Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's office on Friday denied that he favored the north of the country over other regions, after he was criticized for asking the World Bank to focus on the region.
The northeast in particular has been wracked by an eight-year Islamist militant insurgency that has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2 million to flee their homes, spawning what the United Nations says is one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told journalists on Thursday in Washington that Buhari, himself a Muslim from the north, had asked the bank to focus on that region of Africa's most populous country when they first met.
That led to criticism in the domestic press and social media from those who say Buhari has an anti-south agenda, highlighting the deep ethno-religious tensions in the country.
Buhari's spokesman Femi Adesina said there had been a "deliberate twisting" of the president's words to make it sound like he wanted to give the north an unfair advantage over other regions.
"President Buhari has a pan-Nigerian mandate, and he will discharge his duties and responsibilities in like manner," Adesina said in an emailed statement.
"Any part of the country that requires special attention would receive it," said Adesina.
The presidency said Buhari had made the comments to the World Bank president in July 2015 when the lender pledged financial support for Nigeria.
Opposition party member Femi Fani-Kayode, a former aviation minister who served under former president Goodluck Jonathan, whom Buhari defeated in a 2015 election, expressed outrage at the comments.
"Why am I not surprised? After all as far as @MBuhari is concerned southern Nigerians and Middle Belters are nothing but low-lifes, vassals and slaves," he posted on his Twitter feed.
Buhari has in the last few weeks criticized secessionists in the country of 180 million, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims and around 250 ethnic groups who mostly live peacefully side by side.
Some separatist critics of his administration, including those calling for the secession in the southeast, have also accused the president of focusing on his own part of the country.