How does relative deprivation theory apply to the BOKO HARAM -Nigeria Conflict?

This essay examines how Ted Gurr’s relative deprivation theory applies in the context of the Boko Haram conflict. The text that the article is centrally focused on is Rummel’s chapter on Frustration Deprivation, Aggression and the conflict Helix. The essay begins by surveying the political and social conditions of Nigeria which has served as a catalyst to the rise of the Boko Haram extremist militant group. The essay then briefly evaluates the case of Boko Haram by applying the theory of relative deprivation. The essay also utilizes James Davies’s theory of revolution (often cited as Davies J curve) in its analysis.

Understanding Nigeria and the reasons for the rise of Boko Haram

Despite possessing a rich array of natural resources which includes lucrative crude oil, Nigeria has not been able to rise as a regional economic powerhouse. Ngwodo (2010) a socio-political analyst of Nigeria, cites the “seething mass of illiteracy, misery, poverty and beggary” as rampant in Northern Nigeria. He goes on to say that “While Nigeria generally scores very poorly on every index of human development, Northern Nigeria sinks below the abysmal national average to the extent that a child born in the northwest or in the northeast is likely to have a lower quality of life than a compatriot born in the southwest or southeast.” The international NGO Freedom House (2016) in a country report on Nigeria cites positive improvements in the state of democracy in recent years but underscores this by saying: “Nevertheless, the security situation in northeastern Nigeria remained grave throughout 2015, as Boko Haram carried out guerilla-style attacks and suicide bombings against civilian and government targets. In addition, reports from domestic and international advocacy groups indicated that government forces continued to commit gross human rights violations with impunity, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary mass arrests, illegal detentions, and torture of civilians.” In a backgrounder Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson (2015), highlight the fact that the Nigerian government is coming under increasing strain due to the activities of the militant group. “More than ten thousand people have been killed in Boko Haram-related violence, and 1.5 million have been displaced. Some experts view the group as an armed revolt against government corruption, abusive security forces, and widening regional economic disparity” (Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, 2015).

Commenting on the rise of the group to the United States institute of Peace, Andrew Walker claims that “The main goal of Boko Haram Stems from their persuasion about the corruption and falsehood of northern political authorities, when they aim at the creation of the Islamic State with pure Shariah Law which shall substitute current Nigerian government” (Walker, 2012). Ngwodo considers “Boko Haram (as) an extremist group (which) transcends the traditional extremist victimization of Christians in pursuit of grander anarchic ambitions. Its war is with the Nigerian state and western education which it perceives as a vector of the corrupting influence of modernity. Its ultimate objective is some version of an Islamic state, preferably of 7th century vintage” (Ngwodo, 2010). Applying the conflict onion to the issue of Boko Haram; leads the author to consider the groups position to be that of challenging (with the intention of altering) the political structure of the state through military means. Its interests could be deliberated as that of removing all forms of western education and thought from Nigerian society and installing strict interpretation of Sharia Law. In terms of its needs however there can be significant ambiguity. Before the group broke apart into two segments (one that is focused on local grievances and another that is seeking regional expansion) the group’s main needs could be summed up as obtaining political power to fulfill the leaderships underlying interests. Because the group emerged in the relatively poorer region of Northern Nigeria one can also assume that addressing socio-political grievances of the Muslim community in the north can be another need of the group.

Applying the conflict tree (Another conflict analysis tool similar to that of conflict onion) suggests that the core problem (symbolized by the trunk of the tree) was the harsh military repression against members of the group in 2009. “In July 2009, Boko Haram members refused to follow a motorbike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that set off an armed uprising in the northern state of Bauchi and spread into the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano” (Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, 2015). Walker (2012) states that following the clashes between the police and state authority over this new law, “The group then attacked police stations in Bauchi and Yobe, killing scores of police officers. Yusuf released several video sermons in which he explicitly threatened the state and the police with violence.” In a Message by President Muhammadu Buhari on the third anniversary of the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls (April 14, 2017), the president stated: “Upon the inception of this administration in May 2015, it will be recalled that this militant group occupied no fewer than 14 Local Government Areas in the North East of the country and posed a serious threat to other parts by unleashing fear and mayhem through the use of surprise and suicide bombing….Today, the group has been degraded and is no longer in a position to mount any serious, coordinated attack, other than sporadic suicide attacks on soft targets. Even at that, their reach is very much confined to a small segment of the North East where they had previously held sway unchecked.”

Relative Deprivation theory

Gurr defines relative deprivation as an “actor’s perception of discrepancy between their value expectations and their value capabilities” (1970: 24). Runciman defined four conditions for an individual to feel relatively deprived:

“We can roughly say that [a person] is relatively deprived of X when

  • he does not have X,
  • he sees some other person or persons (possibly including himself at some previous or future time) as having X (whether or not that is or will be in fact the case),
  • he wants X, and
  • he sees it as feasible that he should have X” (Runciman, 1966:10).

Quoting studies conducted by the Yale group of psychologists in the 1930’s; Rummel’s book ‘understanding conflict and war’ suggests that the Yale group put forward the notion “aggression is always a consequence of frustration” (Rummel, 1977). What this implies is that there is a direct proportionality between the two variables. Although recent studies has debunked this belief it is still ‘operationally precise’ in that frustration does at times lead to aggression. Such a frustration emerges due to the relative deprivation felt by the aggrieved community. Such frustration is based on a subjective understanding of the relative deprivation as well as on benchmarks or “what we feel we ought to have” (Rummel, 1977).

Applying the Relative Deprivation theory

Solomon Ayegba contends that “To Gurr, violence and extremism like the Boko Haram insurgency in the North is a result of collective discontent caused by a sense of relative deprivation by the young people…” (2015: 92).

