Timothy Chester

Dissident ‘choirboy’: Rwandan gospel star on trial

Kizito Mihigo is charged with planning to oust the government, but many wonder if song lyrics are behind his arrest

KIGALI, Rwanda — On April 7, as well-wishers from around the world gathered at Amahoro Stadium here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, one of the country’s biggest cultural icons was absent.

Originally scheduled to perform at the festivities, Kizito Mihigo, 33, a Tutsi survivor of the genocide and widely admired gospel singer, had been abruptly left out of the program. A week later, after rumors began to circulate that he was missing, Mihigo appeared in the custody of police, who announced the singer was under investigation for a host of crimes against the state. According to Rwandan authorities, Mihigo had colluded with a former soldier, a popular Christian radio host and exiled opponents of Rwandan President Paul Kagame to plan terrorist attacks against the country, assassinate government officials and orchestrate a violent overthrow of the government.

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. From Kigali coffee shops to remote hilltop villages, residents, speaking in hushed tones, questioned the official story. Was Mihigo, a devout Catholic known for songs promoting healing and forgiveness, really in bed with those bent on instigating a new wave of violence? Or could his arrest — as one journalist asked when police paraded the singer in front of media — be linked to the lyrics of a song he had uploaded to YouTube in March, “Igisobanuro Cy’urupfu” (“The Meaning of Death”), in which he challenges the official narrative of the genocide?

Dodging the question, a somber-looking Mihigo, flanked by police and wearing handcuffs, instead admitted to an officer’s charge he’d been involved with “groups that aim to destabilize Rwanda’s security.” He told reporters that he had engaged in “conversations that smear the government” over Skype and WhatsApp with “those groups” — referring to the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), a diaspora-based opposition movement, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (or FDLR), a rebel militia of roughly 1,500 fighters based in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Still, he insisted, he had “no other involvement” in terrorist plots.

Last month, as the trial of Mihigo and three co-defendants began in Kigali, Mihigo, dressed in a pink prison uniform, delivered a similar refrain. Asking for forgiveness, he pleaded guilty to the long list of charges: forming a criminal gang, aiding the formation of a criminal gang, conspiracy against the established government or president of the republic, complicity in a terrorist act, murder and conspiracy to commit murder. But he and his attorneys also argued that he never intended to carry out the alleged acts — the most serious of which, according to prosecutors, was planning the assassination of Kagame. As lawyer John Bigaraba told the court, Mihigo’s confession had been driven by a religious obligation to “clean his heart” and should be interpreted as an admission to the content of the conversations, but not the charges.

Many Rwandans, however, remained skeptical of the entire episode. Even if Mihigo had been discussing criminal plots with dissidents, the timing of his arrest in the wake of his controversial song was suspicious. In calling for the remembrance of all Rwandans killed in conflict, “Igisobanuro Cy’urupfu” tells of victims of the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority as well as those killed in war or “slaughtered in revenge” — implicitly members of the Hutu majority killed by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front forces during the country’s four-year civil war and after the RPF captured power at the end of the genocide. In a country where freedom of expression is highly restricted, in part because of the role of hate speech in inciting the genocide, Mihigo was playing with fire.

“That song resonated with many people, both Hutu and Tutsi,” said Rene Mugenzi, a Rwandan human-rights activist based in London. “He sang of things Rwandans cannot dare express.”

Dangerous links

To Rwandan authorities, who insist the charges have nothing to do with Mihigo’s lyrics, the case is not about conflicting genocide-era narratives, but present-day security threats. Despite Rwanda’s impressive rise under his leadership, Kagame, a former guerrilla fighter who’s served as president since 2000, has accumulated a long list of enemies.

For Kagame, the RNC, which was established in 2010 by a group of exiled former RPF insiders, is arguably the most dangerous. Although the organization insists it does not seek political change through violence, its most prominent member, former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa, is believed to maintain influence among elements of the Rwandan armed forces. In a 2012 interview from South Africa, where he lives under state protection, he also called for Rwandans to “rid the country of the dictator” through an Arab Spring-style uprising. According to Rwandan authorities, high-level RNC officials, including the nation’s former head of external intelligence Patrick Karegeya — who was discovered in January strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room — have also worked with members of the FDLR to launch a series of deadly grenade attacks in Kigali. The two groups are not exactly natural allies: The RNC is led by Tutsi who helped bring the RPF to power, the FDLR by perpetrators of the genocide bent on Tutsi extermination. But Rwanda’s leaders insist they form a common threat.

“The RNC and FDLR don’t have a common framework,” said Jean Sayinzoga, chairman of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, which works to repatriate ex-FDLR combatants. “But they collaborate depending on the objective of the moment. The FDLR needs strategy from the RNC; the RNC needs to utilize FDLR fighters.”

It is in the context of this alleged partnership — which both parties deny — that the charges against Mihigo are so significant. At the heart of the prosecution’s case are a series of text-based What’s App conversations that allegedly took place in March between Mihigo and Callixte Nsabimana, a South Africa-based RNC member. In the chats, which prosecutors say were intercepted by Rwandan intelligence, the two discussed strategies for a joint RNC-FDLR attack on Rwanda, assassinations of political figures and plans for Mihigo to travel to London to release songs backing Kagame’s ouster.

