Fire in the name of God
On December 2, 2000, the government formed a seven-member Judicial Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Augustus Kania to investigate the March 17, 2000 Kanungu inferno that claimed an estimated 600 people.
In all, up to 1,000 people were killed in cult related violence, including hundreds found in graves in Bushenyi and Kampala.
Nine years after the massacre, the commission hasn’t sat and Ugandans don’t know what exactly happened. Michael Mubangizin writes that besides getting appointment letters, the judicial inquiry never sat even for a single day.
Major events have happened in the recent past and shaken the country but ended up forgotten even without answers being provided. In our new series, ‘What happened?’ The Weekly Observer recounts such events, beginning with the Kanungu inferno, which after nine years this month remains a mystery.
Was the government serious when it formed a judicial commission of inquiry into the Kanungu massacre?
One is tempted to think no, considering that the probe was never financed to do its work.
Police calls off Kibwetere hunt
Nine years after the March 17, 2000 inferno that claimed about 600 people, the plot on which the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God church stood in Kanungu remains abandoned.
For Police it has been nine years of wild-goose chase. They have not been able to catch cult leaders; Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and Dominic Kataribabo and have decided to “temporarily shelve” the file.
“Kibwetere and the others implicated went underground and took a low profile, so it is quite difficult,” said John Enanga, spokesman of the CID.
A committee appointed by the government to investigate the incident too never took off because there was no money. For now, the world will never really know the full story of the deadly Kanungu cult.
While Kibwetere and others remain at large, some of the people near the site of the massacre remain traumatised by the incident. One such person is Rev. Canon Tumuhimbise, a clergyman based in Kanungu, who until today cannot eat roasted meat. It reminds him of the hundreds of charred bodies of the victims he saw after the cult followers perished in the inferno.
There had been plans to turn this are into a tourist attraction site, but according to the LC-III chairperson, Godfrey Karabenda, this cannot happen until investigations into the matter have been concluded.
The Kanungu LC-V chairperson, Josephine Kasya, is of the same opinion.
“We have been waiting for the report on the cult by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to develop the area so that it can serve as a reminder to our population and still generate some income through tourism but we have not seen anything,” she said.
However, the bid to turn the area into tourist site will also be undermined by the fact that a lot of what would interest tourists was buried by bulldozers sent to the site immediately after the inferno.
Cult leaders were caught having sex,which was forbidden
With the government not doing much, the Uganda Human Rights Commission took it upon itself to investigate the Kanungu cult.
Their team, which was headed by Constantine Karusoke, a commissioner, interviewed former members of the cult, their neighbours and friends, as well as religious and political leaders in areas where the cult operated. In its 84-page report which The Weekly Observer has seen, the Uganda Human Rights Commission says that the cult was registered as an NGO on December 18, 1998 having been seconded by the then Rukungiri RDC, Kitaka Gawera.
The report urged the government to investigate further why Kitaka fraternised with the cult leadership “to the extent that he laid a foundation stone on one of their buildings not withstanding his predecessor’s letter to the NGO Registration Board advising against the registration of the cult.”
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God barred talking among its members.
“The rule that ranks first of all the rules that we have received from our Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary his mother is the rule of silence,” reads their memorandum.
It added: “We are obliged to keep silent, except when we are instructing people, praying or singing, but we can speak when there is a genuine reason to make us do so.”
They believed silence maintained harmony and minimised sin.
“Conversations lead many into telling lies about their neighbours thus bringing about misunderstandings that make people end up in-fighting and disrupting the peace and order of the community.”
Those who kept silent would apparently hear from the Blessed Virgin Mary while those who spoke got Satan’s voice.
By silencing their followers, the report says cult leaders concealed atrocities committed at night, like killing and burying people as members wouldn’t talk about them. This practice also insulated cult leaders from embarrassing or uncomfortable questions from some doubting Thomases in the organisation.
Members were instructed to sell all their personal property and surrender the proceeds to the cult to be shared with others. “Blessed Virgin Mary would refund the money from the sale of the member’s properties,” they were told.
The report volunteers that this was meant to impoverish and enslave the cult followers, making it difficult or impossible for them to quit.
So, how did a cult with such harsh and suspicious rules of engagement attract and retain followers? It would appear that their message of fear — fear of doomsday — kept their followers at their best behaviour.
The report quotes Martino Nuwagaba, a former preacher in the cult, as saying that as far back as 1992, they were preaching about doomsday snakes which would be as big as wheels of tractors. They also used to tell their congregations that on doomsday big blocks of cement would fall from heaven to crush the sinners. This would be followed by three days of consecutive darkness worldwide. Only their camps would be safe havens.
Sex was forbidden among cult members, even those who were married. Those caught in the act would be severely beaten.
However, cult leaders never practised what they preached.
Nuwagaba says in the report that one day he found Kibwetere and Credonia in bed. He had gone to wake them up for morning prayers.
Last year, Police in Mubende arrested leaders of a cult known as Munyakaibo which was operating in the area.
Munyakaibo preaches against using electronics such as mobile phones and computers, which it views as satanic.
Its followers shun medical services from hospitals and only rely on prayer. Also, they don’t take their children to school and oppose teaching of science subjects. Believing that all people are equal, the cult does not believe in local leaders and thus has no pastors.
There is also an on-going inquiry into the Sserulanda Spiritual Foundation, a Rakai-based religious group said to be a cult. The inquiry, led by Prof. Nelson Ssewankambo, was ordered by President Museveni. Among members of this group is NRM historical, Gertrude Njuba.
The group is accused of some illegal activities, including money laundering. Because members don’t bury their dead, the group is also accused of trading in body parts.
The Doomsday Cult (video)
Remembering the “African Jonestown”
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God