What Ambassador Dr. Augustine Mahiga taught me about refugees

As a graduate student researching refugee movements following the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s, I studied Dr. Mahiga’s writings closely.

20 June may be World Refugee Day, but I think of it as global holiday with a distinctly African identity. After all, the date was selected to mark an African event: The coming into force of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa on 20 June 1974. In selecting this as the day to reflect on global refugee issues, the international community recognized the value and importance of African leadership.

The OAU Convention was a tremendous innovation in its day. It pivoted the international refugee system away from the realities of post-World War Two Europe to the realities of African refugees fleeing wars of national liberation, minority-ruled regimes and generalized violence in post-colonial African states.

But it also signaled an African approach to responding to refugees. Echoing the call of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere that “none of Africa is free until all of Africa is free”, the OAU Convention called for solidarity between African states in responding to the needs of refugees. But it also recognized the needs of states and includes provisions to safeguard refugee hosting states.

Since my first visit to Tanzania in 1999 as a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Forced Migration at the University of Dar es Salaam, under the watchful eye of Professor Khoti C. Kamanga, I have learned so much from the journey of African states in navigating how to ensure the well-being of refugees, along with the well-being of the states and communities that host them.

This is what I remember on World Refugee Day: The world has a lot to learn from Africa.

But on this World Refugee Day, I will be saying a quiet prayer of thanks for one great leader who taught me very important lessons about the principles and practicalities of refugee responses: Ambassador Dr. Augustine Mahiga.

I was so saddened to hear of his untimely passing on 1 May 2020. It was early in the morning in Canada when I read the news, and I immediately shared my condolences with Tanzanian friends and colleagues. In return, they encouraged me to write this piece to share my reflections on the leadership and life of Balozi Mzee Mahiga and how deeply I cherish all that he taught me.

I knew Dr. Mahiga before I met him. As a graduate student researching refugee movements following the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s, I studied Dr. Mahiga’s writings closely. He was then Deputy Director of the Great Lakes Unit for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. His was a powerful voice on the need to understand the realities faced by refugee-hosting states like Tanzania following the mass arrival of refugees.

He argued that it was not sufficient to lecture African states about their obligations and ignore their concerns. Instead, he wrote in 1997 that “it is important to demonstrate that humanitarian principles are compatible with legitimate state interests. This issue goes beyond resource mobilization for refugee programmes to include regular consultation between governments and humanitarian organizations.”

This challenge – to understand how the needs of refugees are compatible with the interests of states – became the focus of my scholarly work for the past 23 years.

So, imagine my delight when I arrived in New Delhi, India, in late 1999, and discovered that my new boss was none other than Mzee Mahiga! I was a fresh graduate from the University of Oxford starting a junior position with the UNHCR office in New Delhi, where Mzee Mahiga was the Chief of Mission. It was an honor and privilege to work with him, and to learn from him, over the months that followed.

My experience with Mzee Mahiga during that time shaped me in deep and significant ways. He was the most immaculate professional, visionary in his leadership, and skilled in the art of diplomacy.

But he was also such a warm and sincere leader. I will never forget that day in October 1999 when Mzee Mahiga called me into his office to share the sad news that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had died. He shared with me his memories of Mwalimu and the lessons he learned from him about vision, courage, leadership and conviction. My respect for Mwalimu and Tanzania grew deeper from that time.

Mzee Mahiga explained how Tanzania’s global leadership on refugee issues under Mwalimu Nyerere was very intentional. Under Mwalimu, Tanzania’s response to refugees was good for refugees and important for Tanzania as refugees made important contributions to their communities and the country as a whole. As if to underscore the importance of this approach, Mzee Mahiga was the first to explain to me why Mwalimu Nyerere preferred the Kiswahili words ‘wageni wakazi’ (resident aliens) rather than ‘wakimbizi’ (literary, ‘those who have fled’) to describe refugees.

Mzee Mahiga also had a playful side. I remember, on UNHCR Staff Appreciation Day in 2000, the warm reception that Mzee Mahiga received when he arrived, with his family, at the staff gathering in Lodhi Gardens, across from the UNHCR office. And I will never forget the joy expressed by all staff when he took part in the cricket match – and was bowled first ball by his driver! Mzee Mahiga’s was the biggest smile on display.

It was such an honor to follow Mzee Mahiga’s exceptional career of service in the two decades that followed.

I saw him in New York when he was Tanzania’s Ambassador to the United Nations (2003 to 2010), representing Tanzania on the UN Security Council in 2005. It was during that time that Mzee Mahiga championed the establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerge from conflict and avoid a return to violence.

I followed with awe and admiration how he sought to realize this task by serving as the Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Somalia form 2010 to 2013 and worked tirelessly to help establish stability and governance in a country deeply affected by conflict for some three decades.

And I was delighted to receive the news that he had returned to serve in Tanzania as Minister of Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation (2015-2019) and then as Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs (2019 until his untimely passing).

I last saw Mzee Mahiga in Dar es Salaam in February 2018. I was struck by his enduring intellect, grace, vision, and gentle charisma. I shared with him how fondly I remembered that time we shared together, some 20 years earlier and a continent away, on the day that Mwalimu Nyerere died.

He shared that the lessons of Mwalimu always guided him – that states and individuals can be champions of principles and agents of change.

I then shared with Mzee Mahiga that this was a lesson I had learned from him.

Mzee Mahiga was a great Tanzanian ambassador to the world. His connections to Canada were strong, from his graduate studies at the University of Toronto from 1970 to 1975 to his time serving at the Tanzanian High Commission in Ottawa.

But his lessons to the world were deeper: that respect and cooperation between sovereign states is essential to solve our greatest challenges; that principles can be maintained and realized; that collective action and international cooperation are both necessary and possible; and that the world has as a lot to learn from Tanzania and Africa.

So, on this World Refugee Day, I would like to say ahsante sana. My thanks to Mzee Mahiga’s family for sharing him with the world. And my thanks to Tanzania for all that the world has learned from you, through the life and work of Ambassador Dr. Augustine Mahiga.

On World Refugee Day, and every day, I will remember the greatest lesson I learned from Mzee Mahiga: that the world’s greatest challenges can be resolved through respect, cooperation, and human decency.

Rest in peace, Mzee Mahiga. You are already missed.

Written by
Dr. James Milner
Carleton University
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees