Snuffed out for singing songs about reconciliation
Kizito Mihigo, 38, 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 Rwandan version of Mihigo’s death is that he hanged himself with a bed sheet in his cell.
Speculation is rife that his death was not a suicide. Journalists and witnesses who saw the body before he was buried say they saw injuries on his face and the front of his body. One of the journalists, from Ishema TV, is 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 became public enemy number one.
To understand we need to go back to the beginning.
Mihigo started to compose children’s songs at the age of 9. By the age of 19, he had composed 200 liturgical songs that were popular in Catholic masses. After he shot to fame with his collaboration on the national anthem, he was offered a scholarship to study in Paris, after which he moved to Belgium to teach music.
Mihigo was a Tutsi boy of 14 who survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994. His father was killed by their Hutu neighbour. Mihigo had grown up being friends with Fifi, the daughter of their Hutu neighbours, and he struggled with forgiveness.
In 2004, Mihigo returned to Rwanda and went in search of Fifi, whose parents were in prison.
He confronted her about her parents’ crimes. In the end, he was able to forgive.
From then on Mihigo’s music was devoted to peace and reconciliation. The singer started the organisation Kizito Mihigo for Peace, which organised concerts annually during the remembrance period.
He composed commemoration songs, but it was the release of his 2011 song Amateka (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 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 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. It was a hymn to national unity and to a reconstructed, reconciled Rwandan nation. He urged survivors to 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.”
The words epitomised what Nelson Mandela stood for - forgiveness and reconciliation - despite the dark period of apartheid.
What turned Mihigo into an enemy of the state was the message contained in his composition for the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide in 2014. His song The Meaning of Death made important yet controversial points. Mihigo said there was no good death, whether genocide, the civil war, being killed in revenge attacks or dying from illness. He said all deaths were 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.
In the song, Mihigo voiced his criticism against the government-endorsed programme, “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 his 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. 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 the 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 visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, she had asked for justice for victims of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who were neither Tutsi nor killed in the genocide. She subsequently faced charges of being a genocide denier, although critics say the anti-genocide law has been politicised, 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 April 6, 2014, the song was banned in Rwanda. Mihigo disappeared and his family reported him missing. It was not until a report by BBC Great Lakes News on April 15 that the public learnt the police had arrested Mihigo. The police called him 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 April 21 that year, to face terrorism charges, Jonathan Rosen, reporting on the trial for Al Jazeera America, said: “The news of Mihigo’s charges was met with disbelief suspects accused of such crimes are usually political or military figures, not artists preaching reconciliation and the gospel.”
To justify his arrest, the government had to label him a terrorist, ban all his songs and lower his public profile. Mihigo pleaded guilty 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 September 14, 2018, along with 2 140 other prisoners including the opposition leader Ingabire.
On February 13, Mihigo was rearrested for attempting to cross into Burundi. Human Rights Watch said Mihigo had recently told it 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 in his cell. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the singer’s death, but Rwanda has ruled out an external inquiry.
Despite the dangers of associating with him, more than 2000 people and 20 Catholic priests attended his funeral. Those who commit suicide cannot be given a burial with Catholic honours, but the fact that Mihigo was accorded a full Catholic burial suggests 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, and for that he was snuffed out. As Africans, we should all consider this a dark day in the history of our continent.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor