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Rwanda: The tragic end of Kizito Mihigo, from reconciliation to death in a cell
Once a reconciliation figure who was lionised by the Rwandan government, singer Kizito Mihigo has been found dead in his jail cell. He was arrested four days earlier during an attempt to cross the border into Burundi.
Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo was found dead on Monday, 17 February at Remera police station.
According to a statement from the Rwandan police, the 38-year-old musician committed suicide in his jail cell.
When contacted for comment, the police asserted that they had opened an investigation into the exact circumstances surrounding the death of the reconciliation figure, who the Rwandan government used to adore.
Mihigo had been arrested four days earlier in the south-western Nyaruguru district.
According to Rwandan authorities, he was attempting to get to Burundi to join “terrorist groups” hostile to the Kigali regime when he was recognised by farmers from the area. He reportedly tried to bribe them to keep quiet before being turned over to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau.
This version of events has been disputed by people close to the singer. Regularly in contact with Mihigo since his release, one such person stated that he had never mentioned any plans to join an armed group, although the singer had expressed a desire to leave the country.
A long-standing reconciliation figure who escaped the 1994 genocide, Mihigo was a famous gospel singer in Rwanda.
Aged 13 when the massacres began in April 1994, he was able to flee to Burundi, where he found refuge as his home country plunged into a civil war. Despite his young age, he attempted to join the Rwandan Patriotic Army (APR), the military division of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), but the APR turned him away.
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Following the FPR’s triumph and the loss of his father, a victim of genocide, he returned to Rwanda in July 1994 to attend secondary school, after which he went to seminary.
A devout Catholic, he then decided to enter the priesthood. However, at that time he discovered his talent as a music artist after becoming a member of the chorus, where his voice was quickly noticed.
In 2001, Mihigo took part in composing Rwanda’s new national anthem and was sent to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied the organ, his favourite instrument.
The singer went on to spend several years in Europe, many of which in Belgium, where he regularly organised gospel concerts. In 2011, he returned to Rwanda permanently. Regularly invited to perform at official ceremonies and social events attended by senior officials, Mihigo was viewed as a music artist having close ties to authorities.
Nevertheless, it was through his active involvement in reconciliation efforts that he became a high-profile personality in Rwanda. In 2010, he founded the Kizito Mihigo Peace Foundation, a non-governmental organisation which enabled him to develop partnerships with the Rwandan authorities, among others.
He even received an award for his activism from the Imbuto Foundation, an organisation created by Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame. Back then, Mihigo was a highly visible figure, whether on stage, in newspaper headlines or on national television, and the host of a weekly music programme.
An implausible trial
However, in 2014, the singer’s fate took an unexpected turn. Just a few months ahead of the memorial ceremonies commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, Mihigo recorded a song called Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu (The Meaning of Death). Accused of putting the acts of retaliation against the Hutus on an equal footing with the genocide, the song aroused controversy.
A few days after the song’s release, Mihigo was absent on 7 April from the ceremony in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, despite the fact that he was a regular fixture and performer in past years.
One week later, reports of his arrest surfaced, to everyone’s surprise. The singer was accused of “conspiracy to commit murder, complicity in a terrorist act and conspiracy against the government.”
He was particularly rebuked for having ties with armed rebel groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), led by Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Lieutenant General of the Rwandan Army currently living in exile in South Africa.
The RNC has sought to plan attacks to avenge the murder of one of the RNC’s founders, Patrick Karegeya, who was found strangled to death in Johannesburg in early 2014. The RNC denied having any ties with the singer.
Mihigo was also accused of planning to “overthrow” the government and drawing up a “hit list” which included Paul Kagame.
During the trial, Mihigo ultimately pleaded guilty and asked the jury to be lenient towards him. He was sentenced alongside three co-defendants, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Jean-Paul Dukuzumuremyi and Agnes Niyibizi.
The proceedings stirred up much debate, with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) by turns condemning the trial as unfair and politically motivated. After several months of heavily followed hearings, on 27 February 2015 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for “conspiracy against the state.”
The prosecution had requested a life sentence.
The singer spent more than three years in prison. On 14 September 2018, Mihigo received, like opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, a presidential pardon from Kagame.
Since then, he had been subject to the same restrictions as the former presidential candidate, such as having to report monthly to the prosecutor’s office and to request the authorisation of the Ministry of Justice each time he wished to leave the country.