To what extent does the case of Boko Haram confirm Fearon and Laitin’s argument?

The case of Boko Haram confirms Fearon’s argument that ethnic/religious divisions do not entirely account for civil conflict because of other economic and governmental factors which favor the organization’s insurgency. These conducive factors are the economic variables promoting the insurgency’s financial backing and the compulsion of youth populations. However, Fearon does not dismiss ethnic and religious tensions entirely. Nigeria embodies a nation where a majority of the territory has developed asymmetrically in terms of political involvement, economic prosperity, and access to education (Lamble). This geographic disparity between north and south has also been exacerbated by muslim/christian differences. However following Fearon’s research, the religious divide in Nigeria only motivates Boko, but does not act as the only explanation for their prominence (Fearon 87).

When looking at the root causes of civil conflict, Fearon found that measures of “objective grievance fare worse as predictors than economic variables” (Fearon 87). For Boko, the financing of their operations takes significant financial backing. Boko’s location near Lake Chad allows the organization to control the local fishing, rice, and pepper businesses along the Yobe river (Lamble). In this case, economic opportunity has allowed the “viability for insurgency” (Fearon 87). Boko is not present in areas where there is only desert (Lamble).

Even though Mohammed Yousef’s original motivation revolved around Islamic fundamentalism and associating Nigerian misrule with western influences, in order to gain more supporters the organization has co-opted youths by providing economic assistance (Lable). This movement to recruit young members confirms Fearon’s reason for insurgency by understanding lower per capita incomes and local knowledge (Fearon 90). Boko can easily recruit adolescent men when the “economic alternatives are worse” and the government remains unable to increase the economic growth of the northern region (Fearon 90). Since conflict has halted agriculture production and few job opportunities remain, many parents force their sons to join Boko out of economic necessity (Lable). Otherwise, northern citizens must face displacement and migration towards the southern region (Lable).

These rationales for Boko’s insurgency tie back to the Nigerian government’s insufficient legal and economic accountability for the northern region. According to Fearon, “weak central governments render insurgency more feasible and attractive due to weak local policing or inept and corrupt counterinsurgency practices” (Fearon 87). Hopefully Buhari’s strong hand and personal incentives to protect his northern homeland will quell Boko’s presence and spur more balanced development between the north and south.


Lamble, Lucy. Counting the Cost of the Boko Haram Crisis – Podcast. The Guardian: Global Development.

Fearon, James & David Laitin. 2003. “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War” American Political Science Review 97(1): 75-90.


7 thoughts on “To what extent does the case of Boko Haram confirm Fearon and Laitin’s argument?

  1. I agree with Xavier that an important reason Boko Haram has separated itself from other insurgencies around the world is their utilization and control of local markets (fishing, rice, pepper) and their effective recruiting methods. There are many weak states around the world with insurgencies but the reason only certain groups gain legitimate strength is financial support to maintain operations of the insurgency and having a constant influx of new recruits. We can attribute these same factors currently to ISIS. They have seized control of oil fields in Iraq and Syria and used social media to gain followers to make their Caliphate stronger. I believe this can become an important tactic to combatting these insurgencies. If we can focus on destroying their source of income and recruits, we may be able to reduce the power Boko Haram (or ISIS) and make them no different than any other failed insurgency around the world.
    – Dan Marano

    • I agree that a weak central government is a big factor in allowing the Boko Harem insurgency to thrive in Nigeria. One reason that Boko Harem has been successful in promoting insurgency could also be due to the fact that “the militants operate mainly in the north-east, where the terrain is also familiar to them”. Members of Boko Harem have a huge advantage over a weak government by having what Fearon and Laitin call “local knowledge”. By knowing and understanding what is going on in local communities, militants can keep track of what is going on and get rid of any people that speak against them before too many people turn against the Boko Harem. This is much more difficult for a weak government to combat as they do not have nearly enough resources to get to know “local knowledge” and try to know more information than the Boko Harem.

  2. I agree with the argument made by Xavier as well as the comments that followed. It is obvious that Boko Haram has been able to have success and legitimacy as an insurgency due to the fact they are very familiar with the territory and areas in which they operate. By knowing the lay of the land well, it makes it much easier to carry out coordinated acts of violence on specific targets. Also, I agree with Xavier that the primary reason they are successful is because they control many economic aspects and have a stable income due to their dominance they assert throughout Nigeria. Because of this, Boko Haram becomes very appealing for individuals to join in order to sustain a better financial income. These individuals who are joining Boko Haram might be doing so simply because they will be benefitting more economically. Therefore, the Nigerian government is doing a poor job of offering economic opportunities to its people in the northern region, where they feel the need to turn to an insurgency for a better living. As a result, I completely agree with Xavier that Boko Haram is able to have a consistent and powerful incentive for recruiting young members to join their insurgency, which helps with their continuous success and dominance. Finally, Boko Haram is able to essentially overpower a very weak government in Nigeria. The government aside from lacking in economic opportunities, also s lacks the necessary resources, motivation, or man power that Boko Haram has, making it an extremely difficult for the Nigerian “military” to put up a substantial fight.
    – Jon Naji

