Jonathan's decision to contest in the presidential  election has drawn criticism from northern leaders [Reuters]

Nigeria's ruling political party the is gearing up to pick its presidential candidate for the April election.

The People's Democratic Party (PDP) vote on Thursday pits Goodluck Jonathan, the president, against Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president, and highlights the religious and ethnic faultlines still running through Nigeria.

Those differences still lead to violence and killings even today and this election, challenging the notions of power-sharing in the ruling party, could stoke flames.

Nigerians on the street of Abuja on Wednesday were hopeful that whoever was chosen as the PDP candidate, the April elections would be "free and fair". 

Jonathan, a Christian from the nation's oil-rich southern delta, came into the presidency after the death of elected leader Umaru Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim, in May.

Under an unwritten power-sharing agreement in the PDP, the presidency should have been held for another term by a northerner because a southerner had it for the first eight years of democracy in the nation.

However, Jonathan has decided to contest the coming election.

This decision has drawn anger from northern leaders fearful of being cut out of the lucrative position of president in a nation flush with oil revenues.

Jonathan himself represents a minority ethnic group in the country, the Ijaw from the Niger Delta.

"We've been told a minority cannot be president, but in Jonathan, we are finding a minute minority tribe standing in an election," Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, the director-general of Jonathan's campaign, told the Associated Press agency in an interview on Wednesday.

Some hail his ascension as a sign that citizens in the country can first identify themselves as "Nigerian" rather than an ethnicity.

In the south, many also believe a candidate from the region deserves more time in power.

Potent force

Since Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960, the country's history has been dominated by military leaders hailing mainly from the country's Muslim north until democracy took hold in 1999.

All of the country's oil wealth flows from the south, but the north remains a potent force in the country's military and other power structures.

As is the case with the the campaigns of Abubakar, Jonathan and a minor candidate, Sarah Jubril, remain light on policy and rely heavily on personality.

Abubakar, a former customs officer who created an oil and gas empire, faulted Jonathan for being a candidate weak on experience who rose to power on "all accidental positions".

"He has not prepared himself to govern. He found himself accidentally as a president, and power being what it is, insists on continuing to govern," Abubakar said on Wednesday.

Jonathan first became governor of Bayelsa state only after the impeachment of the elected leader, then rose to the vice-presidency after being picked by Olusegun Obasanjo, the outgoing president.

Abubakar has also criticised Jonathan for not stopping the religious violence that has killed hundreds in the north over the last year and the recent bombings targeting Abuja.

He blamed the violence on weakness from Jonathan and the nation's endemic poverty.

World Bank statistics suggest most Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.

Source: Agencies