Nigeria's Ruling Party Trims Presidential Field

In Nigeria, 29 candidates seeking the nomination of the ruling People's Democratic Party are facing a screening panel before Saturday's presidential primaries. Gilbert da Costa reports for VOA from Abuja.

The 10-man screening panel is assessing the contenders on a criteria, which include integrity, patriotism, commitment to the rule of law, and leadership quality.

But analysts say, the rather broad guidelines provide an opportunity to screen out candidates who do not enjoy the support of President Olusegun Obasanjo. The Nigerian leader has a strong grip on the People's Democratic Party leadership.

Former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida reportedly withdrew from the race following speculation that he was not a favored candidate and may be disqualified by the screening panel.

Party spokesman John Odey denies the party is being guided by Mr. Obasanjo in the selection of its presidential candidate.

"From the beginning of the process, the president has not advised or influenced anybody to pick nomination form, in the middle of this process, the president has not advised or influenced anybody to withdraw, and I do not think that we will see his hand explicitly as the president other than to cast his vote, which he has one," Odey says.

Only candidates approved by the screening panel will be allowed to stand in this weekend's primaries.

With 29 candidates jostling for the solitary ticket, the party spokesman says pruning down the number is inevitable.

"For us, it is an interesting development," Odey says. "It is a measure of our strength. We are happy about that, but for effective management we have advised that they should whittle down the number so that it can become easier for us to manage at the convention and that process is on and Babangida's decision is even a welcome development because it has helped to commence the process of whittling down the number and hopeful, others might now begin to horse-trade and the number will reduce to a manageable level."

The People's Democratic Party has ruled Nigeria since 1999, with the return to democracy in Africa's most populous nation. The party is regarded as having the best chance of winning the presidency in 2007.

The constitution bars President Obasanjo from seeking a third term. The April election should mark the first time an elected Nigerian president hands over the office to another.