Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew to Nigeria over the weekend to meet with President Goodluck Jonathan and his challenger in the upcoming Nigerian presidential election to push for a peaceful vote and to seek enhanced cooperation in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
Mr. Kerry’s weekend visit came only hours after the radical Muslim Boko Haram movement clashed with government troops in what observers called a “sustained assault” that left some 200 dead in and around the northeastern town of Maiduguri. The fighting came on the eve of a political rally that was going to be held for Mr. Jonathan, who faces off Feb. 14 against challenger Muhammadu Buhari in a rematch of their violence-filled 2011 race, in which more than 1,000 people died.
Facing criticism for how his government has handled the Boko Haram threat, Mr. Jonathan insisted Sunday he is determined to work with the Obama administration to defeat the growing Islamist terrorist group, which has links to al Qaeda.
“I welcome Secretary Kerry’s visit to Nigeria and his commitment that the United States will strengthen and enhance its cooperation with our government to address the threat of Boko Haram,” the Nigerian president said in an statement to The Washington Times. Our government is fully committed to working with [the] U.S. and the multinational force against Boko Haram and to preserve human rights and the rule of law, which are the bedrock of a democratic society.”
Mr. Kerry’s trip is a departure from U.S. practice, which calls for officials to stay away from foreign countries during election campaigns. His arrival marks the first time that an American diplomat has entered Nigeria since 2012.
“This will be the largest democratic election on the continent,” Mr. Kerry said in Lagos, warning that those responsible for violence will be barred from travel to the U.S. “Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections be conducted peacefully — that they are credible, transparent and accountable.
“Bottom line,” Mr. Kerry added, “we are prepared to do more, but our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility and accountability and transparency and peacefulness of these elections.”
Still, political violence is not uncommon in the beleaguered country, especially close to election time. In 2011 about 800 people were killed in the northern region of the country after President Jonathan, a 57-year-old Christian from the south, declared victory over Mr. Buhari, a Muslim northerner.
But Mr. Jonathan again faces a formidable challenge from Mr. Buhari, a former Army general nominated by the All Progressives Congress (APC), an alliance of four opposition parties.
Mr. Buhari ruled the country from 1983 to 1985 after taking power in a military coup. Many Nigerians believe his iron rule tactics could help crush Boko Haram.
Still, Nigerian critics say that Mr. Buhari rarely referenced Boko Haram in the past, and rumors even accuse the general’s APC opposition party of fueling the terrorist group to depict the Jonathan government as incompetent.
In 2013 APC Chieftain Okoi Obono-Obla responded to those rumors, saying, “It is obvious that those who are blaming the activities of Boko Haram on the leading opposition party in the country are not saying the truth.”
Still, Mr. Buhari’s regard for democracy and civil rights has been questioned, with critics pointing to the brutality and scandals that surrounded his term in office in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Buhari has also sent mixed messages about how he believes Nigeria should be ruled today, insisting he will not rule as a military dictator, vowing rather to give the country’s military a much freer hand in the fight against Boko Haram.
In December Mr. Buhari said the military was not to blame for Boko Haram’s success, and he echoed complaints voiced by some American officials that revenues from the country’s vast oil wealth have not been used to bolster the country’s military forces under Mr. Jonathan.
“Soldiers have been saying they are ill-equipped, yet trillions have been voted for defense in the last three years. If we don’t vote out PDP, we will all be the losers,” he said.
Sources close to Mr. Jonathan’s government, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they welcomed Mr. Kerry’s decision to come.
“Of course it is critical that Nigeria’s forthcoming elections be free, fair and credible,” said the insider. “But Secretary Kerry’s concerns should be focused on General Buhari, who not only overthrew a prior democratically elected government in a military coup but, as documented by numerous human rights groups, incited his followers to violence before, during and after losing the 2011 election, resulting in hundreds of tragic and unnecessary deaths.”