Masses will be held across at least four continents this week to mark the anniversary of the death of Rwanda’s most famous gospel singer. But there will be a key difference in the ceremonies staged in Kizito Mihigo’s country of birth and those abroad. In Rwanda, no one will dare publicly to question how – or why – the baby-faced singer met his end. In the rest of the world, fans will be clamouring for justice.
The 38-year-old star’s death in police custody last February sits near the top of a list of cases cited by human rights and civil society groups calling for a fundamental reappraisal of western governments’ relationship with president Paul Kagame and his central African nation. Guilt over the international community’s failure to stop the 1994 genocide, they say, has for too long encouraged donors to ignore the sinister realities of his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) regime.
In the US, campaigners’ attention is focused on the forthcoming trial in Kigali of Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager whose efforts to save his Tutsi guests from being slaughtered by Hutu extremists won him Hollywood fame. Rusesabagina, who became a vocal critic of the RPF, was renditioned to Rwanda last August and is facing charges of financing terrorism.
But Kizito’s case perhaps reveals more about the twisted nature of Kagame’s presidency. For in theory, he represented exactly the kind of citizen the Tutsi-dominated RPF took power to protect. A Tutsi, he fled his home in 1994 after president Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and his Hutu army and extremist militias began taking revenge on a minority Tutsi community blamed for the assassination. His father was killed, making Kizito a rescapé – a survivor – a group theoretically allotted special status in Rwanda’s post-genocide society.
Deeply religious, exceptionally talented, Kizito went to study music at the Paris Conservatoire. There, he set off on a lacerating spiritual journey. At one point he had wanted to join the RPF to avenge his father’s death. Then he forced himself to mix with Hutus and confront the visceral hatred he felt towards that community. The traumatised youngster was determined to learn forgiveness.
He returned to Kigali hoping to put his commitment to ethnic reconciliation into practice. One of the incoming government’s first acts had been to do away with the classifications dividing the former Belgian colony’s citizens into Tutsi, Hutu and Twa, and he gave Kagame his enthusiastic backing. He set up a peace foundation, which spread the reconciliation message across Rwanda’s schools and prisons, winning generous state funding.
For a few years, Kizito could do no wrong. His songs played incessantly on Rwandan radio and he was the performer of choice whenever the national anthem was sung at genocide commemorations. He was on friendly terms with first lady Jeannette Kagame, and rumours circulated he was dating the Kagames’ daughter. A weekly television show made him a household name.
But he began to suspect the regime, which controversially called the 1994 massacres “the genocide of the Tutsi” – thereby consigning to oblivion Hutus also killed in 1994 for supporting democratic reform – was exploiting his community’s victim status to keep Rwanda’s Hutu majority cowed and subservient. He was repelled by the notion of collective Hutu guilt, shocked when the government urged Hutus too young to have taken part in the genocide to publicly apologise for their supposed crimes. In March 2014, he brought out a song that broke every official taboo. While the UN and human rights investigators agree the RPF slaughtered tens of thousands of Hutus in Rwanda and neighbouring DRC before and after the genocide, Kagame has always insisted these killings were limited in number and carried out in the heat of emotion. Kizito’s song The Meaning of Death challenged that narrative, calling on Rwandans to show empathy to both victims of the genocide and “revenge killings”, as these deaths are termed. Eyes shut, clutching a rosary, the famous rescapé sings that death is equally terrible for all.
The song transformed Kizito’s standing in the Hutu community, which had seen him as a regime puppet, but triggered a dizzying fall from grace. Detained without access to a lawyer, he was told that the president had not appreciated his latest composition and that if he didn’t apologise, he was a dead man. Panicking, he obeyed. The next glimpse television viewers got of the golden boy, his wrists were handcuffed and he was being presented by police to a gaggle of journalists, charged with treason.
Admitting to having been in telephone contact with Rwanda’s exiled opposition, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for conspiring against the government. Kizito swapped the designer suits of the Rwandan socialite for the pink uniform convicts are allotted in Rwanda. But prison only radicalised him.
Rubbing shoulders with the kind of men who had killed his father, he began to understand Hutu grievances. Grateful inmates dubbed him “the Dove” in tribute to his message of peace and the doves that mysteriously came to perch on the window sill of his cell. Hungry for debate, he used a phone smuggled into prison to reach out to Rwandan activists and western human rights groups abroad. He was haunted by a sense he was running out of time and tapped out an autobiography, sending chapters to those he trusted. “I think they may kill me,” he told a friend in the US. “I’m not sure I’m going to make it.” But in confinement, he achieved a kind of transcendence. “I had never enjoyed happiness and joy like the ones I found inside the prison,” he wrote in the book, published posthumously.
