LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A splinter group has been formed within Nigeria's ruling party by a former presidential candidate and seven governors who want more action against poverty and crime, one of the governors said Monday, in the first major internal challenge to the president since he was elected in 2011.
Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, the governor of the southern Rivers state, told reporters that they hope to "transform from just a party that presents a candidate to a party with certain ideology."
He said the new group within the ruling People's Democratic Party, or PDP, wants the government to do more to fight poverty and insecurity as well as improve education.
"If you don't deal with poverty, you have insecurity," Amaechi said. "If you remove impunity then you don't have anything to worry about."
The governors made their move during a weekend convention by President Goodluck Jonathan's party, which has won every election since decades of military dictatorship ended in 1999 and democracy was restored. The final trigger for the splinter group came amid an internal fight to fill vacant positions within an influential committee of the ruling party.
Another senior party member, former interim PDP leader Kawu Baraje, said on Saturday that it was their "sacred responsibility to save the PDP from the antics of a few desperadoes who have no democratic temperament and are therefore bent on hijacking the party for selfish ends."
Amaechi insisted, however, that they remain part of the PDP.
"I think the splintering itself is generally a positive thing," said Raufu Mustapha, a Nigerian lecturer on African politics at the University of Oxford in England. "The party's power was beginning to threaten the quality of democratic expression in the country, so anything to strangle that threat is a good thing."
Mustapha said tension within the ruling party had been festering for some time, and called it a struggle for power rather than an ideological contest "because most of them are cut from the same cloth." But they have started an important debate and some represent change, he added.
The governors lead states that tend to have high voter turnout in elections, presenting a challenge to the current leadership of the party. Nigeria, which has a population of more than 160 million, holds elections in 2015.
Jonathan, who as vice president came to power after President Umar Yar'Adua died in 2010, has not said if he will run again. He would face the challenge of a coalition of three opposition parties.
Some northern politicians within the ruling party don't want Jonathan, a southerner and a Christian, to run for a second four-year term, objecting that northerners were cheated of their turn at the presidency when Yar'Adua died.
Analysts say there is an unwritten agreement within the ruling party that power must be shared between the north and the south and a northern president should be succeeded by a southerner in order to balance power in Africa's most populous nation.
Nigeria is divided about equally between Muslims who dominate the north and Christians who live mainly in the south.
Traditional rivalries between Christians and Muslims have intensified because of an Islamic uprising in Nigeria's northeast. The Boko Haram terrorist network is accused of killing more than 1,700 civilians since 2010, according to a count by The Associated Press.