How Youth are Transforming Violent Extremism in Cameroon
Our guest blogger is Ayenka Franklin. Ayenka was born in Tobin-Kumbo, in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Science and International Relations from the Protestant University of Central Africa in 2015 and currently works as Program Officer at Ecumenical Service for Peace.
To transform violent conflict and the behaviors of young people we at Ecumenical Service for Peace look at the factors underlying these conflicts. There is often much more to social and political conflicts than what is seen on the surface. We draw inspiration to use peace education to counter violent extremism in Cameroon from UNESCO’s constitutional mandate of 1945, which states that since “wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” 1 We try to create an environment that celebrates, rewards, and appreciates young people who create peace initiatives and inspire others by using peace education examples from their respective religions, history, geography, and literature to transform violence.
It is important to first understand why youth in the communities we engage with get involved in violent extremism and terrorism. From the data we have collected in Kolofata, Cameroon the rate of illiteracy is up to 70%. Unemployment is far worse and there is abject poverty in the region. 2 These factors make poor, uneducated, and unemployed young people vulnerable to radical ideology and extreme violence which may promise hope for a better future and a means of livelihood. Boko Haram, the terrorist organization, capitalized on these factors to recruit and radicalized its foot soldiers and suicide bombers. Approximately 68% of these recruits from Kolofata are young people between the ages of 12 and 25 years. 3
We provide skill development training in partnership with organizations such as Saare Tabitha, the Association for the Protection of Children in Cameroon, and offer startup packages and development assistance for young entrepreneurs in local communities to develop social businesses. However, we have come to the realization that in order to prevent a future relapse into violence, and to prevent young people’s engagement with warring organizations such as Boko Haram, peace education is essential.
Consequently, we designed a peace education curriculum that we have taken to public schools in the region. Those who have been trained formally in peace education have volunteered and taken their skills to internally displaced persons and refugee camps. Under the shade of trees, young boys and girls from formal institutions interact and share their experiences with their peers in local languages and encourage parents to send their children to school in other to reduce their vulnerability.
Peer to Peer Engagement in Countering Violence
The challenges have been enormous. One challenge is the idea spread by radical Jihadists that western education and civilization is haram (sin). Then there are the worries that coworkers could step on a mine or be tortured or murdered if captured by terrorists. Furthermore, the conservative nature of some Muslim leaders in the region to adopt an idea different from their own has slowed our work.
Our work tries to remove the root causes of radicalization among young people and establish safe spaces for them to receive psycho-social support. Despite the challenges of Boko Haram’s politicization of Islam and its use to spread hate, intolerance, and violence among young people in Kolofata, I believe our success lies in the few brave young peacebuilders who understand that we cannot possibly have dialogue until we recognize each other’s human dignity and respect each other. These young peacebuilders preach and create peace initiatives. They engage in open debate and dialogue to debunk extreme ideology and encourage the tolerance or acceptance of the “other”. 4
Young people want to be involved in peacebuilding efforts. We can teach our youth to be advocates of peace by involving them directly in peace processes, and celebrating and rewarding nonviolence.
1 UNESCO: constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, London, UK. UNESCO, adopted on the 16 November,1945.
2 Annual reports of the Sub Divisional Inspectorate of Basic and Secondary Education for Kolofata from 2007-2014 school years.
3 Interview with Mr. Souleymanou, Regional Delegate of Basic Education for the Far North Region of Cameroon.
4 The “other” here is the one who is not them, or like them.