TIME faith

John Kerry Praises Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical

Secretary of State John Kerry called Pope Francis’ encyclical a “powerful” statement on the threat of climate change Thursday.

Kerry, who is Catholic, told TIME in a statement that religious engagement on the issue will help spur agreement at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

The Pope’s powerful encyclical calls for a common response to the critical threat climate change poses to our common home. His plea for all religions to work together reflects the urgency of the challenge. The faith community – in the United States and abroad – has a long history of environmental stewardship and aiding the poor, and Pope Francis has thoughtfully applied those same values to the very real threat our planet is facing today. The devastating impacts of climate change – like heat waves, damaging floods, coastal sea level rise and historic droughts – are already taking place, threatening the habitat all humans and other creatures depend on to survive. We have a responsibility to meet this challenge and prevent the worst impacts. As stewards of our planet, we can all work together to manage our resources sustainably and ensure that the poorest among us are resilient to climate change. We have the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed science to show us what is causing this problem, and we are equipped with the tools and resources to begin solving it. Engagement on this issue from a wide range of voices is all the more important as we strive to reach a global climate agreement this December in Paris.

Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Sheba Crocker met with Vatican officials, including the Holy See’s Undersecretary for Relations with States Antoine Camilleri, on May 26 at the Holy See to discuss climate change and Pope Francis’ 2015 Development goals.

“When he speaks on issues—whether it’s on climate change, alleviating poverty, or peace and security issues—it just has a real resonance and that’s something that we find incredibly useful,” Crocker says. “It’s so important for Pope Francis to be speaking in the way that he is—with such a clear voice. He brings such a moral authority to these questions, and his voice resonates in a way throughout the world, which we think provides him with crucial impetus—both political and moral—to help us reach an agreement in Paris at the end of the year.”

It’s another sign that the Obama administration is hoping to leverage Pope Francis’ efforts on shared commitments, especially in advance of his upcoming trip to the U.S. In September. “We have really renewed energy—strong leadership from the United States, but also countries from around the world, and I think real dedication and commitment to try to reach a durable agreement in Paris, which is the historic step, obviously, at the end of this year,” Crocker tells TIME. “It’s a top priority for the administration.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett was at the Vatican press conference Thursday morning for the encyclical’s release.

TIME Accident

John Kerry’s Broken Leg Won’t Hinder Iran Talks, U.S. Says

John Kerry switzerland bike
Fabrice Coffrini—Getty Images In this picture of US Secretary of State John Kerry rides his bike during a break in Lausanne on March 16, 2015.

"Meantime, work goes on. Big thanks for well-wishes. #Onward."

(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry headed home Monday to Boston from Geneva, Switzerland, for surgery on his broken leg, as U.S. officials insisted that his injury would not hinder his participation in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

With an end-of-June deadline for an Iranian deal fast approaching, the 71-year-old Kerry left Geneva aboard a U.S. military plane accompanied by his orthopedic surgeon Dennis Burke and additional medical personnel. Officials said Burke is expected in the coming days to perform surgery on Kerry’s right femur, which Kerry fractured on Sunday in a bicycle accident when he struck a curb and fell on a regular Tour de France route in France located southeast of the Swiss city.

He had been receiving treatment at Geneva’s main medical center, HUG, and is to receive further care at Massachusetts General Hospital once he returns home. Kerry, an avid cyclist, had hip replacement surgery several years ago. The fracture was near the hip, leading to speculation that his recovery would be lengthy and prevent him from being as involved in the Iran negotiations as he has been over the past two years.

The State Department sought to tamp down such suggestions, saying that Kerry is committed “to pursuing an aggressive recovery schedule” and had spent much of Sunday and Monday on the phone with colleagues, including President Barack Obama and counterparts, including the French, Spanish and Iranian foreign ministers. Kerry had spent six hours with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif on Saturday in Geneva before his bike accident.

“Secretary Kerry’s main focus for the month of June remains squarely on the Iran negotiations,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “His injury does not change that. He and the entire team are absolutely committed to the same timetable and are working toward June 30th as the deadline for these talks.”

Kerry himself expressed optimism as his plane took off from Geneva, saying on Twitter that that was eager to return to work.

