April 2007

Assembling tools to help reestablish Uganda’s rule of law

By: Gail Hinchion Mancini

Rev. Joseph IsangaAs news trickled back to campus in January of a Notre Dame delegation’s efforts in Uganda, Rev. Joseph Isanga was flooded with memories and reflections on his home country.

Among them was his own happy prediction of the likely success of the Notre Dame Millennium Village Initiative (NDMVI) in the southern Ugandan village of Nindye, where a partnership with its people, Catholic Church representatives, and faculty and staff from Uganda Martyrs University will coax the impoverished region toward sustainable financial independence. Father Isanga serves on the NDMVI advisory board.

“These people may be poor, but they have a great interest in improving their situation,” said Father Isanga, a postdoctoral research associate in Notre Dame Law School’s Center for Civil and Human Rights.

While the area remains impoverished, it has achieved a most important precondition for development: stability.

Father Isanga keeps his eye on Ugandan unrest as a specialist in international human rights. Lately, his attention has turned to northern Uganda, which has experienced 20 years of violence as the host of one of Africa’s longest-running wars. A cease-fire has been struck among the players in what one United Nations official describes as the “world’s worst neglected humanitarian crisis.”

Still, there is much of his heart and a substantial part of his personal history in various venues of southern Uganda, where his mother still lives and where he served as a diocesan priest for several years. Life expectancy and child mortality statistics are personal to him: His father died in his 40s, his only sibling, a sister, died as a child.

Born in 1964, two years after Uganda won independence from Britain, Father Isanga’s life also has been defined by the rule of former President Idi Amin in the 1970s, a very strong militaristic presence capable of “horrible atrocities,” as he put it.

He attended high school in Kampala, the country’s capital, where violence was frequent. “Twice I saw takeovers,” he said. “I had to run for my life. Bullets were flying over my head.” In fact, he says, memories of flying bullets are the norm for his generation.

Father Isanga had a chance to study engineering, but chose the seminary instead. His parish work in the Diocese of Jinja taught him much about the scourge of lingering poverty. The constancy of domestic violence and abuse against women inspired his interest in human rights law.

His bishop sent Father Isanga to law school at Makerere University, hoping he would return as a diocesan lawyer. But his high honors earned him opportunities to pursue both a master’s degree and a doctorate of law at Notre Dame.

Father Isanga’s bishop has adjusted his hopes to the priest’s growing accomplishments and supports his plan to contribute to Uganda’s development beyond his support of NDMVI and his pastoral work.

As villages need to be revitalized, so, too, does Uganda’s legal system.    The law, the law profession, and the political process all have deteriorated after many years of turmoil. Father Isanga therefore hopes to be involved in restoring the rule of law and political representation nationally.

The preparation he’s undertaken at Notre Dame also has brought him closer to assembling the resources he’ll need for that task: knowledge, experience, contact and the skill to employ them.

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