By Austin Ekeinde
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Southern Nigerians could take up arms to fight northern Boko Haram Islamists, and are holding back only out of respect for the president, a former militant leader from the oil-rich Niger Delta said on Monday.
Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a Muslim who led a rebellion in the delta until a peace deal with the government in 2004, said bomb attacks by Boko Haram could provoke retaliation by mostly Christian southerners, including those living in the delta.
President Goodluck Jonathan has already declared a state of emergency in parts of the north which Boko Haram targeted in Christmas Day bomb attacks, including one against a church near Abuja that killed 37 people.
The attacks, and their spread from the north into other parts of the country, have raised the prospect of sectarian and regional violence escalating in a country about evenly divided between mainly southern Christians and mainly northern Muslims.
Asked if northerners could be targeted by some from the majority Christian south, he replied: "It is seconds away ... Nigeria is on the precipice of a civil war."
"For Niger Delta people to take up arms is just a minute away. It's just Goodluck that is holding us back," said Asari, who is from Jonathan's southern, mainly Christian Ijaw tribe, but who converted to Islam.
"We have all reached the extreme. There is nothing anybody can do about it except we fight."
Asari's former group, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, managed to push oil prices to record highs in 2004 with its constant attacks and threats against oil production in the delta's swampy creeks.
Since then, peace deals with the region's warlords have pacified the delta, and Boko Haram in the north has become the number one threat to Nigeria's security.
Full-bearded, shaven-headed, and wearing an ash-colored Islamic robe, Asari paused to read some Facebook posts from his iPad about the Christmas Day bombs.
Asari said he was skeptical that the government could negotiate with moderate members of Boko Haram via "back channels" as National Security Adviser General Owoye Andrew Azazi suggested in an interview with Reuters.
Sitting in his large flat in the southeastern city of Port Harcourt, Asari said the group's faceless nature, an issue General Azazi acknowledged, made talks impossible.
"If you cannot identify the people who are carrying out these attacks, how can you dialogue with them, interact with them, and bring them round the table?" he said.
In any case, such extreme violence meant the time for talks had passed, he said.
"You cannot ask government to negotiate now. On what basis? The government should...rein these people in, or the people will resort to self-help," said Asari, who stressed where his loyalties lay despite being a Muslim.
"Anybody that wants to start any revolution in Goodluck's time, we the Ijaw will pull down that revolution," he said.
(Writing by Tim Cocks)