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FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a van decorated with pictures of Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, in the southern city of Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, Nigeria October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tife Owolabi/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS (Reuters) - The main opposition challenger to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in next year's election has selected a former governor from the southeast of the country to be his running mate, the candidate's spokesman said on Friday.

Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president who will stand as the candidate for the People's Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 2019 vote, chose Peter Obi, formerly governor of the southeastern state of Anambra.

The choice points to a strategy to generate support in the southeast, where Buhari has polled badly in past elections and cracked down on secessionists by deploying troops on the streets. Geographical affiliations are crucial in a sprawling nation of 190 million people from 250 ethnic groups.

Obi, a 57-year-old who was governor of Anambra from 2006-2014, had a background in business prior to entering politics, including a stint as chairman of Nigeria's Fidelity Bank.

"Mr. Obi's choice was largely influenced by his youthfulness, vast knowledge of global and local economics as well as being a financial expert, all experience which Nigeria is in great need at this point in time," Abubakar's spokesman said. "This ticket will be able to steer our nation back on the path of progress, economic prosperity and unity."

Buhari's handling of one of Africa's biggest economies since taking office in 2015 has become a central campaign issue. The country emerged in 2017 from its first recession in 25 years but economic growth remains sluggish and inflation is above the central bank's single-digit target.

Abubakar, who like Buhari is a Muslim from northern Nigeria, has long enjoyed support from the country's business elite and as vice president from 1999-2007 implemented a liberalisation programme in areas such as the telecoms sector.

Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives, described Abubakar's choice of Obi as "a very good addition to the ticket".

"(Obi) brings a reputation for having business acumen and integrity. It makes for a very interesting race," said Rewane.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo on Thursday endorsed Abubakar, his former deputy, for the top job. Marking the end of a long-standing public feud between the two men, Obasanjo said Abubakar's experience could make an administration led by him "business-friendly".

(Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Reuters