The mediator appointed by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS has been meeting with a coalition of Niger's opposition and civil society groups in Abuja in a bid to find a solution to the West African country's constitutional crisis. 

A meeting involving a 41-member opposition delegation and ECOWAS-appointed mediator, former Nigerian military ruler Abdulsalam Abubakar, explored ways of narrowing differences between Niger's government and the opposition before a wider stakeholder forum at a later date.

Abubakar held talks on Monday with a 22-member government delegation led by former prime minister Seini Oumarou, who heads Niger's ruling party.

ECOWAS last month suspended Niger from its fold after President Mamadou Tandja and his allies ignored the bloc's call for a delay in holding legislative elections to allow dialogue with the opposition.

ECOWAS Commission President Mohammed Ibn Chambas, told VOA Niger must resolve its political crisis through dialogue to pave the way for its return to ECOWAS membership.

"We want to see a normalization of the situation between Niger and the ECOWAS region," Chambas said. "Lately, there has been a major problem regarding governance in that country and that is why today Niger finds itself in a position of being suspended from ECOWAS, which is very regrettable because Niger has been an exemplary member of our community.  So we want the root causes of this problem to be addressed so that Niger can take its proper place within ECOWAS community."

Niger has been thrown into crisis after President Tandja won broader powers and an extended mandate in a widely criticized referendum in August.  Critics at home and abroad say Tandja's grip on power is creating serious tensions in Niger, and could provoke instability.

The European Union has suspended development aid to Niger and given the authorities there a month to begin talks on a return to "constitutional order."