The Executive Council of the 55-nation bloc made the decision after mutinous soldiers overthrew Niger’s democratically elected president almost four weeks ago and quickly entrenched themselves in power, rebuffing most dialogue efforts. President Mohamed Bazoum, his wife and son have been kept under house arrest in the capital, Niamey.
The suspension announcement was the council’s first public communication since it met earlier this month to discuss Niger’s crisis. The body made up of foreign ministers called on the African Union's other member nations and the international community to reject the “unconstitutional change of government and to refrain from any action likely to grant legitimacy to the illegal regime in Niger.”
A suspension means Nigerien representatives, from the head of state down, no longer can vote on AU proposals or participate in the organization's committees or working groups. The council's action was part of a standard playbook the AU and regional bodies have taken in response to coups elsewhere in Africa, Nate Allen, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said.
Also on Tuesday, the military junta that seized power in Niger suspended authorization for German, Canadian and Czech nationals to import or carry weapons in the West African nation, a Western official told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The prohibition came from Niger’s Ministry of Defense and was communicated by the Nigerien embassies in the countries, said the official, who lacked authorized to speak to the media by name in line with regulations governing his work.
The AP saw a copy of the letter sent by Niger’s Embassy in Germany, which said it was suspending “the issuance of authorizations for the individual and/or collective carrying of firearms on Nigerien territory until further notice.”
It was unknown if other countries with a military presence in Niger, including France, Belgium and the United States, received the same directive, though it is believed they did, according to the Western official. It’s also unclear if the order applies to past agreements or only new ones.
If it is retroactive, the edict would represent a significant escalation in Niger's deteriorating diplomatic relations with other countries and cripple the ability of any present force to train or to protect their embassies, said Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
It also points to the junta that seized power being agitated about a potential invasion by foreign forces, especially France, according to analysts.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which has struggled to beat back a string of coups in recent years, has threatened a use of force if Bazoum is not reinstated. While a deadline to restore him to power came and went with no intervention, the junta is worried that former colonial ruler France will attack, according to an official present at recent talks between the junta and ECOWAS who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Talks to resolve the crisis peacefully so far have yielded little, and the junta is plowing ahead with its plans for governing, saying it would restore the country to constitutional civilian rule within three years.
The junta said last week that it plans to prosecute the deposed president for “high treason” and undermining state security, charges that are punishable by death. People close to Bazoum say his electricity and water were cut off and he is running out of food.
Rights groups also say they’ve been unable to access ministers and political elites who were detained after the July 26 coup.
The African Union's Peace and Security Council on Tuesday asked ECOWAS and the AU Commission, which is based in Ethiopia's capital and oversees the bloc's day-to-day affairs, to submit a list of the military junta's members for the purposes of imposing targeted sanctions. It also requested the names of the junta's military and civilian supporters, including those involved in the violation of the human rights of Bazoum and other detainees.
The Peace and Security Council could overrule a military intervention if it felt that wider stability on the continent was threatened by it. It has not so far, but analysts say such a move would leave ECOWAS with few grounds under which it could claim a legal justification to use force in Niger.
“While ECOWAS member states approved military intervention to reestablish Mohamed Bazoum into power, the AU remains divided and hesitant about the use of force. There are countries that are opposed to a military intervention," Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, said.
The Peace and Security Council urged the Nigerien military to immediately and unconditionally return soldiers to their barracks and submit to civilian authorities.
Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this story.