U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Ethiopian Foreign Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom shake hands during a joint press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, May 25, 2013. (Jim Young/AP)

Visiting sub-Saharan Africa for the first time since taking office, Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday remained focused largely on the Middle East, particularly Egypt, whose cratering economy and political problems are dimming hopes it can play a major role in fostering any new peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry sandwiched a day of celebratory meetings at the African Union’s 50th anniversary summit in Ethi­o­pia between peacemaking efforts in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. He will return to the Mideast on Sunday, then go to Paris to compare notes on Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two have pledged to bring Syrian rebels and government leaders together for talks on ending the two-year conflict.

“How’s it going with Syria?” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi asked Kerry before the two sat down to discuss Egypt’s slow-moving efforts to comply with economic reforms crucial to securing international loans and investment. Progress that Morsi promised Kerry two months ago has not materialized.

“I’ll let you know in a few days,” Kerry replied during the few minutes reporters were in the room. “We’re working it.”

Kerry thanked the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian leader for his country’s cooperation in inaugurating new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, although Egypt’s role is far less visible under Morsi’s Islamic government than efforts undertaken when the secular autocrat Hosni Mubarak was in power. Egypt was one of several prominent Arab nations to back a renewal of a comprehensive Arab peace offering to Israel this year, but Qatar took the lead.

The International Monetary Fund said earlier this month that with Egypt’s fiscal picture worsening, it will not move ahead with a $4.8 billion loan, instead demanding new economic information and reform plans. Talks on an IMF loan, essentially a bailout, have dragged on for more than a year. Morsi has pledged unpopular austerity measures, but his government has repeatedly put them off.

Kerry’s meetings at the African summit began Saturday with a warning to close U.S. partner Nigeria that it must not condone human rights violations committed by its own forces fighting the Boko Haram militants in the country’s north.

“Boko Haram is a terrorist organization, and they have killed wantonly and have upset the normal governance of Nigeria in ways that are unacceptable, and so we defend the right completely of the government of Nigeria to defend itself and to fight back against terrorists,” Kerry said.

“That said, I have raised the issue of human rights with the government, with the foreign minister; we have talked directly about the imperative of Nigerian troops adhering to the highest standard and not themselves engaging in human rights violations and atrocities,” Kerry said at a brief news conference.

Boko Haram extremists are accused of terrorist attacks primarily against Nigerian police and Christian civilians. The group, whose informal name means “Western education is sinful,” is a fundamentalist Islamist movement that seeks to establish sharia law. It is accused of hundreds of killings in Nigeria.

Boko Haram is not on the State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, although U.S. officials have called it a terrorist group before. It is described as such on the National Counterterrorism Center’s Web site.

Kerry briefly saw Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on the sidelines of the gathering. Oil-rich Nigeria is a key U.S. partner both on and off the African continent, but the relationship is often troubled.

Although Kerry issued a statement May 17 accusing Africa’s most populous country of “gross human rights violations” following Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency in three northern Nigerian states, Kerry did not repeat that strong language Saturday.

“To their credit, the government has acknowledged that there have been some problems,” in the sparsely populated and partly ungoverned region, Kerry said. “They’re working to try to control it. It’s not easy.”

The Nigerian government offensive launched against Boko Haram this month is the widest since the group emerged three years ago. News agencies reported that Nigerian war planes had destroyed several Boko Haram training camps and arrested dozens of accused terrorists.

“One person’s atrocity does not excuse another’s,” Kerry said.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Kerry’s African meetings, said the United States is monitoring what it calls “heavy-handed” tactics by some Nigerian forces. The rights abuses continue, the official said, despite U.S. and other international objection.