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 visited here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the African Union 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, where 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.
On Saturday night, Mr. Kerry met with the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, to discuss Syria, the Middle East peace process and the status of Egypt's difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
"How is it going with Syria?" Mr. Morsi asked at the start of the meeting before it was closed to reporters.
"I'll let you know in a few days," Mr. Kerry said. "We are working it."
As Mr. Kerry visits Africa, Nigeria is pressing its fight against Islamist militants, France is preparing to hand over much of the responsibility for protecting Mali from Islamist fighters to an African force, and tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have flared.
The African Union meeting itself was a somewhat chaotic event. Hundreds of seats in the Millennium Hall here were empty for the evening speeches by African heads of state and foreign dignitaries. The event was interrupted when the power briefly went out.
Mr. Kerry was expected to speak at the session, and American reporters were taken there to cover it. But when other speakers ran long, his speech was deferred until a dinner at a hotel.
At the dinner, Mr. Kerry sat next to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and discussed Nigeria's fight with Islamist militants and the need to safeguard human rights, a State Department official said.
The Nigerian president 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.
In a statement this month, Mr. Kerry noted "credible allegations" that Nigerian forces had been engaged in "gross human rights violations."
Mr. Kerry returned to that theme Saturday in a 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 is not an adequate strategy, he added.
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 Ali Ahmed Karli, the foreign minister of Sudan, Mr. Kerry said he planned to send a special envoy to work on reducing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan.
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 that rebels in Sudan had received from South Sudan. Mr. Kerry had been expected to speak with President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, but the meeting did not occur, and officials said they planned to reschedule it.
The African Union, the organization that Mr. Kerry was 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 of African Unity, emphasized African self-reliance and independence.
But those notions quickly curdled into a doctrine that led some African leaders to believe that they were above reproach.
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."
In recent years, the African Union has increasingly taken a leading role in peacekeeping missions in some African conflicts.
Lydia Polgreen contributed reporting from Johannesburg.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.