It’s 23:59 31st December 1999, the world has not ended and, computers are still functioning. But inside the church in Kanungu, a small town in Western Uganda, tensions are rising. The followers of the Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of God are still on Earth. The Virgin Mary hasn’t shown up to take them to heaven. The cult members had sold their “earthly property”, on promise of eternal life in heaven. They want their property and money back.
But, quick on their feet, the cult leaders Joseph Kibwetere, Joseph Kasapurari, John Kamagara, Dominic Kataribabo, and Credonia Mwerinde, spin another tall tale to placate their followers. They employ a classic textbook cult tactic - buy more time.
The cult’s chief medium, Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to have a direct line to God through the “Virgin Mary”, informs the congregation that Doom’s Day has been extended to 17th March 2000.
Fast forward to Saturday 18th March, 2000, Ugandans wake up in a state of shock as more than 500 of the cult’s followers are discovered dead, burned alive in their church. First thought to have been a mass suicide, it quickly becomes apparent that it is an organised murder. The death toll rises to over 1,000 as more mass graves are found all over the country.
The Kalungu massacre was the biggest act of religious mass cult murder in modern history.
The Movement was known locally, yet authorities, journalists and the local population missed the very obvious signs that it was a dangerous, exploitative cult. How was this atrocity planned right under the nose of Ugandan authorities?
Ian Haworth, founder of Cult Information Centre in London, a charity providing advice and information for victims of cults, points to some characteristics that enables cults to flourish and exploit:
“Cults tend to always use psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate, isolate and retain its member and goals.”
These tactics seem to have worked wonders for the Kanungu cult leaders. The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHR) report, published in the aftermath of the inferno, confirmed that the isolation tactic was utilised to the extreme. Cult members were forbidden from verbal communication to outsiders and even each other. They were told to use sign language at all times, in addition to other forms of control, such handing all their wealth and property to the cult leaders.
The URH government report offered no clear answer to the question of what happened to the cult leaders. Twenty years on, many aspects of the horrific event remain murky and unanswered, such as unconfirmed reports of Kibwetere hiding out in Malawi.
Uganda has always been fertile ground for a multiplicity of religious cults, some have even taken arms against the state. In 1986, Alice Lakwena formed a violent Holy Spirit Movement and led her Holy Spirit Mobile forces to march on Kampala.
One of the International Criminal Court’s most-wanted Joseph Kony, and his cult like Lord’s Resistance Army, took arms against the state. He claimed to be God’s spokesman - a spirit medium instructed by God to establish a theocratic state based on the biblical ten commandments. His atrocities stunned the world.
Ahimbisibwe Rodgers, director for Africa Centre for Apologetics Research, a Christian organisation giving advice to Ugandans about cults and extreme religious movements, remarks that:
“Cults usually model themselves around resistance and claim socialist agendas.”
He links the Kanungu massacre to political and social upheavals in Uganda, such as the 1980’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and the 1980-86 bush war. Cult leaders, like Joseph Kony and Alice Lakwena based their movement on the biblical ten commandments, as a way of legitimising resistance efforts and maintaining power over followers.
Rodgers points to the isolationist approach of the colonial resistance movement, Nyabinghi Cult, which operated in south western Uganda in the 1800’s.
“It was a closed group. Nyabinghi’s message was based on wellness and holiness but only if you are part of the group. [They said] there are catastrophes and challenges happening in the world, but those who are part of the group will be safer - both in this life and the life to come”.
Ian Haworth, who escaped a Canadian cult in the 80’s, adds that, “cults form an elitist totalitarian society. Leaders are usually self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and charismatic”. Such signs can be read in modern day religious movements.
Evangelical ‘Christian’ churches, led by charismatic leaders with apocalyptic belief systems, are a flourishing lucrative business in present-day Uganda. Some leaders call themselves prophets and apostles of Christ, claiming all sorts of miracles including acquiring divine football skills.
These religious movements use similar isolationist and exploitative tactics revised for modern times. Mr Rodgers is particularly worried about the use of media channels by religious movements who exhibit cult-like tendencies.
While Kibwetere relied on his charisma without social media, the dangers increase as charismatic ‘Christian’ leaders are able to broadcast their messages to larger audiences on television and social media channels. Money mobile transfers are also increasingly used to exhort often poor and vulnerable followers.
It can’t be ruled out that another catastrophe could happen. Mr Haworth a survivor of a Canadian cult says that “in every cult, there is a potential of death. What could be a deciding factor is, cult leaders enjoy the power they have. They are cowards and they don’t want to face the music when things don’t go their way. They use different tactics until the last minute. The Jim Jones Jonestown massacre and the Kibwetere cult were the result of a last resort cowardly act.”
While the Ugandan government is proposing measures to monitor church activities, there is no agreement on what should be monitored, and by who?
The association of the Catholic Church with the Kanungu cult leaders is that they were ex-communicated former priests. Mr Ahimbisibwe who is a reverend himself points out that “It doesn’t help when the catholic church still believes with the communication with God outside the bible through the so-called ‘Marian Apparitions'. He adds that “Romans Catholics have not learned from the dangers of such claims.”
“Dangers are high. Uganda is sitting on a ticking timebomb ready to explode. Kanungu was confined to less developed tactics, but still shocked the world. Today, there is the use of media and technology that cults use to aggressively take over every available communication platform.”
“If something was to happen, it could be national in scope, perhaps on national television. More worryingly, in theory, it could be live on social media platforms and closed groups, that many evangelical ‘pastors’ have created”.