“Look fwd to getting leg set & getting back to @StateDept!” he tweeted. “Meantime, work goes on. Big thanks for well-wishes. #Onward.” In a French-language tweet, Kerry thanked the local Swiss and French police and emergency workers, calling them “real professionals.”

The State Department referred questions about Kerry’s treatment and recovery time to his physicians.

But Harf stressed that Kerry expects to participate in person in upcoming rounds of negotiations with Iran.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest appeared less certain but maintained that Kerry’s broken leg wouldn’t derail the talks.

“We do continue to believe that we have the time and resources necessary to pursue and hopefully complete the Iran negotiations,” Earnest said, expressing confidence that Kerry will continue to play a “critically important and leading role” with hopes of completing the deal by the end of the month.

He said, however, that it was unlikely Kerry would be able to return to his previous pace of travel for the talks.

And, the broken leg has already hit his travel plans.

Kerry had planned to travel to Madrid on Sunday for meetings with Spain’s king and prime minister, before spending two days in Paris for an international gathering to combat the Islamic State. He will now participate in the Paris conference remotely.

Kerry had been taken by helicopter to the Geneva hospital following the accident on Sunday after a paramedic and a physician who were traveling in his motorcade at the time of crash provided him with immediate attention. X-rays confirmed the extent of his injury.

His regular government plane returned Sunday night to the United States carrying much of his staff and reporters who had accompanied him on the trip. He had hoped to leave later in the day on a plane fitted with special medical equipment.

Kerry’s cycling rides have been a regular occurrence on his trips. He often takes his bike with him on the plane and was riding that bicycle Sunday.

TIME Iran

Ignore the Noise in Washington and Tehran. An Iran Nuclear Deal Is Still Likely

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses military commanders in Tehran on April 19, 2015,
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses military commanders in Tehran on April 19, 2015,

Despite the criticisms around the Iran negotiations, a deal is still more likely than not. But the real challenge will be implementation

In his first public comments after the U.S. and Iran settled on a nuclear framework agreement, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pulled no punches: “The whole problem comes now that the details should be discussed, because the other side is stubborn, difficult to deal with, breaks promises and is a backstabber.”

Critics quickly pointed to the statement as proof that hopes for a final deal are evaporating. But the Ayatollah’s combative words don’t move the needle on whether we’ll get a final deal by the June 30 deadline.

Khamenei is posturing for two separate audiences. His hardline supporters in Iran could undermine his political authority if they believe he is capitulating to the West. The Ayatollah needs to placate this group while his negotiators, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, hammer out a deal behind closed doors. His second audience is the Western negotiators with whom he is trying to drive a hard bargain. Khamenei’s comments put more pressure on them, and sends a signal to his own negotiators not to cede ground.

But Khamenei authorized Iran’s president to appoint negotiators to work out a deal. The Supreme Leader has praised those negotiators via Twitter. The talks couldn’t have progressed this far if Khamenei wasn’t serious about getting a deal done to escape Western sanctions.

In fact, American detractors of the potential deal are engaging in a very similar form of theater. U.S. politicians want to score political points as much as their Iranian counterparts do: congressional Republicans and GOP presidential hopefuls are badmouthing the deal to ding President Obama and gain traction on the biggest global issue of the day. But the reality is that it will be impossible for Republicans to peel off enough Democrats to reach a veto-proof majority and overturn a final deal. The international community favors an Iran deal, and the American public is wary of undertaking military actions that could lead to another Middle East war.

A final deal between the U.S. and Iran remains more likely than not, but it’s not vitriolic tweets that threaten it most—it’s the remaining sticking points between the two sides. How much enriched uranium would Iran be allowed to stockpile? How much will a deal limit nuclear research using advanced machines? At what pace and in what sequence will the West lift sanctions while Iran carries out its end of the bargain?

These are critical and complex questions, but both sides know that they exist, and nothing that has been said from the sidelines in Tehran or Washington has changed that.

Yet even if the U.S. and Iran manage to agree on a final deal, the negotiations won’t end. The devil lies in the details of implementation. What happens if the U.S. discovers in four or five years that Iran is cheating, hiding nuclear weapons work from inspectors? How feasible will it be to punish Iran for undermining a deal, especially once sanctions are peeled back and Iran emerges from international isolation?

Reaching a deal is one thing. Making sure it doesn’t unravel is something else—and something that may be even tougher.

TIME 2016 Election

6 Poems 2016 Candidates Should Read

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signs the guest book at the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland on July 3, 2010.
Drew Angerer—AFP/Getty Images Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signs the guest book at the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland on July 3, 2010.

It's National Poetry Month and the official start of several 2016 campaigns

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” to contrast the difference between the soaring rhetoric of a candidate and the workaday efforts of an elected official.

That’s even more true this April, which is both National Poetry Month and the likely kickoff of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, among others.

Here’s a look at six poems the candidates might want to read.

“I Hear America Singing”
by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work…

Walt Whitman briefly worked as an editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, not too far from where Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters will be located. Although not overtly political, his poem “I Hear America Singing” celebrates blue-collar jobs, a staple of campaign rhetoric. Throw in a few clips of Iowa farmers and this could be the voiceover of a positive ad.

“Next to of course god america i”
by e.e. cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go…

On the other end of the spectrum, e.e. cummings’ “Next to of course god america i” is a parody of typical campaign rhetoric, mashing together various patriotic cliches. The sardonic final line — “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water” — brings to mind Marco Rubio, who famously took a swig of Poland Spring in the middle of his response to the 2013 State of the Union.

“Exquisite Candidate”
by Denise Duhamel

I can promise you this: food in the White House
will change! No more granola, only fried eggs
flipped the way we like them. And ham ham ham!
Americans need ham! …

Less bitter than cummings’ take on political rhetoric, Denise Duhamel’s humorous 1961 poem is a nice palate cleanser for voters who are tired of hearing the candidates make false boasts and empty promises. Frankly, whoever can say “I am the only candidate to canoe over Niagara Falls / and live to photograph the Canadian side” gets our vote.

“Let America Be America Again”
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free…

There’s some risk for candidates who borrow a turn of phrase from a poet. Conservatives criticized John Kerry for using the opening line as an unofficial campaign slogan in 2004, while Rick Santorum backed away from it during the 2012 campaign, in both cases because of the Communist leanings of poet Langston Hughes. Another line in the poem—”America never was America to me”—also undercuts political use of the poem.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
by Robert Frost

…The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Robert Kennedy cited this Robert Frost poem as a favorite of his late brother, President John F. Kennedy, arguing that it “could apply it to the Democratic Party and to all of us as individuals.” It’s also pretty good inspiration for the poor candidate trudging along the campaign trail, making promises to voters.

“September 1, 1939″
by W.H. Auden

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Written during the early days of World War II, W.H. Auden’s dark poem gained new resonance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. It also played a role in one of the most famous political ads in history, Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy,” which ends with a nuclear explosion and a brief excerpt from a speech in which LBJ paraphrases the line: “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

TIME Iran

These 5 Facts Explain the State of Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Brendan Smialowski—Reuters Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sanctions, demographics, oil and cyberwarfare

As leaders in the United States and Iran maintain laser focus on the ongoing nuclear negotiations, it’s valuable to take a broader look at Iran’s politics, its economy, and its relations with the United States. Here are five stats that explain everything from Iran’s goals in cyberspace to its views of Western powers.

1. Sanctions and their discontents

Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran’s economy is 15 to 20% smaller than it would have been without the sanctions that have been enacted since 2010. They leave Iran unable to access nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in reserves the country holds in international accounts. Iran’s oil output has fallen off a cliff. Four years ago, Iran sold some 2.5 million barrels of oil and condensates a day. Over the last year, the country has averaged just over a million barrels a day. Even as the exports have fallen and the price has plummeted, oil still accounts for 42% of government revenues. Iran’s latest budget will slash spending by 11% after accounting for inflation.

(Bloomberg, The Economist)

2. Cyber-spending spree

But despite the belt-tightening, Tehran has been willing to splurge in one area. Funding for cyber security in the 2015/16 budget is 1200% higher than the $3.4 million allotted in 2013/14. Up until 2010, Iran’s chief focus in cyberspace was managing internal dissidents. But after news of the Stuxnet virus—a U.S.-led cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program—went public in 2010, Iran’s leaders shifted gears. According to one estimate, Iran spent over $1 billion on its cyber capabilities in 2012 alone. That year, it conducted the Shamoon attack, wiping data from about 30,000 machines belonging to Saudi oil company Aramco. In 2013, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard publicly declared that Iran was “the fourth biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies.”

(Global Voices, Wired, Strategic Studies Institute, Wall Street Journal)

3. New generation and old leadership

The median age in Iran is 28, and youth unemployment in the country hovers around 25%. Nearly seven out of ten Iranians are under 35 years old, too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979. But the country is controlled by older men, many of whom had an instrumental role in the revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 75 years old; there have been concerns about his health and Iran’s eventual succession plan. Iran’s Assembly of Experts is an opaque institution with huge symbolic importance: it is tasked with selecting and overseeing Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Assembly’s Chairman passed away in October at the age of 83. His replacement? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is…83 years old.

(New York Times, CIA World Factbook, BBC)

4. The feeling is mutual

Over 70% of Iranians view the United States unfavorably—and 58% have “very unfavorable” views. On the flip side, more than three-quarters of surveyed Americans have unfavorable views of Iran. But that’s a more modest stance than some other European powers: 80% of French and 85% of Germans have unfavorable views of Iran. According to recent polls, Iran is no longer considered “the United States’ greatest enemy today.” In 2012, 32% of those polled chose Iran, good for first place. In 2015, just 9% selected Iran, placing it fourth behind China, North Korea and Russia, respectively.

(Center for International & Security Studies, Pew Research Center, Vox)

5. Support for a deal?

Negative views of Iran haven’t undermined Americans’ desire to try and cut a deal: 68% of Americans favor diplomacy with Iran. It’s a bipartisan majority: 77% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans are in favor of talks. Iranians have mixed expectations: only 48% think that President Rouhani will be successful in reaching an agreement. But if we do see a final deal, a lot more than Iranian oil could open up. Western businesses would love to break into a country that is more populous than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Israel, Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan combined.

(Center for International & Security Studies, CNN survey, CIA World Factbook)

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 26

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. It’s time to break up the NSA.

By Bruce Schneier at CNN

2. By prescribing appearances, sororities are contributing to a culture of segregation.

By Clio Chang in U.S. News and World Report

3. In Egypt, the U.S. still values security over human rights.

By the Editorial Board of the Washington Post

4. Bartering for eggs is saving giant turtles in Cambodia.

By Yoeung Sun at Conservation International

5. How does Internet slang work its way into American Sign Language?

By Mike Sheffield, Antwan Duncan and Andrew Strasser in Hopes and Fears

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Nigeria

Nigeria’s Delayed Election Gives President a Convenient Time-Out

Nigeria cited security concerns in postponed ballot — but incumbent Goodluck Jonathan stands to benefit most from it

When Nigeria’s government first floated the idea of postponing upcoming presidential elections last month due to concerns about the country’s readiness, the proposal was widely derided as a cynical political ploy. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, once considered a shoo-in, was facing an unexpectedly strong campaign from former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. An Afrobarometer poll released on Jan. 27 indicated that the two were neck-and-neck. Delaying the election, pro-Jonathan pundits suggested, would give the president more time to make his case for why he should remain at the wheel. Opponents said it would enable his People’s Democratic Party, facing its first defeat after 15 years in power, to dig deeper into a sizable war chest—and state coffers—to outspend Jonathan’s rival.

Those calculations will now be put to the test. Late Saturday evening, Nigeria’s independent election commission bowed to pressure and announced that presidential elections, originally scheduled for Feb. 14, would be postponed until March 28. Nigeria’s widely-respected election commission head Attahiru Jega cited security concerns as the reason for the delay, saying that he had been informed that the country’s overstretched military forces would not be able guarantee voters’ safety. “The commission cannot lightly wave off the advice of the nation’s security chiefs,” Jega said at the press conference. “Calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility.”

To be sure, Nigeria’s military is facing a serious threat in the advance of Boko Haram, a 6000-strong Islamist insurgency that has taken control of a wide swath of northeastern Nigeria. In recent weeks the militants have driven entire units from strategic posts, laid waste to multiple villages, launched suicide bomb attacks, and advanced into neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

But in January, Nigerian military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade assured TIME that the country’s army would be well up to the task of defending its citizens come election time. So what changed? According to Jega’s official statement, the combined heads of Nigeria’s security services indicated that the army was about to launch a major military operation against Boko Haram, and would not be available to provide backing to the police and other agencies during the next six weeks.

Still, some in Nigeria balked at the idea that the country’s entire military force, which had until recently deployed only one brigade during the whole course of the six-year insurgency, would be otherwise engaged on the day of elections. “The government knew of the security situation all along, so to postpone the polls under the pretext of suddenly now concentrating military and other security resources against the insurgency is absolutely untenable,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The United States, too, made it clear that it wasn’t buying it. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “disappointed” by the postponement, suggesting that the commission was forced to make the decision. “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “It is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

It also raises the question of what happens if the operation fails. The government is “asking for six weeks to deal with an insurgency it had failed to deal with in almost six years,” says Obasi. “What will happen to the national elections if the security situation in the northeast does not improve significantly in those six weeks?”

Obasi says the postponement is pure politics. “Jonathan and his ruling PDP were clearly in deep waters, so desperately needed to buy time and try to regain steam. The timing of the postponement, the untenable reasons advanced for it and particularly the underhand methods by which it was executed, all leave no doubt that it was driven by narrow political interests rather than national security considerations.”

While Buhari made it clear that he believed the postponement to be an underhanded attempt to bolster Jonathan’s chances at the polls, he also called for calm. “Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process,” he told supporters at a rally Sunday.

Delaying the vote, he implied with a good dose of bravado, would only make his candidacy more appealing to an electorate tired of Jonathan’s mismanagement and political shenanigans. “If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band.”

If the security situation does improve over the next six weeks, it is likely to have little to do with the efforts of the Nigerian military. Niger’s parliament is set to vote Feb. 9 on sending troops to aid Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, and the African Union has pledged an additional 7,500. That influx of troops could help Jonathan’s chances at the polls. The incumbent’s campaign has been dogged by his poor record on security, something that Buhari, a former military dictator with a strong-arm reputation, has used to his advantage. Military successes would reverse Jonathan’s bad record.

But the delay could also backfire spectacularly, allowing Boko Haram more time to launch attacks. The militia has no horse in this race, and has threatened both Jonathan and Buhari. Boko Haram is just betting that as long as the country can’t agree on a leader, it won’t be able to agree on a counter-insurgency policy either.

TIME People

John Kerry Is in Trouble for Not Shoveling His Snow

US Secretary of State Kerry in Nigeria
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference within his official visit in Lagos, Nigeria on January 25, 2015.

The Secretary of State was fined $50

We all have excuses for putting off clearing our sidewalks after a storm, but attending the funeral of a deceased world leader seems like a particularly good one. Yet the city of Boston was unsympathetic when Secretary of State John Kerry failed to shovel the walk in front of his Beacon Hill residence after this week’s snow storm, fining him $50.

While Kerry was in Saudi Arabia attending the funeral of King Abdullah, a snow removal company did not remove the snow from his drive because it was blocked off by tape, the Boston Globe reports. Since the snow clearers thought it was police tape, they did not clear the walk. When they understood it was just a precautionary measure, they set to work shoveling the snow late Thursday morning.

Kerry’s spokesman Glen Johnson said of the incident, “Diplomats—they’re just like us,” and confirmed that the secretary will “gladly” pay the fine.

[Boston Globe]

TIME portfolio

The 32 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From fireworks in Munich to tiger cubs in London, TIME shares the most outrageous images from January 2015

Phil Bicker, who edited this photo essay, is a Senior Photo Editor at TIME

TIME Nigeria

Stable Elections in Nigeria Threatened by Boko Haram’s Latest Attacks

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan to discuss peaceful elections at the State House in Lagos, Nigeria on Jan. 25, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye—AFP/Getty Images US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan to discuss peaceful elections at the State House in Lagos, Nigeria on Jan. 25, 2015.

Nigerian militants laid siege to military bases in the northern capital of Maiduguri on Sunday, raising questions about the army’s ability to combat the insurgency

As campaign season ramps up ahead of Nigerian general elections on February 14th, President Goodluck Jonathan has sought to downplay an insurgency in the country’s northeast that has been raging almost as long as he has been in power. The rise of Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based militant Islamist group best known for vicious attacks on military targets and its penchant for kidnapping women and girls and conscripting men and boys, has stymied Jonathan’s government since the former vice-president ascended to the presidency in 2010.

The insurgency has killed an estimated 11,000, according to the Council on Foreign Relation’s Nigeria Security Tracker. Unable to defeat it, the Jonathan campaign has chosen to all but ignore it as the president asks his people for an additional four-year term. But that strategy backfired on Saturday night, as militants swept into the strategic northern capital of Maiduguri just hours after Jonathan stumped for support from city residents.

The militants, who reportedly infiltrated the city of two million disguised as travelers on local buses, laid siege to key military installations and battled into Sunday. The Nigerian army eventually beat them back, but the fact that they were able to penetrate the city undetected raises questions about the military’s ability to defeat the movement, and, as the country’s Commander-in-Chief, Jonathan’s commitment to the fight.

Even as the insurgents retreated in Maiduguri, others looted, killed and abducted residents in a string of attacks on unguarded villages about 200 kilometers away, according to local authorities. As with previous attacks, such as an assault on a military base and several nearby villages that started Jan. 3 and killed scores, the government response has been muted.

Amnesty International, which has been closely documenting Boko Haram’s expansion, warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in a statement released Sunday, noting that the capital had already seen a massive influx of rural residents fleeing the violence over the past several months. “These ongoing attacks by Boko Haram are significant and grim news. We believe hundreds of thousands of civilians are now at grave risk,” said Africa Director Netsanet Belay. “People in and around Maiduguri need immediate protection. If the military doesn’t succeed in stopping Boko Haram’s advance they may be trapped with nowhere else to turn. The government’s failure to protect residents of Maiduguri at this time could lead to a disastrous humanitarian crisis.”

Boko Haram’s increasing boldness comes at a delicate time for Nigeria, which is just three weeks away from an election that promises to be the closest in the country’s short democratic history. Jonathan is up against former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, who has made security the main issue in his campaign platform. Elections in Nigeria are invariably accompanied by violence — the 2011 elections saw some 800 killed in post-polling fighting when Buhari lost to Jonathan — and fears are rife that Boko Haram could take advantage of the instability to sow further discord, or advance while the security services are distracted.

The United States has expressed concerns that the elections could usher in a new wave of violence, particularly if allegations of rigging by either side are widespread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Lagos on Sunday to reiterate the U.S.’s desire to see clean elections. “This will be the largest democratic election on the continent,” Kerry said at a press conference following meetings with the two main candidates. “Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections be conducted peacefully — that they are credible, transparent and accountable.” But obstacles are rife: some 25 million registered voters have yet to receive their biometric voter identity cards. There is not yet a system in place for an estimated one million internally displaced to cast their votes. And the ongoing violence in the northeast could prevent voters in what is traditionally a Buhari stronghold from coming to the polls.

On Jan. 22, Jonathan’s national security adviser Sambo Dasuki suggested at a meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at London’s Chatham House that the elections be postponed, but such a delay risks prolonging the instability and prevents a unified response against Boko Haram. On the same day, government spokesman Mike Omeri announced that Nigeria was considering bringing home some 3,000 soldiers deployed in international peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa to help secure the elections and combat the insurgency. But the military’s inability to combat Boko Haram has less to do with numbers than a longstanding history of alleged corruption within the leadership ranks, a lack of adequate weaponry and logistical supplies, unpaid salaries and poor training, according to several military analysts and frustrated soldiers. Dasuki, in his Jan. 22 Chatham House comments, defended the military leadership and instead blamed cowardice among the troops for Boko Haram’s advance. “We have people who use every excuse in this world not to fight. We’ve had a lot of people who we believe joined because they wanted a job, not because they wanted a career in the military. And it’s most of them who are running away and telling stories,” he said.

While in Lagos, Kerry reiterated the U.S.’s continued backing for Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. But that support comes with caveats: the Nigerian government must ensure that the upcoming elections will be fair and transparent. “Bottom line, we want to do more,” he said. “But our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency, and peacefulness of this election.” But doing more won’t help if Nigeria’s current leadership, both miltary and civilian, don’t want to do more to help themselves.

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