The first female lawyer in Cameroon, Alice Nkom, has made it her life’s work to fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in a country where LGBTQ people face up to five years in prison. She hopes that France and the rest of the world will support her fight.
Nkom’s cane is the only thing that betrays the age of this great lady, whom her young clients call "Mama". At 76, Nkom may be Cameroon's oldest female lawyer and defender of LGBTQ rights, but she has no intentions of retiring any day soon. "I have no reason to stop, I have one last fight to wage: to get homosexuality decriminalised in my country.”
Dressed in traditional clothes with a rainbow-coloured badge, she has just completed a tour of LGBTQ associations in France. Her visit was timed to happen directly before an Africa-France summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday. She wanted LGBTQ rights to be high on the agenda.
First woman lawyer
In 1969, Nkom was the first woman ever to be appointed to the bar in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, at a time when the profession was mainly practiced by white men from France. Aged 24 at the time, she says she "did it for love", inspired by a husband who believed in her.
Nkom worked as a business lawyer before devoting herself to the defence of LGBTQ people. A tireless worker, she feared that becoming a Cameroonian state prosecutor would have been too comfortable a position. "They plead for a conviction and often win. I had the crazy idea of actually defending human rights," she explains.
In a country where homosexuality is forbidden, Nkom witnessed young homosexuals facing up to five years in prison in the correctional courts in the early 2000s. "During my hearings, I saw these poor young people being systematically sentenced for their sexuality and who only wanted to run away after they were released. For me it was unacceptable", she recalls. "I started to study the issue and to ask myself how I could bring this debate to the national table. They needed someone with a megaphone to explain that they are full citizens with rights and not outsiders.”
Nkom quickly took up the cause and, in 2003, founded the first anti-homophobia NGO in Cameroon: the Association for the Defence of Homosexual Rights (Adefho). She was promptly summoned by the prefect, who was furious that a Cameroonian organisation mentioned the word "homosexuals". A skilled orator, Nkom eventually convinced him, but very few young LGBTQ people dared to join Adefho. "The association was clearly intended for them, but they were afraid of 'outing' themselves by becoming members," she says. But her organisation paved the way for others to follow.
At the same time, Nkom was finding other ways to get closer to young homosexuals in Cameroon who are often rejected by their families and isolated for fear of reprisals. Taking advice from members of the Cameroonian LGBTQ community, the activist lawyer founded a second association, more focused on the health of these young people: Sid'ado, which helps adolescents dealing with AIDS.
Threatened, insulted, sued...
The more Nkom spoke about her fight in public, the more she was threatened. "At one point, I was receiving threatening phone calls day and night. They called me a witch, they said I was inciting children to 'get their asses smashed'... It was very violent. I became the person to avoid. These people thought they could forbid me to speak out for anyone I wanted."
Nkom was undeterred. "I would go round the courts, watch for homosexuality trials all over the country and set myself up to be the defence for these young people that nobody was taking care of."
In 2007, in an interview with FRANCE 24's sister radio, RFI, the lawyer criticised the law against homosexuality in Cameroon. This time, it was the minister of justice who attacked her through the magistrates' association. A complaint for "justification of the crime" was filed against the activist, but it did not lead to a conviction.
Nkom deplores a broad lack of societal education but, according to her, the whole system must change first. "The situation will not change until there is a minimum level of democracy and respect for human rights values," she says. "When power is in the hands of one person and the separation of powers is a sham, you have to divert people's attention to something. Homosexuals are an easy target," she elaborates, aiming her thinly veiled words at Cameroon's president, Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982.
On a positive note, attitudes are starting to change in Cameroonian civil society, says Nkom, even if attacks and arrests – often based on tip-offs – are increasing. "It is enough for someone to report you because you have a weak voice or a girlish walk, on the basis of facial expression," explains the lawyer, whose office is always kept busy.
Over a hundred LGBTQ people arrested
Since the beginning of 2021, more than a hundred arrests have been recorded, some defendants are awaiting trial and more than forty people have been imprisoned because of their sexual orientation. "Just this morning, a young man in prison called me to tell me that there are 20 homosexuals locked up with him," said Nkom, who gathers and shares all her information.
Nkom has been working on the case of Shakiro and Patricia since February. These two transgender women were arrested while in a restaurant and sentenced to five years in prison for homosexuality and private indecency. Nkom has obtained bail for her two clients and is awaiting an appeal in October.
In Nkom's field, victories are rare, so she makes the most of each one. At a recent UN meeting, American president Joe Biden mentioned Cameroon as one of the most homophobic countries in the world, along with Chechnya. "This is not a small thing," she says, proud to have succeeded in drawing the White House's attention to the plight of Cameroonian LGBTQ people.
The lawyer is counting on international pressure to make the Cameroonian authorities change their practices and decriminalise LGBTQ people. "The United States is one of Cameroon's main development partners and has the power to ask the authorities to loosen the legal stranglehold on homosexuals," she says.
The same cannot be said for France, she regretfully admits. "I expect everything from France and, for the moment, I am getting nothing," she says a little bitterly. "France signs charters, conveys values such as human rights, the rule of law and respect for the environment. It tries to apply them to itself, but it allows its partners to violate them with impunity under its watch.”
For Nkom, the Montpellier summit is the perfect opportunity for civil society to come together to “put pressure” on decision makers.
This article has been translated from the original in French.