Seven Years Since the Kanungu Massacre
Joseph Kibwetere(left) and Fr.Kataribabo.

Seven Years Since the Kanungu Massacre

Are we any wiser?

By Gerald Businge
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First published: March 17, 2007

17th March 2000 is a date that will remain etched into Uganda's history books for all the wrong and sad reasons. On this day, the country woke up to the horrific news that more than 500 people had burnt to death in a church in Kanungu district, southwestern Uganda.

Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments (MRTC), a religious cult had been promised that they would go to heaven come 2000. As the year approached, they were asked to sell all their property and belongings and give the proceeds to the cult leaders. The MRTC was led by Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde, Angelina Mugisha, Fr Joseph Kasapurari and Fr Dominic Kataribabo.

As the days of 2000 passed one by one and the believers did not depart for heaven, they were promised that the Lord would soon come and take them with him. Some believers of the cult started asking questions. The leaders then decided to lock their flock in their prayer palace and set it on fire. It was only later that it dawned on the world that worse had happened before the fire.

Massacre across the country
What actually shocked the world more was the discovery of mass graves of more believers of this cult in different parts of the Uganda in places far from Kanungu that included Kampala. Shortly after the Kanungu massacre, 6 bodies were discovered in a pit next to where the leaders had just been living. As Ugandans and the world were coming to terms with how easily the cult had fooled everybody, 153 bodies were found under the floor of the cult's building at Buhinga, Rutoma, Rukungiri on March 25th 2000. 155 more bodies were discovered in Rugazi, Bunyaruguru-Bushenyi on March 27th 2000 under Fr. Kataribabo's house.

On March 30, 2000, another group of 81 bodies was found in Rushojwa, 35km north east of Kanungu. As if to disprove the general theory that the cult was restricted to south western Uganda, on 27th April 2000, 55 bodies were discovered in a mass grave at Buziga in Makindye division, Kampala. No one can say with certainty that all related mass graves were discovered. At first, it was believed that the members of MRTC had willingly burnt to death in their Kanungu church, but pathologist reports indicated that many of the victims were clubbed, strangled or hacked to death and some were believed to have been poisoned prior to burning. Most of the dead were women and children.

The Government of Uganda promised to swiftly apprehend all the perpetrators of the stabbings, stranglings and burnings of members of the cult. No cult leaders appear to have survived on the fateful day, though the Police have hinted that some of the leaders, including Kibwetere and Mwerinde, are suspected not to have died in the inferno at Kanungu. Buganda Road Court, Kampala, on April 6th 2000 issued a warrant of arrest for the leaders of the cult including Joseph Kibwetere, 68; his deputy, Rev. Sr. Credonia Mwerinde, 56; Secretary Rev. Fr. Dominic Kataribabo, 64; Publicity Secretary Rev. Fr. Joseph Mary Kasapurari, 60; the treasurer of the movement Fr. John Kamagara, 82; and an assistant to the above mentioned leaders, Rev. Sr. Ursula Kamuhangi, 40. (The ages indicated were valid as of 2000). Police put a bounty of 2 million Uganda shillings on each of the six.

Are the perpetrators still at large?
Seven years on, the investigators haven't shown any sign of being able to trace the cult leaders, alive or dead. Neither has anyone else dug up more telling evidence. The spokesman for the Uganda Police Force, Edward Ochom says no new pointers towards the fate of the leaders of the cult have emerged since 2000. "But the International arrest warrants issued for the leaders are still on," he says in an interview.

The Commissioner of Police in Charge of Crime, Edison Mbiringi told Ultimate Media that although investigations were extensively carried out on the infamous cult, no person alive has been found liable and fit for prosecution over the cult's activities. "No body has been apprehended but the case is still open," he says. The two police officers named above seemed to have lost touch with the facts surrounding the incident, meaning it is long gone from Police's list of urgent matters to investigate.

The apparent resignation exhibited by the Ugandan police regarding the case is also evident among local leaders in Kanungu who also contends that all the leaders of the cult must have died in the fire. "Kibwetere and other leaders must have died in the fire at Kanungu. Locals knew these people well, but we haven't had any reports of the leaders being seen alive," says Hajji Barii Ayub, the LC III Chairman for Kambuga, Kanungu.

