Nigeria ruling party leader supports Christian president, despite rule calling for Muslim

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The leader of Nigeria's ruling party said Thursday that he believed the West African nation's president should be allowed to run in next year's election, despite a power-sharing agreement that calls for a candidate from the Muslim north.

People's Democratic Party chairman Okwesilieze Nwodo's endorsement of southern Christian President Goodluck Jonathan's candidacy comes as an election could be held as early as January in the oil-rich nation. Nwodo made the comments just before a party meeting Thursday night about the informal power-sharing agreement that attempts to satisfy the country's Christian-dominated south and its Muslim north.

The closed-door meeting lasted four hours. As officials left, they promised waiting journalists that the party would issue a statement Friday.

The unwritten agreement calls for the presidency to alternate between the north and south — a balancing act aimed at placating the two dominant religions in the country of 150 million people. Jonathan became president after the May 5 death of elected leader Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim northern. Party leaders anticipated Yar'Adua holding office for two four-year terms, like his Christian predecessor.

"We did not envisage that our dear president would die in office," Nwodo said before the meeting. "The party believes that Dr. Goodluck Jonathan — as part and parcel of the joint ticket — has the right to contest the presidential primaries for the 2011 elections, but this would not preclude anyone in the party from contesting."

Despite leaving the possibility of an internal challenge, primaries within the People's Democratic Party resemble coronations rather than political process. The party has dominated Nigeria's politics in the decade since democracy came to the nation, as its operatives wield the political muscle necessary to manipulate the country's unruly and corrupt electoral system.

Since taking office, Jonathan has declined to say whether he'd run for the nation's highest office in the coming election. In a June television interview on the state-run broadcaster NTA, he promised to announce his decision at "the proper time," saying announcing a decision now could put the country into political chaos as the government tries to reform its election laws.

However, most analysts assume the marine biologist from Nigeria's oil-rich and restive southern delta will run. Nwodo himself only took office after the party's former leader, who publicly declared a northern had to be the party's candidate, resigned after federal authorities charged him in a corruption case.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the U.S.