Governors of Nigeria's northern states said on Tuesday southern President Goodluck Jonathan had the constitutional right to stand in elections next year but stopped short of endorsing him, eyeing protection of unwritten agreement between the country's two nations.
A presidential bid by Jonathan in 2011 would be sensitive because he is from the Christian south, and an unwritten agreement in the ruling party dictates the president serving the next term should be from the Muslim north.
The so-called "zoning agreement", under which the presidency rotates every two terms, is designed to protect peace between two main regions in Africa's most populous nation.
Jonathan took over as head of state in May after the death of northern President Umaru Yar'Adua, part way through his first term in office. Under the zoning principle, a northerner should complete what would have been Muslim Yar'Adua's second term.
Jonathan's supporters startes to cliam the zoning agreement should "be jettisoned" to clean the way for a new term for Jonathan, but the endorsement of the northern governors will be crucial if he is to carry the ruling party with him.
"The forum recognises the right of President Goodluck Jonathan and indeed of any other Nigerian to legitimately and constitutionally contest for the office of the president," Niger State Governor Babangida Aliyu, who is chairman of the Northern Governors' Forum, told reporters after a meeting in Kaduna.
But the 19 governors concluded that as the zoning principle was an internal agreement within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), only the party could decide whether to abandon it.
"Wider consultations should continue at all levels within the PDP and all stakeholders across the nation ... in the interest of peaceful coexistence in our dear country," Aliyu said, reading from a communique.
The declaration does little to end uncertainty over who will contest the election with just 6 months to go until polling day.
The House of Assembly on Tuesday passed a constitutional amendment, ratified last week by the Senate, bringing the polls forward to January, shortening the campaign period, putting pressure on the PDP to organise primaries, and on electoral authorities to implement badly needed reforms.
The decision on announcing candidacy for polls could also have implications for stability in some of Nigeria's most notorious flashpoints.
ReutersLast Mod: 28 Temmuz 2010, 11:48