The terrible end of Kizito Mihigo in a Police cell, will no doubt be seized upon by a myriad anti Rwanda groups, and individuals, alleging foul play. It is however a starkly tragic reminder of the terrible cost that is paid and will continue to be paid by Rwandans, as long as the campaigns by these groups continue. Mihigo is as much a victim of their activities, as he is of the despair and confusion that led him to take his own life, at such a young age. How did it get to this?
On 13th February, Kizito Mihigo seems to have made the fateful decision to cross into Burundi, which would have contravened the conditions of his Presidential pardon for a ten year jail sentence, for conspiracy to overthrow the government. There have been a spate of crossings and attempted crossings into Rwanda, by armed groups. In October last year, one such group, RUD-Urunana, left fourteen people dead in Kinigi, Musanze district, before security forces engaged them.
Consequently, security along border areas is heightened, local people are encouraged to remain vigilant, and report any unusual, or suspicious activity to the authorities. It was reported by local people in Nyaruguru District, who first noticed Mihigo and two companions, Jean-Bosco Nkundimana and Joel Ngayabahiga, trying to cross into Burundi, away from the official border crossing. They held the three, who allegedly tried to bribe them, and handed them over to the security forces, who in turn had them driven to Rwanda Investigation Bureau offices (RIB), in Kigali.
All three were taken to Remera Police station, where they were charged with attempted illegal border crossing, bribery, and in the case of Kizito Mihigo, trying to leave the country in contravention of the terms of his release.
They were each put in their own individual cells, where Nkundimana and Ngayabahiga remain, until they are handed over to the prosecution office, as would have happened with Kizito Mihigo.
According to RIB’s spokesperson, Marie Michelle Umuhoza, all three prisoners were in understandably low spirits, as is normal with people who had just been arrested, but otherwise looked well. Mihigo kept his silence, refusing to answer any questions, until a lawyer was found for him.
In the three or four days before his dreadful death, Mihigo spoke mostly to his lawyer. It is common in Rwanda for people in detention to be visited by family and friends, often bringing food, and other essential or comforting provisions. Mihigo was uncommunicative, even with members of his family who came to visit. On one occasion a member of the family visited, and left without a single word having passed between them.
As described by RIB, at 5 am on the morning of the 17th a Police Officer went to check on the prisoners, and found Kizito Mihigo hanging by the neck, with a bed sheet. He was dead when they cut him down. The Police immediately called RIB, who arrived on the scene around 6 am, and thereafter took over the investigation into the circumstances of Mihigo’s death. It was RIB who took him to a hospital, within which is housed the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory (RFL), for autopsy.
Should Mihigo have been on suicide watch? Could, or should the Police have realised that he was in a state to do himself harm? Perhaps, but Umuhoza insists that although it is of course now clear, at the time, there was little or no indication that he was in emotional distress, certainly that he was suicidal.
Rwandan culture, in which stoicism is held in perhaps too high a regard, may also be culpable. Mihigo would have considered anything other than suffering in silence, too unseemly.
No sooner did the Police announce his death, by apparent suicide, since we still await the result of the autopsy, than the armies of Rwanda detractors confidently, authoritatively, declared that he was the victim of murder.
The assertions have ranged from the usual suspects, who constantly spew out, blood curdling horrors they attribute to the Rwandan leadership on the internet, wallowing in the accusations to the point of prurience, to others who should know better, but feed on these distasteful claims.
There is even a bloodied picture, now circulating on the internet that is supposed to be of the dead singer. The picture in particular has so distressed his already distraught family, that Mihigo’s sisters, on behalf of the family, issued a statement calling for the end of the lurid speculations about their brother’s death.
One journalist sarcastically wondering, “so bed sheets are routinely handed out to inmates in Rwanda Police Cells. Who knew.” Well, yes, as in detentions elsewhere in the world, bed sheets are provided to inmates, unless it is deemed they should be placed on suicide watch, which we now know Mihigo should have been, but only with the benefit of hindsight.
Or an academic, who declares herself “angry” with what she describes as “murder” citing as her evidence, “long RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) pattern of killing critics.” Somewhat self serving, since it is this academic who is one of those responsible for the claims about “killing critics.”
“Rights groups call for independent inquiry” is a headline we see time and time again, and it has not been slow in making an appearance. When it comes to Rwanda especially, but African countries in general, groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, adopt a paternalistic, commanding tone that is unlikely to cut much ice with Rwanda. Why, RIB asks, do they assume that Rwanda is incapable of investigating this awful death of its own citizen.
“Rwanda is a sovereign nation” says Umuhoza, “and the investigations are being carried out as the law dictates.” Rwanda National Police (RNP) spokesperson, Commissioner of Police Jean Bosco Kabera, barely conceals his anger and horror at suggestions that Mihigo was murdered by the Police, and says of the claims.
“It’s hurtful, of course, our responsibility is to look after all Rwandans, and he died in our custody, it is a terrible thing. But none of these people who are making these allegations care more for our people than we do.”
Mihigo’s death has been a shock to almost every Rwandan. The singer was well known, and universally popular, if not, as he is being posthumously described, the most popular singer in Rwanda. Like many talented young people in the country, he had profited from the Rwandan government’s policy of promoting, and opening up opportunities for young people.
A gifted musician, his contemporaries at college remember him spending most of his time on the piano, when he was practising Karate. At the age of nineteen, he was already composing church music, and was involved with the composition of the 2001 National Anthem. He won every musical prize going, including the cup for celebrating young achievers, awarded by Imbuto Foundation, an organisation established by Rwanda’s first lady.
As in much of Africa, scholarships to attend foreign, especially Western education institutions, are much sought after. Unlike much of Africa however, in Rwanda, they are awarded on academic merit. Additionally, there are scholarships offered at the discretion of the head of state. It was on one such a scholarship that Mihigo went to study music at the Paris Conservatoire, concentrating on the organ, his favourite instrument.
He spent several years in France and Belgium, where he taught music, and organised regular gospel concerts, until his return to live in Rwanda, in 2011. Once back home, there was hardly a public function which featured music, at which he did not perform. He was popular, his talent much admired and feted.
All that would come to a shockingly grinding halt, in 2014, when along others, he was arrested, charged, tried and convicted for conspiracy to overthrow the state, a plan the prosecutor said included the murder of the head of state. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, instead of the life imprisonment sought by the prosecution. Predictably, the world begun to cast about for reasons for his arrest, other than those stated.
They alighted on a requiem he composed, “Igisobanuro cy’urupfu”, or the meaning of death, in which he came close to straying into the genocide deniers’ perversely tendentious theory of double genocide. The work was banned, and according to Rwanda’s detractors, this, rather than the official charges against him, was the reason for his arrest, and imprisonment.
They do not explain why, given that genocide denial is a grave crime in Rwanda, the authorities would have had need to invent another charge, rather than convict him for genocide denial. Nor does the claim that Mihigo was “a government critic”, as a campaigner for peace and reconciliation, make any sense.
Many of his songs did indeed promote reconciliation, but in tune with national policy. A survivor of the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, it is in large measure because he embraced fully, the government’s policy of unity and reconciliation of Rwandans, that he enjoyed privileged official support.
On its own, composing Igisobanuro cy’urupfu, would most likely have been regarded as little more than youthful susceptibility to corrupting influences. Much worse is tolerated in Rwanda, especially if found among the young. The National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation (NURC), chaired by the ever gentle and wise Bishop John Rucyahana, rather than the Police, would be called to offer awareness instruction.
Mihigo will not be the first young, impressionable genocide survivor to have his or her head turned by one or other of the self styled opposition forces, whether it is Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC), or in Mihigo’s case, Movement for Democratic Change in Rwanda (MRCD).
It was the MRCD, with its flashy spokesperson, Calixte Nsabimana who allegedly approached Mihigo, offering him the position of Minister of Culture in their planned government, after the overthrew of the RPF led administration. Nsabimana is currently cooling his heels in a Rwandan jail, after he was captured with the cooperation of neighbouring states.
Kizito Mihigo will be buried today, he will be mourned by Rwandans from all walks of life.
Rwanda’s detractors will continue to insist, insinuate, that he was murdered by the Rwanda government. A corner of the wide world web will continue to be as a toxic pool in which many anti Rwanda forces will keep pouring poisonous claims, all kinds of insults against the RPF led government, and especially against the person of President Kagame.
Kizito Mihigo was charged with a serious crime, tried, imprisoned, then received a Presidential pardon. Two of the main conditions of his pardon were that he would report once to the prosecutor in his area of residence, and that he would not attempt to leave the country without first seeking permission from the authorities. Contravention of any of these conditions could lead to a revocation of his pardon, following which, he would be expected to serve the remaining six years of the ten year sentence.
If he got fed up with these restrictions, and wanted to flee the country, it was natural that he would choose Burundi, a country he knows well. It is where he grew up, when, with his parents and five siblings, he fled to escape the genocide in Rwanda, which claimed his father.
None who now scream murder, will offer the least plausible explanation, why this most well governed, and confident of African states, will have taken the life of a young man, whose duty it was to protect, and who in spite of his alleged misguided flirtations with murderous forces, offered little to no threat.
At the age of thirty-eight, Mihigo had everything to live for. It is a sad, terrible tragedy, that that knowledge did stand between him, and the despair, that led him to take his own life.