By Felix Onuah
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan sacked nine ministers on Wednesday in his first major cabinet reshuffle, as he looked to rally support in an increasingly divided ruling party.
The dismissals, which did not impact key finance and oil positions, come less than two weeks after seven ruling party governors and a former presidential candidate formed a splinter group opposed to Jonathan.
The split within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has been in power since shortly after the end of military rule in 1998, is centered around Jonathan's assumed plan to run again in 2015, although he has not declared his intentions.
Jonathan removed the ministers of foreign affairs, education, science and technology, housing and urban development, national planning, and environment, a presidency spokesman said.
The junior "ministers of state" for power, agriculture and defense were also dismissed.
"He said he needed to inject new blood for more service delivery, hence the need to adjust his cabinet," Information Minister Labaran Maku told reporters.
Other ministers will take on the responsibilities of the vacant positions until Jonathan decides on replacements.
"Since these positions are not of huge policy significance it appears to be more of a political play than a change of economic direction," said Clement Nwankwo, a political analyst at the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.
However, Maku denied Jonathan was using the reshuffle to bring more of his core supporters into his cabinet.
"It is part of the process of improving service delivery and not with any political undertone," Maku said.
Jonathan held mediation talks with members of the breakaway PDP faction into the early hours of Wednesday but they ended without a resolution and experts believe the internal dispute could rumble on for months and possibly until elections.
"It would be suicide for the defectors to come back now, equally Jonathan can't realistically meet their demands," one source close to the negotiations told Reuters.
Among the demands of the breakaway faction are that Jonathan publicly says he will not run in 2015 and that he sacks the PDP chairman Bamanga Tukur, replacing him with a candidate of the faction's choosing, three political sources told Reuters.
The PDP chairman has a strong influence over the voting for the party's presidential candidate.
"Some of the demands are unconstitutional. These demands are not in accordance with the law," Ahmed Gulak, Jonathan's political adviser, told reporters after the talks on Wednesday. Gulak did not give details of the demands.
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.
Wrangling will erode the political will needed to push through reforms, including to Africa's biggest energy industry.
The Petroleum Industry Bill, a long-delayed law that could unlock billions of dollars of oil and gas investment, looks increasingly unlikely to pass before the elections.
The OPEC member is already losing around 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) of its 2.5 million bpd oil output capacity due to widespread oil theft and pipeline shut-ins.
The open rebellion could mean that Jonathan's loyalists will 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.
There will be an increased risk of instability as the poll approaches. Violence, always high at election time, may worsen, as rivals use unemployed youth militia to settle scores.
(Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Andrew Roche)