ABUJA (Reuters) - The chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party said on Friday he would resign next month, giving President Goodluck Jonathan an opportunity to strengthen his grip on the party before elections next year.
Vincent Ogbulafor had faced mounting pressure to step down after authorities charged him with conspiracy and fraud relating to his time as a government minister in 2001. He pleaded not guilty last week.
“I hereby give 30 days notice of my intention to resign as the national chairman of the People’s Democratic Party,” Ogbulafor said in a letter to the party’s executive committee obtained by Reuters.
Ogbulafor said he was stepping down so he could prepare his defence against the corruption charges.
“Once again, let me reiterate that I am innocent ... and I am confident that I will be vindicated,” he said.
His departure will allow Jonathan to handpick a replacement to head the PDP, a party which has dominated Nigerian politics since the return to democracy just over a decade ago, ahead of the presidential election due by April 2011.
Analysts believe senior party members were already aiming to replace Ogbulafor to unify the PDP ahead of elections amid speculation that Jonathan may run for president.
“It is not possible to believe there is no link between the pressure for Jonathan to run for president next year and the removal of the party’s chairman,” said Bismarck Rewane, head of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives.
“Ogbulafor’s resignation opens the path for an alteration to the gentlemen’s agreement of zoning the office of the presidency. They are likely to pick a new chairman willing to make these changes,” he added.
Ogbulafor said last month the party nominee should be from the Muslim north, abiding by the terms of an unwritten agreement in the party that rotates the national presidency between the north and the mostly Christian south every two terms.
That would normally exclude President Jonathan, a southerner, from running for re-election in 2011. Jonathan has replaced President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner who died last week while in his first term of office.
Jonathan has declined to say whether he will run for president next year although he said in April he wanted at least three months to see how reforms enacted so far took hold.
“My prayer is that he will not (run in 2011),” said John Adeleke, a Lagos-based business consultant. “If he enters the race, we cannot have a free and fair election. It’s impossible.”
Cairo Ojuogboh, Jonathan’s assistant on National Assembly matters, said on Wednesday that he personally believed Jonathan would stand for president next year.
But Jonathan’s spokesman said Ojuogboh was in no position to make any declaration on the president’s plans.