From the June 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 06)


Cult of the Dead

Barry Shelby, World Press Review contributing editor

As the death toll among members of a little-known Ugandan religious cult rose beyond 1,000, press reports on the group’s history shed some light on the origins of the tragedy. More than 500 of the cult’s members burned to death on March 17 in a sealed church in Kanungu in southwestern Uganda, and in the following weeks, hundreds of others were found buried in mass graves. Some had been dead for more than four months. Arrest warrants have been issued for the cult’s leader, 68-year-old Joseph Kibwetere, who is believed to be at large.

Kibwetere was once a prominent member of the Catholic-based Democratic Party. When it lost the 1980 election and Milton Obote became president a second time, Kibwetere was hounded out of his home, Paul Busharizi reported in the independent Daily Nation of Nairobi (March 21).

Seven years later, Kibwetere said he overheard a conversation between Christ and the Virgin Mary. Shortly thereafter, he founded his own church, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, whose followers were to live strictly by the commandments, sell their possessions, and give any earnings to the cult.

After Kibwetere’s prediction that the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999, proved incorrect, “he and his associates apparently came under increasing pressure from a now- destitute congregation to repay their money,” Busharizi wrote. The new date for Armageddon was March 17 and followers were asked to gather. But they did not survive the day.

As Uganda tries to come to terms with the tragedy, there has been a call for a crackdown on all evangelical communities. For many, that carries the foul odor of the rule of dictator Idi Amin, who outlawed all religions save Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam.

“While [the tragedy] highlights the need for mechanisms...for early detection of wayward preachers, it should not make the country lose its sense of balance,” an editorial in Nairobi’s independent weekly East African (March 27- April 2) warned.

The government has responded to mounting criticism of its failure to detect the murders with stepped-up police surveillance of evangelical churches, A. Mutumba-Lule wrote April 3 in The East African. President Yoweri Museveni admitted there were warnings from intelligence officers about the ominous behavior of the cult as far back as 1994.

“Clearly there is something amiss here...[in the] authorities’ indifference to the red herrings which were more than abundant in this case,” The East African noted.

Samuel Apedel reported in Kampala’s government-owned New Vision (April 13) that members of parliament asked the state minister for security to step down for failing to prevent mass murder. But “by the end of the week, he had not resigned, and the MPs were not pushing him.” Now politicians are pressing for the arrest of the local district police chief for “culpable negligence,” charging he ignored signs that the group was dangerous. Apedel commented: “Talk about small fish taking the fall for the big fish.”

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