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With U.S.-Nigeria Relations 'at a Low Point,' Kerry Puts Conditions on Aid to Fight Boko Haram

February 14 will be anything but a day of sweet nothings in Nigeria.

There’s been no love lost on the campaign trail as President Goodluck Jonathan, the Christian incumbent since 2010, faces a challenge from former President Muhammadu Buhari. The retired major general, who ascended to power in a 1983 coup, is a Muslim.

Boko Haram was born many years after Buhari was overthrown in a coup following two years of Buharism checkered with human rights abuses. Jonathan inherited the scourge of Boko Haram and has been accused by the United States of violating human rights in sweeps aimed at stopping the terrorist group, which reached the self-proclaimed caliphate stage last year.

A 2012 Pew survey showed Christianity edging out the country’s Muslim population, 49.3 percent to 48.8 percent. Catholic bishops have urged the West to get involved in the battle against Boko Haram as Jonathan’s government has been unable to get a handle on the scourge.

“The West should bring in security – land forces to contain and beat back Boko Haram. A concerted military campaign is needed,” Bishop Oliver Doeme of Maiduguri told a Catholic charity days before this past weekend’s Boko Haram attack on the city, according to Catholic News Agency. “Among the soldiers, there were sympathizers with Boko Haram – some of them were even Boko Haram members and many of them just ran away.”

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos told Vatican Radio that once the capital of Borno state falls to the terrorists it will be like a domino effect. The situation is “very dangerous and very disturbing, because once they capture Maiduguri …then you can be sure that all of the areas around will easily fall to them.”

“Many of our members are scattered and others have been killed. In some areas there are no Christians any more,” Doeme said. “But the Church belongs to Christ. The Church will remain strong and many of our people have returned after land has been taken back by the Nigerian soldiers.”

It’s been 287 days since the abduction of Chibok schoolgirls sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria that briefly caught on in Washington. It’s been just a few weeks since Boko Haram razed homes and slaughtered up to 2,000 people on the shores of Lake Chad in Baga, Nigeria.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry briefly visited Nigeria “to emphasize the importance of ensuring the upcoming elections are peaceful, nonviolent, and credible,” press secretary Jen Psaki said, and met with Jonathan and Buhari.

What help was offered in the Boko Haram fight? Travel sanctions against electoral violence.

“Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections be conducted peacefully, that they are credible, transparent, accountable, so that the people of Nigeria can have faith and the world can have faith in the government that flows from it,” Kerry said in Lagos. “So I came here today to deliver a very simple message, and I met with both major candidates in order to underscore that the international community is paying very close attention to this election and that the international community is deeply committed to working with Nigerians going forward with the hopes that they will have an election that is free of violence and capable of instilling confidence in the future.”

He referenced his Davos speech in which he said linking Islam to terrorist activities is “the biggest error we could make.”

“Day after day, the group that calls itself Boko Haram continues to kill scores of innocent civilians and attack villages and military installations in places like Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states,” Kerry said, adding “we deeply regret the toll that this violence has taken on the Nigerian people.”

“It is very important that the world cooperate more in helping countries where they want to and where they don’t the full capacity to be able to step up and take on lawless terrorist entities.”

Kerry pitched the White House’s summit on violent extremism next month. “The fact is that one of the best ways to fight back against Boko Haram and similar groups is by protecting the peaceful, credible, and transparent elections that are essential to any thriving democracy, and certainly, essential to the largest democracy in Africa,” he said. “It’s imperative that these elections happen on time as scheduled, and that they are an improvement over past elections, and they need to set a new standard for this democracy. That means that Nigerians have to not only reject violence but they have to actually promote peace.”

Jonathan’s government has vowed a “final onslaught” against Boko Haram to be completed in the short time before the election. When the president went to Borno state to stage a campaign rally in Maiduguri on Saturday, Boko Haram welcomed him by killing 15 nearby villagers on Friday.

Buhari’s Christian running mate, vice presidential candidate Yemi Osinbajo, vaguely vowed that their administration would do a better job of fighting Boko Haram. “We must start by understanding that there is a war going on in that part of the country and what the government needs to do is to get the nation behind it, not pointing fingers at the wrong places,” he said Monday.

Kerry was focused on election-related violence, though, and promised that “anyone who participates in, plans, or calls for widespread or systematic violence against the civilian population must be held accountable, including by ineligibility for an American visa.”

“Violence has no place in democratic elections, and I can guarantee you that the perpetrators of such violence would not be welcome in the United States of America,” he said.

Kerry stressed that he doesn’t believe “the level of support provided by the United States or the international community is the limiting factor in the Nigerian government’s ability to fight Boko Haram,” adding that the assistance just doesn’t always work as they’d like it to.

“We are prepared to do more, but our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency and peacefulness of this election,” he said. “And one of the principle reasons that President Obama asked me to come here at this moment is to reinforce to all Nigerians the desire of the United States to be able to engage even more so in the effort to push back against Boko Haram or any other violent extremist group, but the quality of the democratic process is important to contributing to our ability to do so.”

In its December briefing, the Nigeria Study Network cautioned that the February election is “set to be the most contentious to date.” A government in crisis stands to be even more ineffectual against Boko Haram, particularly as a hesitant West largely watches this caliphate from the sidelines.

“We killed the people of Baga. We indeed killed them, as Allah instructed us in his book,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video a few days ago. “We will not stop. This is not much. You will see. I’m ready.”

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations will hold a hearing Tuesday titled “Nigeria on the Brink?” with testimony scheduled from Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Jackson in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.

“Nigeria is an important African nation, not just for that region, but also for the international community as a whole,” said Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “This major oil producer, which is also Africa’s most populous nation, is facing a variety of crises, including an increasingly vicious war against Boko Haram, the threat of post-election violence following the upcoming presidential election next month, ongoing inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict and an economy suffering from drastically reduced revenue due to falling oil prices.”

“This comes at a time when U.S.-Nigeria relations are said to be at a low point. This hearing will examine Nigeria’s challenges and what the U.S. government should do to get our relations with Nigeria, especially involving security cooperation, back on track.”