Nigeria's ruling party has accused some of its most senior members of trying to form a breakaway faction, a row which could split the party and alter the political landscape ahead of presidential polls next year.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP) has won every presidential election since Nigeria's return to democracy just over a decade ago and its overwhelming dominance has left Africa's most populous nation virtually as a one-party state.
A split could pave the way for two strong presidential candidates in next year's election, ending the current status quo in which the ruling party nominee is assured victory.
The PDP National Working Committee, which manages the party's daily affairs, said it had summoned 19 "respectable members" including former Senate presidents, ex-ministers and ex-state governors to defend themselves on Thursday against accusations of plotting a challenge to the party leadership.
It said the 19, meeting under the umbrella of "PDP Reform Group", were thought to be "engaged in conduct likely to cause disaffection among members of the party".
"The subversive activities of this group ... amount to gross indiscipline and will soon be met with disciplinary measures," PDP spokesman Rufai Alkali said in a statement.
PDP sources and members of the reformist group, who declined to be identified, said their aim was to reform the party so as to break the stranglehold of the powerful state governors, who have been the kingmakers in previous party primaries.
They argued the governors' caucus has become so strong that it prevented other candidates having a shot at the presidency.
"The calibre of individuals that are apparently behind this 'reform' group should be very worrying for the ruling party as they are influential voices," said Kayode Akindele, a director at financial advisory firm Greengate Strategic Partners.
"A resolution will have to be sought that will placate both sides so the issue doesn't turn into a real schism."
The sickness of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who returned from a Saudi clinic in February but remains too ill to rule, had already raised the prospect of rifts within the PDP if it struggled to agree on who his successor should be.
Yar'Adua, a northerner, is too sick to run for a second term and under an agreement among the party elite that power should rotate between the Muslim north and Christian south, Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, would also be expected not to contest.
But the rotation agreement has no constitutional basis and Jonathan has not ruled out running in the polls. Some northerners have said they would support him, but his candidacy could prove divisive.
Former military leader Ibrahim Babangida, a highly influential figure known by his initials IBB, has said he plans to run as a PDP presidential candidate nearly a quarter of a century after he first came to power in a bloodless coup.
His declaration ahead of the PDP primaries has raised questions about whether he too would enjoy the support of the whole party.
Although the commercial hub Lagos and northern state of Kano, home to Nigeria's two biggest cities, are opposition strongholds, the PDP has a strong majority in both houses of parliament and holds over three quarters of Nigeria's 36 states.
Opposition control of Lagos and Kano makes little difference in the national political equation as federal government coffers are so disproportionately large that control of the centre is all that matters in a political system based on patronage.
ReutersLast Mod: 21 Nisan 2010, 21:14