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Joseph Kibwetere: Good man who embraced the cult

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Detectives exhume bodies of the nearly 1,000 people belonging to a doomsday cult who died in an inferno on March 17, 2000. PHOTO/FILE

A howling wind sweeps across Nyabugoto, which sits on the outskirts of the drab Kanungu Town in south-western Uganda. 

A ghoulish feeling engulfs me as I move closer to the site where victims of the doomsday cult were buried in a mass grave after they were incinerated in an apocalyptic fire that consumed a church structure that squatted on this remote and isolated area on March 17, 2000. 

But the government did not conduct a forensic probe to among others, establish the role of those perceived as the ring-leaders, their level of involvement during the last days of the doomsday cult and the circumstances of the mass murder. 

Much of the findings of the government probe appear to be rushed and reductionist and compiled based on evidence, which was not subjected to scrutiny.

However, Jacob Katumusiime, who in 2023 defended a doctoral thesis titled, “Beyond Religion-Cultural Violence: A Historic-Political Re-Contextualisation of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God” offers new insights about the cult and profiles some of its ring-leaders based on his research. 

Katusiime opines that to understand Joseph Kibwetere, it is necessary to revisit 1955 when the winds of change swept across the country and later the anarchy that engulfed Uganda barely after independence in 1962.  

“Kibwetere graduated as a grade-three teacher from Ibanda Teacher Training College in 1955 and became a head teacher by 1957,” he says. 

In his book titled Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, Prof Ogenga Otunnu, argues, “Uganda, as an imagined territorial State and a tragic human drama, was the ‘child’ of the late 19th Century European expansionist violence. This child came into imperial ‘existence’ in 1890, following the Anglo-German Agreement. Since that time, it has experienced intense political violence. Indeed, it has become an important example of a State that continues to be ravaged by harrowing political violence.”

Uganda’s pre-independence politics was polarising, which resulted in religious-ethnic cleavages. The Democratic Party (DP) articulated the grievances and aspirations of the marginalised Catholic majority who had largely been excluded from power by the Anglicans backed by the British colonialists in a de-facto protestant republic. 

The view of the former Kibwetere’s church premises at Nyabugoto In Kanungu District where hundreds were burnt to death. PHOTO/FILE

Catholics like Kibwetere resonated with DP as it represented a new dawn where there was suddenly no ceiling on the aspirations of those burning with ambition.

“He becomes the DP chairperson in Kajara Sub-county [Ntungamo] where he comes from,” Katumusiime adds.

By 1959, Kibwetere was rapidly promoted from the head teacher of Kishariro Primary School to the assistant inspector of Catholic schools in western Uganda. 

“Western Uganda at that time was huge, it reached Bunyaruguru. It had five dioceses. So, he [Kibwetere] was this important person,” Katumusiime explains.

General elections in Uganda were held in March 1961 and DP won the election with 43 seats compared to Uganda Peoples Congress’ (UPC) 37 seats.

DP formed the first native government under the British led by Benedict Kiwanuka and Milton Obote as its Leader of the Opposition. 

However, DP’s victory was short-lived, after Buganda Kingdom boycotted the 1961 polls on the premise that the Lukiiko (Buganda parliament) should directly elect its representatives and rejected Kiwanuka, who they disparaged as a servant of the Kabaka. 

The colonial government set up the Relations Commission to look into Buganda grievances. The colonial government rejected pleas from Buganda to secede from Uganda. 

In April 1962, another election was held where an alliance between UPC and Kabaka Yekka (KY) resulted in the defeat of DP. Kabaka Edward Muteesa became president while Obote took the coveted role of prime minister.

“DP is frustrated. So, this is the first frustration of Joseph Kibwetere,” Katumusiime adds that in Kajara, Henry Mbyemeire, a candidate endorsed by Kibwetere as the local chairperson of the party, was up against a formidable rival in the 1962 polls.

“The UPC government brings Grace Ibingira who was like a founder of UPC and put him in Kajara. He had never been in Kajara. He was not known. And they told the [voters] of Kajara, if you don’t vote Ibingira, you are not going to get a school. So, people voted Ibingira and in return they got a school. The school was called Kitunga Secondary School.”

This religiopolitical cleavage dictated that Catholics in Kajara could not attend the new school.

“They can’t. It was a Protestant school,” Katumusiime reveals, adding, “So Kibwetere begins his school, Nyakazinga Junior Secondary School because many children would get out of primary school and the Catholics would lack a [secondary] education. So, he begins the first private junior secondary school in western Uganda in 1963.”

