ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has likened attacks by a radical Islamist sect in his West African nation to the ongoing civil war in Syria, an unlikely acknowledgment from the seat of power about the violent unrest gripping the country.
Jonathan's comments Sunday are widely viewed here as hyperbole because the estimated 45,000 people killed in the Syrian uprising is far more than those killed by Nigeria's extremist sect. But Jonathan's remarks offer a glimpse into the worried leader's mind as his weak government remains unable to stop attacks by the sect known as Boko Haram. Though government and security officials have sought to downplay the sect's guerrilla campaign of shootings and bombings, the group is blamed for killing at least 792 people in 2012 alone, according to an Associated Press count, the worst year of violence yet.
And with Jonathan also referencing the apocalypse before parishioners at a church in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, it offers a bleak assessment of Nigeria heading into the New Year.
"We have challenges, no doubt, especially the recent terrorist attacks on all of us and the church is one of the main targets," Jonathan said. When the preacher "was making reference to the bombings ... I was just wondering, could this be a clear way of telling us that the end times are so close?"
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, continues to attack civilians and government forces at will, despite a heavy presence of soldiers and police officers there. The sect wants the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people to enact strict Shariah law and release its imprisoned members. It also has loose connections with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia's al-Shabab, according to Western military officials and diplomats.
Just in the last few days, gunmen suspected to belong to Boko Haram attacked a village in Nigeria's arid northeast, rounding up men, women and children and killing at least 15 by cutting their throats.
Speaking Sunday before an EYN church in Abuja, Jonathan acknowledged the sect killed people this holiday, but said his government had stopped the group from committing more killings.
However, his speech offered stark comparisons to the situation in his country, comparing it to Syria and the Central African Republic, which now faces rebel attacks that threaten the nation's stability.
The CAR rebels "were quite close to taking over the capital city just as Boko Haram is taking over Abuja (and wanting) for me and those working in government to run and hide somewhere else," Jonathan said. "Let me agree with you that we have challenges. ... No part of the country is free."
This isn't the first time Jonathan, who sometimes fumbles through public speeches, has made dire pronouncements about security in Nigeria. On Jan. 8, 2012, speaking before another church service, Jonathan said the threat of Boko Haram was worse than the nation's 1960s civil war, which killed 1 million people. The president also suggested Boko Haram had infiltrated the government and the nation's security forces.
"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," Jonathan said at the time.
Jonathan never elaborated on his comments, though a high-ranking senator was later arrested for alleged ties to the sect. Nigeria's dysfunctional intelligence community also has freed suspected radical Islamist terrorists out of religious sympathies in the past, including one later implicated in Boko Haram's August 2011 suicide car bomb attack on the United Nations headquarters in the nation's capital that killed 25 and wounded more than 100 others.
As the attacks continue, soldiers have killed civilians and the government faces growing criticism from human rights groups over alleged indefinite detention, beatings and killings of Boko Haram suspects in custody. However, Jonathan promised Sunday that the government ultimately would stop the sect.
"If the idea of Boko Haram is to stop Nigerians from worshipping God, they will not succeed. If the idea of Boko Haram is to stop government from providing the dividend of democracy they will not succeed," Jonathan told those at the church. "God willing and with our commitment, the excesses of Boko Haram and other criminal organizations will be brought to a reasonable control."