By Sahabi Yahaya
KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan appealed to Muslim leaders on Sunday to help ensure that elections next month, which risk stoking regional rivalries, pass off peacefully.
Africa's most populous nation holds presidential, parliamentary and state governorship elections spread over three weeks in April, all of which are set to be fiercely contested.
Jonathan met with the Sultan of Sokoto, one of Nigeria's most influential Islamic leaders, and other senior figures from the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and Muslim umbrella organization Jamatul Nasir Islam in the northern city of Kaduna.
Nigeria is home to the largest Muslim community in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for roughly half of the country's 150 million people, as well as to more than 200 ethnicities, most of whom generally live peacefully side by side.
But ethnic and religious rivalries bubble under the surface and the candidacy of Jonathan, a Christian from the southern Niger Delta, has fueled resentment from some in the north who believe the next president should be a northern Muslim.
Jonathan is running for what would have been the second term of late President Umaru Yar'Adua, a northerner who died last year leaving Jonathan to inherit the country's highest office.
His main rival in the presidential race is former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner whose reputation as a devout Muslim and a disciplinarian means he has strong grass roots support in large parts of the north.
"Some members of the political class may be very desperate to win the elections by all means," Jonathan said after the meeting, also attended by the Emir of Kano and Shehu of Borno, the leaders of Nigeria's other two main Muslim dynasties.
"They will create a lot of problems and the only people who can counsel us are religious leaders and our traditional rulers ... I am requesting for you to continue to impress on all Nigerians the need for peaceful coexistence," Jonathan said.
Some diplomats and political analysts fear protests in parts of the north if, as widely expected, Jonathan wins the April 9 presidential election, particularly if the polls are deemed to have been anything other than free or fair.
Nigeria also holds parliamentary elections a week before the presidential vote and governorship elections in its 36 states a week later.
VIOLENCE A CONCERN
The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa'adu Abubakar, commended Jonathan for reaching out to Muslim and traditional leaders and said he was "on the right path." But he also voiced concern about violence around the country as the elections approach.
More than 200 people have died in sectarian clashes since late December around Jos in the Middle Belt, which lies between the Muslim north and largely Christian south.
Although not all of violence is directly election-related, the tensions are rooted in rivalry over political and economic power and have been exacerbated in the run-up to the polls.
Buhari's team accused the police of killing four supporters during a rally in Jos last week, while the security forces found bomb-making equipment at a house in the city.
There has also been a spate of political killings in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in the northeast, which have been blamed on radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, although many analysts believe the group's name is being used as a front.
Gunmen shot dead a youth leader from the opposition All Nigeria People's Party on Sunday, the latest killing blamed on the sect. The party's candidate in forthcoming governorship elections was gunned down in January.
There has also been unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
Local reports said four people were killed in rioting between supporters of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the southeastern state of Akwa Ibom last week. Jonathan said on Sunday 500 vehicles and a school had been burned in the unrest.
The ACN's candidate for the Akwa Ibom governorship, James Akpanudoedehe, was charged with treason on Friday for alleged involvement in the violence. The ACN accused the government of "intimidation" and called for his release.
Three people were killed by an explosive device thrown from a car at a PDP rally in Suleja, just outside Abuja, on March 3, three months after a car bomb exploded in the capital.
(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Nick Tattersall)