Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Nigeria

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
January 24, 2015


MODERATOR: So this is all attributable to senior State Department officials. We have [Senior State Department Official One] on the phone, so you know [title]. [Senior State Department Official One] will be joining us tomorrow, will meet us there, and is going to talk a little bit about the goals for the day. Obviously, you know the Secretary is meeting with both the president and the other major candidate in the upcoming election. [Senior State Department Official One] will talk a little bit at the top and then we’ll go to your questions.

So [Senior State Department Official One], do you want to say a few quick remarks about the goals of his visit and then we can go to questions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Good. Let me just start by welcoming all of you to the call. As you know, this election in Nigeria is being watched by the entire continent and in fact by the entire world. And we are all hoping and expecting and delivering messages to encourage that the election is one that is free and fair and most importantly peaceful, and that it is an election that reflects the will of the Nigerian voters.

It is an extraordinarily competitive election with both parties campaigning heavily, and both – leaders of both parties have issued statements against violence. And the Secretary will be here tomorrow to emphasize to both of the candidates the importance of nonviolence in this election and having a free and fair and transparent process, and then that both parties, once the election results come out, that they accept those results, in particular, that the loser accepts the results and discourages supporters from responding in any violent fashion.

MODERATOR: Okay. Great. So with that, let’s just go right to questions. We’re going to start with Michael Gordon of The New York Times.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One] --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, Michael.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official One]. Could you please explain for us what is it about the situation in Nigeria – the closeness of the election, the electoral procedures themselves – that suggest it’ll be a very competitive election, and what is – and what is – has raised the fears of potential violence? I mean, the trip was – this stop was added at the end, and perhaps it was prompted by some growing concerns about violence, if you could explain that.

And then lastly, during his previous trip, Secretary Kerry said he was planning a special initiative to deal with the violence in Nigeria and Boko Haram. What is that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you for the question, Michael. Let me just start with your question on the election. As you know, the 2011 election was one that was relatively good by Nigerian standards. This is the message that we’ve received from the INEC. And they have told us that their hope is that the election this year will be better – even better than the 2011 election. But even the 2011 election had violence, and that is always a concern in elections in Nigeria and around the continent. And we want to make sure that all of the – all of the parties who are involved in these elections, their political leadership as well as the candidates put out statements discouraging violence. And both of them have done that. In fact, both candidates under the leadership of Kofi Annan issued very, very strong statements against violence.

That said, there is a propensity for such violence to erupt, and we want to get ahead of it. And part of the reason for having the Secretary come is to help us get ahead and get that message out very, very strongly to the Nigerian public. It is – having a successful election is not just the job of the national election commission, it’s not just the job of the parties. Civil society has a key role to play and voters have a key role to play. So we want the Nigerian general public to know that we are with them on this election and that we support their efforts to have a free and fair and transparent election that they will be proud of.

On the issue of the initiative you announced, I think the Secretary when he was in Davos – and [Moderator] may be able to give you more details on that – announced the February 18th Countering Violent Extremists summit, and we will be looking broadly at all the issues related to countering extremism. And this was also discussed when the Secretary met with his USAID counterpart, and we coordinate very closely with the UK in working with Nigeria to counter Boko Haram.

MODERATOR: Yes. Let’s go to the next question. Carol Morrello of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I was hoping you could explain – in previous elections, was it frequently the case that the loser would actually foment some of the violence? Is that what you’re trying to avert? And also I was hoping you could just tell us a little bit about this election. It’s our understanding that this period of tension may be quite a drawn-out affair with one and possibly two runoffs. How long is this period of uncertainty supposed to last?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We will be watching the election on February 14th, and if that election does not result in the selection of one of the two candidates there will be a runoff that I think will happen on the 28th of February, and then there’s a possibility of a third one. But we have to just wait and see what the voters of Nigeria decide in that case.

There has been a history of violence being fomented by political parties here in previous elections, and our hope is that all of the – all of those involved in the election will discourage their supporters from reacting in violence. In several cases in previous years, candidates have taken their concerns to the court system, and we hope that if there is any doubt about the election that they will use their court system and not encourage their supporters to go into the streets.

And I’ll just add that if the election on the 14th is not decisive, the runoff will be in seven days.

QUESTION: And is it accurate – it’s our understanding that there’s some sort of a rule that not only do they have to have a majority but they have to have at least 25 percent of support when – at least 25 percent of the votes in something like two-thirds of the provinces.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: In 25 states. I have [Senior State Department Official Two] here. Can I have [Senior State Department Official Two] answer that question accurately for me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, [Senior State Department Official Two] here. If neither candidate, in addition to getting 50 percent but doesn’t get 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the states, they do it again seven days later with the same rules. If no one gets it then, they then do it seven days after that with just majority winning. But yes, there is a second round on February 28th of governor and legislative elections.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Is that adequately confusing? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Clearer, thank you.

QUESTION: How much – this is Sangwon with Bloomberg News. How much of a – will the Secretary address at all the violence regarding Boko Haram, and what specific discussions will you have on that impacting your existing concerns about post-election violence?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think the Secretary is going to meet with both of the candidates, and certainly, the issues related to Boko Haram that we are facing every single day here in this country will likely come up during those discussions as well. We have been working very, very closely with the Government of Nigeria to address Boko Haram, and I can say very clearly that no country has done as much as we have to support Nigeria’s efforts. And we would hope that both candidates will be able to address the insecurity and address Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram.

MODERATOR: What else? Jay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. I’m just trying to get a sense on how badly Nigeria is getting hit by this oil plunge. I’ve read some reports that their exports to the U.S. are almost zero.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. You’ve got to repeat that. You came in a little crusty.

MODERATOR: I think just come over closer. Yeah.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. I’m just trying to get a sense on how badly Nigeria is getting hit by the plunge in oil prices. I’ve read somewhere that basically their exports to the U.S. now are almost zero. So it sounds like economics could be part of the campaign or the election as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think all exporting countries have been affected by the decrease in oil prices, and Nigeria more specifically has been affected. We are still importing approximately 4 percent of our oil needs from Nigeria, but most of our oil now is coming from production.

QUESTION: That’s 4 percent of what?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.

MODERATOR: Okay. Who else? Nicolas, yeah. Sorry.

QUESTION: Hello, [Senior State Department Official One]. This is Nicolas Revise, AFP. Thank you for doing this. Following on Boko Haram, could you talk a little bit more about the progress the U.S. made since the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign and especially if you made some success in locating the girls? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We have been working, as I noted earlier, very closely with the Nigerians, and we’re committed to doing everything we can with Nigeria to find and free the Chibok girls and other abductees that have been taken by the Nigerians – I mean, by Boko Haram.

We were in Niger earlier this week at a ministerial that was hosted by the Government of Niger for Nigeria and Nigeria’s neighbors to look at how we might work more effectively regionally to deal with Boko Haram, because their terror had spread across the border into Cameroon as well as Chad, and there are fears that they could spread to Niger as well. We agreed that a multinational task force should be established that will attract participants from all of the neighbors and we have committed to supporting this effort.

We’ve also been working closely, on a daily basis, with the Nigerians on providing information and sharing information with them on the girls. We are working to address the humanitarian consequences of Boko Haram. More than 150,000 returnees and refugees are in Niger alone; close to a million Nigerians have been displaced by Boko Haram attacks. The humanitarian crisis is very, very worrisome, and we will continue to work with Nigeria, as well as its neighbors, to address this crisis.

MODERATOR: Yes. Gotta come over. Warren Strobel’s coming over to the phone.

QUESTION: Hi. It’s Warren Strobel with Reuters. This may be a question more for [Senior State Department Official Two], but I’m just curious what the press and public commentary on the Secretary’s visit to Nigeria has been, since you announced it yesterday. Is it being welcomed, or are there some quarters who are accusing of U.S. interference, whether that’s true or not?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate the fact that he’s coming as a reflection of the importance of the election, that kind of thing. The vibe I’ve seen and heard is entirely positive, Warren.

QUESTION: Can you just add, when was the last time a Secretary of State was there, was in Nigeria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, we were kind of asking that ourselves. We believe Secretary Clinton was in Abuja in 2012. The question we can’t find in the collective wisdom is the last time a Secretary came to Lagos. We’re not sure about that. But Secretary Clinton was here in 2012 summer, in the summer of 2012 in Abuja.

MODERATOR: Great. Ken?

QUESTION: I’m fine. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Any last questions from folks?

QUESTION: I have one on Boko Haram. It’s been reported and pretty well accepted that there’s been a deterioration in American military in cooperation with the Nigeria’s military and – on this matter and that this has certainly posed a problem in pursuing this in an active way. Is it your strategy to get the election behind you and avoid any post-election violence and then make a new effort to try to improve cooperation, coordination between the American and Nigerian military? What’s your thinking on that? Because a lot of the steam went out of that military effort.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Now we’re continuing to work with the Nigerians. We have not stopped working with them. There was an announcement that one training program that we were involved in was stopped, but we continue to provide, as I noted earlier, information through our ISR. We are continuing to provide some equipment. We’re providing some training. There’s a team in the United States right now from Nigeria that is working on how to deal with IEDs. So this is an evolving relationship. We’re committed to continuing to support Nigeria.

And our view is we cannot wait until after the election, when, in fact, Boko Haram continues to attack and kill civilians. So the neighbors are engaged. The partners of Nigeria are engaged in this effort, and we will continue to fight this effort. I might ask [Senior State Department Official Two] to add more specifics.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, I think that’s right. We’re – we continue cooperation every day. Sure, there have been some bumps in the road, but even when a bump in the road with a friend, you’re still friends. So the cooperation is good.

Broadly, beyond the army in the northeast, things like we’ve just handed over a Navy ship that sailed into the Lagos Harbor a couple of weeks ago. So lots of hard work remains, but no, we’re wrapped up pretty tightly with the Nigerian military right now.

MODERATOR: Yeah. We have another one from Carol.

QUESTION: And this is maybe more of a technical question, but if so many Nigerians have been displaced because of the Boko Haram attacks, how is it going to be possible to meet this legal requirement that these votes will go to enough candidates? It just – it seems one way or another it’s going to throw a kink into these elections, that so many people won’t be in their hometowns or villages where they will be able to vote.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. This is [Senior State Department Official Two] again. Yeah. You put your finger on a key issue. There are two issues in the northeast: one, how widely will the election commission be able to conduct elections. I think they plan to do as much as they can, but obviously election workers can’t go into war zones. The second question, as you touched on, is those who have been internally displaced, how do they vote? We’ve been lobbying hard with the election commission for months that being displaced shouldn’t mean you’re also disenfranchised. They announced a plan, I think it was earlier this week, which if you’re still in the same state that you’re registered in they should be able to work something out, that kind of thing. It’s not going to cover everybody, but it looks like it will be better than nothing. But yes, that limited voting in the northeast is going to be a factor. You’re right.

QUESTION: Just last one. Nicolas from AFP. Is the U.S. concerned about possible regional connections between Boko Haram and AQAM or other jihadist organizations active in Libya, for example?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s a worry. We are not seeing those connections, but certainly the ideology is very close. Boko Haram has kind of established its own brand of terrorism here in Nigeria, but I’m sure they’re being watched very closely by these other organizations. And we are certainly watching for those connections and have heard rumors that there are such connections.

QUESTION: So President Jonathan’s aide was saying that perhaps the elections should best be postponed. What’s your view on that? Do you think it’s more beneficial to get the ballots ready and take more time, or do you think February 14th is still a reachable date?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the INEC is prepared to move forward with the elections, and we support that effort. He indicated to us that he was misquoted. But certainly our view is that the election should go forward.

QUESTION: Why?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the people of Nigeria expect it. They’ve been waiting for this election for over a year. The candidates are campaigning. INEC has worked to get the voter registration files all prepared, and they are working very, very hard to get the voter registration cards distributed to all the candidates. At this point, we don’t see any reason for the election to be delayed.

MODERATOR: Anything else, guys? Okay. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you all hopping on the call. We will see you tomorrow. Again, no embargo on this, Senior State Department Officials. And we’re looking forward to seeing you guys there. Thank you so much for doing the call.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Looking forward to seeing you too.