  3. Religion and the economy are intertwined, as you have stated above. As the economy plummets and citizens have no where else to turn, religion becomes a support system. This is not only for young men, but also for communities. Religion provides an outlet for people to gather in and draw from, both financially and emotionally. Ultimately, however, these groups are united under shared religious ideals.
    Though Boko Haram utilizes Islamism as a scapegoat for violence, it does not create this support system. As you stated, they do succeed in recruiting young men through economic incentives. These financial benefits serve as better recruiting methods than appealing to Muslim ideologies. Perhaps this is because Boko Haram is less religiously focused than they put forth. Despite emphasis on Islam, according to O’Neil many victims of their violence have been Muslim (O’Neil762). Here, then, the community Boko Haram has was not built primarily around shared ideology, but financial gain.
    As you have successfully argued, conflating religious/ethnic, and economic causes is a dangerous process. As the details are teased out, it becomes clear the true nature of such organizations, and in turn the true nature of violence. Though Boko Haram preaches their religion, their supporters are primarily gathered over economic circumstances, and so their violence cannot be construed as ethnic violence.

  4. The Nigerian government’s lack or organization has not only created the opportunity for Boko Haram to become an established organization, but weak state power has led to raids by the terrorist group on government installations for cash and weapons. Therefore, Boko Haram has gained momentum in more ways than one from Nigeria’s inept counter terrorist policies. Boko Haram also practices another characteristic Fearon and Laitin label onto insurgencies. The weak border presence around Nigeria allows terrorists to travel between nations with ease, eluding national forces and recruiting members from a wider range of individuals. Regional instability compliments the blurring of state borders. I think your analysis is strong and accurate. Boko Haram embodies Fearon and Laitin’s understanding of what an insurgency is and the factors that cause it.

  5. I agree with Xavier’s interpretation of the readings to explain Bokum Haram’s emergence (as my classmates have further explained). Both, Fearon and Laitin provide descriptions that enable us to better understand the mechanism of the organization, Boko Haram.

    I have reservations about the BCC article based on the simplification of the abduction of women being an ancient “Islamic” practice. The article should provide the foundations and/or annotations from which this claim (referencing violence to the religion’s identity) is made. I attempted to research empirical and historical evidence that supports this statement and only came across a sketchy website that explained this with Quran references that point to the acceptance of the sexual enslavement of women during war. I am not convinced. This goes back to our class theme of being cautious of cultural simplifications (perhaps it is because we discussed this in class that I’ve become really alert of instances where we may be falling into this trap!).

    Additionally, to further understand Islamic extremism as it is exemplified by Boku Haram, I wanted to clarify important points of distinction between this Northern Nigeria organization and the more widespread ISIS. Why does ISIS get more media coverage? Is it because ISIS is attacking Paris, a western society as oppose to Boku Haram’s routinely abductions, bombings, terrorism in Nigeria that is not widely covered by the media? Two of reasons that Daniel Swatchz from CBC news offers is 1. that there is a physical absence of videos in Nigeria which results in a lack of ‘real’ evidence for the rest of the world to see. 2. The Nigerian government lacks transparency in the Boku Haram attacks (which happen more consecutively than ISIS’) because it is in the state’s best interest NOT to showcase their lack of incompetence and real terror that their civilians face everyday. This helps to highlight Xavier’s point that “Nigerian government’s insufficient legal and economic accountability for the northern region”.

  6. I fully agree with the author’s examples on how Boko Haram confirms Fearon and Laitin’s argument, especially his point regarding how Boko Haram’s location has enabled them to flourish as an insurgency group. According to O’Neil, Nigeria has the 3rd largest population in the world, behind China and India. The BBC article “Who are Boko Haram Islamists” discusses that the President of Nigeria declared a State of Emergency in 2013 in three northern provinces, where Boko Haram was strongest, due to escalating violence and the government’s inability to restore order under regular law. The northern part of the state is also very far from the nation’s capital, therefore far away from the centralized government. It is also important to note that, not only is the Nigerian government extremely weak, but the state of Nigeria is also fairly new, only gaining independence from Britain in 1960. The large population and weak government in Nigeria, factors outlined by Fearon and Laitin, certainly create a climate more susceptible to insurgencies.

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