ABIDJAN (Reuters) - As darkness falls over Ivory Coast’s lagoon-side commercial capital a steady thumping cuts through the tropical night.
But where once the thud of heavy weapons set the Abidjan’s residents scrambling indoors for cover, tonight it is a reggae bass line that draws them out.
Here, little over a year ago, supporters of then-president Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara were fighting a brief post-election civil war, the final deadly showdown of a decade-long political crisis.
After years teetering precariously between war and peace, the flames of division, xenophopia and anger - fanned in no small degree by some of the country’s most famous musicians - exploded into a conflict in which more than 3,000 people died.
One of Ivory Coast’s leading reggae artists, Serge Kassy, even rose to become a leader and organiser of Gbagbo’s Young Patriots street militia - a group accused of numerous atrocities during the war. Kassy is now in exile.
“When I looked at the musical scene in Ivory Coast, I realised that we ourselves went too far,” said Asalfo Traore of the zouglou band Magic System, one of the few groups that refused to take sides during the crisis years.
“It was when everything was ruined that we wanted to glue the pieces back together. But it was too late.”
Now, long-divided musicians are once again coming together, hoping to use their influence, so destructive for so long, to help Ivory Coast heal its deep wounds, and the country’s leading rival reggae artists are showing the way.
The long feud between Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly is a thing of legend in the reggae world, though neither has been willing to say what was behind the bad blood.
Both men come from Ivory Coast’s arid north and share a musical genre. But the similarities stop there.
Alpha, considered the father of Ivorian reggae, takes the stage in Abidjan clad in a shimmering pink suit, golden tie and Panama hat of an urban dandy. Tiken wears the traditional flowing robes of his northern Malinke tribe.
During the crisis, Alpha remained in Ivory Coast, while Tiken, a vocal critic of President Gbagbo’s regime, went into exile in neighbouring Mali.
They had so successfully avoided each other during their long parallel careers that before he picked up the phone to approach Alpha with the idea of uniting for a series of peace concerts, Tiken claimed they’d met only twice.
“Before going to the Ivorians to ask them to move towards reconciliation, it was important for us to show a major sign. That’s what we did,” Tiken told Reuters.
Out of a meeting in Paris was born a simple idea: six concerts in six towns across a country once split between a rebel north and government-held south, bringing together musicians from across the political spectrum to push for peace.
“No one’s died over the problems between Tiken and me,” said Alpha. “There are things that are more serious than our little spats, our pride and our vanities.”
Uniting the Ivorian music scene proved relatively easy in the end. Uniting the country could prove a tougher task.
Some 18 months since the war ended, reconciliation in Ivory Coast is going nowhere.
Though Ouattara is praised by international partners for quicky turning around the economy, critics complain he has done little to foster unity. He has so far refused to prosecute those among his supporters accused of atrocities during the war.
Meanwhile Gbagbo, who lost the run-off election but garnered 46 percent of votes, is in The Hague on war crimes charges.
The leaders of his FPI political party are either dead, in jail or living in exile, from where they are accused by United Nations investigators of organising deadly armed raids on Ivorian police, military and infrastructure targets.
“People came here for Alpha, Tiken Jah and artists they only ever see on TV, not for reconciliation,” said high school teacher Michel Loua in Gagnoa, the second stop on the tour in Gbagbo’s home region.
“The politicians have made a business of it. They talk up reconciliation when it suits them, otherwise they could care less,” he said.
Unity was never a problem, Alpha said, until politicians began to play the ethnic identity card in the struggle for power that followed the death of independence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993. And even after the violence and massacres, it is still not the problem today.
“Ivorians are not divided. That’s what I discovered,” he said on the last night of the tour. “If there are people that need reconciliation, it’s not the artists or the people. It’s the politicians,” he said.
Minutes later he was on stage singing “Course au Pouvoir”, a 16-year-old song that has found new relevance today with its lyrics: “There’s blood on the road that leads to the tower of power. Innocent blood.”
Having wrapped up their tour, Tiken, Alpha and the rest of the musicians are due to meet with President Ouattara and plan to call for the release of all pro-Gbagbo prisoners not accused of involvement and killings as a sign of good will.
The move has been called for by human rights groups as well as the FPI, who list it as one of their pre-conditions for dialogue. And though Ouattara has given no indication he is open to the possibility, many feel it is an unavoidable step towards lasting peace.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis, editing by Paul Casciato