ZURICH (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's plan to stop in Nigeria for meetings with the two leading candidates in the upcoming presidential election signals deep U.S. concerns about postelection violence in a country already devastated by an al-Qaida-linked insurgency.
No chief American diplomat has visited Nigeria since 2012, and Kerry's expected stopover in Lagos for a few hours Sunday is a break with policy that senior American officials stay away from countries about to hold elections, to avoid the perception of favoring one candidate over another.
State Department officials say Kerry is to hold separate talks with President Goodluck Jonathan and his leading opponent, Muhammadu Buharim, a former Army general. The secretary of state previously has paid pre-election visits to countries struggling with instability including Lebanon in 2009 and Iraq in 2005.
Senior State Department officials, briefing reporters Saturday under ground rules that they not be identified, said Kerry will appeal to both candidates to accept the result of the Feb. 14 election and instruct their supporters to refrain from violence. Jonathan's disputed 2011 election victory triggered riots in the north that killed an estimated 800 people.
The American diplomats expressed concern about what could be a prolonged election. Under Nigeria's election laws, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote, as well as more than 25 percent of the vote in two thirds of the states(cq) to avoid a runoff. If no candidate wins by those margins, a runoff election is to be held on Feb. 28. If those margins still are not achieved, a third runoff would be held in a week, winnable by a simple majority.
The election is occurring amid reports of killings and kidnappings carried out by Boko Haram, an al-Qaida-linked group that has seized large portions of the country's northeast and mounted attacks on civilians, largely unmolested by Nigeria's beleaguered military.
Last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a massacre of hundreds of people in the northeast Nigerian town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad. In April 2014, the group kidnapped 270 schoolgirls from the northern town of Chibok, prompting international condemnation and a campaign to "Bring Back Our Girls." Most of the girls, however, have not been rescued.
In a report last week, the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research corporation, called Boko Haram a locally focused insurgency largely fueled by bad government.
"The conflict is being sustained by masses of unemployed youth who are susceptible to Boko Haram recruitment, an alienated and frightened northern population that refuses to cooperate with state security forces, and a governance vacuum that has allowed the emergence of militant sanctuaries in the northeast," the CNA paper said.
"The conflict is also being perpetuated by the Nigerian government, which has employed a heavy-handed, overwhelmingly (military) approach to dealing with the group and has paid little attention to the underlying contextual realities and root causes of the conflict," the report said, a view that comports with the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community.
In December, Nigeria cancelled the last stage of U.S. training of a Nigerian army battalion, a reflection of strained counterterrorism relations between the two governments.
Boko Haram will be an important topic of Kerry's discussions, State Department officials said.