In the same year, Kibwetere’s initiative bore fruit. The UPC government enacted the 1963 Education Act, which provided for the nationalisation of all missionary secondary schools and these schools, including the Kibwetere-founded school, were directly supervised by the government. 

Behind the veneer of addressing religious sectarianism, Katumusiime claims that the nationalisation was based on a ploy of “getting the brilliant Catholic teachers to be sent to the Protestant schools and the poor-performing teachers to the Catholic schools.”

Some of the statues at Kibwetere’s Church in Kanungu. PHOTO/ FILE

As a pious Catholic who lived in the DP stronghold of Ankole, Kibwetere’s antipathy towards the post-independence Uganda dominated by Protestant politicians continued to grow as his kindred were pushed to the lower rungs of society.

Nonetheless, he remained defiant, and in 1968, Kibwetere became Ankole’s representative to the Uganda Land Commission. 

“At that time, the Land Commission was headed by IK Musaazi and it is also believed when Musaazi ran to exile, Kibwetere was now chairing the Land Commission. This is in 1973,” Katumusiime says.

In 1974, Idi Amin appointed James Kahigiriza as chairman of the Land Commission and Kibwetere was re-deployed as District Commissioner of the newly created Bushenyi District.

The new Amin regime represented a rupture of the Protestant republic of UPC and seemed to offer respite to the Catholics. 

“When the Amin administration came, it attempted to frustrate the UPC and favoured the DP,” Katumusiime posits that a trip to Rome a year later broadened Kibwetere’s global outlook and the Catholic Church’s dominance.

“He comes back very excited at the experience and because he is this very important person, he wants to do something for his community. So, he starts mobilising money to build a Catholic Church in his home area. So, they build Kishariro Catholic church,” he writes.

Kibwetere embarked on a series of community ventures such as bringing the first Friesian cows to Kajara and his efforts lived long in the memory of locals, Katumusiime reveals. 

“Some people say, what the government had failed, Kibwetere had done single-handedly [...] When you go to Kajara there is this saying, Ekinyansi kikaretwa Kibwetere. It is in reference to the fast-growing grass that he brought for the cattle because those are cattle keepers,” Katumusiime says.

After the fall of Idi Amin, however, Kibwetere experienced a series of misfortunes, Katumusiime reveals.

“So, when UPC wins the election, they start hunting down DP stalwarts and Kibwetere was a DP stalwart. [...] You remember a man named Chris Rwakasisi [minister of State in the President’s Office], he persecuted those DP guys. They had to run into exile. Tarsis Kabwegyere, and Joseph Kibwetere were in internal exile in Kabale. They hid together. [...]They were being hidden by the Bishop of Kabale,” Katumusiime reveals.

In 2014, Prof Kabwegyere, then minister for General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister, corroborated this evidence during a plenary debate on the report of the Committee of Defence and Internal Affairs. 

The Committee probe came on the heels of a petition by survivors of the cult. According to The Hansard, Kabwegyere revealed to the House that “Kibwetere was with me in hiding in Bishop Barnabas Habirimana’s home in Kabale when I ran from being mishandled by my brother Rwakasisi in the 1980 elections.”

During this turbulent time, Kibwetere continued to suffer crushing setbacks, Katumusiime adds, “The Friesian cows he had brought were all killed.[...] His home was under surveillance all the time.[..] UPC Youth wingers assaulted him several times.[...] Those youth wingers destroyed his school to the extent he had to sell the land.”

People tour the site at which nearly 1,000 people died in the inferno. PHOTO/FILE

With the walls caving in, Kibwetere turned to his faith for succor and more specifically the Ten Commandments. 

“He believed that whatever is happening is because the people have turned away from the 10 Commandments of God. He received his vision in April 1984 while in exile in [Kabale]. He said he felt a voice tell him to repent of his sins.[...] I spoke to his neighbours and they told me that when Kibwetere returned from exile around 1986/87, he asked for forgiveness from all of them for the things he had done to them in the past.”

During the political instability that ensued after the botched 1980 elections, DP opted for a non-violent response, however, the hawks in its ranks such as Andrew Lutakome Kayiira had mobilised militarily and led an armed rebellion against the UPC government and the military junta under Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello, who led a putsch against the Obote II government.

Yet the overthrow of the UPC government and the military junta under Tito Okello by the NRA bands in 1986 did not provide Kibwetere with any reprieve, Katusiime argues. 

“The Kibweteres, who represented the mainstream DP, were not for the bush but they sympathised with the new government of NRA. So Kibwetere sympathised with the Museveni government more so it came from his home area. But he was not given a political alternative, his life had been destroyed,” he says.

