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Home » Economic Geography, Geopolitics, Insurgencies, Sub-Saharan Africa

Is Poverty the Root Cause of Boko Haram Violence?

Submitted by on June 2, 2014 – 12:36 pm 14 Comments |  
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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  • Steve

    I think the point is that poverty creates a network of support for terrorism. There are lunatics and radicals of some persuasion everywhere, sometimes from privileged backgrounds – a lunatic with loyal followers, however, usually requires extraordinary circumstances or a protracted predicament, which may not be “poverty” per se, but often is, particularly when compounded by a lack of access to education.

    Of course, there are other factors, like ancient ethnic rivalries, disputes for land exacerbated by an inefficient judicial/political framework, etc., which go beyond the simple religious and military issues that most journalists focus on.

    In some respects, I think the dynamics of “terrorism” there are similar to the recurring emergence of populist tyrants in other areas (like here in Latin America), namely an alliance of some affluent groups with vested interests or simply a few axes to grind (ethnic nationalism, religion and land, in this case) and the destitute or humiliated masses that either support them or just play along.

    Also, “poverty” as a cause of violence is a matter of perception: places where violent rebellions break out are often among the richest in a given country – but maybe “the poorest of the rich”, or a relatively rich state/province that has started to stall or slip but not quite yet to a really low level of development. Again, as I can attest from an example that is familiar to me, this happened quite a few times here in Conosur where rich provinces/states where the elite felt slighted were always the ones to start bloody civil wars; and, interestingly, it happened before in Nigeria itself, in the Biafran War that is at the root of much of the North/South violence there.

    • Thanks for the insightful comments. I especially agree with your statement, “Of course, there are other factors.” That to me is the key: these situations are almost always quite complex.

  • Lovely maps and a thoughtful discussion as always. Let me add an unscientific observation coming from having lived in Algiers and Australia and briefly visited Nigeria, Venezuela and Brazil.

    I think we’re still feeling the ripple effect of colonialism. At issue is the real effect Colonial powers had in Africa and S America. I see a combination of misinformation and a political agenda that overstate Colonial powers’ influence (we did go there to drag them out of the Dark Ages didn’t we? oh and we made a little money on the side too…).

    I think we fail to realise how little influence colonists had in those continents, which is very restricted indeed for these reasons:
    a) only coastal strips and small areas around mines and rivers etc. were occupied to any extent by colonists (where they were more widespread like E African cotton and beef, colonists were very thin on the ground indeed).
    b) only commerce and missions were the incentive to interact with local populations, so ‘the other 99%’ 19c.-style were largely left unattended
    c) only areas that returned significant revenue or political influence we given any attention.

    IOW vast swathes of both continents were left untouched, and it would be a neat GIS mapping exercise to derive that percentage (one idea that cannot be extended into the past, is to map night lights as an indicator of human industrial activity).

    IOW2 the entire ‘back country’ – likely in the 75 to 95% total area – was left untouched by western influence. I’d argue that those areas still operate under pre-colonial, never mind pre-democratic rules. As a consequence, Boko Haram, Somali rebels and FARC are no surprise to me in fact.

    The west better wake up to the fact that we are the minority not the majority, and no amount of armament or political ‘influence’ will let us prevail until we realise the magnitude of the task and the balance of population.

    • Ygor Coelho Soares

      Well, it is very heard to argue that colonialism had “little influence” in many places of South America, like Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

      DNA studies show around 70% of Brazilians’ ancestrality comes from European settlers (even if that doesn’t always show in the people’s phenotypes), 47% of the population self-declares as White, and it is fair to argue that the entire civilization that permeates the whole (huge) country is entirely different from the one that existed before (even the African influence is certainly a long-term effect of intense colonialism). There are Portuguese colonial cities from the Amazon to the Pampas, more than 700,000 of them came to Brazil between 1530 and 1820 to the point that the Portuguese authorities had to control some of that emigration (by comparison, about 400,000 Europeans went to the US in its colonial era), and the Lusitanian cultural institutions certainly prevailed in an adapted form. I think your traveling experiences in South America must have really been very brief.

      • thx for the details, agreed that Brazil has had more colonial influence but it is atypical even of the rest of S America never mind Africa. My only point was that we tend to look at it with colonists eyes (I’m European myself) from the outside in, but looking at it from the inside out gives a different perspective. Living however briefly in the Middle East certainly highlighted the relevance of differing viewpoints, and ISIS symbolically destroying the border post along the Sykes-Picot lines tells what local people feel about external influences.

