Jonathan is favoured to win the election in Africa’s largest oil producer after defeating a challenge from the country’s mainly Muslim north to take the ruling party nomination.
The rally takes place in a 15,000 seater stadium in the symbolic city of Lafia — seat of Nigeria’s ancient kingdoms — in the so-called middle belt which lies in the middle of the country’s two main religious groups.
“This is going to be a mother of all rallies and is to herald the nationwide campaign of the election,” said Ken Giadu, a spokesman for Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is divided almost in half with the north being mainly Muslim and the south predominately Christian.
Jonathan emerged as the PDP candidate last month, upsetting an internal party arrangement that sees power rotated between the north and south every two terms.
He is from the southern oil-rich Niger Delta and came to power last year after the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner who had not yet finished his first term.
High-profile politicians from the north had opposed the candidature of Jonathan, a Christian, on grounds that Yar’Adua died before he completed the term alloted to their region.
However, the party’s rule is variously viewed as an outdated policy pandering to ethnic politics and a power-sharing deal helping to hold together the vast country of 150 million people.
Presidential, legislative and state governorship elections are set for April in ballots where ethnic, religious and regional factors are likely to play key roles.
Security has been tightened in and around the city of Lafia, capital of Nassarawa State. Police spokesman Yemi Ajayi said 16 special police units, including the anti-terrorism and anti-bomb squads, have been deployed.
Police from six states neighbouring Nassarawa, including Plateau — whose capital Jos has been the flashpoint of sectarian violence — have been roped in to step up security for the rally.
Deadly bomb attacks have hit Jos and the capital Abuja in recent weeks, while violence has also targeted political rallies elsewhere in the country.
Nassarawa State commissioner for information Mohammed Talkayi said: “We are assuring everybody of massive security and protection during the campaign.”