According to prosecutors, the two also colluded with Cassien Ntamuhanga, a radio journalist; Jean Paul Dukuzumuremyi, a former soldier; and an accountant named Agnes Niyibizi, who are accused of plotting other high-level killings and the demolition of Rwanda’s tallest building, Kigali City Tower.

In perhaps the most damning conversation, dated March 10, Nsabimana and Mihigo discussed whether war was necessary to bring about a change of government.

“My friend, if you could find a way to remove the leaders without war, it would be even better,” Mihigo reportedly wrote. He then suggested, “Why don’t we kill him only?” referring to Kagame.

Lingering questions

Mihigo performs during the launch of the 20th kwibuka commemoration, an event marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide, April 7, 2014.
Timothy Chester

Despite Mihigo’s guilty plea, his case — which is being tried alongside those of Ntamuhanga, Dukuzumuremyi and Niyibizi — remains clouded by several lingering questions. Although the artist admits the alleged conversations took place, he claims he was simply curious to learn about the RNC’s plans. In addition, Mihigo and his lawyers have argued that he never had any criminal intent, which prosecutors must show to prove full culpability on many of the charges. Complicating matters, Mihigo’s co-defendants have all pleaded not guilty. Appearing in court on Nov. 28, Dukuzumuremyi told judges he’d been illegally detained by police, physically tortured and coerced into initially confessing, raising the specter that Mihigo may have been subjected to similar treatment. Another key figure in the case — the writer and university lecturer Gerard Niyomugabo, who allegedly introduced Mihigo to Nsabimana — was reported missing on April 4 and has not been heard from since.

It is the song, however, that continues to drive the most speculation. The melancholy ballad, which tells of “lives brutally taken but not qualified as genocide,” is an unmistakable challenge to the image of Kagame’s RPF as saviors who pacified the country. Despite putting a stop to the genocide — the 100-day mass murder of up to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu orchestrated by extremists in the former government — Kagame’s troops have been implicated by multiple U.N. investigations in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians during the genocide period in Rwanda and in subsequent invasions of neighboring Congo. As the Rwanda scholar Gérard Prunier has written, the violence inflicted by the RPF in the genocide’s aftermath, largely though not exclusively against Hutu, was not merely a case of “uncontrolled revenge killings,” as RPF defenders often argue, “but rather a policy of political control through terror.”

For the RPF, a Tutsi-dominated ruling party in a country whose population is 85 percent Hutu, talk of such atrocities is not to be taken lightly. Today, statements related to the genocide that differ from the official narrative can result in prosecution. Although authorities insist such laws are necessary to prevent the return of dangerous identity-based strife, critics say they prohibit some Rwandans from openly remembering lost family members and have been abused to stifle political dissent. In the most prominent case, aspiring presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire was arrested in 2010 on charges of “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” after delivering a speech at the national genocide memorial that lamented the inability of Hutu to publicly mourn their dead like Tutsi.

Ingabire, who was convicted of “genocide denial” in 2012 and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence, was delivering a message similar to Mihigo’s.

A warning to others

Despite his controversial lyrics, Mihigo — who received a Rwandan government scholarship to attend the prestigious Conservatory of Paris and frequently performed at state functions — was not an outsider like Ingabire, but an artist with intimate ties to the RPF. In this, he has more in common with the many former members of Kagame’s inner circle who now openly oppose his government. Since Mihigo’s arrest, in April, authorities have detained and charged three senior military figures with crimes against state security, escalating a long-standing pattern of high-level RPF purges. In October, former Kagame bodyguard Joel Mutabazi, who was abducted by Rwandan agents in Uganda last year, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted on eight charges, including terrorism and treason, resulting from his alleged coordination of RNC and FDLR activities.

According to most trial observers, Mihigo’s admission to ties with the same groups suggests that a conviction in his case, which is expected to conclude next year, is likely. Nonetheless, many believe his admission of culpability from the start could be part of a strategy to secure a lighter sentence. It’s a theory reinforced by Mihigo’s Nov. 28 firing of his lawyers, who’d tried to persuade the court to disregard his guilty plea.

“These judges in Rwanda, they might already know what the judgment will be,” said Mugenzi, the human-rights activist, noting concerns over the independence of the Rwandan judiciary from political influence. “But there’s a lot of surprise with the Kagame regime. He could come away with a light sentence.”

Whatever the outcome, many in Rwanda see the case as a warning to anyone who might consider colluding with Kagame’s opponents or challenging the RPF’s core narratives. Even if the trial has nothing to do with Mihigo’s song, the message — that “not even a choirboy is safe,” as one Rwandan blogger wrote in April — has already resonated within Rwanda and beyond.

“It all creates a great deal of nervousness,” said Filip Reyntjens, a professor of law and politics at the University of Antwerp and author of the 2013 book “Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” referring to the prosecution of Mihigo and others formerly close to Kagame. “It’s a clear sign [to Rwandans] that they shouldn’t try anything against him.”

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