In the poverty-stricken far north of Cameroon, the priority is the fight against the Nigerian militants of Boko Haram, but experts say a growing humanitarian crisis also needs urgent attention.
Chased from their strongholds in northeast Nigeria by a multi-national army offensive, the insurgents of Boko Haram have increased the tempo of suicide attacks and bloody raids on neighbouring Cameroon despite the deployment of a huge military contingent along the border.
“Since early 2015, there’s been an intensification of attacks by Boko Haram that have had catastrophic consequences for the whole region,” said Najat Rochdi, UN aid coordinator for Cameroon.
In the town of Maroua, capital of the Far North region, a huge military presence has been deployed in a bid to stem the jihadists’ attacks.
Enjoying the last of the greenery as the dry season takes hold, locals try to lead normal lives in a town where motorbikes and mopeds fill the dusty roads and a few 4X4s pick their way through the potholes.
But a humanitarian crisis is building.
“Make no mistake — Maroua is slowing down,” said a local NGO worker. “The whole local economy is a disaster.”
The far north combines one of the biggest populations in Cameroon with some of its most inhospitable conditions — a semi-arid, Sahel desert climate with little infrastructure and few jobs or schools.
“This region has been abandoned by the government in the south for years,” said the NGO worker.
Most eke a living as small-scale farmers or artisans, but the violence is taking its toll. Whatever tourism existed has evaporated.
“The closure of the border with Nigeria has literally suffocated an already very weak economy,” said Rochdi.
Prices for basic items have spiked, and markets are shutting down.
“Near the border, farmers are no longer able to work, their cattle are stolen or even abandoned, villages are deserted, unemployment is through the roof,” Rochdi added.
– Roots of radicalisation –
The local economy has also been hit by slowing traffic along the road from N’Djamena, a vital artery that cuts through the length of Cameroon and up to Chad.
The last figures from the UN show the region was hosting nearly 60,000 Nigerian refugees, almost all (49,000) in a single camp in Minawao.
There are also 92,000 internally displaced Cameroonians — most of whom fled the violence along the border, but also others affected by recent floods.
The UN says the number of people facing food insecurity has leapt from 900,000 to two million.
“The entire social cohesion of the area is threatened, creating fertile ground for recruitment by Boko Haram,” Rochdi said.
“The root of radicalisation here is not jihadist, it’s economic and social. It’s the desperation and poverty that throws people into the arms of Boko Haram,” she said, adding that there needed to be a greater focus on humanitarian aid and not just security issues.
That means seed programmes and support for local markets, social programmes and conflict prevention, she said.
Visiting the region last week, France’s minister for the French-speaking world, Annick Girardin, supported that view.
“We must support the NGOs, bring back economic activity to this region,” she said.
“The fight against Boko Haram requires a real assessment of the economic failure of this region and support for the young,” she said.