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In a rare occurrence in Rwanda, this September 14, a Cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame approved a presidential order of mercy to set free 2,140 prisoners, including gospel musician Kizito Mihigo and opposition politician Victoire Ingabire.

Gospel musician Mihigo, 36, was once the “blue-eyed boy” of the Rwandan government. He accompanied President Kagame on foreign trips to celebrate Rwanda Day abroad. Mihigo sang the national anthem at state events courtesy of his amazing vocals and piano skills.

He was a high-flying, well-connected personality, until his arrest in April 2014, a few days to the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. His arrest left many of his fans in Rwanda and abroad in shock. And it was not just the arrest but the charges he would face a few days later too.

How could a man who sang eloquently about the achievements of post-genocide Rwanda be accused of plotting to kill the president and top government leaders? How could a man so close to the president have been working with so-called enemies of the state?

Kizito Mihigo

Kizito Mihigo performing at the National Stadium after the Walk to Remember on April 7, 2013. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG

It took a few weeks of appearing before a packed courtroom in Kigali and prosecutors presenting what they called “overwhelming evidence,” including WhatsApp messages and audios of the musician allegedly talking with dissidents for it to sink into the hearts and minds of the public and some of his fans that it was possible that he had been turned.

His diehard fans insisted that he was being framed and that these were trumped up charges. But to what end? Who would want Mihigo, – who cut a forlorn figure when he appeared in court – charged with treason and why?

He had touched many Rwandans hearts with his gospel music and his church background created the impression that he was a God-fearing man.

Kizito Mihigo was arrested in April 2014. PHOTO

Kizito Mihigo was arrested in April 2014. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG

To the surprise of many, few days into his trial, Mihigo pleaded guilty to all charges, which included plotting to kill President Kagame and top government officials, engaging in activities aimed at destabilising the country and forming alliances with outlawed groups.

As the trial progressed, it was hard to comprehend how Mihigo, a genocide survivor, could have formed alliances with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel outfit based in eastern DR Congo, whose senior members are accused of genocide in Rwanda.

The singer, according to prosecutors, had also formed alliances with Rwanda National Congress (RNC), a group made up of Rwandan dissidents in exile.

When his lawyer tried to push for a “not guilty’’ plea, Mihigo dismissed him and engaged another lawyer and pleaded guilty even as his co-accused, radio journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga and retired soldier Jean Paul Dukuzumuremyi, denied all the charges.

Mihigo begged for the court’s leniency and throughout the trial appealed to President Kagame to pardon him. In February 2015, the High Court sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment. Ntamuhanga was handed a 25-year sentence and Dukuzumuremyi got 30 years.

Ntamuhanga escaped from prison in October 2017, while Mihigo and Dukuzumuremyi appealed their sentences in June 2016.

While in prison, Mihigo repeatedly wrote to President Kagame seeking clemency and apologising for his “crimes.”

Then on September 14, it all came to an end. Mihigo walked out of the Nyarugenge Prison after serving four years of his sentence. Four days later, on September 18, he withdrew his appeal at the Supreme Court.

Kizito Mihigo

Kizito Mihigo leaves the Nyarugenge Prison on his release on September 24, 2018. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG


The singer has denied suggestions that the withdrawal of his appeal had something to do with the government clemency, pointing out that he felt that it was a waste of time pursuing the case. After all, he argues, the 10 years he got for the kind of crimes he was charged with, was a lenient sentence. His co-accused got more.

“I was not aware of the impending pardon. I was in my prison bed when I heard the news on Radio Rwanda. At first I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t believe that it was true that I had been pardoned,” Mihigo told The EastAfrican.

He, however, said that he was confident that at some point the president would listen to his appeal and set him free.

“I had written to the president many times. I never gave up. I knew he would find a place in his heart to forgive me and give me a second chance. I had also made sure that I indicated that I was ready to serve my country again, given an opportunity,” he said.

Before his arrest and imprisonment, Mihigo commanded a huge following, with a fan base across all ages. His concerts attracted Cabinet ministers and other top government officials.

At first, his court appearances attracted a multitude of people, both his fans and curious public, but as the details of his charges continued to emerge, the crowds disappeared. No one wanted to be associated with someone who had been accused of trying to undermine the government.

Kizito Mihigo

Kizito Mihigo (left) with his co-accused at the Kigali High Court. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG

By the time of his sentencing in February 2015, the courtroom held no more than five people. Just close family members. Standing in the dock, he cut a lonely, subdued figure. The hundreds who stood by him at the beginning had vanished.

“Life was hard for him. No one visited him,” a prison guard at Mageragera Rwanda Correctional Service facility told The EastAfrican.

While other prisoners were regularly visited by friends and relatives who brought special food and money so the prisoners could buy extra supplies from prison authorities, Mihigo was abandoned. Even the few daring family members who visited brought no money to help him to survive prison life.

“The good thing was that he was loved by many fellow prisoners, who took pity on him and shared their food with him,” said the warder.

Prior to his arrest, Mihigo, whose musical had career goes back to 2010, had been enjoying government support. In fact, it was reported that President Kagame paid his tuition in full to study music in Europe.

His organisation, Kizito Mihigo for Peace Foundation, enjoyed support from the state. His reconciliation programmes were widespread but as soon as he was jailed, everything fell apart.

Mihigo blamed his troubles on “being frustrated” and a feeling that he was not getting where he wanted to be. Throughout his trial, he took responsibility for whatever he was being accused of.

Following the clemency, the singer says he is going to start from scratch and win back the confidence of the government that once supported him and had put him on a pedestal before his fall from grace.

“I am ready to go to work again and use my talent to spread a message of peace, unity and reconciliation. I am ready to work with my fellow citizens and the government to build our nation,” said the singer, who admitted that he had learnt a lesson.

Observers say it will be an uphill task for Mihigo to work himself back to the place he was, unless the government takes it upon itself to support him.

Since his arrest and jailing, his music stopped being played in the country, and it is yet to reappear on the airwaves. It takes a while for someone who has faced accusations of betraying his country to fully reintegrate into society.

However, Mihigo says that it is a challenge he is ready to face as he tries to win back the hearts of millions of Rwandans who related to his music and depended on his charity.

“I am going to work towards winning back every heart and soul,” Mihigo says. He also says that his immediate task will be to find a partner and get married because he wouldn’t wish anyone to go to jail without a wife or children.