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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - African reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly on Saturday plays his first concert in his native Ivory Coast since the start of a civil war five years ago, when his biting political lyrics drove him into exile.
Fakoly, one of Africa's best-loved reggae voices, went into self-imposed exile in Mali in September 2002 when dissident soldiers in Ivory Coast tried to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo before seizing the country's northern half.
The former French colony is still split in two but after a string of failed deals, Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro -- now the country's prime minister -- signed a peace agreement in March and both sides are due to start disarming this month.
"I'm very happy to be back in my country at a time when it's engaged in the search for peace," the dreadlocked star, famed for songs denouncing corrupt politicians and abusive regimes, told Reuters.
Fakoly will play in Abidjan on Saturday, the main city in the government-run south where his anti-authoritarian lyrics made him an enemy of pro-Gbagbo militants who regularly staged violent rallies during the war.
He is due to play a second gig in the northern town of Bouake, the rebel stronghold, in a week's time.
Both Gbagbo and Soro have given assurances that his safety will be guaranteed, although concert organizers initially kept the dates a close-guarded secret to avoid any trouble.
The world's top cocoa grower was once the economic jewel in French-speaking West Africa, the glittering skyscrapers of its economic capital and its fertile cocoa, coffee and cotton fields attracting millions of migrant workers from poorer neighbors.
But the unrest cut the country's agricultural heartland off from its ports and triggered an exodus of foreigners, sending its economy into sharp decline.
Fakoly's 2004 album "Coup de Gueule" (loosely translated as Sounding Off) -- which includes his most popular song "Quitte Le Pouvoir" ("Get Out of Power"), in which he rails against African leaders who stay in office after their elected terms -- was banned in southern Ivory Coast for its perceived criticism of Gbagbo.
By contrast, his latest album, "L'Africain," is being promoted on Ivorian television and radio, unthinkable five years ago.
Reconciliation may be in the air, and Fakoly may be publicly supporting Ivory Coast's latest peace moves, but he insists his trademark criticism of corrupt leaders will not end.
"I left at the start of the crisis in order to continue the fight. But the fight for justice and equality is not over," he said. "I'll continue to sing these values because we (musicians) are the voice of the voiceless and must remain impartial."
Writing by Nick Tattersall