When Militias Provide Welfare: Lessons from Pakistan and Nigeria.” With Yelena Biberman, 2018, Political Science Quarterly 133(4): 695-727.

Militias are often noted and studied for their violent behavior towards civilians.  Still underexplored and poorly understood is their provision of welfare to local communities. Why do some militias provide welfare while others do not?  We argue that the timing of access to material resources plays an important role in the militia’s willingness and capacity to provide welfare.  While wealthy militias lack the incentives and poor militias lack the capacity to provide public goods, “nouveau riche” militias – which begin poor and acquire wealth later on – are most likely to provide welfare.  The empirical implications of the argument are explored with a structured comparison of six militias in Pakistan and Nigeria.  Our findings help to illuminate the broad range of militia behavior and bridge three burgeoning literatures – on militias, non-state welfare, and insurgent behavior in civil war.

Elite Competition, Social Movements, and Election Violence in Nigeria.” 2020/21, International Security 45(3): 40-78.

Election violence varies significantly within countries, yet how and why are undertheorized. Although existing scholarship has shown how national-level economic, institutional, and contextual factors increase a country’s risk for violence during elections, these studies cannot explain why elites organize election violence in some localities, but not others. An analysis of gubernatorial elections in Nigeria reveals the conditions under which elites recruit popular social movement actors for pre-election violence. Gubernatorial elections are intensely competitive when agreements between governors and local ruling party elites over the distribution of state patronage break down. To oust their rivals and consolidate power, elites recruit popular reformist groups for pre-election violence and voter mobilization. Conversely, when local ruling party elites are aligned over how state patronage is to be distributed, the election outcome is agreed to well in advance. In this scenario, there is little incentive to enlist social movement actors for violence. Case studies of the Ijaw Youth Council and Boko Haram provide empirical support for the argument. The theory and evidence help to explain subnational variation in election violence, the relationship between intraparty politics and violence during elections, and speak to broader questions about political order and violence.


“When Do Armed Groups Refuse to Carry Out Election Violence?” (Conditionally accepted at World Development)

Social science research on election violence shows that incumbents regularly turn to different nonstate armed groups to organize violence during elections, including ethnic militias, gangs, criminal organizations, and paramilitaries, among others. Less well known is the motivations of these different actors, what they seek to gain from election violence, and when they turn down incumbents’ overtures. From a practitioner perspective, understanding when armed groups supply election violence for incumbents is important because of the severe consequences of such acts, including economic hardship, forced displacement, damaged infrastructure, and costs to human life. The paper asks: under what conditions do armed groups agree or refuse to perpetrate election violence for incumbents? Drawing on most similar case studies of the Ijaw Youth Council and the O’odua People’s Congress, we find that internal armed group politics help to explain how these actors respond to incumbent governors’ demands for election violence. Specifically, groups divided by leadership rivalries agree to perpetrate election violence for incumbents whereas those with cohesive leadership refuse to do so. Leaders of rival factions accept money and arms from incumbents to try to eliminate their competitors, and in exchange, agree to organize violence during elections for their incumbent sponsors. In contrast, groups with cohesive leadership turn down incumbents’ overtures given the risks of cooptation and weakened community support. The findings contribute to our understanding of how election violence is co-produced by elites and nonstate armed groups by explaining the motivations and decisions of the latter. More broadly, the paper speaks to larger questions about security challenges in developing democracies. The findings also point to policy implications and interventions to disincentivize armed groups from engaging in election violence on behalf of political elites.

“When Governments Tolerate or Repress Armed Groups: Evidence from Nigeria (Under review)

Why do national-level incumbents tolerate some armed groups but repress others?  Existing scholarship has shown that governments willingly cede control over violence to ethnic militias, criminal organizations, vigilantes, and other armed groups, but we have a limited understanding of the individual decision-making calculus that drives these dynamics and how these calculations vary over time and across groups.  The paper argues that two variables help to make sense of national-level incumbent responses to armed groups: armed groups’ relationship with local elite allies and their legitimacy with local populations.  It studies the Bakassi Boys and the Ijaw Youth Council in Nigeria, tracing changes in national-level incumbent responses over time to create most similar cases, and comparing responses across groups as most different cases.  The findings contribute to scholarly understanding of the micro-level dynamics of government responses to armed groups, complementing previous work that has focused on international and national-level contextual factors. 

“Can Americans Depolarize? Assessing the Effects of a Red/Blue Workshop Experiment,” with Hannah Baron, Robert A. Blair, Donghyun Danny Choi, Laura Gamboa, Jessica Gottlieb, Amanda Lea Robinson, Steven C. Rosenzweig, and Emily A. West (Under review; available here)

Overcoming America’s deep partisan polarization poses a unique challenge: Americans must be able to disagree on policy while nonetheless agreeing on more fundamental democratic principles. We study one model of depolarization—reciprocal group reflection—inspired by marital counseling and implemented by a non-governmental organization, “Braver Angels.” We randomly assigned undergraduate students at four universities either to participate in a Braver Angels workshop or simply to complete three rounds of surveys. The workshops significantly reduced polarization according to explicit and implicit measures. They also increased participants’ willingness to donate to programs aimed at depolarizing political conversations. These effects are consistent across partisan groups, though some dissipate over time. Using qualitative data collected during the workshops, we generate a new theory of depolarization that combines both informational and emotional components such that citizens, moved to empathize with an outgroup, become more likely to internalize new information about outgroup members.

“Who’s to Blame for Election Violence? Civil Society Narratives from Nigeria and Kenya” (Writing in progress)

“Election Violence and Voting Behavior in Nigeria” (Planning in progress)