Vol. 3, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing
Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage
Go Down, Elian
A Religious Right Arrives in Canada
Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy
A Cardinal in Full
Mormon Women in the Real World
Peanuts for Christ
Happened in Uganda?
When Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) producer David Perlich asked to interview
me March 20 on the national TV news program Newsworld about "the latest Jonestown in
Uganda," I knew nothing about the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten
Commandments of God. But once I read the wire reports out of Kunugu, the real story seemed
very different from the one they claimed to tell.
Instead of a "cult suicide," it looked far more to me like murder. All the
reports said that a group of very traditional Africans practicing an equally traditional
form of Roman Catholicism had committed suicide. This did not make sense because to commit
suicide in most East African societies is to become something like what Westerners call a
ghost, and no one wants to be a ghost. It was also reasonable to expect that these
traditional social mores were reinforced by Catholic teachings, making suicide even less
What really puzzled me was the claim that the victims set themselves alight using
gasoline. This went against everything I knew about traditional African societies, where
witches are burnt to kill what Europeans usually call the soul. No traditional East
African would willingly die in a fire. Therefore, the possibility that the people in the
church were locked in from the outside and then set on fire by enemies who believed them
to be witches could not be ruled out. The burning of witches, sometimes involving the
death of hundreds, is all too common in Africa today.
My conclusion that this was not a case of suicide disturbed both the producer and the
interviewer, convinced as they were that we were indeed facing another Jonestown.
Graciously, they agreed to allow me to say my piece provided I presented all the available
evidence and made it clear that my opinion was not supported by any of the news reports.
Two days later, Perlich called me again to say that I "had got it right." The
latest reports were calling the deaths murder and blaming the cults leaders. Now the
whole thing sounded more like the Solar Temple deaths in Montreal than the Jonestown
deaths in Guyana.
Once more I went into the studio and once more the wire reports did not add up. But
this time I got no clear sense of what had or had not gone on, so all I could do was
discuss the facts and point out inconsistencies in the stories. Since then Ive gone
over all of the available news stories and remain very far from certain about what
happened. What I will do here is show how the story evolved, discuss the fragmentary
nature of the evidence, explore some of the anomalies, and suggest that an assault on
people believed to be witches may indeed lie at the center of the tragedy.
What immediately struck me as very strange was the detailed nature of the early reports
and the certainty with which the Ugandan police spoke about "cult suicides" and
"a second Jonestown." Such certainty was in stark contrast to early reports
about the Solar Temple and the Heavens Gate suicides in Los Angeles. Although both
occurred in modern urban settings where access to information is relatively easy, there
was a period of initial confusion before anything certain was known about the people
involved or their leaders. In the Uganda case, details about the mode of death, the
"cult," and the leaders were immediately available even though the event took
place in a very remote and isolated part of Africa.
Equally puzzling was the fact that instead of talking about the group in African terms
(such as calling its leader a prophet, describing the group as an African Church, or
mentioning occult behavior like witchcraft), Ugandan police from the outset used the
language of the British and North American anti-cult movement. Indeed, as Raymond Whitaker
of the London Independent noted April 5, there was a remarkable similarity between
the profile of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
provided by Ugandan authorities and a cult "checklist available on the
internet." No one considered the possibility that this profile presented by police to
reporters was actually based on the Internet checklist.
As the story developed, the initial certainty of police accounts progressively
disintegrated in the face of evidence that contradicted their claims. For example, after
speaking to the police, J.M. Lawrence of the Boston Herald reported that members of
the cult "locked themselves inside their newly built church and nailed shut the
windows and doors" before setting themselves alight.
This straightforward account began to crack after Washington Post foreign
correspondent Karl Vick reported March 20 that the sect had just finished building a new
stone church and was planning to install its own generator. "The work they put into
new construction signaled an investment in the future at odds with the leaders
prediction that the world would end in 2000," Vick noted. The same day Anna Borzello
of the South African online newspaper, the Daily Mail and Guardian, illogically
observed that "cult members appear to have nailed the doors and windows from the
outside. Then they went inside and set themselves alight" (italics added).
If the doors and windows were nailed shut from the outside, who were the person or
persons who did it and what happened to them? For that matter, why had the police
spokesman told reporters that the doors were "locked from the inside."
As the Montreal Gazette made clear March 22, some relatives of the victims were
certain that the deaths were murder. Their suspicions were confirmed by the discovery of
six more corpses, clearly murdered, on nearby church property. On March 24 the AP reported
that the corpses of 153 cult members who had been "strangled and hacked to
death" were found near the scene of the church fire. A week after these grisly
discoveries, ABC News reported that additional mass graves had been uncovered on property
belonging to the church in several other places, including the capital, Kampala.
