Cameroon: Human rights plea provokes death threat

Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, executive director of REDHAC (Photo courtesy of Hurinews)
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, executive director of REDHAC (Photo courtesy of Hurinews)

After speaking out last month against human rights violations by Cameroonian forces opposing Boko Haram insurgents in northern Cameroon, human rights defender Maximilienne Ngo Mbe became the target of an apparent death threat on television, plus abusive criticism for advocating human rights for LGBT people.

Ngo Mbe, as executive director of the Cameroon-based Network of Human Rights Defenders of Central Africa (Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains de l’Afrique Centrale, or REDHAC), on Feb. 18 expressed strong support for the army’s fight against Boko Haram, but also stated that many innocent people had been arrested by police and 50 people were asphyxiated in their cells, then buried in a mass grave in the bush.

In response, the Afrique Media network aired television shows in which one commentator threatened her with death and others called her a tool of Western powers seeking to destabilize the country.

Afrique Media logo
Afrique Media logo

On Feb. 23, the show “Le Mérite Panafricain” on the Afrique Media network presented a panel discussion that accused REDHAC of being exploited and funded by Europeans and Americans.  The panelists called Ngo Mbe “brainless” and someone who “is financed by the Americans and Europeans, going from embassy to embassy.”

“What does she know of human rights?” said panelist Parfait Ndom. “Mme Maximilienne goes from embassy to embassy. She has an NGO [non-governmental organization] that takes care of homosexuals.”

REDHAC is a coalition of human rights defenders in eight Central African countries. Headquartered in Douala, Cameroon, its members include people who work against government corruption and for women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, in addition to LGBT rights.

Denying the accusations from her critics, Ngo Mbe said that REDHAC is funded by memberships and individual donations, with occasional grants from international human rights organizations.

Afrique Media’s criticisms continued on Feb. 27, when an online article claimed that, through REDHAC, Ngo Mbe is “forcing the Cameroonian government to admit homosexuality into the Constitution, even though she is not gay and has children.” The article apparently called for her to be deported, stating: “Expel them and combat them with the utmost energy.”

Jules Njawe on YouTube
Jules Njawe on YouTube

In the recent past, Afrique Media has also claimed that the United Nations is providing weaponry to Boko Haram and asserted that France is using Boko Haram to destabilize Cameroon, which was a French colony from 1919 to 1960.

The latest attacks against REDHAC intensified on March 1 during the show “Panafrican Debate,” also on Afrique Media. There, politician/preacher Banda Kani stated that all the reports that REDHAC presents about human rights in Cameroon and Central Africa are “written by France and the Americans, who give them to her to read and, in return, pay her huge sums of money.”

Also on that show, Jules Njawé,  leader of the Movement for Pan-African Youth (MJP), stated:

“REDHAC should not exist. If the government does nothing, they’ll take care of it, as was done to the human rights activist who was shot at point-blank range in Russia. They will even burn REDHAC if necessary. “

In Njawé’s unexplained threat that “they” would act against Ngo Mbe and REDHAC, he was referring to the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on Feb. 27.  His words could be dismissed as exaggerated rhetoric, except for the facts that Cameroonian LGBT rights activist Eric Lembembe was murdered in 2013 and that Cameroonian attorney Michel Togué, who defends LGBT clients, had to move his family overseas after receiving similar threats.

Ngo Mbe too has frequently received death threats. Human Rights Watch reported that in September 2012, men in Cameroonian security force uniforms kidnapped and raped her niece, in what Ngo Mbe believes was a targeted attack to punish her for her human rights work.  In April 2013, unidentified attackers tried to abduct her son from school.

This version of CODE's logo is in the shape of Cameroon.
This version of CODE’s logo is in the shape of Cameroon.

The televised threats and criticisms of REDHAC by journalists, politicians and activists are a “witch hunt” that shows a lack of self-control in time of crisis, according to the Cameroonian opposition group CODE (the Collectif des Organisations Démocratiques et Patriotiques de la Diaspora Camerounaise).

In an article in Cameroun-Info.net, CODE called on “Cameroonian civil and political society to keep calm in this troubled period and not look for scapegoats.” CODE expressed its “solidarity with Cameroonian human rights defenders in general and Mme. Ngo Mbe in particular, for the valuable work that they do in difficult and dangerous conditions.”

REDHAC has complained about the latest televised threat to Cameroon’s National Communications Council and to the National Commission on Human Rights and Liberties, which has started an inquiry, Ngo Mbe said.

She said that, as a respected human rights organization with observer status at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, REDHAC does not get its reports from Europe and America, but from Central Africa. In an interview with the human rights website Hurinews, Ngo Mbe said:

Every day we receive press releases, statements and/or urgent appeals from organizations in the region. Our job is to sort, classify and investigate the facts in order to find the best way to intervene, depending on the severity and danger posed in each case.

“There might be a need for physical protection, for improved security at an office or home, or we plead for the release of arrested or imprisoned [human rights] defenders. We also draw the attention of governments in the region to specific violations of human rights or the rights of defenders without discrimination.”

REDHAC’s only partner is the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, which provides annual support, Ngo Mbe said in the Hurinews interview. Those funds have not been enough to avoid financial stress, including difficulty in paying electricity and water bills, she said. Supporters can contribute to REDHAC on its website.

She also cited financing from Amnesty International — for three meetings, including a 2007 workshop at which REDHAC was founded — and from U.S.-funded Freedom House, for REDHAC’s general assembly when it moved its headquarters in 2010 to Cameroon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ngo Mbe stated that she is saddened by “the incoherence of the panelists’ statements and their ignorance of Cameroonian laws and the mechanisms for financing NGOs and associations. Their total ignorance of war conventions is both distressing and questionable.”

She added that TV commentators “who are supposed to enlighten African populations instead pour out insults, slander, invective and incite mob action — for trivial reasons. That sickens me.”

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at info@76crimes.com.

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