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Nigeria's Acting President Calls for Ruling Party Unity Amid Political Crisis

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Nigeria's acting president is calling for ruling-party unity after the suspension of more than a dozen members who want to change the way the party chooses its candidate for next year's presidential election.  The party's chairman is facing criminal charges of corruption.

Chairman Vincent Ogbulafor says the would-be reformers were suspended from the People's Democratic Party because their refusal to meet with party leaders last week was, in his words, "aimed at ridiculing the party."

"Considering the grave nature of those against these members of the PDP reform forum, the national working committee resolves to suspend them from the party," said Vincent Ogbulafor.

Members of this reform forum want to make the selection of party candidates more transparent, which would likely weaken the influence of powerful state governors.  They also want chairman Ogbulafor dismissed because he is facing federal corruption charges.

Acting president Goodluck Jonathan is calling for party unity during what he says is a particularly challenging time for the PDP.

"People do things that sometimes they are supposed not to do," said Goodluck Jonathan. "People say things that they are supposed not to say.  And most especially, some of these statements that are put across. either through communication or text messages - some of them are true, some half-truths, but most of them are completely blanket lies."

Mr. Jonathan says Nigeria's political climate will only grow hotter as the election approaches, and he is calling on ruling party members to stay calm.

"I would plead with our party members that because probably people are thinking more of 2011 elections, a number of issues will come up," he said. "But whenever you hear some stories, take pains to find out [the truth] before you react."

There is considerable tension within the party about who will succeed President Umaru Yar'adua, who is too ill to finish his first term.

Ogbulafor says the nominee should be from the north, to complete the eight years promised to northern politicians under an informal power-sharing agreement that rotates the presidency between the mainly-Muslim north and largely-Christian south every two terms.

Acting President Jonathan is from the south, and he has not ruled out running next year.  Mr. Jonathan did not directly address the issue of his potential candidacy in remarks to party leaders, but he did warn that internal conflicts threaten the party's continued dominance of Nigerian politics.

"So we should not be tempted to divide among ourselves but work together," said Goodluck Jonathan. "In terms of political ambitions, every human being is free to aspire to any office in life.  But within this period, while we are doing that, we should do it in a way that will not overheat the polity."

Mr. Jonathan has not spoken publicly about the corruption charges facing party chairman Ogbulafor.  Aides say that would be inappropriate as the matter is still before the courts.

A 16-count indictment by Nigeria's Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission alleges that Ogbulfaor was part of a group that conspired to steal public funds through phony contracts in 2001.

Ogbulafor says the charges are without merit.

"Let me, with all sense of responsibility, state that I am innocent of the allegation," he said.

He will be arraigned before Abuja's High Court on Monday.

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