Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said violent Islamist sect Boko Haram has supporters within his own government, and the insecurity the group has created is worse than during the 1960s civil war that killed more than a million people.
Jonathan suggested that Boko Haram – which has been blamed for gun and bomb attacks across the country, most recently targeting Christians – had sympathisers at all levels of the government.
“Some of them are in the executive arm of government, some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary,” he said at a church service in the capital Abuja late on Sunday.
“Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies. Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house,” he said.
Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast and two other regions of Nigeria on December 31, trying to contain a growing insurgency by the group, which says it wants to apply Islamic sharia law across the country.
It claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks across Nigeria on Christmas Day, including one at a church near Abuja that killed at least 37 people and wounded 57.
Jonathan told the service that the secretive nature of the group in some ways makes it worse than anything seen during the civil war, which broke out in 1967 when the Igbo people of Nigeria’s southeast declared their home region the independent Republic of Biafra.
Three years of fighting killed more than million people, many of them from starvation.
“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought. During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from,” he said. “But the challenge we have today is more complicated.”
Jonathan’s comments reflect the popular view that Boko Haram – a sect styled on the Taliban whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the northern Hausa language – is sponsored by some northern politicians.
As the insurgency has moved out of its heartland in remote northeastern Nigeria, it has increasingly struck at targets that seem designed to fracture Nigeria’s tense divide between its largely Muslim north and its predominantly Christian south.
Nigerian politics have soured since Jonathan – a Christian from the south – won elections last year, breaking in the eyes of many northerners a tacit deal to rotate the leadership between north and south every two terms.
More than 500 people were killed in post-election violence in the north after Jonathan’s victory, reflecting long-standing northern grievances about perceived alienation and exclusion by the central government from the fruits of national oil riches.
Hundreds of Christians have begun to flee northern Nigeria after dozens were killed in a series of attacks by Islamist militants who issued an ultimatum to southerners and Christians to leave the mainly Muslim region or be killed.
Since then, attacks in towns in four northeastern states have killed at least 37 people and hundreds of Christians are fleeing to the south, the Red Cross says.
Nigeria’s 160 million people are divided roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims, who mostly live in peace.
Adding to Jonathan’s security headaches, Nigerians took to the streets on Monday to protest against the scrapping of a popular fuel subsidy.