The Gambia's President Adama Barrow defeated longtime leader Yahya Jammeh at polls in December
Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - President Adama Barrow may have been waiting to take power in The Gambia for nearly two months but many in the west African country have been longing for a change of guard for years.
Yahya Jammeh held on to power for so long that many Gambians almost began to believe his claim he would rule for "a billion years" if Allah willed it.
But after 22 years in the saddle, he lost the December 1 election but refused to cede power. Jammeh only left the country on Saturday and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea under threat of a regional military intervention.
"We have waited 22 years for this. We give him (Barrow) all our trust," said Ibrahima Jahama, plastering a billboard on the way to the airport in the capital Banjul ahead of the new president's arrival on Thursday.
At Banjul international airport meanwhile, marching bands were preparing to welcome a different president home amid heavy security provided by Senegalese and Nigerian special forces.
When Barrow finally arrived from neighbouring Senegal, where he has been living for safety reasons since January 15, dignitaries on the tarmac almost seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that Barrow was safe and sound.
"I'm a happy man today. It was part of the struggle and I think the bad part is finished now," Barrow told journalists before climbing into a reinforced vehicle and waving to fans out of the sunroof.
His supporters packed onto vans and taxis to follow him, immediately blocking all traffic and replicating the mobile rallies that he held as a candidate in November, where the streets filled with Barrow fans: a defiant gesture in a country where protest was largely illegal.
- 'Peace, love, unity! -
The long wait gave Barrow's supporters a chance to begin the party early in the kilometres of gridlocked traffic that stretched back from his convoy.
"Peace, love and unity!" shouted Binta Makah, swinging her legs off the top of a mini bus.
"We have freedom of speech", her friend Mariana Darboe told AFP, shouting down from the roof.
Once it became clear no one was moving on the one road back into town, perhaps for several hours, engines were switched off and the dancing and drumming began.
"The moment I saw the president, I felt like I was entering paradise," said Musa Kitteh, a young man wearing a Barrow T-shirt, who had driven to the airport with a dozen friends, "because he brings freedom to us."
With tears pricking his eyes, Kitteh continued: "We cannot even emphasise... during Jammeh's time, we were in a dictatorship. Nobody say your opinions because whatever he decides, we are going to do."
For Gambians, Barrow's arrival means the end of looking over a shoulder at all time for the secret police, and of keeping political opinions secret, even among friends.
"You can go home at night and sleep without worrying you will be arrested before daybreak," pensioner Ibrahima Gaye told AFP earlier in the day.
Gambians ranging from ministers to farmers have disappeared due to the actions of Jammeh's National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and his feared "Jungler" death squad, locals and rights groups say.
The relief that this era was over was clear.
"I pray for him: let God help him, said taxi driver Amadou Ba, speaking of Barrow.
But everyone admitted the new president faced an uphill task having inherited a dysfunctional economy, a highly politicised security force and a drain of young talent seeking better lives in Europe.