Dr Peya Mushelenga
An African for Africans has gone; a minder of Namibian exiles has fallen asleep; an astute diplomat is no more; a skilful negotiator has left us. Born in Burundi on 10 November 1941, in Kabuye Village, Bujumbura Province, Bwakira grew from a village boy to a law graduate, eventually becoming the towering figure at the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU), epitomising selflessness and humanity.
Bwakira joined the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 1970, as legal advisor and became the UNHCR deputy regional representative for Africa and head of liaison with the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 1971 to 1975.
Bwakira’s attachment to Namibia intensified during his posting to Luanda, Angola as the UNHCR representative and UN coordinator of humanitarian programme for rehabilitation and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons from 1976 to 1978. It was during this period that he had lunch on Sundays at his house with President Sam Nujoma of Swapo, then a liberation movement for Namibia’s independence.
From 1978, Bwakira worked at the UNHCR headquarters as head of Central and West Africa Desk until 1982 when he was posted to Ethiopia as UNHCR representative for Africa and UNECA, a position that brought him back to interactions with Namibian refugees. In 1988, Bwakira returned to the UNHCR headquarters as deputy director for Africa. The process leading to Namibia’s independence was unfolding and he was appointed the UNHCR coordinator for the return of Namibian exiles and coordinator for UN humanitarian operations in Windhoek, Namibia where he coordinated the repatriation of over 43 000 Namibians in 1989. Prior to the return of exiles, Bwakira undertook a mission to northern Namibia to assess the safety and security of returning exiles. He detested the intimidating presence and mischievous behaviours of Koevoet members who were transformed into the South West Africa Police (SWAPOL).
When the first fight carrying Namibians arrived at the then JG Strydom airport, now Hosea Kutako International Airport, Bwakira was there to satisfy himself that exiles were safely back to their motherland. A moving picture in The Namibian newspaper of 13 June 1989 showed Bwakira holding a hand of an exiled child, walking her to the terminal. Bwakira performed his tasks with utmost diligence and accomplishment. His eldest daughter Carine, then a high school learner came to visit him. Carine had long known President Nujoma whom she fondly called ‘my President” during her father’s posting in Angola. She had the posters of President Nujoma and Che Guevara hanging in her room. During her visit to her father in 1989, Carine spent six weeks in Namibia and had an opportunity to meet “her President”.
After leaving Namibia in 1990, Bwakira returned to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland as director for Africa, where he was involved in the negotiations for the return of South African exiles. There he demonstrated his negotiation talents and diplomatic acumen. In 1994, Bwakira was appointed UNHCR regional director for the SADC region, based in Pretoria, South Africa until his posting to the UN Headquarters in New York, US as Director of the UNHCR Office. He retired from the UN in 2002, but hold on! Who would let such an experienced brain go to waste? In the same year, the University of South Africa (UNISA) appointed him director of International Relations and Partnerships.
From dining and winning with diplomats, Bwakira was now rubbing shoulders with professors, lecturers and researchers. Owing to his outstanding performance in the diplomatic circles, the African Union appointed Bwakira as its special representative for Somalia, based in Nairobi, Kenya from 2007 to 2009.
In 2009, Bwakira became a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, South Africa until 2011 when he became a member of the institute’s board of trustees. An adage says: “We meet to part and part to meet”; during his posting in Namibia, Bwakira served under Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Secretary General’s special representative for Namibia and head of the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG). The two reunited in 2014 when Bwakira was appointed advisor to the Crisis Management Initiative, an institution that Ahtisaari founded, involved in meditation and reconciliation efforts worldwide.
I had an opportunity to interact with Bwakira on 16 September 2017 when I was conducting research work for a book on Namibia’s history, commissioned by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs and contracted by the University of Namibians. Bwakira and his wife, Cryllila, warmly welcomed me at their residence in Johannesburg, South Africa, and he provided photographic materials that would enhance the publication. Following my appointment as minister of urban and rural development in February 2018, Bwakira immediately send me a message of congratulations and said he was looking forward to reading the chapter on the repatriation of Namibia. It is sad that he passed on before he could see his enrichment to the publication.
What is in a name? The name Nicolas is a Greek name meaning “victory of the people”. Bwakira came to Namibia in 1989 to be part of the process of bringing victory to the Namibian people. His family became attached to the country that his youngest son, Christian, worked in Namibia from 2009 to 2012 as country manager for Visa Inc. Bwakira departed to eternity on Friday, 5 March 2021.
Go well an African for Africans! Ugire uburuhukiro budahera!