Distinctions between the North and South of Nigeria are stark. The Council of Foreign Affairs notes that “Despite a per capita income of more than $2,700 and vast wealth in natural resources, Nigeria has one of the world’s poorest populations. An estimated 61 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Economic disparities between the North and the rest of the country are particularly stark. In the North, 72 percent of people live in poverty, compared to 27 percent in the South and 35 percent in the Niger Delta” (Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, 2015).

The people of the North feel discriminated, estranged and isolated from the government because of many variables such as religious differences.  Differences in relative standard of living also play a significant part in the perceived sense of deprivation among the people of the North. Moreover the south possesses the greatest share of oil reserves and its urban metropolitan development is in stark contrast to that of the North. One can adduce that such relative deprivations have a role in the emergence of the group.

“Harnischfeger  considers  the  poverty,  high  unemployment  rates and  overall  socio – economic  situation  of  the region as the reason for youth joining Boko Haram ́s rebellion and quotes the US Department  Officer, who said that instead of religion being the root of violence, it is  ‘the  underlying  political and social economic problems in the north’ causing instability” (as cited in Vybíralová, 2016). Added to this economic divergence, “Grievances  in  regards  to  Insufficient political  participation  and governmental failures  seem  to  dominate  Boko  Haram  discourse,  together  with  its  anti-Western  rhetoric. Boko Haram criticizes high levels of corruption and “Western orientation” causing the economic crisis in Nigeria on a long -Term – basis” (Vybíralová, 2016).

Writing to the Huffington Post Ambassador John Campbell says that “broad differences between North and South are a Nigerian historical, political and religious reality, and, as such, the distinction between the two provides a legitimate analytical lens”(n.a). Lack of industrialization and adequate investment has contributed to the stagnant growth in the North. Ngwodo (2010) notes that “Millions of unschooled and unskilled able-bodied young men reside in our cities and towns (in the North) and provide a ready pool of malcontents for extremist recruitment. Even among the educated unemployed, the crisis of unemployment in Nigeria where 40 million youths are jobless makes them vulnerable to sectarian preachments. Into this breach, groups like Boko Haram enter offering a theological framework of social analysis: rampant poverty and existential meaninglessness emanate from the Nigerian state and its unislamic provenance; from the presence of western education and the intrusion of modernity into an Islamic society”.

Therefore the case of relative deprivation can be explicated using Runciman’s variables as follows:

  • The lack of economic development and growth in the North has resulted in the Northern Nigerian people having grievances and frustration
  • Those of the North believe that the south has better privileges and standards of living in comparison to the North.
  • They require employment opportunities, investment and political access and political power from the central administration

(One can draw a parallel to the Acceptance needs and Security needs that are discussed by E. Azar under his basic human needs variable in the Protracted Social Conflict theory; see Azar, 1990).

  • Unable to utilize a platform to voice their grievances and incapable of effectively altering their status; the people of the north are influenced to join the Boko haram group as it imparts a sense of purpose and mission as “warriors for the cause of God ordained to cleanse the society of moral impurities and establish an alternate order” (Ngwodo, 2010).

Rummel lays greater stress on the importance of “subjective feeling of deprivation” when considering the overall theory of relative deprivation. He argues that contrary to the simplistic definition of relative deprivation as the disparity between what we want and what we get; we should understand the subjectivity of relative deprivation and its relationship to the variables of frustration and aggression. Thus he circumvents this reductionist matter by underscoring that “relative deprivation is the “gap between just wants and expected want satisfaction” (Rummel, 1977).

Nigeria is a good example to prove this notion. Many in the north believed in just wants such as greater political accessibility, effective addressing of grievances, employment opportunities, greater infrastructure development etc. to standards that have been met in the South.  This want was just because it was based on a subjective comprehension of the development of the South. Thus this was the expected level of want satisfaction. This however was not achieved and the religious ideology of Boko Haram was able to lure the youth and unemployed to violent means against the state. Thus the correlation between the inability to satisfy just wants satisfactorily and the tendency to resort to violence due to the buildup of aggression can be clearly elucidated in the case of Nigeria.

Alternative conceptual models

Human needs theorists such as John Burton (Basic human needs theory) and Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs theory) would argue that one of the primary causes of the protracted conflicts in Nigeria is the people’s drive to meet their unmet needs. Nonetheless, in this paper instead of a focus on human needs, I intend to use the J Curve. Davies’s J curve is a model that can be utilized to further examine the case of the Boko Haram in Nigeria and its emergence. His model, denoted below (Davies, 1962: 6):


emphasizes the difference between expected need satisfaction and the actual need satisfaction. According to him “Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal” (Davies, 1962:5). As the lower line begins to dip (because of an economic downturn), the gap between what is tolerable and what is expected increases to a level where revolutions or social upheavals may take place. While he acknowledges that “It is the dissatisfied state of mind rather than the tangible provision of “adequate” or “inadequate” supplies of food, equality, or liberty which produces the revolution” the most important feature one can glean from this model is that yet again it shows a subjective perception of relative deprivation that results in ‘revolution’. Unlike Rummel or Runciman, Davies does not directly draw causality between groups in the same country but the model can be applied in this case as well.

Thus applying Davies’s theory categorically demonstrates how the intolerable gap between the expected needs of the North and the inability to achieve them to a level similar to the south resulted in many from the North to move towards the Boko Haram. This does not imply that the theory of relative deprivation or Davies’s model enables us to conclusively point to the fundamental reason behind the emergence of the militant group. However it allows us to comprehend why citizens still join the group and engage in armed rebellion against the government of Nigeria.

 While I accept the notion that many reasons played a part in the growing membership rates of the Boko Haram this papers intention was to focus centrally on Rummel’s views of relative deprivation by Gurr and draw a brief analysis on the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

                                                                                                      SHAKTHI DE SILVA


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