The toll of being away from home Kabale on Kibwetere was unbearable. 
“When you go to his farm, there are rocks in his farm, so one of the neighbours told me Kibwetere used to come and stand on these rocks and wail and cry out loud. He was a frustrated man,” Katumusiime told Sunday Monitor.

In traditional Catholic lore, the figure of Saint Judas Thaddeus, also known as the Saint of the Hopeless and Despaired, is typically invoked by believers in desperate situations. But after a stern warning from his priest, who threatened to deny Kibwetere Holy Communion, Kibwetere further went astray when he interacted with the Marian Catholic sect, a dogma, which believes in the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

It was during these Marian sect meetings that Kibwetere met a former prostitute in Kanungu, Credonia Mwerinde, who was among the ring-leaders of the cult. 

Mwerinde claimed to have seen a vision of Mary. This fateful meeting would precipitate the formation of the Church of the Movement of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.

Boaz Idiidi, a native of Nyamirama Kanungu, would often travel to Nyabugoto to visit his mother, who was an adherent of the cult who had become estranged from his father. 

Idiidi recalls that, unlike the other cult leaders, Kibwetere was not approachable as he cultivated a mystique. 

“To get an audience with Kibwetere you had to go through four other offices. Each office had to permit you. It was not simply a matter of showing up to seek an audience with Kibwetere,” Katumusiime says.

Youth like Idiidi only received an audience with Kibwetere after they were accused of being unruly. His only encounter with Kibwetere stemmed from a perceived act of insubordination.

“There were some youth with a skin condition and it spread through the commune due to the fact that we bathed communally. However, because I had suffered from the rash before, I knew the remedy and went out with a group in the bush in search of the herbs to bathe with. The leaders thought I was leading young people to escape the cult and they stopped me and took me to Kibwetere. I explained myself to him and was allowed to fetch the herbs which healed the sick youth,” he says.

Idiidi would go on to meet Kibwetere again after the efficacy of his homeopathic remedy. The meeting took place in Kibwetere’s office and he was watched the whole time by other cult leaders.

“He asked me where I came from and who I had come to see at the commune. I told him and he told me I would go to heaven as I was obedient but should refrain from getting into trouble. This was because I was always getting in fights to settle disagreements and yet fighting was not allowed.”

Kibwetere in person was unassuming, he recalls, “He was a man of few words who refrained from small talk. He was polished in his bearing. When I entered his office, we began by reciting the rosary then we spoke briefly before he finished by instructing me to be disciplined and entrusted me to the care of the Virgin Mary.”

Katumusiime says Kibwetere, who was born in 1932, and is believed to have died in 1999, was a pillar of the community in Kajara that his community development work was memorialised in the adage, “what the government had failed to do, Kibwetere was able to do single-handedly. If you ever get a chance to visit his farm in Kajara, it is believed he had promised them that he would bring an airfield to that place,” Idiidi reveals. 

Tereza, the wife of cult leader Joseph Kibwetere. PHOTO/ FILE

Segane Musisi, a professor of psychiatry and former head of the Department of Psychiatry at Makerere University, whose team conducted a study of the cult, believes Kibwetere’s respectability and social status are not unique for a cult leader.

“Interestingly, they [cult leaders] are seen as people who you could respect in society. People you would believe. Someone who would tell you something and you would believe it. They are very convincing and charismatic and they seem to have the power to convert others. They seem to be very convinced of their message. Quoting all kinds of coincidental things that happen, telling you that indeed this is the evidence for the kind of thing they are saying,” Musisi says.

Musisi’s team carried out psychological autopsies of 105 cult followers who perished in the inferno. By speaking to their surviving family members and neighbours, they found that 25 percent of the deceased cult adherents were in poor physical health and three percent were living with HIV. Many had been traumatised much like Kibwetere by the armed conflicts that punctuated life in post-independence Uganda.

Researcher Joseph Katumusiime:
The UPC government brought Grace Ibingira who was like a founder of UPC and put him in Kajara. He had never been in Kajara. He was not known. And they told the [voters] of Kajara, if you don’t vote Ibingira, you are not going to get a school. So, people voted Ibingira and in return they got a school. The school was called Kitunga Secondary School.’’

Psychiatry professor Segane Musisi: 'Interestingly, they [cult leaders] are seen as people who you could respect in society. People you would believe. Someone who would tell you something and you would believe it. They are very convincing and charismatic and they seem to have the power to convert others. They seem to be very convinced of their message.’’

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