        • Ygor Coelho Soares

          I see. Your point is valid and interesting, though it must be taken with a “grain of salt” in many parts of the world, especially the Americas, which underwent a much more intense and long process of colonialism than the rest of the non-European world (Africa and Asia were really colonized beyond a few port cities only from the late 18th century on, and never with mass European immigration, except perhaps for South Africa). Indeed, the perspective on those peoples and their histories could benefit a lot if it were less eurocentric both for their positive as well as for their negative aspects, because many of the roots of those countries’ current issues can certainly be found, at least partially, in structures, traditions and situations that are pre-colonial or at least were not created by the colonists.

    • Northeastern Nigeria was indeed relatively lightly impacted by colonialism — much less than the southeast.

  • Peter Rosa

    What might be more significant than economic status is the fact that Borno is not far from unstable Chad and the less-developed northern part of Cameroon.

  • I believe there are many more factors to take into account: population density, law enforcement, distance to relative wealth etc. but also physical features of the landscape and infrastructure just to name a few…

  • Wakeel Abiola


    I must say that I really, really enjoyed this post. I am a Nigerian, have lived in Nigeria for most of my life, and I believe that I am in a position to provide a different point of view.

    While the economic situation is Borno State plays a role in the continued presence of the insurgency, it is not the only or even one of the most important reasons for Boko Haram’s existence. The insurgency exists because of a perfect storm of political, economic, geographic, social and environmental factors. I will be so bold as to say that the spark that caused the insurgency to start in Borno State was the political one. I will discuss the political reasons in this post- if you think I have something to contribute to this conversation, I will put forward my opinions on the other factors.

    This will be a long post, so please bear with me. I will take each of the causes one by one, but I must state that I am just a moderately politically aware Nigerian from the southwestern part of the country. This is just my opinion- take it for what it is.


    Right now, the current president of Nigeria- President Goodluck Jonathan is from Bayelsa State in the far-south and oil rich Niger Delta. H is the first person from that area to hold that position as power has traditionally stayed with the Northeastern, Northwestern and Southwestern regions. These regions are populated by the Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri and Yoruba ethnic groups. The oil (which is the mainstay of the Nigerian Economy and the major source of wealth for Nigeria’s corrupt elite) is all in the Niger Delta region.

    Over the years (since the 70’s) successive Nigerian regimes have allocated oil blocs and oil wells to their cronies and supporters in the Northern and Western parts of the country while systematically shutting out Nigerians from the oil producing areas. As a result of this decades-long policy, the vast majority of the oil wealth is in the hands of a few people who are from areas of the country that do not produce oil. This has lead to resentment from The southeast and the Niger Delta region.

    The current president (remember he is from the Niger Delta region) has taken steps to change this state of affairs, much to the anger of the old boy’s club who hold the oil wells. He seeks to create and extend a class of cronies who owe their fortunes to him and to reduce the marginalization of his people. One of the ways he has chosen to do this is by refusing to re-allocate oil wells with expired leases to the old Northern and Western elite who held them.

    This has understandably enraged the elite and has caused them to resort to a large number of political methods to remove the president (or force his resignation) and replace him with someone more amenable to their interests. All of these attempts have failed. After the coming elections (slated for 2015), a huge number of oil well leases will be up for re-allocation. Whichever group of elites (northeast, northwest and western vs. southeast and Niger Delta) control the President will determine the makeup of the Nigerian Elite for the next generation.

    As you can see, the stakes are extremely high, and it is because of this that the Northeastern and Northwestern elite (who failed to leverage their hold on the oil wells and diversify their holdings), in desperation, decided to fund an insurgency. The idea is to sap the will of the President to remain in office or, if that fails, reduce his credibility and the faith of the common Nigerians in the ability of the Southeastern and Niger Delta elite to govern the country.

    In short- they want to put a Pro-Northern politician or figure in power to protect their economic interests. The damage to the people of the northeast is irrelevant so long as the end goal is achieved.

    This is my analysis of the political factors behind Boko Haram. My name is Abdulwakeel Abiola, and I hope you have found this an interesting read. If you would like to reach me, my email address is [email protected]

    • D. Schwartz

      What evidence is there that supports this funding stream to Boko Haram?

  • pmgash..