ABUJA // Nigeria lacks competent leaders to tackle its security problems, a former military ruler said yesterday, following Christmas Day bomb attacks on churches by Islamist militants that killed more than two dozen people.
Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner who lost the last presidential election in April to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, said the government was slow to respond and had shown indifference to the bombings.
The Boko Haram Islamist sect, which aims to impose Sharia across Africa's most populous country, claimed responsibility for three church bombings, the second Christmas in a row it has caused destruction at Christian houses of worship.
Security forces also blamed the sect for two explosions in the north and fear is growing that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war between Christians and Muslims who, for the most part, coexist in peace.
"How on earth would the Vatican and the British authorities speak before the Nigerian government on attacks within Nigeria that have led to the deaths of our citizens?" Mr Buhari said in a statement published by Punch newspaper. "This is clearly a failure of leadership at a time the government needs to assure the people of the capacity to guarantee the safety of lives and property."
He said the government needed to do more than spend more on security to deal with the problem.
Mr Jonathan, a Christian from the south who is struggling to contain the threat of Islamist militancy, called the attacks "unfortunate" but said Boko Haram would "not be (around) forever. It will end one day".
Pope Benedict yesterday condemned the attacks as an "absurd gesture" and prayed that "the hands of the violent be stopped".
The pope, speaking from his window overlooking St Peter's Square in Rome, said such violence brought only pain, destruction and death.
The attacks strike at historic internal religious and regional divides that have often threatened the country - dangerous divisions that included a brief but bloody civil war over the secession of Biafra in the eastern region.
The Christmas church bombings included one in the central city of Jos, a religious and ethnic region lying in the heart of the divide between the mercantile, largely Muslim pastoralist peoples of the north and the traditionally farming, largely Christians in the south.
Nigeria's 160 million people are split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims, who usually live side by side in peace, but their cohabitation in the "Middle Belt" has sometimes been a source of tensions over land and influence.
Jos in particular has seen many hundreds killed in periodic outbreaks of ethnic and sectarian violence.
The attacks on the churches on one of global Christianity's most important feast days appeared aimed at touching off this latent tinderbox, just as targeted sectarian attacks in Iraq have tried to provoke Sunni-Shiite strife.
In December last year, Boko Haram also claimed responsibility for Christmas Eve bombings around Jos and attacks on churches and clashes that resulted in more than 80 deaths.
The militant movement, whose name means "Western learning is sinful" in the northern Hausa language, is concentrated in Nigeria's more remote northern states. It became active in 2003, with an avowed aim to introduce Sharia across Nigeria.
The latest attacks will fuel the fears of Nigerian and western security experts who increasingly link Boko Haram to a wider violent militant Islamic jihadist threat from North Africa across the Sahara.
They could also invite more western counter-terrorism support for Nigeria and fellow governments in West Africa's oil-producing Gulf of Guinea region - a growing energy supplier to the US and other western powers seeking to temper their over-reliance on the Middle East.
The head of the US military's Africa Command, General Carter Ham, lists Boko Haram along with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia-based Al Shabab as groups violently hostile to US and western interests who have increasingly begun to cooperate among each other.
Nigeria's military sees even closer links with Al Qaeda.
Such analysis points to the increasing sophistication and organisation of the Boko Haram attacks, moving from disparate shootings and bombings to more coordinated headline-grabbing actions, seeking national and international effect.
The Christmas Day bombings are the group's most high-profile strikes since a suicide bombing - Nigeria's first - that hit UN headquarters in Abuja in August, killing at least 23 people.
But experts warn that tackling Boko Haram as a security problem alone will not address the underlying social, economic and political problems that underpin the group and its domestic support, and that a heavy-handed police and army response could simply exacerbate the threat being incubated in Nigeria's north.