So the Uganda police changed their story, announcing that they now considered the
deaths homicides. On March 28, the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted police spokesmen
as saying that it "appears that cult leaders decided to kill their followers"
one by one "after persuading them to sell their belongings and hand over the
money." The police also suggested that the cults leaders "left the
compound before the fire" and issued arrest warrants for them.
The decision of the police to call the deaths murder coincided with a change in their
description of the groups leadership. Originally the leader was identified as Joseph
Kibweteere, described by the Los Angeles Times March 19 as a "defector from
the Roman Catholic Church" and by the Daily Mail and Guardian as "a
failed Ugandan politician," a "self-styled bishop," and a "wealthy
dairy farmer" who was "a terrible conservative in his religious beliefs."
Until March 24, attention focused on Kibweteere and two "former Catholic
priests" said to have assisted him.
With the official story now murder, the 68-year-old Kibweteere was joined by a
40-year-old ex-prostitute named Caladonia Mwerinde, whose greed and influence over
Kibweteere were said to have led them to kill their followers before absconding with a
large amount of money. Mwerinde, the Johannesburg Sunday Times reported March 26,
was "the main driving force behind the mass killing." Ian Fischer of the New
York Times reported that Mwerinde, "a former store owner and brewer of banana
beer," claimed that the Virgin Mary spoke to her for the first time in 1984. Later
she gave up prostitution to join Kibweteere, had many other visions, and became a
prophetess within the movement. The London Sunday Telegraph revealed her "love
of money" and "gift for manipulation." According to Newsweek,
ex-members called her "the Programmer."
This last was improbablecomputerese in an improbable settingunless picked
up from the vocabulary of the North American anti-cult movement that promotes
"deprogramming." Otherwise, the new version of the story was neat and plausible,
but it too quickly broke down under the weight of the evidence.
The major problem was to explain how one old man and one middle-aged woman murdered an
ever expanding number of people in widely scattered locations at about the same time. The
official Ugandan government newspaper New Vision suggested that the two used
specialist hit squads from neighboring countries to kill their victims and quoted unnamed
police officers and witnesses as saying that mercenaries from Rwanda and the Democratic
Republic of Congo carried out the murders. But if a large number of foreign mercenaries
were involved, why had no one spoken about seeing them earlier and how did they penetrate
so deep into Uganda unnoticed? This explanation made no sense and was quickly dropped.
The official story was eroded by other questions as well. Although the police described
the members of the group as "the poorest of the poor," reporters noted that in
African terms they were a relatively prosperous community. As the Daily Mail and
Guardian observed March 20, "The church buildings were set in plantations of
pineapples and bananas. Cows grazed on the hilly land." Likewise, on March 26 the
Johannesburg Sunday Times described the area as "lush" and "by
African standards" wealthy. This hardly fit the picture of a cult whose members were
dissatisfied with the failure of its leadersanother official explanation given for
On April 5, Boston Globe correspondent Lara Santoro reported, "Relatives
and friends of cult members confirmed that the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten
Commandments did not expect to die," thus contradicting the "theory of an
insurgency by members" leading to their murder. The same day the independent Kampala
newspaper, the Monitor, reported that some of the dead were circumcised and that
some people believed they were Tabliq Muslim opponents of the government who had died in
police custody. The report was heatedly denied by the police, but Muslim spokesmen told
the Monitor April 10 that this was a possibility that ought to be
"investigated by foreign agencies such as the FBI."
Newspaper pictures showing the way dead bodies were piled up in the mass graves threw
further doubt on official explanations. The Monitor quoted one source as saying,
"The way the bodies were piled on top of each other suggests they were thrown in
possibly from the back of a tipper truck" and buried at the same time, not "one
by one" as the police suggested. The minister of internal affairs, Edward Rugumayo,
"added to fears of a government cover-up," the newspaper reported, when he
revealed that the Ugandan government had decided to "restrict access" to cult
sites. "There will be no more cameras," said Rugumayo. "Our police forensic
experts will take the photographs." On April 6, the London Independent reported
that the church where the original fire occurred had been bulldozed and the corpses
reburied in mass graves, thereby making further investigations impossible.
Another puzzle: When news of the deaths first broke, police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi
told ABC News that an "unspecified number of police officers" had died in the
fire. Who were they? What were they doing there? And why did they die? These questions
were never answered. Although Western news reports later mentioned that the Ugandan
government is fighting a series of civil wars involving religious groups, none explored
the possibility that any of the deaths were politically motivated.
On May 5, New Vision reported the strange news that internal affairs minister
Rugumayo had denied government involvement with "the cult" and stated that the
strangled and hacked bodies found on church property did not mean that the church had
provided the government with "safe houses"by which he meant secret jails
used to hold political prisoners. The fear that many of the victims were actually
political prisoners was discussed by the Nairobi East African, which claimed May 9
that "after the initial flood of relatives...no one else has come forward to claim or
identify the bodies." Consequently, the newspaper reported, "political
demagogues" were spreading the rumor that "the murders were part of a wider
conspiracy hatched by the state to exterminate its enemies." This view was absurd,
the paper argued in an editorial; nevertheless, many people in Kampala believed it.
Therefore, the Ugandan Government had the duty to "come clean" about what had
It should be noted that the government had been quick to use the tragedy to gain
support for efforts to restrict the activities of religious groups. According to the East
African and the Monitor, police initiated a crackdown against
"non-mainstream," "Born again," "Pentecostal" and
Charismatic churches that claimed the massacres were being used to tarnish their names.
After reviewing the available press reports, my original conclusion that this was a
case of murder, not religious suicide, seems well established. What really happened,
however, remains a mystery. It does seem clear that the Movement for the Restoration of
the Ten Commandments of God was led by Roman Catholic laypeople, priests, and nuns who had
been excommunicated by their church. As indicated by the writings they left behind, its
leaders were highly traditional and orthodox in their beliefs and practices. The scene of
conflagration was littered with images of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes.
According to many local reports, members of the group acted like ordinary Christians.
The leaders, whoever they were exactly, lived alongside the rank and file and shared their
tasks. Kibweteere was seen by many as a godly man. Except for having been
excommunicateda not uncommon event in African Catholicismall that
distinguished members of the group from other Catholics was that they had adopted
distinctive dress: the women wearing white veils and the men clad in black, green, or red
In short, the group fits the profile a typical African Independent/Indigenous Church
(AIC), and specifically that of the East African AICs described in F.B. Welbourns
classic East African Rebels. The fact that this particular group appears to have
originated in Rwanda (New York Times, April 2), and to have attracted refugees from
various ethnic conflicts (Johannesburg Sunday Times, April 2), before becoming
relatively prosperous, may explain the dislike of local people and accusations of
witchcraft which we must now consider.
On the basis of the available evidence, the most plausible version of events is that
the initial murder of over 300 people was carried out by people who believed the
groups members were witches. There is evidence that some local people did believe
this. ABC News quoted some locals as saying the members were "dangerous," a
"cult of Satan," and that they were "scared of them." The network also
mentioned "witchcraft and sex" as characteristics of the movement. The New
York Times reported that, again according to locals, members of the group had claimed
"supernatural powers." Even more compelling, the police admitted
"investigating" reports by local people that "the cult leaders had taken
the advice of witchdoctors and started sacrificing a child every week and drinking its
blood" (East African, April 17) and that they had earlier heard complaints
from locals that the sect was "kidnapping children" (London Independent,
Of course, the theory that terrified locals nailed the members of the group inside
their church and burned them to death as witches does not account for all the other bodies
that were later "discovered" at other locations. As already observed, these
bodies are a problem because some of them appear to have been circumcisedi.e. to
have belonged to Muslims. They are also a problem because, according to government
records, the church had only 235 registered members.
That figure more or less tallies with the actual number of adults killed in the fire.
Yet later the body count reached almost 1,000 and police claimed that the group had five
times that many members, even though, according to the East African, "a
register found at Kanugu" contained the names of under 300. Is it possible that after
the initial murders some enterprising police or army officers decided to use the tragedy
as a cover to dispose of the bodies of murdered political prisoners?
From the start, Ugandan government officials spun the tragedy as the fiery end of a
religious "doomsday cult." In doing so, they drew on the language and ideology
of the anti-cult movementwith the assistance of various North American and British
"cult experts." Philip Messing of the New York Post reported April 24
that Geoffrey Howard, president of the New York anti-cult organization Cult Solutions,
Inc., had begun assisting Ugandan authorities "soon after the horrifying news came
out. Other self-proclaimed American and British "cult experts" quickly got into
the act as media sources, including Steve Hasan in the Washington Post, Deborah
Layton in the East African, Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre in the Independent,
and Rabbi James Rudin in his weekly column for the Religious News Service. How many such
experts besides Howard directly "assisted" the Ugandan authorities is unclear,
but from the tone of Ugandan government statements it seems certain that at least some
Recognizing the involvement of Western anti-cult activists raises important questions
about the globalization of the anti-cult movement and its ready-made answers to difficult
questions. William Pike, the British editor of New Vision, was clearly influenced
by the anti-cult propaganda available on numerous web sites. He allowed New Visions
reportsone of which the New York Times described as "almost
mythic"to fuel the cult image instead of probing issues like the possibility
that the deaths were linked to traditional African beliefs about witches. As a whole, the
news media swallowed one or another version of the "bad cult" story hook, line,
and sinker, never entertaining the possibility that the tragedy was perpetrated by hostile
What really happened at Kunugu we do not and may never know. At this point, we can only
hope that enterprising reporters will continue to search the local community for answers.
And along with the May 9 editorial in the East African we can ask that the Ugandan
government come clean.