DAKAR - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan says the government needs "new tactics" against militant Islamist sect Boko Haram, which he accuses of trying to destabilize Nigeria.
The president appeared on a televised question-and-answer session Sunday, one week after deadly church bombings and unrest in the north sharpened criticism of his handling of the three-year-old insurgency.
On state television, President Goodluck Jonathan responded to questions from journalists and citizens about the government's response to Boko Haram.
The shadowy militant group has killed hundreds of people in northern Nigeria so far this this year in its bid for a wider application of sharia law. The insurgency has escalated since the group's reemergence in 2010, a year after it suffered heavy losses in clashes with Nigeria's military.
Militants are increasingly attacking civilians, in particular Christians, which has inflamed religious tensions in Nigeria's volatile Middle Belt region.
Threat to government stability
Jonathan said Boko Haram aims to destabilize the government by any means possible.
"Their attacking of churches is to instigate religious crisis," he said. "They believe that when they attack a church, Christian youth will revolt against Muslim youth. They don't care about who dies in the process. And government will be destabilized. If the way they are attacking churches wash out, if it doesn't work - of course we are working hard, we will crush it, we will stop it - but if it doesn't work, the same Boko Haram will start attacking mosques to instigate Muslim youth to attack Christians."
The northern city of Kaduna remains under a partial curfew, one week after church bombings in the state sparked reprisal attacks against Muslims. In all, violence in northern Nigeria last week killed more than 100 people. The unrest aroused a flurry of criticism against the government, which has been unable to stop attacks despite a heavy security deployment in northern cities.
Fresh tactics needed
On Sunday, President Jonathan fired his national security adviser and minister of defense. He said it was time for "new tactics."
"We think that it is the time some other hands will have to come in to do things slightly differently," he said. "It's not that the people who were there before were not working hard. They are good Nigerians. They worked very hard."
The president's new security adviser is Sambo Dasuki, a retired army colonel from the north and a cousin of an influential Muslim leader, the sultan of Sokoto. He replaces General Owoye Azazi, a political ally from the president's home state in southern Nigeria.
Northern leaders continue to call for dialogue and less use of force to end the Boko Haram insurgency. A recent attempt at mediated talks failed.
President Jonathan said Sunday the government will revive dialogue efforts.
"But presently, Boko Haram has no face," he said. "Nobody will come and tell you that I am a leader of Boko Haram and government will not dialogue with a faceless group. You must have a face. You must tell us the reason why you are doing what you are doing. Then, of course, we'll dialogue."
The president also responded to heavy criticism after he left the country to attend the G20 environmental summit in Brazil last week as violence paralyzed two northern cities. The main opposition party, Action Congress of Nigeria, said it was a sign of "insensitive and confused leadership."
President Jonathan said "the government must not stop for a second because of terrorism."
Chat draws mixed reactions
While some Nigerians said they appreciated the president's participation in the televised chat, they say it will take more than words to reassure them.
"As far as I'm concerned, the president didn't hit the target," said Mohammed Shu'aibu, a Muslim youth leader in Kaduna. "He didn't at all hit the target. He has a lot of homework to do in order to bring security to Nigeria."
Others said the president's replacement of high-level security officials is a step in the right direction.
"If you look at it from experience, we don't expect a national security adviser to Mr. President to have a lackadaisical attitude towards their approach," civil society member in Kaduna Prince Abdul said. "It's not something you discuss on TV, it's not something you discuss on media, it's something you take action and propagate a serious security action towards that so that it can be stopped."
Northern Nigeria saw fresh violence early Monday when a security official said suspected Boko Haram militants raided a prison in the northeastern city of Damaturu, killing at least two people and freeing 40 inmates.