Abuja - The police withdrew all security guarding parliament speaker Aminu Tambuwal, the country's fourth most powerful government official, a force spokesman said on Thursday, after his defection to the opposition coalition.
Tambuwal bolted to the All Progressives Congress (APC) from the ruling People's Democratic Party on Tuesday, a move boosting the PDP campaign to unseat President Goodluck Jonathan in the February 2015 election. He has not yet resigned as speaker.
The vote is expected to be Nigeria's most closely contested since the 1999 end of military rule and will come against the backdrop of a growing threat to Africa's biggest economy and energy producer posed by Islamist Boko Haram insurgents.
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The withdrawal of Tambuwal's security detail indicates how bitter the contest between Jonathan and his APC opponent could become. The top two contenders for the APC ticket are former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari and recently defected vice president Atiku Abubakar.
Jonathan's office confirmed on Wednesday that he will seek a second presidential term.
"In view of the recent defection by the Right Honourable Aminu Waziri Tambuwal ... the Nigeria Police Force has redeployed its personnel attached to his office," force spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu said in a statement.
After the vice president and senate president, the speaker of the lower legislative house is third in the presidential line of succession.
Senior Nigerian politicians usually travel with a whole convoy of police cars and armed protection that provide security and help them push through heavy traffic. Wealthy Nigerians often simply hire federal police privately for this purpose.
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Officials at Jonathan's PDP have hinted that Tambuwal should resign as speaker, since he was elected on a PDP platform.
"The speaker knows full well what is needful and honourable of him since his new party is in the minority," PDP spokesman Olisa Metuh said in a statement on Tuesday.
The opposition rejected this.
"We wish to call on Nigerians to condemn this affront on the fourth citizen of our nation and insult on our representatives ... It is the constitutional right of Tambuwal to freely associate with any party of his choice," the chairman for the APC in oil-producing Rivers state said in a statement.
Tambuwal's defection added to signs that the election may be becoming more polarised around religion. Tambuwal is a northern aristocrat from the powerful Sokoto Caliphate, Nigeria's highest Islamic authority, while Jonathan is a Christian southerner.
Such polarisation could lead to violence if it ignites sectarian tensions after the results, analysts say, as happened in 2011 when 800 people were killed in riots after Buhari lost.