Security fears kept Nigeria's president from attending his party's gubernatorial primary on Saturday in his home state that has been tainted by an escalating row over the incumbent governor's exclusion from running.

Security was unusually tight for a local vote in the oil-producing state of Bayelsa, where political violence involving armed gangs has in the past had an impact on energy infrastructure in a key region for Africa's largest crude oil export business.

Goodluck Jonathan was expected to be back in his home region as the special guest but the heightened security risks kept him hundreds of miles north in the capital Abuja, his office said.

Helicopters swooped overhead and hundreds of armed soldiers guarded the streets of the state capital Yenagoa as delegates voted overwhelmingly for Henry Dickson as the PDP candidate in the Bayelsa governorship election in February next year.

Dickson won 365 of 384 votes cast.

He is a member of the national assembly and will now be favourite to become the next governor of Bayelsa, something most Nigerians would not have believed a week ago.

The PDP on November 13 listed sitting governor Timipre Sylva as one of four people who failed to get through a screening process to stand in Saturday's vote, the first time an incumbent PDP governor has been excluded from running for re-election in the party's primary.

Sylva and his supporters cried foul and won a court injunction last week delaying the vote until the PDP explained to the high court in Abuja why the sitting governor had been disqualified, but the party went ahead anyway.

Two candidates walked out of the primary saying the vote was not valid because of the court injunction and the absence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). INEC said it did not attend because of the court order.

Western diplomats and PDP sources said Sylva had made enemies at the very top of the party. Jonathan and Sylva are from the same area but the president has not spoken about his exclusion.

State governors are among the most powerful politicians in Nigeria, wielding influence over national policy and in some cases controlling budgets larger than small African nations.

The PDP is dominant in southern states and the incumbent governor is usually the firm favourite to win re-election.

Nigeria held nationwide presidential, local and gubernatorial elections in April that international observers said were the fairest since the end of military rule in 1999.

They were also some of the bloodiest as post-election violence left hundreds dead.

Five state governorship votes were delayed until 2012 because the incumbents had another year left on their tenure.

Bayelsa, one of three states in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta, is a volatile region, where oil theft, pipeline sabotage and kidnappings are common.

Pirates hijacked three ships in the waters around Bayelsa and took five people hostage on Friday, elevating fears that the political wrangling could lead to unrest.

Jonathan was Bayelsa state governor before becoming vice president in 2007.

(Reporting by Samuel Tife; Writing by Joe Brock)