Kanungu inferno: Suspect speaks out 10 years later

YEARNING: Rev. Mutazindwa says the government should not have closed the Kibwetere file. PHOTO BY ANTHONY WESAKA

Ten years after tongues of fire consumed over 1,000 lives in what has come to be remembered as the world’s biggest mass suicide by members of a religious cult in Kanungu District, a key witness has broken silence offering new leads and even more questions into the mystery, writes Charles M. Mpagi:-

The killings were blamed on a religious cult known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God led by Joseph Kibwetere.
On March 17, 2000, an estimated 1,000 believers gathered in a church building just outside Kanungu town and burnt to cinders after they allegedly locked themselves in and set the building on fire.

The incident climaxed a series of apparently expertly executed killings that spread over nearly half the country including the capital Kampala and Bushenyi District where bodies buried underneath concrete buildings were found in the aftermath of the inferno. Ten years on, no investigation has ever been done and as Sunday Monitor has found, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Police Criminal Investigation Directorate long closed files on any investigation. A government appointed judicial probe never sat and the case seems closed for good.

But the only man to be arrested and detained in relation to the inferno has offered to speak out for the first time in an exclusive interview with this newspaper.

Rev. Richard Mutazindwa, who had served as assistant Resident District Commissioner in charge of Kanungu until two months before the inferno, says he is seeking justice and relief from a cross he has carried for more than 10 years.

“I am carrying a cross,” says Rev. Mutazindwa who was ordained a priest of the Anglican church before joining the struggle for Uganda’s liberation of 1981-86 and later plunging into direct politics. “When you are a Reverend (religious leader) you are a public figure, people look up to you, you are recognised everywhere and people keep pointing to you, so this Kanungu thing has been a burden to me and my family.”

Rev. Mutazindwa points to questions that have puzzled Ugandans and the world about the incident over the last decade. Was there ever a commitment on the part of the government to really find the truth of what happened in Kanungu? Was anyone really interested in finding the truth? Did the people who died in the inferno matter and who were they?

He says he is still surprised that he was the only one made to carry the burden after such an incident – that led to chronicle of others - claimed so many lives.

“That is what still puzzles me! I was a mere assistant RDC. I had my boss the RDC, there was a head of Internal Security Organisation, a District Police Commander, Criminal Investigations Directorate, local political leaders. Therefore if there was a failure to detect that these people were up to something bad, I surely couldn’t have been the only person who failed,” he says.

Rev. Mutazindwa’s predicament is re-echoed by Rev. Canon Benon Mugarura, who was appointed to a judicial probe to probe the tragedy but never even met. “I wonder why he was arrested,” Canon Mugarura said.

And Rev. Mutazindwa says: “These people (the cult) had been in the district long before I was posted there, several RDC’s were posted in the area. I served under them and they left me there. There was the late Bernadette Bigirwa, then Leonard Kayanja who was the first RDC I worked under, I always consulted with him. Then they brought Yorokamu Kamacherere who was followed by Kitaka Gawera and then Kalule Ssengo—all these found these people [cult] there.”

“I want you to understand that this thing did not only happen in Kanungu. Kanungu was just a fire which was the climax, people were killed and bodies were found in Kampala. Were those people ever identified? Were they given a nationality, a gender? People were killed in Bushenyi, were those people identified, and was I also responsible for those areas?”

In the immediate aftermath of the inferno, investigators found bodies of at least 200 suspected victims buried in buildings the cult leaders owned at two locations in Kampala and Bushenyi. Like those who died in Kanungu, they were also buried in mass graves without being identified or handed back to relatives.

The Internal Affairs Minister at the time, Gen. Moses Ali, appointed a commission of eminent Ugandans to investigate the cult but without any money, offices or other facilities to do the job, the commission never sat.
A search through the paper trail by this newspaper shows that Rev. Mutazindwa had been transferred from Kanungu to Rakai District on January 8, 2000 and took his posting almost immediately, he was replaced by Rev. Stephen Bangumya.

In March, Rev. Mutazindwa says he returned to Kanungu to formally bid farewell to the district leaders and friends he had made in over eight years of working in the area and was still in the district on March 17 when the cult members died.

He returned to his posting in Rakai three days after the incident. On March 29, he was arrested for questioning on his alleged close association with cult leaders Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and Rev. Fr. Joseph Kasapurali.

After a month in detention at Jinja Road Police Station he was released on Police Bond on April 29. “I was never taken to court, when I was given a bond I was told the police were still investigating and the decision would be made by the DPP. The investigation took one-and-a-half years during which period I was reporting regularly to the police. When the investigations were completed, I was told you are now a free man, they said I was cleared by the DPP, I was happy they said go and fight for your job.”

In a July 4, 2001 letter, the Director for Public Prosecutions cleared Rev. Mutazindwa. “Having carefully read the case papers alluded to hereinabove, I am of the considered opinion that beyond mere insinuations and innuendoes, there is no credible evidence linking Rev. Mutazindwa, however remotely to the events that culminated in the mass inferno at Kanungu on March 17, 2000 or indeed to the events that resulted in the earlier mass graves that came to light in the wake of the horror.”

I wish to advise that the contemplated charges of complicity in the Kanungu murders against the suspect be shelved for the reasons alluded to hereinabove,” wrote Mr David Ndamurami, a state attorney on behalf of the DPP.

But 10 years on, Rev. Mutazindwa looks older than contemporaries at 58, a strugglist in the early days of President Museveni’s formative years as a national politician.

He lost his government job months after he was released from prison and over the last decade has failed to find someone comfortable to accommodate him given the wide publicity the Kanungu inferno and his association with the incident generated.

Rev. Mutazindwa says, those he worked for, especially the President, have also forgotten him and like the inferno forgotten that it happened or he ever existed.

He was first recruited in Nairobi where he was a student of theology before being advised to move to Zambia where he continued with work but also completed his training.

In 1980 he actively coordinated for candidate Museveni in that year’s December elections, which the President won. The decision put him at logger heads with his superiors in the church but he continued the dual role, serving the church and his political beliefs.

He coordinated and recruited for the rebel National Resistance Army and was twice jailed by then government for his activities before finally choosing to join the armed struggle directly.

Expelled from church?
Now he cannot go back to the church, he does not belong to and believes he was sacrificed by the system he loyally served. “I am seeking to be set free from that Kanungu thing because it is affecting me very much.”

Rev. Mutazindwa has been battling in court for his justice, he demands clearance of being an accomplice to the mass suicide and the activities of the Kibwetere cult and compensation for wrongful termination and physical, mental and spiritual torture he has suffered over the decade.

Rev. Canon Benon Mugarura says he does not know what happened to the Kanungu investigation, he says the announcement of his name on the Kanungu Inquiry Commission was never formalised adding that there was never a meeting held.
“I just received a phone call from the minister and that was it, I was never called to a meeting, never received a letter (of appointment),” he said. “I think you should ask Moses Ali, who was Internal Affairs minister at the time.”

Dr Margaret Mungherera, also appointed on the same commission, is equally still puzzled by the intention in naming a commission of inquiry that was never enabled to inquire into anything.

“I was appointed a member of that commission, the letters were signed by Moses Ali but it never met. I don’t know why we never met. We were never called for any meeting, and therefore there was no report,” she said.
In the absence of a formal inquiry or any other kind of conclusion to the record breaking inferno, speculation has been rife with some pointing to possible political intent in the elimination of the victims. Those who advance this theory ask.

“In which country in the world can more than 1000 die in broad day light and no effort is made to establish who they were, who killed them and how exactly they died!” As for the inquiry, unlike many others that actually seat and release reports though they are never acted on, for Kanungu none ever happened.

Was it mass suicide or murder?

  • The morning of Friday March 17, 2000, has forever been etched in Ugandan history as black Friday. At 9.30a.m. shrill cries of anguish and death rented the air soon after a ball of fire burst in a church that was holding more than 500 members of a cult.
  • The cries and the pungent smell of burning human flesh changed the aura of secrecy that self-style prophet, Joseph Kibwetere, and his two associates, Father Dominic Kataribabo and Sister Credonia Mwerinde had permeated in the 12-acre piece of land on which the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God held together their followers.
  • The death of more than 330 and hundreds more whose bodies were later discovered in pits and mass graves in the same compound, told the world that the secret that Kibwetere kept behind the fencing, was that of death.
  • Kanungu left no known survivor behind to narrate the ordeal to the world. What it left behind were those fortunate enough not to have been locked in the church on the dooms day—and they include Mary Kibwetere, a daughter to the cult leader.
  • According to newspaper reports of witnesses and police accounts at the time, the cult leaders recorded the names of all those who “came to meet the Virgin Mary”, although as more bodies were found, government pathologists who counted the charred remains conceded the leaders might not have registered children.
  • “They would try to persuade me to come,” said Diana Bitamba, then aged 35, who employed several cult members on her nearby farm. “They were saying that the days are getting over, that the world is perishing so we should come and join them and we go to heaven together. They were not worried about this thing. They were happy.”
  • An eye witness at the time, whom the police did not identify, said she saw children run out to play but they were herded back into the dooms hall by cult leaders. The witness, who told the police that she had come to visit her mother, said the cult members were singing even before she heard an explosion and shrill cries of anguish.
  • Another witness Asuman Mugenyi, the then police public relations officer, identified as Didan Rutemba, was out early to till his garden that bordered the doomsday premises. “He first heard a loud blast in the church hall and saw a huge black smoke rise through the roof after the blast. He rushed to scene [only] to find people locked in and screaming for help,” Mugenyi quoted Rutemba as saying.
  • Rutemba also told the police that the only entrance and exit were secured with nails and blocked with crossed timber to ensure no one escaped. According to other residents, the premises was out of bounds to non-cult members.
  • Kibwetere believed that the world would end on December 31, 1999. When it did not, he reportedly pushed the date ahead to January 1, 2000, but this too, did not come to pass. So he called members from their homes across Uganda to Kanungu.

Compiled by Jacobs Odongo Seaman