By Camillus Eboh and Joe Brock
ABUJA (Reuters) - Rebel governors who defected from Nigeria's ruling party merged their splinter group with the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) on Tuesday, denting President Goodluck Jonathan's powerbase for possible re-election.
Governors are some of the most powerful figures in Africa's biggest oil exporter, some controlling budgets bigger than many African countries, and their influence carries a great deal of weight in selecting presidential candidates.
The seven governors and a former presidential candidate formed the splinter group opposed to Jonathan in August. All were present for the meeting at which the decision to merge was made, said Lai Mohammed, spokesman for the APC.
"After exhaustive deliberations, the two parties agreed to merge in order to rescue our fledgling democracy and the nation," said a joint statement, read out by Kawu Baraje, chairman of the splinter group, who is not himself a governor.
The defection of seven from his own party was seen as the most explicit internal threat to Jonathan's assumed plan to run in elections in early 2015 - although analysts questioned the influence of the governors, given some were due to leave office or represented states that Jonathan was unlikely to win anyhow.
The People's Democratic Party has been in power since shortly after the end of military rule in 1998, but it has increasingly been driven by internal squabbles.
Many northerners say Jonathan running again would violate an unwritten PDP rule that power should rotate between the largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south each two terms.
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 but defected nonetheless.
"They have come to join the APC. The governors have all agreed. We believe they are all on board," Mohammed said.
But official sources close to one state governor said that it was not yet a done deal, which leaves open the possibility that one or two of the governors may go back to the PDP.
Amaechi told Reuters by SMS text message that the splinter group had joined the APC and Baba Dantye, a spokesman for Kano state governor Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso, also confirmed the move.
"It is a blow to the PDP in terms of prestige, but most of the departing governors were from states where the president polled badly in 2011 and would not have been expected to win," said Antony Goldman, head of Africa-focused PM Consulting.
With most of the defecting governors due to leave office in 2015 it is unclear how much they can benefit the APC, Goldman said.
The more hotly contested the race, the more likely it is to turn violent, as it has in the past, analysts say.
It is also likely to hurt state coffers, as the demands of patronage needed to fight the poll grow.
(Additional reporting by Ibrahim Shuaibu in Kano and Tim Cocks in Lagos; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams)