Rwanda’s fear of a gospel singer who preached reconciliation and peace
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It defies logic that a much-loved Rwandan gospel singer whose music had the intention of unifying the nation and encouraging forgiveness and peace would be perceived by the Rwandan government as a national security threat.
Kizito Mihigo was the 38-year-old immensely popular Rwandan gospel singer who was found hanging in his police cell a week ago. Just as the apartheid security police had covered up Neil Aggett’s death in detention as a supposed suicide in 1982, the official Rwandan version of Mihigo’s death is that he hung himself in his cell with a bedsheet.
Speculation is rife that Mihigo’s death was not actually a suicide, and journalists and witnesses who saw the body before he was buried claim to have seen injuries on his face and front. The journalist from Ishema TV who claims to have seen injuries on his body is now feared missing.
What is less widely known is why the gospel singer, who had been instrumental in the creation of the Rwandan national anthem in 2000, and who performed his songs about reconciliation and peace at every official commemoration of the Rwandan genocide between 2011 and 2014, became public enemy number one.
To fully understand we need to go back to the beginning.
Mihigo started to compose children’s songs at the age of nine, and by the age of 19, Mihigo had composed 200 liturgical songs that were popular in Catholic masses.
After Mihigo shot to fame with his collaboration on national anthem, he was offered a scholarship to study in Paris, after which he moved to Belgium to teach music.
Mihigo had been a young Tutsi boy of 14 who managed to survive the Rwandan genocide of 1994, although he lived through the anguish his father having been killed by their Hutu neighbour. Mihigo had grown up being friends with Fifi, the daughter of their Hutu neighbours, and he struggled with the notion of forgiveness given the role her father played in the extermination of his.
But in 2004, Mihigo returned to Rwanda and went in search of Fifi, whose parents were by that time in prison. He confronted her about the crimes of her parents, and in the end was able to find it in himself to forgive. This process of his own personal reconciliation with those who had wronged him and his family influenced the tone of his lyrics going forward.
From then on Mihigo’s music was devoted to peace and reconciliation purposes. The singer started the organisation Kizito Mihigo for Peace, which organized concerts annually during the remembrance period between April and June from 2011 to 2014.
Mihigo composed various commemoration songs, but it was the release of his 2011 song Amateka (or History) that became a national hit. Amateka was a call to all Rwandans to be part of the community that remembers. In the second stanza of Amateka he sings,
‘Dear Rwandan brothers and sisters, let us be united. Our history, either the best or the worst, let us protect it from torturers with destroying thoughts, let the real love of our country induce us to defend it’.
The lyrics of the second stanza were considered highly controversial by the Rwandan authorities.
Mihigo’s second major hit came out during the commemoration period in 2012 with the release of his song The One Who Was Awake. The song was, in essence, a personal hymn to national unity and to a reconstructed, reconciled Rwandan nation. He directly urged survivors to come out and testify, and use their testimonies as evidence that the genocide took place.
His message to other survivors was: ‘Since we are the ones who were wronged, we will be the ones to sow the seeds of peace. Since we know division, we will be the ones who will preach unity.’
These were words that epitomised what Nelson Mandela stood for - forgiveness and reconciliation despite the very dark period of apartheid with all its gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity that had torn the nation apart.
What turned Mihigo into an enemy of the state was the message contained in his composition for the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide which took place in 2014. Mihigo’s new song The Meaning of Death made important yet controversial points.
In his lyrics, Mihigo said: "There is no good death, whether genocide, the civil war, being killed in revenge attacks, or dying from illness. Mihigo concluded that all deaths are equally worthy of remembrance. What made the song controversial in government circles was that it exposed silences in the official genocide narrative."
In the song, Mihigo also said: “Though the genocide orphaned me, let it not make me lose empathy for others. Their lives, too, were brutally taken but not qualified as genocide. Those brothers and sisters, they too are human beings. I pray for them. I comfort them. I remember them."
Mihigo then proceeded in the song to voice his criticism against the government-endorsed programme called "I Am a Rwandan".
His lyrics said: “My dignity and love are not rooted in carnal life, nor in material possessions, but in humanity, humaneness. Let the words “I am Rwandan” be preceded by 'I am human'.
What incurred the ire of the authorities was Mihigo’s supposition that all deaths, including those not given the prestige to be remembered in the commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi, are important.
Mihigo had acknowledged that some died in revenge attacks. Although he did not clearly state which revenge attacks he was referring to, many Rwandans understood him to refer to the Hutus killed by Rwandan army soldiers in the Kibeho massacre and in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The government considers that subject a no-go zone, as political leader of the unofficial opposition in Rwandan Victoire Ingabire found out. When Ingabire arrived in Rwanda from exile and isited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, she had also asked for justice for victims of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who were not Tutsi nor killed in the genocide.
She subsequently faced charges of being a genocide denier, although critics insist that the anti-genocide law has been politicized, and is used to control political opposition figures such as Ingabire, who planned to contest Kagame in the 2010 presidential elections.
As soon as Mihigo’s song The Meaning of Death was released on YouTube on 6 April, 2014, the song was banned in Rwanda. Mihigo subsequently disappeared from public, and his family reported him missing.
It was not until a report by BBC Great Lakes News on 15 April that the public learned that the police had arrested Mihigo. The police called Mihigo a threat to national security, and he was charged with planning to oust the government.
When Mihigo finally appeared in court for his first hearing on 21 April that year to face terrorism charges, Jonathan Rosen, reporting on the trial for Al Jazeera America, commented: "The news of Mihigo’s charges was met with disbelief. Although high-profile arrests in Kagame’s Rwanda are not uncommon, suspects accused of such crimes are usually political or military figures, not artists preaching reconciliation and the gospel."
To justify Mihigo’s arrest, the government had to label him a terrorist, ban all his songs, and lower his public profile. Mihigo pleaded guilty to the charges, but Human Rights Watch says "he was beaten and forced to confess to the crimes".
He was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Mihigo was released three years later on a presidential pardon on 14 September, 2018, along with 2140 other prisoners, including the opposition leader Ingabire.
On February 13, Mihigo was rearrested for attempting to cross the Rwandan border into Burundi. According to a Human Rights Watch statement, Mihigo had recently told HRW that he was “being threatened to provide false testimony against political opponents and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety."
Last week the Rwandan police said they found Mihigo hanging by the neck with a bed sheet in his cell. Amnesty International has called for a full investigation into the singer's death, but Rwanda has ruled out an external inquiry.
Despite the dangers of associating with the gospel singer who the state considered a threat, over 2 000 people and 20 Catholic priests attended his funeral a week ago. Those who commit suicide cannot be given a burial with Catholic honours, but the fact that Mihigo was accorded a full Catholic burial suggests that the church was convinced he had not committed suicide.
What is most tragic is that a gospel singer was singing about peace, love, forgiveness and unity in his country, and for that crime he was summarily snuffed out. As Africans we should all consider this a very dark day in the history of our continent.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor