ABUJA (Reuters) - Legal battles have begun within Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) even before it has chosen its nominee for presidential elections in April, undermining hopes that the process will run smoothly.
Africa's most populous nation is gearing up for the most fiercely contested election since the end of military rule more than a decade ago, with the ruling party deeply divided over who should run on its ticket.
Three members of the PDP went to court on Thursday, a week ahead of the primaries, to try to stop President Goodluck Jonathan from contesting, a lawyer for his main rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, told Reuters.
The move comes after other party members filed a suit to try to prevent Abubakar from standing in the primaries.
Jonathan is considered front-runner as the incumbent, but he is a southerner and faces opposition from northern factions in the PDP who say that a power-sharing or "zoning" deal means the next president must be a northerner such as Abubakar.
"Members of the party have today sued the party on the grounds that Goodluck Jonathan should not run due to the zoning agreement. The case has been adjourned until Monday," Atiku's lawyer Rickey Tarfa said.
"Zoning is in place and it should be respected."
The continent's top oil exporter is hoping to avoid a repeat of chaotic 2007 polls, so marred by intimidation and fraud that observers deemed them not credible. The resulting court battles lasted years, undermining the winner's ability to govern.
The primaries are only the first hurdle in the electoral process and history could easily repeat itself.
The PDP is due to screen and clear candidates for the primaries on Tuesday ahead of the Thursday vote. While the court cases may not disrupt that timetable, they do raise the prospect of prolonged legal disputes whatever the outcome.
Jonathan's opponents argue the zoning agreement, under which power is supposed to rotate between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms, will be broken if he stands in the election.
Jonathan inherited the presidency after his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua, a northerner, died part way through his first term last year. Jonathan is now seeking what would have been Yar'Adua's second term.
The PDP has already said Jonathan is free to contest because he was elected on a joint ticket with Yar'Adua.
Two of Atiku's opponents in the PDP meanwhile launched a court case to try to disqualify him from the primaries because of accusations of corruption earlier in his career.
Local newspaper reports say the two party members have also filed for an injunction preventing the PDP from screening and clearing him to contest the primaries.
Tarfa dismissed the case against Atiku.
"They have no right to bring this case. It is based on frivolity," he said.