ABUJA Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan challenged the violent Islamist Boko Haram sect on Thursday to identify themselves and state clearly their demands as a basis for talks, while acknowledging that military confrontation alone will not end their insurgency.
In an interview with Reuters at the presidential villa in the capital Abuja, Jonathan said there was no doubt that Boko Haram had links with other jihadist groups outside Nigeria.
The sect killed more than 500 people last year and more than 250 in the first weeks of 2012 in gun and bomb attacks in Africa's top oil producer, Human Rights Watch said this week.
Coordinated attacks in the northern city of Kano killed 186 people on Friday in its most deadly strike to date, prompting the president to visit surviving victims.
"If they clearly identify themselves now and say this is the reason why we are resisting, this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroy some innocent people and their properties ... then there will be a basis for dialogue," said Jonathan.
"We will dialogue, let us know your problems and we will solve your problem but if they don't identify themselves, who will you dialogue with?"
Jonathan, who won an election last year that observers said was Nigeria's cleanest since the end of military rule in 1999, has been criticized for dealing with the insurgency in the north using purely military means.
But in this interview he pledged to bring development to remote, semi-arid corners of the country where high youth unemployment has provided easy recruits for extremists.
"Military confrontation alone will not eliminate terror attacks," he said, adding that an "enabling environment for young people to find jobs" was also needed.
"Our commitment is to make sure our irrigation programs are all revitalized so most of these young people are engaged in productive agriculture and ... will not be free for them to recruit," Jonathan said in an ornate diplomatic meeting room adorned with pictures of Nigeria's heads of state since independence in 1960.
"WITHOUT A FACE"
As well as coming under fire for his handling of the crisis in the north, Jonathan suffered a week of vitriolic anti-government protests this month when he tried to scrap fuel subsidies, part of efforts to cut the fiscal costs, but was forced to partly reinstate it.
That prompted the oil ministry to announce a raft of measures aimed at defusing public anger about the extent of corruption and mismanagement in the sector, including setting up a new committee to hurry along the stalled Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).
Jonathan said he was confident that a final version of the PIB, which aims to completely overhaul the country's shambolic oil industry, would be put before the national assembly by the end of February.
Wearing a dark grey kaftan and his trademark fedora hat, the former zoology lecturer and governor of Bayelsa state in the oil rich Niger Delta said the Boko Haram crisis would be much harder to resolve than the southeastern Delta conflict, which was largely defused in 2009 under an amnesty he helped broker.
That was because the Islamist militants do not have a clear public figurehead or negotiable aims, he said.
"If anybody invited Osama bin Laden (to talks), he wouldn't have appeared ... Boko Haram, if you invite them, they will not come. They operate without a face, they operate without a clear identity, so it is difficult to interface with such a group."
"That is the greatest difference between Boko Haram ... and the Niger Delta issue," he said, flanked by a larger-than-life portrait and Nigeria flags.
Boko Haram, whose name means "western education is sinful," was formed in 2003 in the remote, northeastern city of Maiduguri. It launched an uprising against the government in 2009 that security forces crushed in days of fighting with the sect that killed around 800 people.
Its leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured and died in police custody during those battles, triggering vows of revenge from other members of the sect which they now seem to be honoring in attacks on security forces and authority figures.
The group's members have said they want to impose Sharia law across Nigeria, although Jonathan doubted they had clear aims. "There is no clear thing to say: this is what we want," he said.
LINKS TO AL QAEDA
Security experts say there is growing evidence the group, or some members within it, have received training and support from other jihadist groups such as al Qaeda's north African wing.
Jonathan refused to be drawn on specific details on this.
"There is a lot of evidence there is linkages ... no doubt about that. Meetings are being held in north Africa, the movement of people in these places have been monitored and noticed. The level of involvement and probably in terms of funding and equipment, I do not know," he said.
The increasingly violence in the north, including a spate of high profile attacks on Christians, has led commentators like Nigerian author Wole Soyenka to predict a fresh civil war, 40 years after the secessionist Biafra conflict killed more than 1 million people and caused mass starvation.
"There is no way Nigeria will go into civil war. These are different situations," Jonathan said, adding that violence in modern day Nigeria was conducted by "pressure groups" using it to intimidate and threaten rather than full blown armies.
Jonathan sacked his chief of police and six other officers on Friday because of a string of defeats against Boko Haram.
Security forces have come under fire for failing to protect civilians in the north and elsewhere.
Some question whether civilian Jonathan, who as vice president first took power in May 2010 when his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua died, can lead Nigeria out of this crisis.
"They are trying," Jonathan said, seeming relaxed throughout the interview. "Terrorism is new in Nigeria, and since its new, the security services have to change their methods. You cannot change methods overnight. But we will do more."
Many Nigerians believe Boko Haram has become a cover for northern politicians disgruntled at the election of a Christian southerner to try to destabilize his government.
They note that Boko Haram stepped up its bombing campaign hours after he was sworn in on May 30.
He was northerner Yar'Adua's running mate in a shambolic election in 2007, but his campaign to run himself after Yar'Adua's death was controversial because of an informal pact within the ruling PDP party that the presidency should rotate between the north and the south.
Jonathan said there may be some northern politicians using Boko Haram militants for intimidation. He reiterated that there were sympathizers with the group at all levels of government.
"I will not rule out that maybe some politicians get close to some members of Boko Haram, but I will not say that Boko Haram is a political group trying to undo Goodluck Jonathan," he said. "I cannot say it's because a southerner and a Christian is president that the Boko Haram saga comes up."
A week of protests against a hike in government subsidized fuel prices this month revealed massive public anger at endemic corruption, which has siphoned billions of dollars of the country's oil riches.
Jonathan said reports of corruption in the oil ministry and elsewhere were being investigated but that he could not sack anyone in the ministry until he sees proof of misconduct.
"Nigerians are angry about certain things government has not been able to conclude very quickly ... You cannot sentence a person without trial," he said.
He said efforts were being made to hurry the PIB.
"I believe that before the end of February, I'm very hopeful, we'll submit it to the national assembly ... But of course ... The president has no powers over the national assembly."
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Joe Brock)