Nigeria's ruling party splinters, in threat to Jonathan

ABUJA (Reuters) - Seven Nigerian ruling party governors and a former presidential candidate formed a splinter group opposed to President Goodluck Jonathan on Saturday, in the most explicit internal threat yet to his assumed bid to run for another term in office.

Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party has been in power since shortly after the end of military rule in 1998, but it is increasingly riven by internal squabbles, centered around Jonathan's alleged intention to run again in 2015.

"We address you today as leaders of the PDP, who are worried by the increasing repression, restrictions of freedom of association, arbitrary suspension of members," read the statement by seven governors and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.

"We consider it a sacred responsibility to save the PDP from the antics of a few desperadoes who ... are bent on hijacking the party for selfish ends," it added.

Many northerners say Jonathan's running again would violate an unwritten rule within the PDP that power should rotate between the largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south every two terms.

But the president has also made powerful enemies elsewhere, including the governor of Rivers state Rotimi Amaechi, who is from Jonathan's own oil producing Niger Delta region.

Amaechi was on the list of governors joining the "new" PDP, along with six other governors from northern states.

The open rebellion against Jonathan in his party could lead to more instability as the poll approaches. Violence, always high at election time, may worsen, as rivals use unemployed youth militia to settle scores.

It could also mean that Jonathan's loyalists will be forced to use state funds to pay off rivals, draining the treasury in a pattern that often sees the country's savings depleted and debt soar around election time.

In Nigeria's federal system, governors are some of the most powerful officials in the country. Some control budgets bigger than many African countries, and their votes carry a great deal of weight in selecting presidential candidates.

Amaechi and Jonathan have been embroiled in a spat in the past few months, which worsened when Amaechi was elected head of the National Governors' Forum grouping Nigeria's 36 states.

Nineteen governors voted for Amaechi against the 16 who voted for Jonathan's preferred choice.

(Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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