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To the Hague from Nabinene: A Book Review

To The Hague From Nabiene Book Cover

Daniel David Ntanda Nsereko has lived a remarkable life: from humble beginnings in a small rural village in Uganda, to the highest levels of international law in The Hague where he served as a judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC). In this book he tells his story, sprinkled with a generous helping of East African history, customs, legal opinions, arguments, and anecdotes about people who helped him on his way.

Humble Beginnings

Daniel was born in November 1941, the fifth of nine children. When his mother felt the onset of labor, she and her husband hopped on the family bicycle and headed for the nearest maternity hospital six miles away in the town of Kabuwoko. The hospital itself was at the top of a hill, and the last mile was too steep for riding.  Together his parents trudged up the incline. But they were still half a mile away when his mother could not walk any further. 

His anxious father left her by the road and ran up to the hospital for the midwife. By the time they returned, Daniel had already been born by the wayside.  The midwife, who happened to be his mother’s cousin, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and carried him to the hospital, where she cared for him and his mother for a week before discharging them. 

Nsereko’s father was a leader in their village of Nabinene as well as a farmer and occasional teacher. His mother was skilled at household chores and gardening. She served as the local midwife and both were active members of the Anglican church. 

Education

Daniel’s earliest education took place in nearby primary schools, as Nabinene was too small to have its own. In 1951 his father joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The next year, over strong objections from his mother, Daniel’s father sent him to the church-operated Bugema Training College 100 miles away. The school was fairly new, with limited classes and facilities. “I cannot say with confidence that I was intellectually stimulated whilst there,” Nsereko writes. But he was blessed by the spiritual atmosphere and the diverse student body.

Thanks to his high grades and test scores, in 1959 Nsereko was admitted to King’s College, Budo. It was the best secondary school in Uganda with top students from around the country. He not only received a great education, but also made important connections with future leaders in government and business that would last a lifetime, benefiting his later career. During the vacation between his first and second years, he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and described his baptism in a pond as a moment of “indescribable joy.”

While at King’s College, Nsereko was particularly inspired by a lecture from Kofi Busia, a Ghanaian academic and opposition leader who became one of his heroes. Busia spoke on freedom, noting that oppression of their fellow citizens by Africans was just as bad as White oppression had been. Overall, Nsereko said, “my stay at Budo made me public-spirited. I was fired up to fight for justice… I wanted to be able to speak for the under-dog, the down-trodden and those who could not speak for themselves.”

After finishing secondary school, in 1965 Nsereko went to University College in Tanzania to study law. Through his classes, he “fell in love with the law.” It would remain his lifelong passion and his way of making a difference in the world. While at college, he was active in student government and in regional politics.

In 1968, Nsereko obtained his LLB degree, becoming the first university graduate ever from his village. But that was only the beginning of his legal education. Later that year he was accepted into the Master of Comparative Jurisprudence program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He spent most of the next decade in the U.S., acquiring advanced legal degrees from both Howard and New York University with a focus on international law and human rights. 

God’s Protection

In the mid-70’s, Nsereko, now married with three children, returned to Uganda, where he did a variety of legal work, including serving as the lawyer for the Seventh-day Adventist church in the area. The next years were an unsettled and sometimes dangerous period. One day in 1979, as Idi Amin was fighting to stay in power, two of his soldiers armed with machine guns and machetes entered the Nsereko house in Kampala and ordered him outside. He offered them his expensive transistor radio and begged them to spare his life. As one seemed to be reaching for his weapon, the other said “leave him,” and they quickly departed. He attributed his survival to God’s protection. 

After Amin’s overthrow, conditions in Uganda were somewhat better. But Nsereko feared that his work and his political beliefs would continue to put him in jeopardy. So in 1984 he accepted a professorship at the University of Botswana, where he soon became Dean of the law department. He spent the next 24 years there, during which he polished his credentials in international law through his legal writings, attending conferences, giving lectures in places like Rome, London, New York, and serving as a visiting professor of law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. 

Climbing the Ladder

As a result of his academic contributions and his worldwide connections, in June 2008 Nsereko was elected as a judge of the ICC and spent the next 14 years at The Hague. The ICC is the world’s highest court, set up to investigate and prosecute cases against nations or individuals accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. While there, he also played a key role in laying the groundwork for establishing the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. 

Through his life and work, the boy from Nabinene became a world-renowned expert in his field; a highly distinguished international jurist with many awards and achievements. Yet by all accounts he remains a quiet, humble, unpretentious man.

Thoughts from a Reader

His book is not a typical autobiography. It has 300 footnotes, many of which cite scholarly books and legal writings. And the frequent, often extensive diversions and asides make it hard to follow Nsereko’s life story in any clear, chronological way. 

But these side-trips reward the careful reader with a wealth of interesting information, including Nsereko’s personal views on topics like African history, post-colonial politics, the importance of preserving native languages and cultures, and the legal rationale behind issues like basic human rights and anticipatory self-defense. 

While Nsereko takes up a number of complex issues, he does not address the Rwandan genocide of 1994 or the recent efforts of the Ugandan government to severely criminalize homosexual practices—two issues in which the local Adventist hierarchy has been seriously complicit. His views on those topics would be well worth hearing.

Through his lifetime of service to others, and his unwavering commitment to protect the rights and dignity of all people, Nsereko has brought honor to himself, and to the Adventist Church he has faithfully represented. 

To the Hague from Nabinene, Daniel David Ntanda Nsereko (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Company, 2023). 

About the author

Thomas Dybdahl has advanced degrees in theology, journalism, and law. A former Spectrum journalist and Adventist pastor, he retired as staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence. More from Thomas Dybdahl.
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