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Fire in the name of God

On December 2, 2000, the government formed a seven-member Judicial Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Augustus Kania to investigate the March 17, 2000 Kanungu inferno that claimed an estimated 600 people. In all, up to 1,000 people were killed in cult related violence, including hundreds found in graves in Bushenyi and Kampala.

Nine years after the massacre, the commission hasn’t sat and Ugandans don’t know what exactly happened. MICHAEL MUBANGIZI writes that besides getting appointment letters, the judicial inquiry never sat even for a single day.

Major events have happened in the recent past and shaken the country but ended up forgotten even without answers being provided. In our new series, ‘What happened?’ The Weekly Observer recounts such events, beginning with the Kanungu inferno, which after nine years this month remains a mystery.

Was the government serious when it formed a judicial commission of inquiry into the Kanungu massacre?
One is tempted to think no, considering that the probe was never financed to do its work.

Nine years ago, on March 17, 2000, an estimated 600 members of the Joseph Kibwetere-led Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were burnt to death inside their church in Kanungu district.
In the aftermath, hundreds of bodies were discovered buried at houses owned by or associated with senior leaders of the cult in Bushenyi district, and Buziga in Kampala.
 
The cult massacre sparked off calls for an inquest into how the cult could have eluded security agencies and local leaders all these years.
Government reaction was typically slow. It wasn’t until seven months later, on December 2, 2000, that the then Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, Gen. Moses Ali, announced a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to be headed by Justice Augustus Kania.

The seven-member team comprised; Dr. Emilio B.L. Ovuga (Makerere University), Prof. Peter Matovu (Orthodox Church), and Rev. Canon Mugarura Mutana, then Chaplain of St. Francis Chapel at Makerere University.
Others were; Rev. Fr. Dr. Lawrence Lugolobi Ssemusu, Chaplain of Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi (now at MUBS), Dr. Margaret Mungherera (then Chairperson, Uganda Medical Association), Christopher Ndozireho (a lawyer), and one Sarafiyano Bigirwenkya.
The team, Moses Ali said, was to define a cult, establish what happened at Kanungu, and reveal the perpetrators of the murders.

It was also to establish if there was any laxity on the part of any government department [that could have led to the tragedy], and recommend ways of avoiding future recurrences.
The team was also to ascertain if there were similar groups still operating in the country and recommend ways of dealing with them. The judicial commission was to submit its findings to its appointing authority within six months.

Probe that never was

Often, several people have been heard on radio call-in programmes and talk-shows calling for the release of the findings of the Kanungu probe. How uninformed!
“Its unfortunate people blame us for not releasing the report yet we never met,” says Dr. Mungerera. Their work apparently ended with their appointment letters.
“We were given appointment letters but we never met as a team and I don’t know why,” she told this writer.
Rev. Fr. Ssemusu, another probe team member, was uncomfortable discussing the matter, only admitting that they had not sat.

“I am not able to discuss those things, but we never sat as a team,” he said, declining more questions.
Before leaving his previous job as Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda told The Weekly Observer that the inquiry “never took off because of financial constraints.”

Rugunda claimed that instead, Police’s CID had investigated the matter and the government is using their findings to tighten registration of churches as well as monitor and supervise them.
According to Rugunda, Police investigations found leaders of the cult responsible for the inferno and consequently international warrants of arrest were issued “if they are still alive.”

The Police “report”, a copy of which Rugunda handed to The Weekly Observer, offers little hint as to what really happened. However, it points a finger at a religious leader, Rev. Richard Mutazindwa, who was serving as Assistant RDC in Kanungu at the time.
However, the Police investigations weren’t conclusive as Rugunda claims.
 
Police and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) continue to blame each other for the stalled investigations.
A senior Police officer told The Weekly Observer that while Police had zeroed in on Rev. Richard Mutazindwa, the former deputy Resident District Commissioner of the area as “a principal offender,” the DPP’s office has sat on the file forwarded to them for legal advice.

“The relevant file is still with the DPP according to our records,” said Moses Balimoyo, the Deputy Director of CID, in a June 30 letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda.
But the DPP’s Spokesperson, Jane Okuo, denied that the said file was in their possession. “It [the file] has been to and from our office and Police,” she said (See: Police, DPP in blame game over Kanungu, The Weekly Observer, October 16-22, 2008)
Drawing from such contradictions, some observers have accused government of setting up the probe half-heartedly with an eye on the then forthcoming 2001 presidential elections.
 
The Kania team was unveiled in December 2000 three months to the March 12, 2001 elections, after the Kanungu inferno became a talking point in the campaign. Dr. Kizza Besigye, President Museveni’s main opponent in that election, hails from Rukungiri, near Kanungu.
However, Rugunda dismisses the claim that politics was behind the probe’s set up and eventual failure, maintaining that the government wanted it to work. That is why when the government failed to get money for it, the Police stepped in, he argues.

But many people, including Livingstone Ssewanyana, Executive Director, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, are not convinced.
“We never expected better results. Most of the government inquiries are diversionary; meant to divert the attention of the public from asking difficult questions,” he says. To him, it is all down to lack of commitment to ensure that justice is done.

Rev. Canon. Grace Kaiso, then Executive Secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council, blames the church and the state.
“People were taken advantage of, worse still in the name of God! The Church was guilty because it failed as a custodian of nurturing people. The state also failed through its structures like LCs and intelligence to detect developments at Kanungu in the early stages,” he pointed out. “We (church and state) should all own up.”

Failure to facilitate the Justice Kania probe, Kaiso said, “is a question of failure by government to be accountable to its people.”
Asked about the possibility of a recurrence, Kaiso cautioned, “Unfortunately if we don’t learn from the lessons of history, the potential or the early warning signs for it to happen again are very much there.”

Probed about these “early warning signs”, he said, “You read newspapers, believers go to certain churches, sell their property, believe in things that are inconsistent with the Scripture. The tendency of people to be manipulated in the name of God is still present.”
Pastor Solomon Male, Executive Director of Arising for Christ, a group that fights for ethics in Pentecostal churches, agrees:
In the quest for physical health, social and economic breakthroughs, he said, many people continue to fall victim of “ruthless, remorseless and shameless spiritual leaders who appear so genuine and godly on the outside, yet they are wolves among the sheep.”

Kanungu clones

Last year, Police in Mubende arrested leaders of a cult known as Munyakaibo which was operating in the area.
Munyakaibo preaches against using electronics such as mobile phones and computers, which it views as satanic.
Its followers shun medical services from hospitals and only rely on prayer. Also, they don’t take their children to school and oppose teaching of science subjects. Believing that all people are equal, the cult does not believe in local leaders and thus has no pastors.

There is also an on-going inquiry into the Sserulanda Spiritual Foundation, a Rakai-based religious group said to be a cult. The inquiry, led by Prof. Nelson Ssewankambo, was ordered by President Museveni. Among members of this group is NRM historical, Gertrude Njuba.
The group is accused of some illegal activities, including money laundering. Because members don’t bury their dead, the group is also accused of trading in body parts.

mcmubs@observer.ug

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