Why Are Ugandans Drawn To Cults? (Commentary)

Africa News Online, The Monitor (Kampala), March 25, 2000
By Dr. Muniini K. Mulera

Kampala - My heart goes out to the families and friends of the members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God who were murdered in Kanungu, Kigezi March 17.

While it is impossible to imagine the pain that the bereaved families must be feeling, I share their grief with great sadness. The event is shocking not only because of the magnitude of the disaster, but because it symbolises the death of innocence in my beloved district of Kigezi. Such things were meant to happen in America and elsewhere, but not in sub- Saharan Africa where people still had well-grounded social and spiritual anchors.

I will understand if people heap blame and ridicule on Joseph Kibwetere's murder victims. I know they will be labelled weird, gullible, stupid, evil or even deviant nincompoops.

"How could anyone be so gullible," the self-righteous moralists, informed by hindsight of course, will announce from the pulpits and other places where two or three will be gathered in the name of God or Gin-and-Tonic. But labelling these people stupid nut-heads will not do. Instead of passing emotional moral judgement on the victims, we must ask ourselves a few questions.

What is it about cults that robs ordinary humans of the natural desire for self-preservation on earth?

What was so appealing about Kibwetere's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God that so many people joined it? What is it that this group offered its recruits that traditional religions and secular society had failed to provide?

What makes a group a cult and what can we do to save our people from the mind-controlling powers of such groups?

What are some of the conditions which predispose individuals to surrender their mental faculties to others to be used as one would do with the mind of a little child or a dog?

Clearly space does not allow one to do justice to these questions, and I do not have answers to all of them. But a good dose of humility will be necessary, for the majority of us are more vulnerable to some cult's pitch than we are willing to admit.

Indeed some have already succumbed to cult control though they seem to live perfectly normal lives.

For example, the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, one of the most virulent cults operating today has already hooked some of Uganda's top leaders - some of whom are probably shocked by the actions of Joseph Kibwetere in Kanungu.

Others have surrendered their minds to be used by politicians and established religions, never questioning or challenging them, simply happy to sing songs of praise to their leaders. It is not far-fetched to suggest that given the right conditions, a good manipulator could take over their minds and use them at will with tragic results.

"Not me," you say? How many times have you suspended your capacity for disbelief and failed to question statements and actions by others? When was the last time you questioned the teachings of your priest or mullah?

Indeed when was the last time you questioned the teachings of your religion's Book, whether it is the Koran, the Bible or the Torah or the oral claims of your ancestral faith?

When was the last time you questioned the statements, policies and actions of your venerated political leader and party, be it Milton Obote and his UPC or Yoweri Museveni and the NRM?

A cult is any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person or persons at the top.

The group claims to be the only way to God, heaven, the truth, happiness and so on, and uses thought reform or mind control techniques to gain and keep control of their members.

A cult, whether religious, political, military, psychological or commercial, is centred on the leader who is venerated to the point of sainthood. The leader cannot be wrong and his beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects, whether philosophical or trivial, are blindly accepted by the followers. Using persuasive techniques, the leader and his or her trusted aides use coercive means to recruit into the ranks of the cult, making sure that they keep the true nature of their beliefs and actions hidden from the recruits and the public at large. The recruits are talked into surrendering their money and worldly possessions to the cult, and the leader invariably demands and obtains sexual favours from the followers.

Nearly all cults believe that their leader is the ultimate font of truth and that everybody else is wrong. Part of the appeal of these cults is that they fulfil a need that society cannot provide and they promise quick fixes for life's complex problems and challenges.

Vulnerable individuals easily succumb to con-men who promise to heal any sickness, foretell the future and guarantee immortality to the followers. Some people join these cults because they are seeking meaning in their empty or unfulfilled lives.

Others join because they are persuaded that man-made and natural disasters such as the wars in the Great Lakes Region or the floods in Mozambique are signs of the impending apocalypse. Ugandans are not exempt from the millennial fears, however irrational it may be.

Other people who rightly or wrongly feel rejected seek family and friendship, and the cults not only offer instant friendship and a caring family, they also provide uniformity of purpose, a simple lifestyle and an organised daily agenda where the leader makes all the major decisions for them.

The question of course is why people who appear to be normal readily offer unquestioning obedience to a cult leader and have no trouble following the cult's arbitrary rules and regulations.

In my view, our traditional authoritarian upbringing, where we are socialised never to question or challenge authority - our parents and elders, teachers, religious and political leaders - restricts independent and critical thinking, and the exercise of a free will. Could this blind subservience to authority be a central reason why otherwise normal people readily obey a cult leader's command to commit suicide or to destroy the cult's enemies?

The Movement for the Restoration of God's Ten Commandments has acted out its leader's fantasies in a tragically spectacular and irreversible manner. Sadly, it will not be the last.

In a free society, it will be difficult to outlaw cults of this nature. After all one person's cult is another person's religion. However, I shared Minister of State Amama Mbabazi's frustration when he told Sunday Vision that the Kanungu tragedy "calls on the state to review the issue of cults and see what measures to take to protect the ordinary people from cult leaders."

If the state is serious about this tragedy, then they will have to examine all cults including the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, and not just those which exist on the frayed edges of our society. Instead of adopting a holier-than-thou attitude towards the cultists and their victims, it will serve us better to reflect upon the social and psychological circumstances that lead to cult behaviour in the first place. That may be the only way of preventing our children, relatives and friends from joining such destructive groups that are always lurking on the near horizon.

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