As the millennium loomed, Christianity in Africa blossomed to equal or surpass the number of its European adherents. African Christians are especially attracted by charismatic offshoots of the Catholic and Anglican creeds, and Uganda’s traditional culture of obedience, respect and loyalty makes it unusually fruitful for new sects. The more exciting, the better. Hoping to find what the executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council described as ‘easy answers to the difficult questions’, there were plenty of eager takers for the strong spiritual leadership offered by Credonia Mwerinde, founder of the apocalyptic sect called The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
Mwerinde presented herself as a redeemed Mary Magdalene who had turned away from sin after ‘a vision of the Virgin Mary’ and was therefore fit to dictate terms on other people’s waywardness. With a talented preacher as partner, she built up a dedicated following in southwest Uganda. Rules were strict: separation of families, celibacy, absolute silence, obedience and commitment to a millennial ‘rapture’. This last was conditional on donating all your worldly goods to Mwerinde.
Having prepared her followers for the millennium, Mwerinde had to explain why the world hadn’t ended. She blamed it on their concealed ‘sins’ and quickly re-scheduled for March 16. On that night, she locked them in their prayer hall and set them on fire.
The fireball killed at least 330, but it was just the beginning. Across southwest Uganda, a series of mass graves revealed more than 700 bodies, stabbed, strangled and burned. Very probably there are more still. The cult’s leaders were not among them – they were last seen driving north with suitcases full of valuables.
The heart-breaking credulity of their victims, up to the last minute of horrified disillusion, stripped the crime of any pretension to religious suicide. This was mass murder at its ugliest, and was without doubt planned ‘with malice aforethought’.
When: March 16-17 2000
Where: Kanungu, Uganda
Death toll: 330 at Kanungu (the police clearing the ashes believed it could be as many as 550), with a further 725 or so recovered from several locations. The dead included a number of children.
You should know: Indoctrinated cult members were given an extended ‘home leave’ in 1998. The dates coincided with the treatment for bipolar disorder and manic depression, in a Kampala mental hospital, of Joseph Kibwetere, the preacher who was Mwerinde’s accomplice. There’s a price on his head for murder.