Released in 2018 under presidential pardon, Kizito discovered his freedom came at a price. His passport had been confiscated and he was obliged to regularly report to authorities. When survivors’ groups invited him to perform, the government would ensure the offers were cancelled. State media blacklisted his songs. He was forced to move repeatedly, after intruders tried to force their way into his house at night. “He realised he was still in jail,” says Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who was in regular contact. “He went from being someone who was very much part of the elite, to struggling financially. It was made clear to him that people wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole.” He began collecting information on Rwanda’s disappearances and illegal detentions, using his prison contacts to become a de facto human rights researcher.
He was coming under pressure from Rwanda’s inspector-general of police, Dan Munyuza, who wanted Kizito to spy on human rights and opposition activists who trusted him. Munyuza, who previously ran Rwanda’s dreaded Directorate of Military Information, has been repeatedly identified by political dissidents as a key figure in various government plots to hunt down members of the Rwanda National Congress, an opposition group set up by high-profile former RPF insiders.
“The threats were very direct,” recalls Mudge. “‘You need to start working with us’ Munyuza was telling him, ‘The chef has shown you this generosity, now you need to show gratitude.’” The stress was intense. “He kept saying ‘I need to get out.’ But it was about making plans, being proactive. There was never a sense of desperation.”
A final straw seems to have been a conversation in which Munyuza told the singer he’d deposited money in his bank account in return for services yet-to-be rendered. On 14 February 2020, Kizito and two collaborators headed south, intent on fleeing the country. Kizito’s famous face appears to have been his undoing. He was recognised in villages he passed through, and police caught the three near the frontier with Burundi. A few days later Rwandan police announced Kizito had been found dead in his cell, having allegedly used bedsheets to hang himself. Within hours, a gruesome photo, impossible to authenticate, began circulating on social media. It shows someone who looks very much like Kizito lying in a pool of blood, bruises to his head and neck. The man’s arms are tied firmly behind his back.
The Commonwealth Human Right Initiative and HRW, along with British and US government officials, called for an independent inquiry, but their requests have gone ignored by Rwanda’s justice ministry. No inquest was ever staged. Yet those who spoke to Kizito after his rearrest insist he was full of plans for the future, and gave no hint of feeling suicidal. Every Rwandan in the diaspora I interviewed for this article rejects the notion he died by his own hand.
Why kill Kizito, a devout entertainer popular with Hutus and Tutsis? Friends and family – too petrified to be named – believe he died because his songs highlighted the hypocrisy of the post-genocide narrative the RPF promotes abroad. “He was trying to unite Hutu and Tutsi, while the government depends on divide and rule,” says a friend based in the US. “He was preaching that we should forgive, make one nation, and they don’t want that.” Rather than protecting him, his celebrity may well have been a contributory cause. By targeting someone so high profile, the RPF signalled that no one is off limits.
Linking up via social media, youngsters in a diaspora scattered across Africa, Europe, North America and Australasia have already started marking the anniversary with 10 days of vigils and masses. His photograph graces the Twitter accounts of many of these supporters – some of whom are calling for his canonisation. His defiance is inspiring Rwandans to break their usual frightened silence, says Noel Twagiramungu of the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Progress. “Kizito has become an emblem, a reference point, a symbol.” A former Rwandan prime minister is calling on the fractious opposition to unite in Kizito’s name.
The anniversary comes at a politically sensitive time. For decades, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda enjoyed the status of “donor darlings” in the west, their budgets boosted by aid injections from the US and UK in particular. Accusations of rigging in Uganda’s recent elections, war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray, and a stream of revelations about Rwanda’s thuggish treatment of its critics abroad – the topic of my book Do Not Disturb – are creating disquiet over western support. Now that the UK’s Department for International Development has been brought into the Foreign Office fold and Covid is putting government budgets under pressure, there is diminishing official appetite for Britain being seen as an unquestioning supporter of authoritarian rule in Africa.
Earlier this month Freedom House, a US pro-demcracy group, published a chilling account of how Rwanda uses rendition, kidnappings and assassination to silence dissent abroad, physically targeting Rwandans in at least seven countries since 2014, including Germany, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, the DRC and the UAE. “The Rwandan government is among the most prolific transnational repression actors worldwide,” the thinktank stated, ranking it alongside China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and Turkey for the “extent and violence” of its campaign.
During the UN’s periodic review of Rwanda’s human rights record in Geneva last month, UK and US delegates surprised many onlookers by voicing deep concern at Kigali’s record. Both key donors called on Rwanda to conduct credible investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody and enforced disappearances, and to bring perpetrators to justice. The Rwandan government rejected the statements as having “no basis in reality”, but appeared taken by surprise by the sharpness of the criticism.
It will be interesting to see whether such concerns resurface in June in Kigali, where the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting is due to be held. The choice of venue sparked angry protests when announced, and delegates standing for Rwanda’s national anthem in Kigali’s state-of-the-art convention centre, will be grimly aware that the singer who would have once belted out its patriotic words lies buried on the capital’s outskirts, a haunting illustration of all that is awry in modern Rwanda.
Michela Wrong has been writing about Africa for the last 15 years