WASHINGTON — Hunger, not religion, is the root cause of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, said professor Charles Steinmetz of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

"A hungry man is an angry man. If there is no job and you cannot feed your family or kids, it leads to extremism," said Steinmetz, a visiting assistant professor of history at the Catholic university.

Using Nigeria as an example, he said the Islamic extremist group "Boko Haram sees the government as unable to assist the people."

In recent weeks, Boko Haram killed approximately 250 Nigerians in attacks that targeted Christians and moderate Muslims. Among those killed were 59 children.

The group has been fighting to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, throughout the country. Historically, the southern region of Nigeria has been predominately Christian, while the northern region is predominately Muslim.

Though it appears that the violence comes from religious differences, in many ways "it is almost coincidental that these issues break across religious lines," Steinmetz told Catholic News Service in a phone interview.

An underlying cause of conflict in Nigeria is the legacy of colonialism, which left an indelible mark on the economic policies of sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

Colonial powers in Nigeria gave more aid and infrastructure to the southern part of the country. One of the lasting legacies of imperialism, Steinmetz said, is that "the North is so far behind. Roads, communications, educational facilities -- there are more of these in the South."

The development of the South has led to a much stronger economy in that region. For most Nigerians, said Steinmetz, "it is easier to live in the South and feed their family."

Resentments between the North and South have caused even moderate Nigerians to side with the radical group.

"The government is not offering a solution, and the only people offering a solution are the Boko Haram," Steinmetz said.

Ethnic conflict in Nigeria and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa existed prior to the colonial period, he said, adding that tensions among ethnic groups were mostly over land rights.

Though the colonial powers did not create ethnic conflict, their governing techniques exacerbated them, Steinmetz said. Colonial governments used divide-and-rule tactics, keeping ethnic groups in constant competition with each other.

Steinmetz said early African political organizations of the 1930s and 1940s were based on ethnicity. These groups tended to represent only their own interests. When the decolonization process began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, leaders struggled to develop a national political organization that represented every ethnic group. As a result, Steinmetz said, "it was very difficult to form a national identity."

While some hostility among ethnic groups remains, much of the violence today is caused by disputes over land, natural resources and wealth.

"We have put aside ethnic rivalries from some countries, but now we deal with blood diamonds," said Steinmetz. As for the Boko Haram, "the Nigerian government will never be able to totally crush them unless the government addresses socio-economic issues in that region."