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Gambia's Dictator Bans Parties to Sharpen His Edge in Vote

Gambia's young military leader has disregarded the recommendation of an independent electoral commission and is insisting that presidential elections be held on schedule, to the surprise of observers. But the catch is that he will not lift a long-standing ban on political parties until early August, though the election is set for September 11. The commission argued for a delay to allow enough time for a legitimate campaign.

Chairman Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh declared Monday that any aspiring candidate defying the ban "will be executed and buried six-foot deep." He was speaking at the opening of a 115-foot arch commemorating the second anniversary of his Army's overthrow of Sir Dawda Jawara, one of Africa's longest-serving democratically elected leaders.

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But Capt. Jammeh himself often holds campaign-style rallies and has his every move featured prominently in the government media - tactics similar to those used by the coup-maker in Niger who won elections there last month. Observers expect Jammeh will declare himself a candidate.

One Gambian who has defied the ban is the local British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent, who announced during a broadcast last month that he will run if Jammeh does.

"I know I am breaking with journalistic tradition but my voice is the only alternative Gambians get to hear nowadays," said the correspondent, Ebrima Ceesay.

Yet while Mr. Ceesay sees a need to "level the playing field," he admits Jammeh has made positive reforms.

"Certainly with Sir Dawda there was respect for human rights and freedom of the press," he says. "But in 30 years he never built one high school." Jammeh built five, though he never completed his own schooling, and he plans to found the country's first university.

He has also improved roads, telecommunications, and health facilities. Last January, the country's first television station began broadcasting. A new international airport is to replace the one the American Federal Aviation Administration considers substandard. And a new hospital is due next year - the first since Gambia's independence from Britain in 1965.

Since foreign aid was cut after the 1994 coup, projects have been partly funded by money confiscated during corruption inquiries into the former regime. Assistance now comes from Nigeria and Libya. Taiwan covered much of the $1.5 million spent on the new arch - money Jammeh says came from God.

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