Postelection violence, insurgent group on agenda as Kerry meets with Nigerian leaders

Reflecting concern over the possibility of postelection violence, America's top diplomat is seeking separate meetings with Nigeria's president and his leading opponent ahead of voting as part of an effort to encourage both sides to accept the results peacefully.

The election is set for next month amid reports of killings and kidnappings carried out by Boko Haram, an al-Qaida-linked group that has seized large portions of northeast Nigeria and mounted attacks on civilians. Last week, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a massacre of hundreds of people in the town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to spend a few hours in Lagos on Sunday, weeks before the Feb. 14 election. He is scheduled to meet with President Goodluck Jonathan and presidential candidate Muhammadu Buharim, a former Army general.

No chief American diplomat has visited Nigeria since 2012. U.S. policy calls for senior American officials to stay away from countries as their elections approach. Instability, however, has led the U.S. secretary of to visit Lebanon in 2009, Iraq in 2005 and other countries preparing to elect their leaders.

Kerry will appeal to Jonathan and Buharim to instruct their supporters to refrain from violence, said senior State Department officials, who briefed reporters Saturday under ground rules that they not be identified. 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 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.

Boko Haram will be an important topic of Kerry's discussions, State Department officials said. In a report last week, the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research corporation, called the group 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.

In April 2014, Boko Haram 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.