How the Case of Boko Haram Confirms Fearon and Laitin

The case of Boko Haram directly mirrors many of the factors James Fearon and David Laitin outline about their theories about civil war and conditions for insurgencies. By Fearon and Laitin’s standards, Boko Haram is certainly a “small, lightly armed band practicing guerrilla warfare from rural base areas” (Fearon and Laitin 1). They outline conditions that today we can see in Nigeria that foster the development of Boko Haram. Poverty, a large population, and instability all contribute to Boko Haram’s rise as a radical terrorist group. Boko Haram reins its influence on the Northern states of Nigeria, where the terrain is familiar to them and they have targeted both civilians and the army. They have been able to target the military and government structures because of the lack of stability in those institutions. As Fearon and Laitin contend, “insurgents are better able to survive and prosper if the government and military they oppose are relatively weak—badly financed, organizationally inept, corrupt, politically divided and poorly informed about the goings-on at the local level” (Fearon and Laitin 4). This is the case in Nigeria, where the population is the largest on the continent, and the country falls victim to the so-called “resource curse,” where it has a wealth of oil but lack of civilian profit. These factors have led to government corruption and misrule, leaving gaps in security for Boko Haram to attack. Not to mention civilian unrest and mistrust of the government allows for easier recruiting for the radical group.

A main point that Fearon and Laitin assert in their analysis of insurgencies is that we cannot attribute ethic differences as the sole reason why groups like Boko Haram arise and survive. Boko Haram is an extremist group so radical it often attacks other Muslims, “and even mosques” (O’Neil 774). As Farouk Chothia states, Boko Haram “regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president” (Chothia). These facts show that religious labels give no indication to the “sides” in this ongoing conflict. The complexities of the different sects of religions cannot be a simplistic explanation for the rise of groups like Boko Haram. Fearon, Laitin, and O’Neil will all admit ethic tensions surely play a role in these conflicts, though “grievances and ethic differences are too common to help distinguish the countries and years that see civil wars” (Fearon and Laitin 6). Fearon and Laitin will assert that political ideals, economic factors, terrain, funding practices, and environment all add complexities to these conflicts that cannot be overlooked.

Overall, Fearon and Laitin give insights that are reflected in countries like Nigeria that are unfortunate recipes for domestic conflict. Poverty, population size, and instability are probable indicators of conditions that foster insurgencies, whereas ethnic and religious differences are too simplistic a reason to supplement a civil war.


Works Cited:

Chothia, Farouk. “Who Are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists? – BBC News.” BBC News. BBC News4, 4 May 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

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

O’Neil, Patrick S. Cases in Comparative Politics. 5th ed. W W Norton and Company, Inc, 2015. Print.


11 thoughts on “How the Case of Boko Haram Confirms Fearon and Laitin

  1. While the author’s recite the textbook formula for the Boko Haram insurgency, they overlook the direct influence and active importation of radical islam from existing groups like Al Queda and ISIS. These organizations actively participate in fostering the tactics and sentiments of Boko Haram. Unless this new dimension is taken into account, we will never truly expain or understand this insurgency and others like it.

    • Considering recent events, dialogues like this seem more and more critical to have with every passing week. By showing how instability and other political or economic factors leads to insurgencies and domestic conflict instead of religious ideology, Fearon and Laitin make it clear to us that we cannot broadly condemn large groups of people because of the actions of radical groups. It is problematic to lump all Muslims in with Boko Haram when they are attacking other Muslims themselves. Maybe the word “Muslim” is not as unifying a word as we thought. They are clearly not a homogenous population.

  2. This is a great analysis of the conflict between Boko Haram and other groups within Nigeria. The rise of Boko Haram and its radicalization can be explained by many factors that Fearon and Laitin describe, and Mary includes in her posyy. But at the same time, as Mary explains, ethnic conflict is not the only explanation for the conflict. This can be related to O’Neill’s ideational versus institutional explanations for state violence. For this case, there are ideational explanations, but there are many sects and levels of extremism to religion that other factors must be considered. This is where an institutional explanation comes in. In chapter 14 of Cases of Comparative Politics, O’Neill described Nigera as having a “rich tradition of activism and dissent” (O’Neill, 761). In addition to this culture of opinion and action, the government has failed to keep extremist groups and subsequent violence in check, as well as failed to establish itself as totally legitimate.

  3. Excellent analysis of the political and social reasons for the emergence and endurance of Boko Haram in Nigeria! Bringing to attention Fearon and Latitin’s distinction that we cannot attribute ethnic differences to explain the existence of radical groups such as Boko Haram was very crucial, particularly with recent actions of ISIS. To push this idea, many people ignorantly attribute ethnicity and or religion as a a primary explanation for violent groups in Africa and the Middle East. However, your analysis hits the head on the nail when you explain that the instability of the government and military, poverty levels and other political and social issues pave the way for radical and violent groups such as these to arise in weak democratic states.

