Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks to the media on the situation in Chibok. Picture: Afolabi Sotunde

Lagos - Lack of compassion and an absence of leadership: perceptions of Goodluck Jonathan's handling of the Boko Haram hostage crisis have gone from bad to worse - and could blight his political future.

Support for the 56-year-old Nigerian leader and his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had been haemorrhaging even before 276 girls were seized from Chibok, in northeast Borno state, on April 14.

But his decision on Friday - more than a month after the girls were taken - to pull out of his first visit to Chibok to meet relatives of the 223 girls still missing has only compounded his difficulties.

On a personal level, critics said it showed a lack of compassion for the students and their parents, who have attracted world attention due to a social media campaign, Bring Back Our Girls.

But it has also raised fears about his grip on power and could torpedo his re-election ambitions.

“We have maintained that the Federal Government has not shown enough compassion and this (the cancellation) is another indication of the lack of compassion that we have been talking about,” the group's co-ordinator, Hadiza Bala Usman, told AFP.

“The president needs to show up and commiserate with these families.”

“He should have gone to empathise with the people of Borno,” added Dapo Thomas, a political commentator from Lagos state university.

“He is telling the Borno people and the affected and grieving parents... that they are on their own. He has abandoned these parents and forgotten the girls in captivity.”

Jonathan's decision, reportedly for security reasons, was interpreted as a message about the overall insurgency in the violence-hit northeast, where thousands have died since 2009.

Nigerian soldiers tasked with flushing out and crushing Boko Haram fighters have complained of lack of resources in terms of weaponry as well as a shortage of food, fuel and even pay.

This week, disgruntled troops fired shots in the air during a visit by a unit commander after six of their comrades were killed in a Boko Haram ambush as they returned from patrols in Chibok.

Amnesty International said on May 9 that military commanders in Borno state had advanced warning of the kidnapping in Chibok but could not muster enough troops to send to the town.

“If, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he is afraid to visit Chibok because of security fears, he is simply telling the hapless people in the northeast that he cannot protect them and they should resign to their fate,” said Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, a pressure group.

“He is also telling the soldiers fighting Boko Haram elements in the region that they are on their own. This kind of attitude will dampen the morale of the troops and will make the fight against terrorism a wasted effort.”

The United States, which has sent drones and surveillance aircraft to help in the rescue effort, has called Jonathan's response “tragically and unacceptably slow” and urged him to demonstrate leadership to bring the crisis to an end.

Mounting criticism will do little to convince doubters that Jonathan is ill-suited to remain president, with a general election next year where he is expected to run for re-election.

Mass defections from the PDP last year were largely among lawmakers from the Muslim-majority north, who accused Jonathan, a Christian from the richer, oil-producing south, of ignoring the social and economic problems of the region.

Borno governor Kashim Shettima told the BBC that it took Jonathan 19 days to call him about the kidnappings.

Lai Mohammed, spokesman for the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) which stands to gain from the political fall-out, said only of the situation: “The president has lost all direction.”

Jiti Ogunye, a human rights and constitutional lawyer, said Jonathan's response laid bare long-standing question marks about his fitness for office.

“This a clear case of leadership failure. It is sad. He has exposed Nigeria to yet another international ridicule by his cancellation of the visit,” he added.

“Ordinarily, given all what has happened since the abduction, the president has no political stock left... (and) that ought to impact on his political fortune, if he has any left.”

Adeniran added: “Jonathan should pack his bags and go back to Otuoke (his hometown in southern Bayelsa state).

“It's been a great mistake on our part to have elected him as president. He has to resign because he has failed a key constitutional duty to protect lives and properties.”