LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's faction-ridden ruling party lost its majority in the House of Representatives as 37 legislators defected to a new opposition coalition Wednesday, in a major blow to President Goodluck Jonathan before 2015 elections.
It's an unprecedented position for a ruling party in Africa's biggest oil producer and indicates a tough electoral battle ahead for the People's Democratic Party that has won every election since civilian rule was restored in 1999, ending decades of military dictatorship.
Jonathan has been coy about whether he will run again for president, but his ambitions appear clear to fellow politicians who have warned him not to upset the delicate balance between the country's Muslims and Christians and to stick to an unwritten party rule to alternate the presidency on those lines. Nigeria is divided almost equally between a predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south.
A letter from the defectors read in the House of Representatives in Abuja, the capital, cited divisions in the party for their action.
Five state governors defected last month, leaving the ruling party with the support of fewer governors than the All Progressives Congress coalition.
Many of those defecting have indicated their desire for the governing party to field a northern Muslim candidate in 2015.
Jonathan, a southern Christian from a minority tribe, is accused of condoning massive corruption and fueling divisions in the party and the country as it confronts a bloody Islamic uprising in the northeast, ongoing deadly ethno-religious clashes in central Nigeria and renewed militancy in the oil-rich south along with crippling oil thefts by armed gangs believed to benefit politicians. Experts estimate Nigeria is losing up to 200,000 barrels of oil a day to theft.
The Nigerian leader also has come under fire for doing nothing to address a formal complaint this year from the Central Bank that some $43.75 million in oil revenues is missing from the treasury.
On Monday, 46 pro-democracy groups called for an investigation of suggestions that Jonathan is training a killer squad to target more than 1,000 political enemies on a hit list.
Jonathan hasn't responded to any of the allegations but his special adviser, Reuben Abati, called them "the most reckless, baseless, unjustifiable and indecorous charges levied against him and his administration."
He was talking about a damning letter from Jonathan's former mentor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who accused the Nigerian leader of resorting to self-serving sentiments of religion and regionalism and thus "preying on dangerous emotive issues that can ignite uncontrollable passion and can destabilize, if not destroy, our country."
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.