Government talks tough
Barri says the incident is regrettable because it has given Kanungu a bad name and left many young victims without parents and guardians. He says the local leaders together with the Ugandan government have put in place mechanisms to ensure such incidents do occur again. "We monitor all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and religious organisations. We even attend the services and analyze what is preached in all new churches to ensure the wrong people do not take advantage of local populations to kill or rob them of their belongings," Barri says.

LCIII Kambuga Chairman Ayub Barii believes the cult leaders are dead
LCIII Kambuga Chairman Ayub Barii believes the cult leaders are dead.

The Government of Uganda has also amended the NGO law, (under which most religious sects are registered) and introduced stringent conditions for the approval of a new NGO. These include a requirement that a security operative sits on the NGO's Board. But all this seems not to have achieved the primary objective of assuring Ugandans that such an incident will not happen again.

Human rights concerns
Some NGOs and human rights activists complained that the government is high handed in its attempt to cover up its earlier failures in detecting the dangerous activities of the Kanungu based cult, which had operated for up to 15 years. "We need an enabling law to ensure that such incidents like Kanungu do not happen again. But we need to balance the need for improved monitoring of NGOs with respecting their rights and freedoms to operate," says Dr. Sylvia Tamale, a law don at Makerere University, Kampala.

In their report: The Kanungu massacre: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God Indicted, The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) says the cult violated all human rights especially the freedom to speak; freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; right to private property; right to health; right to marriage and the rights of children and others.

The strange beliefs of the cult
The whole cult revolved around a belief that some selected people communicated with God through visions and had received warnings from the Blessed Virgin Mary about the end of the world by the year 2000 (apocalypse). The cult talked of the doomsday. According to their former preacher, Martino Nuwagaba, they preached as far back as the Easter season of 1992 about how on that "last day", snakes as fat as tractor wheels and big blocks of cement will fall from heaven onto the sinners. They preached of three days of consecutive darkness that will engulf the entire earth and how only their camps would be safe havens, something reminiscent of the biblical Noah's Ark.

Some of the MRTC followers before 17th March 2000
Some of the MRTC followers before 17th March 2000.

The preachers promised their followers that when all this happened, everybody would perish except them and that whatever remained on earth would be theirs alone to take and that they would then start communicating directly with Jesus. The followers believed in this so much so that they considered themselves to be the most privileged people on earth.

"The followers were not supposed to go to hell if they strictly followed the cult's preachers For the devout Christians the whole concept of okubonekyerwa (getting heavenly visions) was very appealing. To some of the conservative priests, like Fr Ikazire, aged 82 at the time of the massacre, the idea of "restoring the ten commandments" was long overdue," says the UHRC report.

The commission also established a possible use of drugs. "It was common to have bonfires just at every camp shortly before the Kanungu inferno. They used to burn clothes, beddings, coins, hair, razor blades and bottles of the same shape, size and colour. At Kanungu, Buhunga, Rugazi and Nyakishojwa there were heaps ofremains of crushed, presumably intoxicating herbs near the bonfires. It is believed that the victims found buried in the different locations mentioned above were drugged before they were killed," UHRC says. "The local people of Kanungu could see that the believers of the cult were odd but they gave them the benefit of the doubt," said Athanasius Rutaro then District Chairman of the area. Such were the ingredients used by the cult leaders to bake the early millennium horror.

Kanungu incident concerns all believers
Dr. Gerard Banura of Makerere University's Department of Religious Studies who participated in separate studies into the Kanungu incident calls for more vigilance on the part of the Ugandan government which has a duty to protect its citizens from such incidents, and civil society organisations so that things do no not go out of hand as happened in Kanungu. "We have to desist from the comfort of always doing post-mortems after things have happened. The Ugandan government has to find out whether all these new religious organisations are operating legally and are beneficial to the communities," Dr. Banura says.

The Assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese, Zac Niringiye, says the government needs to pay closer attention to the registration of religious organizations in order to prevent the growth of cults and pseudo-religious sects in Uganda. He says the Kanungu experience proved that there are loopholes in the system which allow cults to take advantage of, and even cause the death of Ugandans. None the less, all this does not explain the incident. Many people expected better answers from the Ugandan government as well as from religious leaders on how such a thing could happen.

Many Ugandans still ask questions like; "What measures are in place to ensure that such an incident doesn't happen again? How did the perpetrators manage to register as an NGO, spend over 15 years operating and the country's security agencies didn't know it would be coming to such an end? Where are the perpetrators of this crime? Is it true they are alive? Have they or will they ever be brought to book? What is the actual number of victims? Does our government have the capacity to monitor new churches? How can the public be assured that people who start and operate such organisations do not have sinister motives? Will somebody ever furnish us with answers as to why this happened?"

The answers are not forth coming, and if seven years did not seem like a long wait, then this Kanungu massacre incident would not have the characteristics of an enigma. But it is, since no one can really explain the whys, hows, whats, where, when, etc.

Moving on
The Kanungu District Local Council Chairperson Josephine Kasya says, rather sadly, that the incident has become one of the key historical moments in Kanungu district. She says the district plans to construct a museum at the site where more than 500 followers of the MRTC burnt to death. She says the museum will preserve all collections related to the cult and make them accessible to the public, researchers, and any other interested institutions.

Beautiful landscape with an ugly history; Venue of the MRTC Kanungu massacre
Beautiful landscape with an ugly history; Venue of the MRTC Kanungu massacre.

Kasya adds that the museum will be constructed on the land upon which the MRTC church once stood. But by March 5, 2007, the place where the church once stood at Nyabugoto, Kanungu was anything but a young bush. The only valuable assets, the iron sheets which survived on the isolated church have long been vandalized. Set in the blooming green hills of Kanungu, it is hard to believe that this tragedy was planned and executed in such a beautiful environment.

Salient things to note about the MRTC

  1. Leaders warned the cult members about the end of the world and the visions.
  2. The cult and its leaders violated human right (the right to education, health, property, marriage, freedom, speech, parenthood, childhood, etc.).
  3. The leaders rarely recruited close relatives or neighbours.
  4. They separated families, including children, and took them to different camps in new environments where they would not socialise easily.
  5. They used to erect fences around their buildings/camps. The fences would be opaque enough to prevent strangers outside from seeing what was happening inside.
  6. They created total detachment between their followers and the society around them. Having children and having sex among followers, even between spouses was strictly forbidden.
  7. The leaders instilled a lot of fear among their followers.
  8. They relied on deception, false prophecies and lies through selective readings of the Bible. The Bible was usually read out of context.
  9. Apart from the leaders, other members of the cult were not allowed to talk. They used signs to communicate among themselves and to their cult leaders (code of silence). They had a tight day's schedule that kept the followers extremely busy so that there was virtually no time to hold discussions, not even in sign language.
  10. They tried to keep within the law and were close, very friendly and generous to the authorities, which helped them avoid any suspicions from the state. They usually traveled at night so even neighbours could not easily notice when they did. They did not own their own transport/vehicles. They usually hired vehicles to travel and were therefore not easy to identify.
  11. The leaders used to command all followers to sell all their property and bring all the proceeds to the cult leaders.
  12. They used to burn property under the pretext that the Blessed Virgin Mary was annoyed with the owners.
  13. They created a propertyless and helpless society of followers who became totally dependent on the cult and had nothing to fall back on.
  14. The leaders fully exploited the general view among Ugandans that religious people are always innocent, humble, harmless and peace loving which helped them plan and carry out mischief and crimes without being detected at all.
  15. The cult members became completely detached from their 'non-believer' relatives. As a result, the latter could not follow, know or detect what was going on in the cult camps. All cult camps were terminuses so that there would be no passers-by.

UHCR report


Uganda Human Rights Commission report into Kanungu massacres: Download doc here.

Joseph Kibwetere(left) and Fr.Kataribabo
Joseph Kibwetere(left) and Fr.Kataribabo.

By Gerald Businge
more from author >>
First published: March 17, 2007
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Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.