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The Nebraska Democratic Party chairman on Sunday criticized Gov. Dave Heineman for granting an honorary admiralship in the Nebraska Navy to the Gambian president.

Vic Covalt said in a statement that it's an embarrassment for the state to have bestowed the honor on Yahya Jammeh, who's been accused of human rights violations.

"The sad fact is that we have the governor's office blindly sending out awards to warlords," Covalt said.

The fictional "Great Navy of the State of Nebraska" was started in 1931, and now boasts more than 100,000 admirals - including astronaut John Glenn, actress Shirley MacLaine and Mickey Mouse.

Gambia, a former British colony, is a tiny sliver of land surrounded on three sides by Senegal, in west Africa. Jammeh, who grabbed power in a 1994 coup, has become increasingly isolated and intolerant of criticism.

Heineman, a Republican, is being challenged for re-election this year by Democrat Mike Meister, a Scottsbluff attorney. A message left Sunday with Heineman's spokeswoman and an e-mail sent to the Nebraska Admirals Association, a group of the honorees, weren't immediately returned.

The navy started when Gov. Charles Bryan left the state for a few weeks in 1931, and put Lt. Gov. T.W. Metcalfe in charge. Metcalfe's friends had been goading him to appoint them to government positions, so he created the fictional navy and began appointing admirals.

The practice was later continued by Gov. Dwight Griswold in the 1940s, and the tradition was passed on to subsequent governors.

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Nebraska admirals are required only to "have contributed in some way to the state, promote the Good Life in Nebraska, and warrant recognition as determined by the governor," according to the application forms, which are available through the governor's office.

The governor retains full discretion for any admiralship requests, according to the state website.

Each admiral's commission comes with a certificate emblazoned with a picture of a covered wagon on a sandbar in a river, the state seal and bearded men rising from the sea.

It charges "all officers, seamen, tadpoles and goldfish under your command to be obedient to your orders as admiral."

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