ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Making his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state, John Kerry urged Nigeria on Saturday to uphold human rights as it steps up its fight against Islamic extremists.
“One’s person’s atrocity does not excuse another’s,” Mr. Kerry said, when asked about reports of serious human rights violations by Nigerian forces.
“We defend the right completely of the government of Nigeria to defend itself and to fight back against terrorists,” he added. “That said, I have raised the issue of human rights with the government.”
Mr. Kerry’s visit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the African Union comes during a trip that is mainly devoted to Middle East diplomacy. Since he left Washington on Monday, Mr. Kerry has traveled to Oman, Israel and Jordan, to which he will return on Sunday.
Even in Africa, the Syrian crisis was on his agenda. Mr. Kerry conferred with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on the international conference the United States is trying to arrange next month in Geneva with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Syrian opposition.
Mr. Ban talked with Mr. Kerry about his meetings with Russian officials in Moscow. Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet with the Russian foreign minister in Paris on Monday to discuss the planning for the Geneva meeting.
As Mr. Kerry visits Africa, Nigeria is stepping up its fight against Islamist militants; France is preparing to hand over to an African force much of the responsibility for protecting Mali from Islamic fighters; and tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have flared.
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria recently declared a state of emergency in the country’s northeast provinces and ordered air and ground assaults against Boko Haram, a militant group. But reports that Nigerian forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, including against civilians, have become a problem for the United States, which provides law enforcement assistance and has cooperated with Nigeria, a major oil supplier, on counterterrorism issues.
Earlier this month, Mr. Kerry, in a statement, noted “credible allegations” that Nigerian forces had been engaged in “gross human rights violations.”
Mr. Kerry returned to that theme on Saturday in a joint news conference with Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Asked about reports of human rights violations — there have been reports of large-scale civilian killings by the army and police in Nigeria — Mr. Kerry said the Nigerian government had acknowledged that abuses had occurred.
“They are working to try to control it,” he said. But revenge was not an adequate strategy, he said.
What is needed “is good governance,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s ridding yourself of a terrorist organization so that you can establish a standard of law that people can respect. And that’s what needs to happen in Nigeria.”
Before meeting with the foreign minister of Sudan, Mr. Kerry noted that he planned to send a special envoy soon to work on reducing tensions between the countries.
The difficulties, he said, went beyond border disputes and involved the concerns of residents in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile States of Sudan who did not want to be compelled by the Sudanese government to live by strict Islamic rules.
“You have people who for a long time have felt that they want their secular governance and their identity respected,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s the fundamental clash.”
The tensions, he added, had been exacerbated by the support rebels in Sudan had received from South Sudan.
Mr. Kerry was scheduled to meet with the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, later on Saturday. At a March meeting in Cairo, Mr. Morsi promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and Mr. Kerry announced that the United States would provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt. But concerns have mounted since that Egypt is not prepared to undertake serious economic overhauls.
The African Union, the organization that Mr. Kerry is in Ethiopia to celebrate, remains, half a century in, a work in progress. First molded by the Pan-African ideals of Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana in the 1950s and ’60s when it became the first African state to break its colonial bonds, the union, then known as the Organization for African Unity, emphasized African self-reliance and independence.
But those notions quickly curdled into a doctrine that led African leaders to believe that they were above reproach. Autocratic, corrupt leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo; Idi Amin of Uganda; and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast earned the organization the nickname “dictator’s club.”
In the 1990s, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who saw the body as a way to extend his influence on the continent, bankrolled its reorganization as the African Union. Colonel Qaddafi pushed the idea of transforming Africa, a collection of postcolonial fragments divided by borders that were drawn arbitrarily by Western powers, into a vast, unified state that could play a powerful role in global affairs.
In 2009, Colonel Qaddafi was chosen as the African Union’s chairman. His swearing-in ceremony looked like a coronation, and traditional African leaders hailed him as the “king of kings.”
Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, also tried to exert influence on the African Union, leading the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which he hoped would offer an alternative to Western-imposed aid and development plans. Its progress, like most African Union projects, has been mixed.
The African Union has increasingly taken a leading role in peacekeeping missions in some African conflicts.
About the author: Michael R. Gordon is the chief military correspondent for The New York Times. Lydia Polgreen contributed reporting from Johannesburg.