In many ways, it is similar to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, which shocked the world on March 17, 2000, when over 500 people were set ablaze in a nailed-up church in the remote hills of Kanungu, Rukungiri district, and hundreds more bodies of followers were discovered in mass graves around the country.
According to the London-based Cult Information Centre, a cult can be defined as a group which uses coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.
It forms an elitist, totalitarian society. And its founder is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.
Cults use all kinds of techniques to control the mind, warns the Cult Information Centre.
These include separating their members from family, friends and society, encouraging blind acceptance, child-like obedience and rejection of logic, creating cult marriages and ‘families’, chanting and singing; bringing about increased dependence on the group by burning bridges to the past, promoting acceptance of the cult leader by promising power and salvation, and maintaining loyalty to the group by threatening soul, life of limb for the slightest ‘negative’ thought, word or deed.
One of the more commonly quoted definitions of a cult was articulated at a Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985 in Wisconsin (US): ‘A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion to some person or idea and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control.
This includes isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it. (These are) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families or the community.’
In Uganda, the best known cult was the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, which believed that only those who committed themselves totally to the revival of the Ten Commandments would be saved on the day of reckoning.
Studying ‘The Uganda Cult Tragedy‘ by Bernard Atuhaire, one is struck by the similarities between the Kanungu-group and the LRA.
Both movements used coercion or force to recruit their members. While the Kanungu-cult tirelessly harassed potential followers with psychological bombardments about the end of the world, the LRA resorts to physical force – abduction – to recruit its members.
Both movements isolated their subjects from the rest of the world, cutting them off from relatives and friends and taking them to remote and inaccessible places, which served as traps for those who might have wished to escape.
While the Kanungu cult put as condition the selling of one’s land and property, making any return impossible, the LRA at times literally killed relatives of abducted children so that they would have nobody to go back to.
The leaders of both movements claimed they had a mission from God to save the world, transmitted to them through a vision.
Both preached the restoration of the Ten Commandments.
Both used long hours of prayers, chanting and singing, as well as cleansing symbols, such as holy water and stones.
Both promised salvation for those who followed them – another life, a new generation.
And both exercised total control over their subjects – both their minds and bodies – through terror, guilt, brainwashing, physical hardships, deprivation, restriction of speech, suppression of emotions and control of information.
Though few survived the Kanungu inferno, ex-LRA rebels show many of the signs which are common for people coming out of a cult. These are described as depression, a sense of meaninglessness, regret about lost years, loss of self-esteem, loneliness, flashbacks, hallucinations, indecisiveness, inability to evaluate and judge (‘they listen, believe and obey’), fear of revenge or heavenly damnation, guilt about what they did while in the cult, and the difficulty of explaining.
As one ex-cultist put it in ‘Coming out of the Cults‘ of Dr. Margaret Singer: “People can’t just understand what the group puts into your mind. How they play on your guilts and needs. Psychological pressure is heavier than a locked door. You can bust a locked door down in terror and anger, but chains that are mental are real hard to break. The heaviest thing I’ve ever done is leaving the group, breaking those real heavy bonds on my mind.”