By Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria lacks competent leaders to tackle its security problems, a former military ruler said on Monday, following Christmas Day bomb attacks on churches by Islamist militants that killed more than two dozen people.
Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner who lost the last presidential election in April to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, said in a statement in a Nigerian daily that the government was slow to respond and had shown indifference to the bombings.
The Boko Haram Islamist sect, which aims to impose sharia law across Africa's most populous country, claimed responsibility for three church bombings, the second Christmas in a row it has caused carnage at Christian houses of worship.
Security forces also blamed the sect for two explosions in the north and fear is growing that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war in a country split evenly between Christians and Muslims who for the most part co-exist in peace.
"How on earth would the Vatican and the British authorities speak before the Nigerian government on attacks within Nigeria that have led to the deaths of our citizens?" Buhari said in the statement published by Punch newspaper.
"This is clearly a failure of leadership at a time the government needs to assure the people of the capacity to guarantee the safety of lives and property," Buhari said.
He said the government needed to do more than spend more on security to deal with the problem.
Jonathan, a Christian from the south who is struggling to contain the threat of Islamist militancy, called the attacks "unfortunate" but said Boko Haram would "not be (around) forever. It will end one day."
Pope Benedict on Monday condemned the attacks as an "absurd gesture" and prayed that "the hands of the violent be stopped."
The pope, speaking from his window overlooking St Peter's Square in Rome, said such violence brought only pain, destruction and death.
The attacks, which came a few days after clashes between security forces and Boko Haram killed at least 68 people, show evidence of increasing coordination and strategy by the group that could ring alarm bells in Nigeria and Western capitals.
St. Theresa's Catholic Church in Madala, a satellite town about 40 km (25 miles) from the centre of the capital Abuja, was packed when the first blast exploded just outside after Christmas mass.
A few hours later, blasts were reported at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in the central, ethnically and religiously mixed town of Jos, and at a church in Gadaka in the northern state of Yobe. Residents said many were wounded in Gadaka, but there were no immediate further details.
A suicide bomber killed four officials at the State Security Service in one of the other attacks in the northeastern town of Damaturu, police said. Residents heard two loud explosions and gunfire in the town.
A Reuters reporter at the church near Abuja saw the front roof had been destroyed, as had several houses nearby. Five burnt out cars were still smoldering. There were scenes of chaos, as shocked residents stared at the wreckage in disbelief.
"Mass just ended and people were rushing out of the church and suddenly I heard a loud sound: 'Gbam!' Cars were in flames and bodies littered everywhere," Nnana Nwachukwu told Reuters.
Father Christopher Barde, Assistant priest of the church, said: "The officials who counted told me they have picked up 27 bodies so far." Police cordoned off the area around the church. Thousands of furious youths set up burning road blocks on the highway from Abuja leading to Nigeria's largely Muslim north.
Police and the military tried to disperse them by firing live rounds into the air with tear gas.
"We are so angry!" shouted Kingsley Ukpabi, as a queue of hooting vehicles lined up behind his flaming barrage.
Boko Haram - which in the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria means "Western education is sinful" - is loosely modeled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
Its low level insurgency used to be largely confined to northeastern Nigeria, but it has struck several parts of the north, centre and Abuja this year.
Last Christmas Eve, a series of bomb blasts around Jos killed 32 people, and other people died in attacks on two churches in the northeast.
At the church near Abuja, a wounded man whose legs were almost shattered to pieces by the blast was loaded onto a stretcher near an ambulance by security services.
"I'll survive," he said in a hushed voice.
The blast in Jos, a tinderbox of ethnic and sectarian tensions where deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians have occurred, was accompanied by a shooting spree by militants, who exchanged fire with local police, said Charles Ezeocha, special task force spokesman for Jos.
"We lost one policeman and we have made four arrests. I think we can use them to get more information and work on that," he said. Police found four other explosive devices in Jos, which they deactivated, he added.
The White House condemned "this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas Day."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the attacks and expressed his condolences "to the people of Nigeria and to the bereaved families."
"The Secretary-General calls once again for an end to all acts of sectarian violence in the country and reiterates his firm conviction that no objective sought can justify this resort to violence," a statement released by his office said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos, Tife Owolabi and Buhari Bello in Jos, Mike Oboh in Kano, a correspondent in Maiduguri and Philip Pullella in Vatican City; Writing by Tim Cocks and Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich)