ABUJA, Nigeria—With his oil-powered economy faltering and just five weeks to go before he faces a close election, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is appealing to the U.S. to send combat troops against his country’s most intractable problem: the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram.
The 57-year-old president of Africa’s largest democracy said in an interview that he has been asking the U.S. since early 2014 to send combat soldiers along with military advisers to Nigeria to battle Boko Haram. Citing intelligence reports, he said the militants were receiving “training and funds” from Islamic State, the jihadist group whose leadership is based in Iraq and Syria.
“Are they not fighting ISIS? Why can’t they come to Nigeria?” Mr. Jonathan said, in his first interview with Western media this year. “Look, they are our friends. If Nigeria has a problem, then I expect the U.S. to come and assist us.”
In Washington, a senior official at the State Department said it hadn’t received any request for troops from Mr. Jonathan’s government. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said there were no plans to unilaterally send U.S. troops to Nigeria. But he said the U.S. is discussing its participation in a multinational task force with African nations to assist Nigeria. The task force will be designed to help build up Nigeria’s own counterterrorism capabilities, he said.
“These discussions are really just now starting,” Adm. Kirby said. “I can tell you that there are no plans as I speak here…unilaterally to send or to add U.S. troops into Nigeria. There are no U.S. troops operating in Nigeria.”
The U.S. maintains a drone base in Chad, from which it conducts surveillance flights to monitor Boko Haram. It has provided training and some equipment to the Nigerian military, including $80 million of such support last year alone. Some U.S. legislators have said they want Special Forces troops shipped to Nigeria to help combat Boko Haram.
But various issues have prevented closer cooperation. Training exercises with the army have been canceled over equipment disputes. Allegations that Nigeria’s military is guilty of grave human-rights abuses in battling Boko Haram—charges that Mr. Jonathan asserts are overblown—cloud the relationship. Many U.S. officials doubt that Islamic State would be able to forge a working partnership with a distant insurgency like Boko Haram, although the two groups voice mutual admiration.
Given the prickly U.S.-Nigeria ties, Mr. Jonathan’s request marks “a 180-degree turn,” says J. Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. Africa Command and Africa director at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Tackling Boko Haram has become all the more urgent as Mr. Jonathan deals with a raft of other serious challenges.
In five weeks, he will face the closest election in the country’s history—polls have him running even with retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator vowing to crush Boko Haram. The sinking price of oil, a tumbling currency and dogged allegations of a multibillion-dollar oil corruption scandal have weighed on a president whose campaign ads picture him as the smiling face of a nation marching forward.
“It’s only the dead person that does not face problems,” Mr. Jonathan said, in Nigeria’s presidential villa, playing down the stresses of the office.
Six years ago, at an auspicious moment for Africa’s most populous country, then-Vice President Jonathan, a former zoologist, inherited the presidency upon the death of his predecessor. The next year, he won one of the fairest elections ever in a country notorious for ballot-box thuggery—he carried 59% of the vote, nearly twice the tally of his nearest rival.
His time in office coincided with a period of broad economic growth in Africa, spurring the rise of a nascent consumer class. Under Mr. Jonathan, Nigeria averaged 7% growth each year. And last year, it surpassed South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy.
But the country’s mood has shifted. Boko Haram has given the nation a drumbeat of attacks, abductions and setbacks for the Nigerian army. The sect was still fighting with bows and arrows when Mr. Jonathan took office in 2010. These days, it has tanks, armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns.
Almost 20,000 people have died in the conflict under Mr. Jonathan’s watch, according to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The fighting—frequently involving Boko Haram slaughtering villagers and burning down their homes—has displaced some 1.5 million people, many into squalid refugee camps. By the end of last year, Boko Haram occupied a swath of Nigeria the size of Belgium.
Last week, the army said it couldn’t yet guarantee the safety of the election. Nigeria’s electoral commission postponed the vote from Feb. 14 to March 28 to give the military time to make significant progress in clearing Boko Haram from the area where it exerts control.
Within eight weeks, Mr. Jonathan said, “we will be able to take over all the territories that they are holding.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Jonathan’s other problems are mounting. The tumbling price of oil has been a shock for this nation, whose government gets 80% of its revenue from crude exports, and saved very little of that money under his watch. On Wednesday, the country’s currency, the naira, hit a record low. Some civil servants have gone unpaid.
Against that backdrop, the president said he was counting on votes from rural Nigeria, where access to fertilizer has become easier under his watch.
“Yes people in the city vote, they make so much noise, but the bulk of the voters come from the countryside,” he said. “For you to know whether I win this election or not, go interview the farmers.”
Mr. Jonathan dismissed other frequently mentioned public concerns. Reports of corruption in the military were exaggerated, as were human-rights abuses, he said. There were few immediate actions needed to clean up the petroleum sector.
The opposition has accused his military of tilting the election his way. Last week, an opposition-leaning website published an audio recording of several military leaders allegedly conspiring to rig a governor’s election that took place in November 2014. A U.S.-based voice-verification firm, Guardian Consulting LLC, confirmed the authenticity of the tape to a 95% accuracy rate.
Mr. Jonathan said he saw no reason to probe whether Nigeria’s democracy had been contravened. “It’s all fabrications,” he said of the audio. “Why should I investigate things that are not real?”
“It’s very sad,” said Kayode Fayemi, the incumbent who lost that election. “The military has lost any democratic control.”
Concerning the 1.5 million people uprooted by BokoHaram, Mr. Jonathan said the government had provided them with enough funding.
“Whenever you have so many people who are displaced there must be stories,” he said. “Even in our small families, some children get hungry sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’ve not been feeding them.”