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ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian lawmakers who defected to the main opposition coalition must vacate their seats, a court has ruled in a victory for President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of what will be a closely fought election in February 2015.
The 37 lawmakers defected from Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP) to the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) in December, leaving the PDP without a majority in the lower house.
"It is clear and unambiguous that the defendants were sponsored by the PDP and won the election on its platform," Justice Adeniyi Ademola said late on Monday. He added that there was also no evidence of division within the PDP, which might have provided a case for them to keep their seats.
"The defendants are, therefore, not competent to vote or contribute to any proceedings in the House of Representatives."
He also issued an injunction "restraining them from altering or attempting to change the leadership of the house".
The lawmakers were not immediately available for comment. Their lawyers said they would appeal. At the end of that process through the various levels of court, there would have to be by-elections for the seats if the ruling was not overturned.
The ruling is a moral victory for Jonathan, although it is unlikely to have a material impact on his election chances or on legislation stuck in parliament such as the Petroleum Industry Bill, which seeks to reform everything from the mismanaged state energy company to fiscal terms with oil majors.
With the election cycle under way, few analysts expect many laws to be passed before February 14, 2015, polls.
Africa's second largest economy and top oil exporter is growing as an investment destination but political upheaval remains a concern, especially as elections often see a spike in government spending and social unrest.
The PDP has been in power since shortly after the end of military rule in 1999, but it has been riven by internal squabbles centered on Jonathan's assumed intention to run for another term in office. He has not said whether he will.
Many northerners feel Jonathan's running again would violate an unwritten PDP rule that power should rotate between the largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south every two terms.
He has also come under fire for his record on tackling an increasingly bloody Islamist insurgency in the northeast and a series of damaging corruption scandals in the oil industry, one of which Jonathan responded to by removing the central bank governor who exposed it, Lamido Sanusi.
As well as the lawmakers, five influential state governors and former vice president Atiku Abubakar have defected to the APC, seen as having a better chance than any previous opposition of taking on the ruling party.
Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams