Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda, “The Programmer”: The World’s Worst Female Serial Killer?
By Robert St. Estephe (2,647 words)
The raging inferno that snuffed out the lives of hundreds of people locked into a church building that took place in Kunungu, in south-west Uganda, on March 17, 2000, was first thought to be a mass suicide – of the type seen some two decades earlier in the Jim Jones cult that took the lives of more than 900 cult followers in 1978, in Guyana – but soon it was learned that it was but the final in a series of mass murders.
By any reckoning the Ugandan cult leader Credonia Mwerinde is one of the most heinous serial killers who ever lived and killed. Sister Credonia stands apart from the rest of known habitual murderers for having for having been both a one-at-a-time serial killer as well as a serial mass-murderer. She is suspected of having committed four individual murders – of four family members and one stranger – before organizing the slaughter of 1,182 followers of her cult, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, located in the town of Kunungu, a trading center at the south-western tip of the nation, close to the border with Rwanda.
Credonia was beautiful and had the ability to exert her will on others. One would not call her charismatic, however; her power would be better characterized as domineering.
To those who know her well, her religiosity is but a posture. According to Eric Mazima, Credonia’s sixth husband. “The only thing that made Credonia really happy was making money.” The couple owned a bar called the Kunungu Independent in the town of Kunungu selling lubisi (banana beer) and a local hard liquor. It was there that a customer is suspected to have been murdered. She seduced him and while he slept Credonia murdered him and took his money. The next day Credonia was observed by customers entering the bar in the process of scrubbing blood from the floor the very same day the victim disappeared. It was only after the business went bankrupt that Credonia, who customarily visited church but once a year, found religion.
Father Paul Ikazire, a Catholic priest who joined the cult that bartender Credonia would go on to lead as its “Programmer,” yet left after the Church declared the sect heretical echoed Mazima’s view: “I perceived her as a trickster, obsessed with the desire to grab other people’s property, but she never sold hers.”
The string of grisly horrors that came to light only after on March 17, 2000 the “Ark” of the sect had been torched, fueled by gasoline, incinerating the 738 inhabitants who had been locked in, windows nailed shut into the death trap, has led to intense scrutiny of the beliefs and customs of the Millenialist doomsday cult that led to the tragedy. It also instigated searches of the grounds associated with the sect and its leaders. Within six days the first of several mass graves in which bodies of strangled, mutilated and poisoned followers were discovered. Four different sites produced remains of victims counting 153, 155, 81 and 55.
The scale of these crimes is enormous; their discovery shocked the world. Yet the woman who was the perverse sect’s decision maker was not, in her position as “Programmer,” exhibiting any behaviors that were new to her. At the time of her disappearance on the day of the conflagration (it is suspected she fled across the border, stolen money in hand) Credonia was about 48 year old. Yet decades earlier her penchant for arson made itself known when she sought revenge on a man who had spurned her love by setting fire to his household belongings. Her parents had her committed for psychiatric treatment. When recruiting members for the Movement she punished a relative for refusing to join by gathering her followers and visiting the man’s banana plantation, destroying it by setting it afire. Credonia’s violent crimes – the arson, the bar murder, the suspected poison murders of her kin – did not become public knowledge however until after her name became known to the world on that day of horror in March of 2000.
Credonia, in her later role as a prophetess, claimed to be a reformed prostitute, yet locals say though she had been quite promiscuous she is not known to have ever charged money for her sexual favors. Yet she could combine her greed, her sexual appetite and her predilection for cold-blooded violence into an opportunistic recipe to get all that she wanted. As barmaid she had seduced and afterwards murdered a passing motorist who had visited the banana beer bar she operated with her husband and stole the cash he had been carrying. She was observed by locals scrubbing the blood from the establishment's floor. Credonia was a heartless predator who displayed sociopathic tendencies long before she found a way to lure and exploit victims by the wholesale.
Police, after looking into the Programmer’s past following the March 17 holocaust, learned that three of her older brothers, heirs to the property which would later become the site of the sect’s compound, had died in succession under suspicious circumstances. It is thought Credonia poisoned them all in other to, once all who stood in the way of her ability to gain the inheritance, gain the family property to gain a home for her growing cult.
Credonia Mwerinde was a flamboyant and exceptionally commanding charlatan. Yet it would be presumptive to argue that Credonia did not partake in some aspects of the superstitious imagination she so successfully promoted to others. In the years before the Movement she was to inspire had come into existence she was a leading member of a Catholic offshoot sect centered on devotion to the Holy Virgin Mary before she found the opportunity to set the stage for a large scale religious movement.
Her great opportunity came when she and two other leaders of the Mary sect – a sister, Angela Mugisha and Ursula Komuhangi – visited the Catholic worship given by Joseph Kibwetere, “a Roman Catholic known among many Ugandans for his piety, prayer and good works,” in Rwashamaire and after the service, Credonia told of her vision at the celebrated Nyabugoto rock which on which the Virgin Mary Stone (“Eibaare Rya Bikira Maria”) in which the Virgin appeared to her and gave her commanded that the three women to announce to Kibwetere that he had been anointed to take them in and assist them in spreading the word of God. So goes one account of that fateful meeting. Another has Kibwetere meeting Credonia in Nyamitamga where he and his wife “had gone to testify about her visions of the Virgin Mary.”
Joseph Kibwetere did indeed take the women in and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was born and was cultivated on the pious and generous man’s estate at Rwashamaire. Devotees of the sect were to countermand the immorality that had overtaken the people by teaching new doctrines that would bring about conformity with the Ten Commandments given to Moses. For inhabitants of the failed state of Uganda, of the region most affected by the recent civil war, still affected by the reign of terror and economic ravishment of the mad dictator Idi Amin. The Movement promised, as its literature tells, to be a new “Noah’s Ark, a ship of righteousness in a sea of depravity.”
The well-respected Kibwetere, former politician and philanthropist was treated as leader yet he was little more than a token the male figurehead, Credonia was the actual leader and everybody knew it. After all, Sister Credonia had a direct line to the Virgin Mary, receiving instructions and predictions directly from Heaven through a mystical telephone system that communicated through plates and bowls and other household objects. She called the messages she got “programs from the Virgin Mary.”
The Movement soon attracted a bona fide Catholic theologian with a masters from an American university. He was to author a an impressive looking tract outlining the sect’s doctrine as revealed to the prophetess. The booklet which went through three editions from 1991 to 1996. Its End Times prophecy foretold of “rivers running red” and of sound food turning deadly poisonous. Only the chosen would be saved for a new life.
Yet Credonia sowed discord in the Kibwetere household, turning the mild husband against his wife and flying into rages, often beating her benefactor’s children. Theresa Kibwetere, Joseph’s wife says that “She was always cruel. She was not happy at all. She never smiled, even.” She was distracted and would be disengaged in interactions with others. The excuse was given that her absent-mindedness resulted from her role as conduit for messages from the Holy Mother.
Sister Credonia imposed strict rules forbidding intercourse between spouses, limiting meals to one a day and imposing a restrictive dress code. They slept on the floor, mattresses and beds were not permitted. Even speech was forbidden to the believers, including Joseph Kibwetere himself; they were required to communicate with hand signals or in writing only. She ordered that children be removed from public school and be put under cult control. Credonia coaxed Kibwetere to sell off his assets to pay for the expenses of a growing congregation which came to numbered nearly two hundred souls. Newcomers were forced to turn their belongings over to the cult. Every moment of time was regimented. Meals were meagre. Three days – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – were days of fasting. Medicine and all forms of medical attention were banished. A number of followers died from malnutrition.
The Programmer’s controlling behavior reached great extremes. Once, according to one of Joseph’s daughters, Edith, Sister Credonia “claimed the Virgin Mary had told her all children under five should be killed, and a sacrifice was needed immediately.” Yet the command, it would seem, was afterwards reversed, since that massacre of the innocents never did take place. Or perhaps it was just a tale tailored to frighten a small child.
But her cruelty to children was, if not fatal, atrocious in degree. One of the Kibwetere boys, later reported that Credonia made sixty children make their home in a small 15 by 40 foot backyard shed, with windows nailed shut and only a dirt floor to sleep on. They frequently contracted scabies and were indoctrinated by the Programmer in the code of abstinence. “When I offered them sweets, they refused, making a sign that I was Satan,” recalled the Juvenal Mugambwe, son of Kibwetere.
Joseph’s wife, Theresa, at first loyal to the three female who brought their vision of the Virgin to her husband, along with other family members began to resist. “We fought to get them out of our house, but these women, Mwerinde and Ursula, claimed they had had a vision that we would poison their food and that we should be beaten. My husband, who had never beaten any of us, began hitting the children. He tried to hit me with a club.” And Credonia herself became increasingly violent. Sometimes the riotous atmosphere resulted in a call to the local police.
By 1992, the Rwashamaire village elders, unimpressed with having a prophetess on intimate terms with the Mother of God in their midst, had become fed up with the troublemakers and demanded that former pillar of the community Joseph Kibwetere move from their area along with the sect he headed. The elders got their way and the Movement was relocated to the Kanungu District, on an estate Credonia Mwerinde’s father owned.
Credonia’s prophecies of the End Times became problematic. Believers were told that on a given date the world of sin would come to an end and that the anointed would stay in the Holy World while all others would die. At first, it was prophesied that the world was going to end in 1992, but it didn’t. Excuses were made, many followers left. The same was true for the year 1995. Reactions to the botched prediction were stronger this time around. Some demanded their money be returned. Paul Ikazire, once a Catholic priest but defrocked after joining the cult, left the fold along with 72 followers. It is said that when in 1995 that the end-of-the-world prophecy again failed to occur in 1995 the Movement’s leaders “circulated a note explaining that Christ had deferred the date to Dec. 31, 1999.” That date too, was to prove to be a disappointment for all who were ready to enter the post-apocalyptic world.
Yet the cult kept on, with followers in numbers fluctuating from a thousand to several thousand. A third edition of the handbook came out in 1996. The Movement was registered as an official NGO with the Ugandan government on December 17, 1997. But this official status brought uncharacteristic scrutiny. In 1998 the government caused one of the Movement’s schools to be shut down for unsanitary conditions and other offenses. It was later allowed to reopen.
It is presumed that the reason that toward the close of 1999 the Movement’s members sold off their remaining possessions – cattle, real estate, even spare clothing – was in preparation for the predicted for an end of the world on December 31, 1999. The group slaughtered cattle and enjoyed a week-long feast preceding the big day – which, once again, turned out to be a false alarm. A new end-of-the-world date was duly announced, exactly one year later. But there was a new twist to the prophecy this time. Before the End, the chosen people, the Movement’s members, were to be raptured well in advance of the final day. They were to be raptured on March 17, 2000, when the Virgin would visit her faithful and take them with her up to Heaven.
The Movement operated at several locations. The code of silence, the strict submission to authority had not only separated the people from the outside world by from other compartments of the cult itself as well. Thus the long series of murders of cult followers at Buhunga, Rugazi, Rushojwa, Buziga, taking 344 lives, that preceded the March 17 burning of the Ark, were successfully conducted without attracting attention. Investigators believe that members’ discontent with the failed prophecy prompted apostasy and demands for return of possessions that had been turned over to the prophetically unreliable cult, and that expressing their discontent became, under the rule of the cold-blooded Programmer Sister Credonia, their death sentence.
Nobody knows the facts surrounding the mass murders that began sometime in February, 2000. Some of the victims died from fast-acting poison, other had been bludgeoned, their skulls crushed. Some had been doused with sulphuric acid, speeding decomposition.
Just who executed the murders preceding the Ark inferno of March 17, and who performed the work of digging the graves and stacking the bodies is unknown, but all who have an intimate knowledge of the Movement agree that the killings were executed under the command of Sister Credonia.
Those who were not killed, the still faithful, prepared for the prophesied visitation and transport. On March 16 they celebrated, with 70 crates of Coca-Cola and a beef barbecue. That evening visited the police station in Kanungu and gave them the deed to the cult’s land. His behavior was odd. He spoke incoherently, employing the cult’s customary language sign language yet managed to get the message across that “something was about to happen.”
At 7:30 AM on March 17 a cult member was spotted near the Ark carrying a hammer and nails. At 10:15 AM a farmer working his field near the property that contained the Ark, heard a”whoosh” of raging fire; he saw smoke and flames rising from the roof and screams for help.
All bodies were burnt to a crisp, the intense heat even caused some of the skulls to explode. So it is no surprise that it was impossible to determine whether either Joseph Kibwetere or Sister Credonia were among the dead. Some witnesses claim they saw Credonia after the fire yet doubts persist.
At least 1,186 by Credonia Mwerinde murders known (so far):
3 older brothers – murdered at different times
Motorist murdered in Credonia’s bar
Pre April 17, 2000 cult murders, by locations of mass graves:
Buhunga – 153 murdered
Rugazi – 155 murdered
Rushojwa – 81 murdered
Buziga near Kampala – 55 murdered
April 17, 2000 Kanungu massacre – 738 murdered
Excellent scholarly source: [Jean-François Mayer, “’There Will Follow a New Generation and a New Earth’: From Apolyptic Hopes to Destruction in the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God,” Part II, essay 9; in James R. Lewis, ed., Violence and New Religious Movements, 2011, Oxford UP]
~ CHRONOLOGY ~
~ CHRONOLOGY ~
1952 – birth of Credonia Mwerinde. Paulo Kashaku, father, also a visionary.
1980 ca. – Vision of Mary by Blandina Buzigye at Nyabugoto Rock (“Eibaare Rya Bikira Maria,” the stone which looks like an image of the Virgin Mary)
1984 – Mr. Kibweteere first announced the Virgin Mary had appeared before him in 1984.
Aug. 24, 1988 – Credonia Mwerinde also had a similar vision in a cavern near Kibweteere’s house in Rwashamaire, Uganda.
1989 – “Despite her craving for money, Credonia went bankrupt with her bar in 1989. At that time, she also broke off with Eric Mazima. Soon after, Credonia converted to Catholicism, and claimed only a few weeks after, that she had had a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave in the Nyakishenyi mountains.”
1989 – CM and two other members of a Marianist sect visit Joseph Kibwetere at Rwashamaire and following a church service, tell of CM’s vision. “Meeting Joseph Kibwetere for the first time, the three women told him that he had been anointed to help them spread the word of God, that the Virgin Mary had led them to him, a Roman Catholic known among many Ugandans for his piety, prayer and good works.” “The three women – Credonia Mwerinde, Ursula Komuhangi and Angela Mugisha – were already leaders of a Christian cult devoted to the Virgin Mary, who, they said, had instructed him to take them in.”
1989 – formation of Movement at Rwashamaire. The message was preached in Catholic churches.
1989 – soon-to-be excommunicated Rev. Dominic Kataribabo, joined.
1990 - cult is registered as a religious movement with the authorities in 1990; 200 followers, mostly women and children, were already living at the Joseph Kibwetere property.
1991 – First edition of “A Timely Message from Heaven. The End of the Present Time”
1992 – “After the Movement was evicted from Rwashamaire, it moved to an estate Credonia Mwerinde’s father owned in Kanungu District.” “In 1992 the cult and its leader packed up and left for Kanungu.” “After the police in 1992 had, once again, been called in to settle yet another family feud, the elders of the village told Kibwetere that he ought to move and take the cult with him.”
1992 – end of the world prophesied for 1992.
1993 – “In 1993, the cult could finally build its own headquarter, along with a church.”
1994 – Paul Ikazire, defrocked Catholic priest, leaves the cult along with 72 followers.
1995 – end of the world prophesied for 1995. “When the apocalypse again missed its schedule, the cult circulated a note explaining that Christ had deferred the date to Dec. 31, 1999 this year.”
1996 – “When Credonia Mwerinde’s father died in 1996, he was buried next to the mother, and Mwerinde had the now sadly known church built near the family grave site.”
1996 – publication of 3rd edition of Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times. 3rd ed. Karuhinda, Rukungiri and Rubiziri, Bushenyi (Uganda,) 1996.
Dec. 17, 1997 – Movement registered as NGO with Ugandan government.
1998 – “Movement shut down for unsanitary conditions, use of child labor, and possibly kidnapping children, but the sect was allowed to reopen by the government.” “1998 when government closed down one of its schools for unhygienic conditions”
Dec. 23, 1998 – Movement incorporation authorized by Ugandan government.
Dec. 31, 1999 – Date of the end of the world prophesied.
Feb. (circa) 2000 – mass murders begin. “The poison was given to them at the evening meal. “It was a fast acting poison.” said Barundi, the pathologist.”
Mar. 15, 2000 – Dominic Kataribabo purchases 13 gallons of sulphuric acid.
March 16, 2000 – “The day before the fire, a parcel from Kanungu arrived at the home of Mr. Kibwetere’s family. It contained books and documents from the cult, its certificate of registration, a copy of the 10 commandments of the cult and other items.”
Mar. 16, 2000 – cult members were treated to an unprecedented celebration: 70 crates of Coca-Cola were ordered and a bull slaughtered.
March 17, 2000 – Arson at Kanungu “Ark” of the Movement, killing 738. “It is thought that cult members believed they were finally entering Noah’s Ark to survive the three days of the apocalypse and that the boards were to protect them and keep out the unredeemed.”
Mar. 24, 2000 – Buhunga compound exhumations, 153 corpses.
Mar. 27, 2000 – Rugazi; bodies in field behind Dominic Kataribabo’s house.
Mar. 28, 2000 – Dominic Kataribabo’s field exhumations, 74 bodies exhumed.
Mar. 29, 2000 – D. Kataribabo’s house exhumations, 81 corpses.
Mar. 30, 2000 – Rushowa exhumations, 80 corpses.
Apr. 6, 2000 – police issued arrest warrants for Kataribabo, Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde, and three other cult leaders.