Tributes flow after death of Tanzanian minister Augustine Mahiga, a former top UNHCR official
GENEVA – Tributes have flowed following the sudden death of Tanzanian Justice Minister and former top UNHCR official Augustine Mahiga, described as a great friend of UNHCR and steadfast advocate for refugees.
“Noble man”, “inspirational figure”, “loving father”, “proud African”, “untiring advocate of human rights” were just a handful of the plaudits paid to Mahiga, 74, who died on May 1 in Dar es Salaam after a short illness.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi led the accolades, calling Mahiga: “a wise statesman, fine diplomat dedicated former UNHCR and UN colleague – and above all a profoundly good man and wonderful friend.”
Mahiga served UNHCR during the 1990s - one of the most challenging periods in its history. He served as UNHCR Chief of Mission in Liberia during the civil war and from 1994-98 was coordinator for the Great Lakes region of Africa at headquarters. He also served in leadership positions in Asia and Europe.
From 2003-2010, he served as the Permanent Representative of Tanzania to the United Nations and from 2010-2013 as the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia. In 2015, he was appointed Tanzania’s Foreign Minister and at the time of his death was Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Former colleagues throughout the organization spoke movingly of Mahiga’s commitment to his work and passion to help those forced to flee conflict and abuse.
Romani Urasa, UNHCR's Representative in Rwanda 1994-1998, described Mahiga as a “very astute and skilled diplomat and tireless advocate for the cause of human rights.”
“He was a very diligent and hard-working man… he helped UNHCR solve a number of seemingly intractable problems during a very difficult period,” he recalled.
Urasa, a fellow Tanzanian who retired in 2002 after a 25-year career, said Mahiga had played a pivotal role as head of the Great Lakes unit at headquarters in Geneva in maintaining and building the agency's reputation as a respected and independent UN body in pre- and post-genocide Rwanda.
“He was instrumental in helping Sadako Ogata (who was then High Commissioner) receive the praise she did for the organization’s work during that difficult time. He also earlier played a hugely important role in Liberia,” Urasa said. But he added that it would be as a proud African, role model and mentor for many younger staff, including many Africans, that Mahiga would also be fondly remembered.
Arjun Jain was one of those forever grateful for the experience of having worked alongside the Tanzanian diplomat.
“I first met him in late-1998 when he was assigned to India as the UNHCR Country Representative," Jain recalled. "He always led by example – something that was critical for me to witness in my first ever job after law school. He treated everyone around him with immense respect and that had a profound effect on those around us.”
"A huge and unexpected loss."
Currently based in New York as a Senior Policy Advisor, Jain recalled that Mahiga also made a point of inviting refugee groups to his office and spent hours listening to their concerns.
“He always had time for them, and frequently represented their voices during his meetings with the government… That too was a lesson that has held me in good stead these past years,” he said.
However, it will be as a husband – he was married for 45 years to Elisabeth – and devoted father of three children that he will be most sorely missed.
Daughter Veronica followed her father’s footsteps into UNHCR.
“He was a man of great honour and nobility who saw so much in his lifetime. He was such a great man, a truly great inspiration to me. Growing up I could not always understand why he did what he did. Later, it just became huge admiration, he totally inspired me,” she declared. "It is a huge and unexpected loss, a terrible shock."
Friends and former colleagues also stress his human touch and speak of how he never forgot his roots.
Jain recalled the last time the two met in 2018, almost 20 years to the day since that first encounter in India.
“By then, he was Tanzanian Foreign Minister, leading the government delegation to the General Assembly High Level Week… He instantly recognized me, gave me a bear hug and we caught up in the 45 seconds we had to ourselves! In a very fatherly way, he said how very proud he was that I was still working with UNHCR. I had to take a selfie with him of course. I had a grin on my face for the rest of the day,” he said.