, 18 February, 2020 / 4:20 AM
Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer in the Central African nation of Rwanda who has been described as a “devout Catholic known for songs promoting healing and forgivingness” was Monday, February 17 morning, found dead in police cells in the country’s capital, Kigali.
A local media report has quoted the police and Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) confirming Mihigo’s death at around 5 a.m. during a routine Monday morning check by Remera police station officers, with their preliminary report stating that the 38-year-old musician “used bedsheets to strangle himself to death.”
A former major seminarian who had also gone through the minor seminary at the Petit Seminaire de Butare, the late Mihigo had been attracted to music at an early age, having started composing songs at the age of 9.
He is known to have been the most popular organist and composer of Catholic Church songs in Rwanda during his time at the Petit Seminaire de Butare.
Mihigo was orphaned during the 1994 genocide. He escaped to Burundi where he joined the surviving members of his family.
He returned to Rwanda in July 1994 and, as reported in Wikipedia, “enrolled at the seminary to become a priest, and through music and the Christian faith, he managed to forgive those who killed his father.”
It is not clear how long he stayed on in the Major Seminary, but he seems to have been quite taken with his interest in the music profession.
In 2001, the 20-year-old Mihigo participated in the composition of the Rwandan national anthem. This brought him closer to his country’s Presidency.
Through the financial support of President Paul Kagame, Mihigo was granted a presidential scholarship to study music at the Conservatoire de Paris in France where he took up organ and composition courses.
He returned to his native country of Rwanda in 2011, becoming a popular and respected music personality.
It has been documented that the 30-year-old Mihigo “was regularly invited to sing at national ceremonies for the genocide commemoration. He also became known through many invitations in official ceremonies in parliament or elsewhere to interpret the national anthem in the presence of the head of state and other senior dignitaries.”
This close ties with the government was criticized by his Christian fans who expressed their disappointment, faulting Mihigo for deviating toward political themes.
He seems to have succeeded in reassuring his fans who turned up in large numbers to attend his gospel music concerts staged during Easter and Christmas.
With more than 400 songs to his name as the composer and countrywide popularity, Wikipedia describes Mihigo as “a Rwandan gospel singer, songwriter, organist, composer of sacred music, television presenter, genocide survivor, and peace and reconciliation activist.”
Overall, Mihigo was popular for his reconciliation ministry through religious songs and was widely viewed as an important cultural figure in Rwanda.
He was arrested in 2014 after he had just released “The meaning of death”, which challenged the official narrative of the genocide.
In 2015, Mihigo was convicted of complicity to overthrow the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame and handed a10-year prison sentence. Three years later, President Kagame pardoned him on condition that he needed judicial permission to leave the country.
He had been detained Thursday, February 13, accused by the Rwandan police of attempting to leave the country illegally, to join rebel groups in neighboring Burundi that are fighting against Rwanda.
Police explained that his attempt to leave the country without judicial permission had nullified the Presidential pardon he had received in 2018.
RIB also accused Mihigo, an ethnic Tutsi, of attempting to bribe people who had seen him “carrying a heavy bag.”
“I was there, I saw him. Villagers who stopped him said he was trying to cross to Burundi using illegal roads. From here to the border it’s less than five minutes’ walk,” a resident of south-western Nyaruguru district of Rwanda who did not want to be named has been quoted as telling BBC Great Lakes in reference to the late Mihigo.
Some members of the family of Mihigo and his lawyer had visited him in police custody Friday, February 14, The New Times of Rwanda has reported.
In country where the government is often accused of zeroing in on perceived critics, RIB’s account of suicide as the cause of Mihigo’s death is expected to be received with skepticism.
Some of his fans have taken to social media, seeking answers from the government of Rwanda about Mihigo’s death.
The Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Lewis Mudge whose area of operation covers Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has called for an investigation to determine the cause of Mihigo’s death.
He “could have been ill-treated or killed in custody,” the HRW official has been quoted as saying, referencing Mihigo.
“Too often, sensitive cases in Rwanda result in mysterious deaths or disappearances,” Mudge has been quoted as saying following the death of Mihigo.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa