Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan fired his national security adviser and defense minister on Friday, his spokesman said, as fears mounted over spiraling unrest in the country’s north.
Nigeria has faced a deadly insurgency from Islamist group Boko Haram, which has launched a bloody series of bomb and gun attacks.
“The NSA [national security adviser] has been dropped ... The minister of defense has also been dropped,” Jonathan spokesman Reuben Abati said.
He said the new security adviser would be Sambo Dasuki, a retired colonel, prominent northerner and cousin to the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria’s highest Muslim spiritual figure.
Dasuki was also implicated in a 1995 coup attempt against the government of former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and went into exile in the US at the time.
It was not yet clear who would replace former Nigerian defense minister Bello Mohammed.
Amid the Boko Haram insurgency, criticism of Jonathan greatly intensified this week after three suicide bombings at churches sparked reprisals from Christian mobs who burnt mosques and killed dozens of Muslims.
There have been growing warnings that there could be more cases of residents taking the law into their own hands if something is not done to halt the Boko Haram attacks.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer, is divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
Fired national security adviser Owoye Azazi is a political ally of Jonathan’s, with both men from Bayelsa State in the oil-producing south.
Azazi faced suspicion in the north, particularly after comments he made in April that many took as indicating that the violence was politically linked.
The decision was announced after Jonathan met with his security team on Friday, hours after returning from a UN environmental summit in Brazil.
Jonathan’s decision to leave Nigeria on Tuesday for the summit as fresh riots broke out had also drawn heavy criticism.
Several days of unrest in parts of northern Nigeria began on Sunday last week in Kaduna State, with suicide attacks at three churches that killed at least 16 people and sparked reprisals by Christian mobs, who burned mosques and killed dozens of Muslims. More rioting broke out in Kaduna later in the week, while on Monday and Tuesday, shootouts between security forces and suspected Islamists in the northeastern city of Damaturu left at least 40 people dead.
At least 106 people were killed in the days of violence.
The initial suicide bombings were claimed by Boko Haram, whose insurgency concentrated in the north has killed hundreds.
Criticism has mounted over the government’s response to the violence, with few public indications of what strategies are being employed beyond heavy-handed military raids to stop the onslaught of attacks.
“Since these terrorist acts began, nothing the president ... has done has been reassuring that the end to this spate of bombings and gun attacks is in sight,” the Christian Association of Nigeria, the country’s main Christian body, said this week. “On the contrary, his utterances after each bombing and killings, even if unwittingly, seem to have cast a hallmark of weakness on his presidency and an escalation of the terrorist acts.”
Shehu Sani, a prominent rights activist based in Kaduna, welcomed the firing of the two officials, but said it was not enough.