The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was a transgender social media star in Cameroon. Now she faces five years in prison.

DAKAR, Senegal — She filled her Facebook page with candid musings — as if each of her 100,000 followers were a close friend. She posted selfies with glittery eyelids and glossy lips, urging everyone to check out her favorite makeup shops.

The social media persona of Shakiro Njeukam — who is known as Shakiro — was nothing unusual by influencer standards, but it ignited controversy in her home country, Cameroon. She identified as a transgender woman, broadcasting pride in a nation that forbids what is vaguely defined as “homosexual acts.”

“My sexual orientation and sexuality IS NOT A CHOICE,” she wrote in a post that garnered hundreds of likes. “On the other hand, your hate and homophobia is.”

That signature openness led to Shakiro’s arrest in February, her lawyer said, when police stopped her and a friend at a restaurant in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, for wearing feminine clothing.

This week, a Cameroonian court sentenced them to five years in prison under a law that bans same-sex relations.

Advocates warn the punishment, the maximum sentence, could turn deadly: Guards have beaten and threatened to kill Shakiro and her friend, Patricia Mouthe, who is known by her first name, Shakiro’s lawyer said.

“Most people are indignant about this,” said one of their attorneys, Alice Nkom. “They find it, at a minimum, excessive and unfair and unjustified.” (The Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.)

Security officers in Cameroon are increasingly jailing people whose gender expressions break the norm, researchers say.

From February to April, officers arrested at least 27 Cameroonians — including a 17-year-old boy — on charges of same-sex affection or gender nonconformity, according to Human Rights Watch, after years of more lenient enforcement. Some endured beatings or forced anal examinations, a homosexuality “test” that activists liken to torture.

“It’s been a real shock — we can’t get over it,” said Jean Paul Enama, executive director of Humanity First Cameroon, an advocacy group in the capital, Yaoundé. “In almost 20 years of activism, we’ve seen people get one year. Two years. Never the maximum sentence. We now fear that we all may be the next Shakiro.”

Same-sex relationships are outlawed in more than half of Africa’s 54 countries — many of which inherited penal codes from former colonial powers. (Only South Africa defends rights based on sexual orientation in its constitution.)

About a dozen nations uphold language from an old British order against “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which is often aimed at transgender people. In a few places, the punishment is death.

Some countries have taken steps in recent years to ease restrictions. Gabon, for instance, moved to decriminalize homosexuality in June. Botswana did the same in 2019, becoming the first African nation to abolish such prohibitions through its courts.

Yet even in areas where anti-gay laws are seldom enforced, researchers say discrimination and harassment is rampant. A community space for LGBTQ people in Ghana’s capital shuttered earlier this year after protesters rallied against it.

Shakiro and her friend’s high-profile convictions come as Cameroon wrestles with rising insecurity under President Paul Biya, whose 39-year tenure makes him Africa’s longest-serving ruler.

At least 4,000 people have died in a four-year battle between the French-speaking government and separatists from the Anglophone minority, who seek to create their own state, invoking years of oppression.

The country is also at war with Boko Haram, the extremist group staging regular attacks in the far north. Fighters have forced more than a quarter-million Cameroonians from their homes.

As violence surges, so does criticism of Biya. Authoritarian leaders are known to crack down on gay rights to rouse support from more conservative circles, researchers say.

“It’s a political tool and a way of pushing back against the West,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “You scapegoat certain parts of the population to gain control over others.”

Shakiro and Patricia had been relaxing at a roadside eatery, waiting for grilled meat, when the officers approached, their lawyer said. Then came the charges: “attempted homosexuality” and public indecency.

One of Shakiro’s friends has since taken over her Facebook page, sharing sporadic updates. After the sentencing, they posted only a somber black heart.

“You are the way you are, and I love the way you are,” someone commented. “You are a role model for me.”

Borso Tall in Dakar contributed to this report.

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