U.S. Army civil affairs soldiers are using education as a means to deter Boko Haram, the ISIS affiliated terror group in Central and East Africa.
Dressed in civilian clothes as a force protection measure, civil affairs soldiers from Task Force Toccoa, a 101st Airborne Division-led unit based in northern Cameroon, are tasked with engaging locals to build partnerships and improve services, such as education, according to the U.S. Army.
The Army has had a non-combat presence in Cameroon since 2015, supporting the West African nation’s efforts to defeat Boko Haram. The four-soldier Team 8321 from the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion's Bravo Company arrived in Cameroon two months ago in support of that mission.
"By improving the government's ability to provide basic essential services to the local population, it decreases the population's willingness to turn to some other non-state actor that could provide those things to them," said Sgt. 1st Class Sean Acosta, the NCO in charge of the team.
Last week, Acosta and his team gathered with concerned villagers, teachers and students at a school in northern Cameroon to distribute school supplies, while hearing from locals of the issues faced by the children.
"Together with your government we'll come up with a plan to help," Acosta, 32, told the villagers as they from 100-degree heat under a trees shade near the school. "We may not be able to fix everything, but we'd like to start trying to fix some things."
The meeting came after the Army team toured the cramped classrooms with minimal shelter and no electricity nor plumbing. "It's by far the worst school we've seen here in Cameroon," Acosta said. "There's no hard structure at all." There is no potable water at the school, so students often travel home during breaks and don’t return.
Cameroonian Col. Barthelemy Tsilla, commander of the air base nearby in Garoua, Cameroon, referred to the lack of quality and accessible education as a contributing factor in the growth of Boko Haram in the region. "If a lot of children were involved in education, they would know what is good or bad and would think for themselves," he said.
Tsilla is currently in charge of a fighter unit air-to-ground combat missions against Boko Haram. "To fight against Boko Haram is to go first by arms, bombs and so on," he said, "but the most important [way to fight] is the education of people who understand a better life."
Beyond donating supplies, Army civil affairs is working with Cameroon’s education officials to improve education throughout the region.
"Everywhere you go in Cameroon, there are going to be issues," Acosta said. "By prioritizing them, it helps us see which areas we're going to help the most and which areas we can do the most for with the least amount of resources."
Acosta himself has four girls between the ages of 4 and 9 back home in the U.S. "On a personal level, it's very enriching to be able to go out and assist these kids," he said. "I look at the young girls and it reminds me immediately of my four girls back at home."
Originally linked with Al-Qaeda in 2002, the now ISIS-loyal Boko Haram has spread from northeastern Nigeria to Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Boko Haram has carried out multiple suicide bombings in the city of Maroua, roughly 100 miles away. Thirty-seven foreigners have been kidnapped in the northern regions of Cameroon since 2013, according to the U.S. State Department, and a travel warning remains in effect.
The 85th Civil Affairs Brigade is based out of the Army III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.