Is Poverty the Root Cause of Boko Haram Violence?

The notion that poverty is the main cause of terrorism and insurgency is one of the most contentious ideas in global security studies. Those on the left tend to emphasize the connection between violence and the lack of development, while those on the right tend to deny or at least minimize it.

Nigeria Political Violence MapIn recent weeks, this debate has turned to the brutal extremist group known as Boko Haram, based in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. In early May, 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained the growth of Boko Haram by observing that, “much of this challenge comes out of this poverty where young people are grabbed at an early stage, proffered a little bit of money…” Other sources describe the relationship in more straightforward terms. An article in the Huffington Post, following a report from the International Crisis Group, claims that, “simply put, the militants have been doing so well because some parts of Nigeria have been doing so poorly.” A recent New York Times editorial echoed this idea, although it emphasized corruption as much as poverty.  Spiegel International similarly stressed the “struggle over scarce resources [that] only exacerbates existing ethnic and religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims.”

Most articles explaining Boko Haram in economic terms portray the situation in broad geographical brush-strokes, mentioning simply the poverty of northern Nigeria, but some are more specific. An Al Jazeera report, for example, discusses the desiccation of Lake Chad in the northeastern corner of the country, noting also that “Boko Haram has emerged in the poorest part of Nigeria, where 71.5 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty and more than half are malnourished.” Similarly, Reuters reports that “Borno has some of the lowest economic indicators in the country, and investors shun the state because of poor security.”

More conservative sources challenge this interpretation, stressing the fact that many terrorist have come from privileged backgrounds and highlighting academic studies have failed to find a firm causal connection between poverty and terrorism. The headline in a 2010 Spectator article, for example, insisted that “POVERTY DOES NOT CAUSE TERRORISM: The canard that ‘crushing’ poverty does cause it just won’t die.” Some Nigerian reports also deny the linkage. A recent News 24 article, for example, places the blame for Boko Haram primarily on mercenaries from Niger, while asserting that “people die out of poverty; they do not kill out of poverty.”

My own tendency is to distrust any simple, single “root cause” explanation for just about anything, as most problems are complex and stem from multiple lines of causation. Overall, the evidence indicates that poverty in itself does not generate terrorism or any other form of political violence, just as it shows that ferocious extremism can take root in relatively affluent social environments. But that said, poverty can exacerbate tensions, and in so doing contribute to the problem. Whether or not it does so and to what degree, however, are empirical issues that need to be examined afresh in each particular situation. At the global scale, blanket statements about economic “root causes” tend to obscure rather than clarify the analysis.

Nigeria per capita GDP mapTo begin to address the purported linkage between Boko Haram and poverty, we therefore need to investigate the geography of development in northern Nigeria. In doing so, we are hampered by the lack of quality data, and as a result the following analysis must be regarded as tentative. Yet it is clear that northern Nigeria is a deeply impoverished place, having experienced much less social and economic development than the still-poor southern third of the country. But Boko Haram is not a “northern Nigerian” organization; rather, it is based in the northeastern corner of the country. The central question is thus whether Borno State in the northeast is a particularly deprived part of Nigeria. To address this question I have assembled a number of economic and social-developmental maps of the country, which allow the comparison of Borno with the rest of northern Nigeria as well as with the rest of the country at large.

To begin the analysis, I created a map of per capita GDP (PPP) by state in Nigeria, as none were readily available on-line. As can be seen, the economic division between the mostly Christian far south and the heavily Muslim north is fairly stark. But Borno, highlighted on the map, is far from the country’s least economically developed state; significantly lower production figures are encountered in relatively peaceful Jigawa and Kebbi states, and figures similar to that of Borno are found in some states of the south.

Nigeria Poverty Map 3GDP, however, is often a poor indicator of relative deprivation, as it tells us nothing about the distribution of wealth. Nigerian economic data, moreover, are not particularly trustworthy. I have therefore found a variety of additional maps, made by other researchers, that can help elucidate the situation. Several of these maps indicate entrenched poverty across all or at least much of Borno, as can be Nigeria Poverty Map 4seen in Figures 3 and 4. Other studies, however, came to very different conclusions; Figures 5 and 6, for example, indicate Nigeria Poverty Map 5athat Borno is relatively well off when compared with the rest of northern Nigeria (although figure 6 is quite dated). Some studies of specific aspects of Nigeria Poverty map 6development have come to similar conclusions. A Columbia University project Nigeria Drinking Water Map(Figure 7), for example, determined that in regard to safe drinking water—a key developmental indicator—Borno stands at a higher level than most of the states of southern Nigeria. Studies of childhood malnutrition and Nigeria Malnutrition Mapsstunting (Figure 8), on the other hand, place Borno at a lower level of social development than southern Nigeria, but still show it as suffering less deprivation than relatively peaceful areas in northwestern Nigeria.

Nigeria Poverty Map 9The most visually striking map of poverty on Nigeria (Figure 9) indicates that at least the core area of Borno has significantly less extreme poverty than north-central Nigeria. This map even places Borno in a higher category than much of the southeast. The methodology used to create this map is impressive, as is can been seen in the accompanying description:

In brief, GPS located national household survey data were obtained through either the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program or the Living Standards Measurement Study (LSMS) program and either $1.25 and $2 a day consumption-based poverty metrics or the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) were calculated for each survey cluster. A Bayesian geostatistical modeling framework, following approaches constructed for the Malaria Atlas Project was then established to exploit spatiotemporal relationships within the data, leverage ancillary information from an extensive set of covariates, and rigorously handle uncertainties at all stages to generate robust output surfaces with accompanying confidence intervals. The figures below show example outputs for Nigeria, and further outputs can be found at

Nigeria Poverty Map 10Sophisticated Bayesian geostatistical modeling, however, does not necessarily ensure accurate results, as regular readers of GeoCurrents have seen in regard to historical linguistics. Be that as it may, this map does seem to be one of the better geographical representations of poverty in Nigeria. I am also impressed by the authors’ inclusion of an “accuracy map” of their own study. As can be seen here (Figure 10), northeastern Nigeria does falls into the zone of low confidence.

The information found in these various poverty maps of Nigeria tends to be inconsistent, perhaps indicating that the entire endeavor is pointless. On balance, however, I do think that we can tentatively conclude that Borno is not the poorest or least developed part of Nigeria. If poverty were the ultimate cause of extremist violence in northern Nigeria, we would expect such a movement to develop not in Borno but rather further to the west. It thus seems likely that Boko Haram’s extremism stems from a variety of factors rather than simply being rooted in social and economic deprivation. Some of these additional factors will be considered in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post.


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