Born in 1954 to farmers in an obscure village in the commune of Rwerere at the foot of the Karisimbi volcano, Simon Bikindi made a name for himself in secondary school playing a combination of modern music and music from his region’s rich cultural tunes, writes Moses Opobo.
In November 2007, after having tried high-ranking government officers, ministers, businessmen, priests, and militiamen, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sailed uncharted waters.
In a landmark trial, the singer and composer Simon Bikindi was sentenced to 15 years in jail for knowingly employing his music to sow genocide ideology. The court case of ‘Rwanda’s Michael Jackson’ illustrates that even artistes/musicians can be held guilty of inciting genocide.
Public incitement to genocide
It was the first case in which a creative artist was been brought before an international criminal court and charged with using artistic creativity to incite genocide.
At the heart of the trial were Bikindi’s radical songs which were very popular during the genocide. Bikindi, a born of 1954, was one of the country’s most famous musicians. His voice dominated the airwaves when his songs were played many times a day over the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) airwaves during the genocide.
The court ruled that the songs “manipulated the history of Rwanda to extol Hutu solidarity with the specific intent to disseminate pro-Hutu ideology and anti-Tutsi propaganda, and thus to encourage ethnic hatred.”
The tribunal convicted Bikindi for broadcasting a speech from a speaker on his car calling on Hutus to kill Tutsis in 1994. On a second drive along the same road in eastern Rwanda, he asked if people had been killing the “snakes”. The singer was found guilty of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. He was acquitted on five other charges including genocide, crimes against humanity and murder.
Gambian Prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow had called for a life sentence for the singer who rose to fame in Rwanda as a champion of traditional culture. Jallow says his music was a clear provocation for Hutu extremists to slaughter moderate fellow Hutus and minority Tutsis during the 100-day killing spree.
According to eyewitness reports, many of the Hutu killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked or beat to death Tutsis with government-issued machetes. “In his songs, Bikindi said we had to fight the Tutsis with all our strength, that the Tutsis wanted to bring back serfdom,” a witness said during the trial.
The witness, a former Interahamwe member who is serving a life sentence in Rwanda for his role in the killing spree said the songs were “full of allusions and images, the meaning of which was clear to any Rwandan.
At that time Bikindi fled to the Netherlands where he was arrested at a centre for asylum seekers in Leiden in 2001. His trial in Arusha opened in September 2006. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges saying he never wrote a song advocating killing anyone and couldn’t stop the genocidaires from singing his songs.
It is not the first time the Rwanda tribunal dealt with hate speech. In an earlier media judgment, the court convicted three major media players for inciting genocide. Hassan Ngeze, director and editor of the newspaper Kangura, was, among other things, found guilty for inflammatory articles written to incite ethnic hatred.
Others were Rwanda’s genocidal ideologues, historian Ferdinand Nahimana and lawyer Jean- Bosco Barayagwiza, who were in charge of radical Hutu radio station RTLM. The radio station coordinated the genocide, gave death tolls like weather reports and urged death squads to go to villages where ‘’the work’’ wasn’t finished yet.
“RTLM broadcasts was a drumbeat calling on listeners to take action against Tutsis,” Judge Navanethem Pillay said. “RTLM spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country,” she said in 2003.
Georges Ruggiu, a former RTLM producer and reporter, was jailed for 12 years in 2000 after he pleaded guilty to direct and public incitement to commit genocide.
Born in 1954 to farmers in an obscure village in the commune of Rwerere at the foot of the Karisimbi volcano, Simon Bikindi made a name for himself in secondary school playing a combination of modern music and music from his region’s rich cultural tunes, which he continued to draw from throughout his career.
When the war broke out in October 1990, Bikindi was the most popular Rwandan folk singer. However, the war and the advent of multi-party politics became sources of inspiration for his well-known, but controversial songs. His songs have been banned in Rwanda, but they are still played among some Rwandans in exile.