FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh arrives for a summit in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 27, 2014.
FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh arrives for a summit in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 27, 2014.

DAKAR - A month after 29-year-old Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh seized power in Gambia in a bloodless coup in 1994, the U.S. ambassador cabled Washington to warn that the "anti-western" and "anti-democratic" new president was seeking an "open mandate."

As Gambia marks the 21st anniversary of Jammeh's rule, Andrew Winter's warning still resonates as rights groups accuse the president of cracking down on opponents ahead of an expected bid for a fifth term next year.

Unlike long-ruling African leaders in Burundi and Burkina Faso, where presidential efforts at term extensions have sparked violent demonstrations, Jammeh appears unlikely to encounter resistance in his tiny West African country.

Gambia has not seen a public protest since 2000 when security forces killed 14 people, a government inquest showed. A shambolic coup attempt in December last year led by U.S.-based Gambians was quickly snuffed out.

Jammeh, who once told a reporter he could rule for "a billion years," has scrapped term limits from the constitution and blocked an attempt by regional bloc ECOWAS to reinstate them in May. The bloc refused to send observers to the last polls in 2011, citing intimidation of the opposition and the electorate.

"The chances of political change are very, very slim, mostly because the regime ensures the opposition remains weak," said Sidi Sanneh, a former foreign minister who has become a U.S.-based dissident.

The government denies that civil liberties have worsened and says that Gambia has been transformed during Jammeh's rule from a near Stone Age economy to a modern nation.

Jammeh is perhaps best known outside Gambia for a claim to have found an herbal cure for AIDS. His country, a tiny beach-fringed strip of land surrounded by Senegal, attracts thousands of sun-seeking tourists from Britain and the Netherlands each winter.

But thousands of young Gambians from a population of less than 2 million are fleeing each year in the other direction, seeking a better life in Europe, according to EU migration data. Sanneh says next year's election offers scant opportunity for change.

The government passed a law this month raising the running costs for presidential candidates to 28 times the average annual income of $450, in what is said was a move to ensure parties are well-led. Police halted an opposition party tour in April because they lacked a permit, local paper Foroyaa said.

By contrast, a large parade and state banquet were planned on Wednesday to mark "Revolution Day" — the anniversary of Jammeh's arrival in power — an event more celebrated than independence from Britain in 1965.

"Since the December attacks he is increasingly insecure," said Abdoulaye Saine, a U.S.-based author and professor. "He was nervous before but now he is really lashing out against any perceived threat."

Death penalty expansion

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report growing repression since December's failed coup. Three alleged plotters face execution and dozens of people are missing, campaigners say.

In a country with army check points every few kilometers, security is increasing, residents said. Jammeh, known as "oga" or boss by soldiers, has boosted the numbers of his Jola ethnic group in the army, they said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also complained of attacks on press freedom. It said journalist Alagie Ceesay was bundled into a car and detained by suspected government agents for nearly two weeks and freed on July 13, only to be abducted again four days later.

Information Minister Sheriff Bojang said he was not available for comment. He told local media in June: "The Gambia has achieved significant progress in legal due process, press freedom and trafficking in persons."

However, local sources told the U.N. Special Rapporteur in a May report of a place called Bambadinka in the National Intelligence Agency headquarters used for interrogation and torture. Gambia says the allegations in the report are unsubstantiated.

Jammeh proposed a bill last month that would increase the crimes punishable by death, according to a copy seen by Reuters. The last reported executions were in 2012 by firing squad.

Migration increases

Allegations of rights abuses come as one Western diplomat in the region said relations with Gambia are at an all-time low. Jammeh pulled Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013, calling it neo-colonial, and in June, the EU's top diplomat was expelled after a meeting with the government.

European Union data shows that a growing number of Gambians are seeking asylum in Europe, a trend linked to a 2014 recession caused by drought and an Ebola scare that hit tourism.

Applications more than tripled in 2014 to 11,515 and rose again in the first quarter. Most were young adults and 200 were unaccompanied minors. An unknown number have drowned in the Mediterranean.

In May, Jammeh suggested families could do more to prevent migration.

"Some parents do not mind how their children earn their income in Europe, all they are interested in is the remittance sent to them," he said.

Moses Abukari, Gambia country manager for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said youth migration from rural areas was creating labor shortages.

The government wants to make Gambia self-sufficient in food. But the International Monetary Fund warned that a 15 percent drop in production last year has "serious implications" for food security as the so-called hungry months between harvests approach.

"Instead of voting with marbles, they [youth] are voting with their feet," said Sanneh, referring to a method of voting by dropping marbles into urns.