadors, everyone,” he said. “If they didn’t do anything for his death, well, that really disappointed me.”
Noel said Mbede’s aunt, especially, wonders how someone who became so well-known had, apparently, been forgotten so quickly. “She asks until today, ‘With all the relations he had, with all of his friends, what kind of friends are they?’”