14/07/2016 12:09 BST | Updated 15/07/2017 06:12 BST

Countering Violent Extremism in Cameroon's Far North

Once the heart of Cameroon's economic growth and bustling with tourism, the Far North region is now a key frontier in the struggle to contain and counter the threat of Boko Haram. But in spite of the extreme destruction wrought upon local communities and infrastructure, and amidst an ongoing armed conflict, the region stands not only to benefit from outside CVE (countering violent extremism) support but, moreover, has lessons of its own to share.

You could be forgiven for thinking the notions of targeted prevention, community resilience or multi-agency partnership seem somewhat remote to the context of the Far North of Cameroon.

Only recently a growing tourist destination at the foot of the Lake Chad Basin, the region is now all but inaccessible to even the best protected of international agencies. Boko Haram's bloody insurgency, which spread to Cameroon in the aftermath of the Lake Chad floods in 2012, has torn apart families and communities, razed whole villages and towns to the ground and rendered destitute the local economy and infrastructure.

Each week brings reports of more raids, kidnappings and suicide attacks. Women and children are increasingly the face of the latter, with at least 105 women and girls used in Boko Haram suicide bombings since June 2014. The horror of these girls' experiences - from capture, imprisonment, rape, near-starvation and training for beheadings and bombings, before, in some cases, being drugged for an attack - is starting to be reported, thanks to those accounts of the lucky few who have escaped.

Last year, UNICEF reported that 120 schools had closed throughout the region, leaving more than 33,000 children out of school or forced to find access to education beyond their native area. The region faces concurrent refugee and internal displacement crises and a serious food shortage, exacerbated by the collapse in agriculture, with as many as 75% of farmers abandoning their plots in those areas most affected. Running water is a scarcity in many areas and communications access is severely restricted.

The government's response has necessarily been to strengthen its military presence along the border - the better to contain and disrupt the threat - but it can arguably do little more, at least in the midst of a very real conflict zone.

In this context, efforts are nonetheless underway to bring communities together across ethnic, tribal and religious divides, diminish the ideological and material sway of Boko Haram and create more effective means not only of preventing would-be recruits from joining the group but also building the capacity of local communities to withstand and reject violent extremism.

In other words, resilience and prevention, central tenets in the North and Western European CVE canon are evident and growing even in this environment. The way in which this work has found traction and viability within the communities of the Far North region challenges oft-held preconceptions on CVE per se and poses important lessons for work elsewhere, including areas with relatively developed and comprehensive strategies.

Crucially, efforts are underway at the local level, involving collaboration between multiple partners. Local mayors and traditional leaders play a central role. But they do not act alone. They are supported by NGOs, international aid agencies, and by government. But they are, at least in this context, both the leaders of their communities and the mouthpiece for efforts to undermine and degrade Boko Haram while uniting those they represent.

Work to counter violent extremism in the Far North developed initially from the partnership between local community leaders and NGOs, one of the few able to access the region and travel between villages being the organisation ARK Jammers. Their partnership with the region's mayors began following the abduction of the Mayor of Kolofata, Dr Seiny Boukar Lamine.

Dr Lamine had escaped after fifty days in captivity at the hands of Boko Haram. Having returned to his hometown, he was determined not to abandon his position, but to use his first-hand experience to continue as mayor and seek to lead and protect his community in the face of continued threats.

But in order for ARK Jammers to work effectively with Dr Lamine and with local communities, several years of trust-building were an immediate and obvious prerequisite. This required winning the trust, respect and confidence not only of local communities themselves, but also of government and traditional tribal and religious leaders.

Each actor held their own understandable scepticism: local communities because they feared outside interference and foreign-backed meddling; traditional leaders because they feared the group would undermine or ignore their authority; and the national government because they feared that the group's focus on opportunities and alternatives for a disenfranchised youth would swell anti-government sentiment.

It has taken years, and is inevitably a continuous process, to overcome this scepticism. But the key - and herein lies the lesson - is that trust-building has necessarily been a multi-directional exercise and has demanded partnership on every level.

Another aspect has been to work with - rather than render obsolete - existing institutions, however formalised these might be. In the Far North, towns and villages have established 'vigilance committees', groups of youths keeping watch and sounding alerts, their ability to spot an outside face the more helpful in warning of potential attacks. Building links between these committees and nearby government forces and establishing formal cooperation may offer an effective and integrated approach to preventing and containing Boko Haram attacks.

Finally, local-level work, as problematic and extreme as the context may be, can and does benefit from regional and international cooperation. While the government contributes to regional counter terrorism coalitions, so too the mayors and elders of towns and villages in the Far North look to collaborate and build partnerships with their counterparts across the border in Nigeria, Niger and Chad, as well as those further afield.

The point is not that one way of working can simply be transposed onto a far-fetched context. Rather, that there are principles and lessons across a variety of local contexts which we all do well to acknowledge and understand and assess against our own context. And that isn't merely a case of 'developed' strategies informing the work of less established programmes and approaches; it goes the other way too.

The towns and communes of Kolofata, Kousseri, Mokolo and Meri/Diamare, in addition to the district of Yaoundé 2 in Cameroon's capital, are members of the Strong Cities Network, which connects municipal and subnational political leaders and practitioners around the world to share best practice and lessons learnt in countering violent extremism in all its forms. The author met with the mayors of each of these towns in May 2016, and interviewed Clarence Ruth Bekono Badibanga of ARK Jammers on 29 June 2016.