Uganda To Investigate Cult Groups

The Associated Press, March 23, 2000
By Andrew England

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) - The Ugandan government will set up a commission to investigate the deaths of hundreds of members of a religious sect who burned to death last week, as well as other similar fringe groups, President Yoweri Museveni said today.

"There are quite a number of these groups," Museveni said at a press conference, noting that high rural unemployment and a staggering AIDS rate had left some Ugandans searching desperately for solutions to their problems.

"When people have no answers, they start looking for answers in metaphysics ... for answers in the supernatural," he said. "By vigorously promoting investment (in rural areas) we will be able to provide solutions to some of these frustrations, but not all."

Museveni did not elaborate on the country's other fringe religious groups.

One, a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army, is believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in northern Uganda and the abduction of children. It grew out of a religious fringe group called the Holy Spirit Movement.

On March 17, hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God gathered in a makeshift church outside Kanungu, a trading center 215 miles southwest of Kampala. They sang hymns and prayed before they were burned alive.

The death toll in the blaze has ranged from 150 to 600, and the cause has been attributed to gasoline, a bomb or both. There have been conflicting reports about the willingness of some sect members to commit suicide.

Museveni said the group had been investigated twice since 1994. While the first investigation turned up nothing worrisome, the second, by internal security officers, did conclude that the movement was a security threat. However, a regional official, reportedly a member of the movement, may have covered up those findings. Museveni did not say when the more recent inquiry was done.

Minister of State for Regional Cooperation Amama Mbabazi, who visited Kanungu Wednesday, said two of the main leaders of the group may not have died in the inferno.

Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, the former prostitute who founded the movement, and Joseph Kibweteere, 68, who was also known as the prophet, may both have left the compound before the fire.

Mbabazi said he met a 17-year-old cult member who had slipped away from the building before the fire. He said the boy reported that Kibweteere was not there at that time. The minister said some local residents had also reported seeing Mwerinde leaving the compound.

Police initially said all the group's leaders had died, but officials said later that only two leaders' bodies had been positively identified - the manager of the sect's farm and "a priest." A number of the group's leaders were former Roman Catholic priests, lay workers and nuns.

Uganda's ill-funded and under-trained police force has been overwhelmed by the investigation, and many questions remain about what happened in Kanungu.

Various reports put sect membership anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 in nine districts in Uganda, a country of 21 million. It was a legally registered as a non-governmental organization.

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