Ugandan Mass Death Led by Failed Politician

Reuters, March 20, 2000

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Joseph Kibwetere, a failed Ugandan politician, led his disciples to a grisly mass death apparently because he believed the world was about to be destroyed for not obeying the Ten Commandments. The 68-year old self-styled bishop of the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God" had been a prominent member of the Roman Catholic-based Democratic Party in the 1960s and 70s.

But his political career ended abruptly when the rival Ugandan People's Congress led by Milton Obote won a controversial general election in 1980. Kibwetere, a wealthy dairy and poultry farmer and a devout Catholic, was hounded out of his home district of Ntungamo in southwestern Uganda, taking refuge with an Anglican bishop in the nearby town of Kabale.

Seven years later, at a time when many people reported seeing visions in the Kabale area, Kibwetere claimed to have overheard a conversation between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary -- and recorded it on tape.

It was to be the basis for Friday's mass death when, according to first reports, hundreds of Kibwetere's followers boarded themselves in their church in the remote town of Kanungu in southwestern Uganda, sang and chanted for several hours, then set the building on fire.

"There is a lady's voice on the tape which says the world is suffering because the people are not following the Ten Commandments," said Sister Stella Maris, a Catholic nun living near Kanungu. "She says the commandments must be enforced or the world will end."

However, as searchers found more bodies around the church on Monday, speculation increased that many of the dead were murdered rather than willing participants in a mass suicide.

"More Catholic Than The Pope"

Kibwetere, joined by two former Catholic priests and a nun who had fallen out of favor with their church, formed the cult in the late 1980s and moved to an isolated town in the lush green hills of southwest Uganda. Marcellino Bwesigye, whose late father was a contemporary of Kibwetere, hosted the cult leaders at his Kampala home for several nights late last year.

"Kibwetere was a hard working, enterprising man but a terrible conservative in his religious beliefs," Bwesigye told Reuters. "He was a Catholic who wanted to be more Catholic than the Pope."

His austere beliefs were reflected in his movement.

Dressed in green, white or black robes, his followers were told to live strictly by the commandments and communicate with each other only in gestures unless they were praying or singing. They had little contact with local residents in Kanungu except to sell their homemade crafts. Cult members were required to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church.

"They gave all their money to the leaders who they say filled sacks with dry banana fibers in imitation of currency notes and burned them," Paul Kwesigabo, a local government official told Reuters. It is not clear where the money ended up or whether Kibwetere himself died in last Friday's blaze.

Kibwetere had at first predicted the world would end on December 31 last year. When he was proved wrong, he and his associates apparently came under increasing pressure from a now destitute congregation to repay their money. "That's when they hatched this new date of March 17," district administrator Kalule Ssengo told Reuters.

Cult members, on buses, pick-ups and lorries, started making their way to the cult's compound several days before March 17. It was only those in the church who would be saved, they were told, while the rest of the world would face God's wrath.

Uganda's state-owned New Vision newspaper quoted Kibwetere's son, Maurice Rugambwa, as saying his father surely went to his death with his followers. It also said Kibwetere sent a letter last Thursday -- his first in three years -- and several books to his wife, Theresa, so that she should go on "with what we have been doing because we are going to perish."

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