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What Really Happened in Uganda? Suicide or Murder
Professor of Religious Studies
[A revised version of this paper
appeared in Religion in the News
Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 7-9 and 24]
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, 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 likely.
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, and my decision to say, that I did not think this was 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 cult’s 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 I’ve 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 alleged 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 Heaven’s 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 its 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 leader’s 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? Why for that matter 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 cult’s 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 group’s 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 improbable - computerese in an improbable setting unless 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 leaders - another official explanation given for the murders.
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 really happened.
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 excommunicated,. a not uncommon event in Africa, all 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 shirts. . In short, the group fits the profile a typical African Independent/Indigenous Churches (AIC), and specifically that of the East African AICs described in F.B. Welbourn’s classic East African Rebels (London, SCM, 1967).
The fact that this particular group appears to have originated in Rwanda (New York Times, April 2) and to had attracted refugees from various ethnic conflicts (Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 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 group’s 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, 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” (The East African, April 17) and that locals had complained to police earlier that the sect was “kidnapping children” (Independent, April 6). .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 circumcised - i.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 “a register found at Kanugu” contained the names of under 300 .The East African, April 17).
Is it possible that after the initial murders some enterprising police or army offices 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.”.n doing so, they drew on the language and ideology of the anti-cult movement—with 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” soon 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 apart from Howard directly “assisted” the Ugandan authorities is unclear, but from the tone of Ugandan government statements it seems certain that at least some of them did.
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 the official Uganda government newspaper New Vision, was clearly influenced by the anti-cult propaganda available on numerous web sites. Consequently, he allowed New Vision’s reports - one 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 outsiders. 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.