  4. I find this explanation for the rise of Boko Haram to add an entirely new dimension to the coverage that has previously been given to them. Most of the news articles and TV reports that I have seen mainly discuss the religious and ethnic differences. They jump over the how and why of Boko Haram’s origins and actions sending audiences straight their violence. Today’s attacks in Senegal are covered only as violent, random attacks similarly portrayed to those in Paris last week. Fearon and Laitin provide in depth explanations that allow for a greater understanding of what drives groups like Boko Haram to arise. Their works inform the reader in greater detail and the extra information allows for a greater means to prevent future groups from arising. -(Mary’s Friend)

  5. I find your analysis of the arguments against attributing the conflict in Nigeria as purely ethnic and religious very compelling and well laid out. The arguments you pull from focus on the other key elements that contribute to the struggle in Nigeria, not just as assumption that this is one simple factor. This struggle encompasses geographical challenges, instability in the government, a “resource curse” that only makes the struggle with poverty for citizens worse. Boko Haram’s prevalence and strength cannot just be attributed to religion and ethnic conflict; they are so radical that they are terrorizing even those who belong to the same faith. They pull strength from fear, the poverty in the country, geographical advantages, a lack of education and residual negative effects of the colonization period, making this more of an institutional issue rather than purely cultural in nature. The religious nature of this conflict however cannot be ignored, but it would be inaccurate to point the blame on this conflict entirely.

  6. The case of Boko Haram, as stated above, directly mirrors the points made by Fearon and Laitin about insurgencies. Fearon and Laitin argue that factors for civil war do not deal with ethnic or religious characteristics, however, the factors are more focused on conditions that favor insurgency such as poverty, large populations, and political instability. In Nigeria, we see young men with not many options to succeed in life. They cannot get a good education due to the instability within their government, which in turn will lead to poverty in their life. The country has too large of a population(7th largest in the world), and therefore government cannot support all its people. Therefore, young men are looking for a way out, and Boko Haram gives them that ability.

  7. I completely agree with your anaylsis. There are many political and social reasons why many of the insurgences, civil wars, and terrorist attacks happen currently. Now a days people are quickly jumping to the excuse that certain religious groups are causing a lot of the attacks that we are seeing in the world around us, which is completely wrong. In my opinion I believe that people do this because they do not understand or even know about the social and political tensions that are occurring around the world in these other countries. Now there are some cases in which religious extremists do cause a lot of the problems but we can be blaming them completely for all of the bad things that are going on. Like you said, instability governments can be a major root cause to a lot of the problems that are going on in the world today because if a government cannot have a certain level of control over the violence that is happening in their own country, what is to say that they can stop it if it leaks out in the national stage.

  8. I agree with this analysis of the Boko Haram and how it relates the Fearon and Laitin piece. Clearly, from this case, we see that ethnic diversity is not necessarily the catalyst for civil war, seeing as the Boko Haram, a radical Muslim group, is attacking the government run by Muslims, calling them non-believers. Rather, a lack of stability and education fuels this insurgency. Due to high populations and a lack of schools, many families sent their children to schools run by the Boko Haram, which were really just a front in order to recruit young children to their cause. This perfectly exemplifies the problem laid out above. In a country with such political instability, the Boko Haram has not relied on ethnic diversity to power their insurgency, but rather, they have been able to exploit the numerous structural shortcomings to achieve their rise to power.

  9. I completely agree with the other comments that this is a very solid analysis on the rise and endurance on Boko Haram in Nigeria. The author points out that poverty, a large population, and political instability are all factors of how Boko Haram still continues to gain power. I especially appreciated her argument used against the idea that ethic differences are a major explanation of their power. Boko Haram has been known to attack mosques and other Muslims, as they do not believe these Muslims to be true believers. The author makes an excellent point when writing that because of this, there are no religious labels that can attribute to any “sides”. With this point she shows that simply saying that religious differences are the explanation for Boko Haram is certainly looking at the puzzle too simply; other explanations such as poverty, population size and political instability are all apart of the puzzle.

  10. Reading through the website post it’s easy to see that Fearon and Laitin’s argument is indeed proven by the case of Boko Haram. I think the biggest takeaway from this situation is how drastically different the the truth is from the common idea that Islam spawns violence, in this case Civil Wars. People who haven’t had the opportunity to analyze such cases on a deeper level than simply looking at the religious effects proceed to shape their opinions only on that factor. At first glance, the involvement of Islam as a cause of this Civil War seems like a completely satisfactory explanation, which, as a result, does not urge any reviewers of this case to dig deeper; thus, the majority is prevented from seeing the truth behind the real causes of the Boko Haram. Moreover, the anti-Islam stigma also contributes to blaming the religion. What makes it even worse, is that there is a “snowball” effect on how people view cases such as this one. After being shown one case that supports their bias against Islam, their bias then becomes bigger, and contributes to being more easily convinced the next time such a case appears, and so on.

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