By Patrick Ajuna
Kibwetere, the leader of the Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments and his assistants, are wanted for masterminding the deaths of over 1,000 people. For 13 years now, no one knows whether he is alive or dead
Thirteen years ago, anticipation of great things to occur in the new millennium. Excitement greeted the dawn of the year 2000.
However, hardly had the celebratory mood cooled down than the world was awoken to the shocking news of a religious mass murder on March 17, 2000, in Kanungu, then within Rukungiri district in western Uganda. About 1,000 people belonging to the Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God cult were killed.
New details emerging from the statement given by Kibwetere’s son, Juvenal Rugambwa, to the Police indicate that he identified a burnt body which had a ring like the one his father used to wear and a piece of cassock around the body.
In his statement taken in 2000, Rugambwa also informed the Police that he saw the usual clerical garb and shape of the head which he believed was his father’s.
However, Victor Aisu, an assistant commissioner of Police attached to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), declined to divulge details of the post-mortem report, saying all bodies were examined at once and that releasing the results could jeopardise investigations. Aisu participated in the preliminary investigations.
SundayVision saw several documents including letters from State House on the matter, but an assistant commissioner of Police only identified as Swaliki, who was responsible for the documents, declined to release any of them.
About 450 people perished in the fire that gutted the cult’s church where people had gathered allegedly to receive the Blessed Virgin Mary and witness the end of the world. The rest of the bodies (550) were found buried in mass graves in different sites where the cult operated.
Initially, it was thought to be mass suicide, but later a commission of inquiry instituted by the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), established that it was a well planned murder orchestrated by the cult leaders, Credonia Mwerinde, a former prostitute and Joseph Kibwetere, a former teacher and failed politician.
Other cult leaders included Angelina Mugisha, Fr. Joseph Kasapurari and Fr. Dominic Kataribabo.
The 2002 UHRC report on the incident and other media reports trace the origin and background of the cult, how many people died, who killed them, why they were killed, where they were killed, how and where they were buried and the extent of human rights violations.
However, some questions have remained unanswered and no explanation has been given by the concerned authorities 12 years since the incident happened.
The Government’s commission of inquiry report on the incident has never been published and there is no information on the Government’s response to the recommendations of the UHRC report.
The occurrence of this horrific tragedy, which is arguably one of the world’s worst religious mass murders ever recorded, was expected not only to be an eye-opener to the Government and the public, but also help put in place stringent measures to avert future occurrence of crimes of similar nature and magnitude.
In spite of the horrific mass murder, Ugandans have continued to embrace cults like the Faith of Unity in western Uganda under the leadership of Owobusobozi Bisaka.
Besides Kibwetere, the whereabouts of his co-cult leaders remain unknown, and no further investigations were made despite the UHRC report recommendation to that effect.
Venus Tumuhimbise, the commissioner general crimes at CID, said Police investigations are still ongoing.
“Since the culprits have not yet been arrested and prosecuted, it means investigations have not yet been completed,” he said.
According to the Police report, the cult leaders may have perished with the followers.
The Police report noted that written documents left behind, including a letter to Kibwetere’s wife and records left with Police in Kanungu, encouraged the survivors of the inferno to continue with the religion.
“Documents received, including passports, identity cards and personal belongings indicated that the owners could have died in the inferno,” the Police report pointed out.
The UHRC report says on March 16, 2000, at around midnight, one of the cult followers only identified as Karangwa handed over some sect documents for safe custody to Kanungu Police Post.
There is contradicting information obtained from other sources, however.
According to Innocent Byaruhanga, one of the survivors, Kibwetere left Kanungu two days before the fateful day while other cult leaders left hours to the inferno.
Since Kibwetere has never showed up since the inferno, Tumuhimbise said he is for now regarded as a dead person. Quoting Section 20 of the Estates of the Missing Person’s Act 1973, Tumuhimbise said if a person goes missing for three years, he shall be presumed dead.
UHRC questioned the link between the resident district commissioner of Rukungiri, Kitaka Gawera and the cult leaders.
“The Government should establish the true facts that led to the then RDC (Gawera) to fraternise with the cult leadership in Kanungu to the extent that he laid a foundation stone on one of their buildings.”
However, his predecessor, Yorokamu Kamacerere, in his letter to the NGO registration board and personal briefing to his successor, advised against the registration of the cult.
However, Aisu said RDC Gawera executed his duties. “Police is not aware of allegations that the RDC was cautioned by his predecessor and NGO registration board against the registration of the cult.”
Despite the Kanungu inferno, a number of NGOs, especially those which are faith-based, are not registered and therefore operating illegally. Stephen Okello, the NGO board legal officer said the Police needs to find out which NGOs are operating illegally and prosecute them.
Gilbert Ogutu, a lecturer of religious studies at Nairobi University, cautions: “What happened in Uganda (Kanungu) should be a lesson to developing countries that such cults and sects should be monitored closely by governments so that this disaster does not repeat itself.”
If the concerned authorities do not act very fast to arrest the situation, the occurrence of Kanungu-like incidents would be inevitable.
The followers had been told that the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear to deliver a special message between March 16 and March 18, 2000. Women who had separated from their husbands even went home to persuade those husbands to return to Kanungu to wait for the message.
Followers believed they were going to heaven and they needed to cleanse themselves of whatever sins they had committed on earth. About 60 followers, who had not paid graduated tax, did so on March 14, 2000. l On March 16, 2000 at around midnight, one of the followers, Karangwa, handed over some sect documents (land title, articles of association, constitution and certificate of incorporation) for safe custody to Kanungu Police Post.
The cult leadership seemed to have been preparing for murder. According to Godfrey Bangirana, an assistant commissioner of Police in-charge of serious crime, the cult leadership bought 36 jerrycans of petrol at one of the petrol stations in Kampala on March 9, 2000, yet the cult had no vehicle.
On March 12, 2000, Fr. Kataribabo bought two 20-litre jerrycans of concentrated sulphuric acid from a one Musisi, a proprietor of Musco Agencies in Kasese, supposedly for using in the batteries of the cult vehicles. Pathologists found some traces of petrol and acid at the Kanungu site.
On March 11, 2000, Fr. Kataribabo sold his house and surrounding land to his nephew, where 153 bodies were later found.
Between March 6 and 16, 2000, all the property of the cult was sold at throw-away prices. The cult leaders claimed that they were selling the property to raise money to buy a lorry and a generator.
This story was done in collaboration with the Makerere University post-graduate investigative journalism programme