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Remembering Justice Robert Kisanga: A Giant of Tanzania’s Legal Profession

He was a courteous and accomplished jurist.

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On this day, a quarter of a century ago, I appeared before the late Justice Robert Habesh Kisanga of the Court of Appeal of Tanzania. It was my first time to appear before a Court of Appeal Justice. 

The late Kisanga had never seen me before; hence immediately after seeing me, he wanted to know whether I had ever appeared before a Court of Appeal Justice. 

I will never forget that Monday morning. The late Kisanga, whose son, the now Architect Amini Mtoure, was my classmate at the prestigious Oysterbay Primary School back in the day, greatly assisted me. I later learnt that it was Justice Kisanga’s hobby to assist anyone in the legal fraternity. 

“The first day I reported for work, together with retired judges Joseph Warioba and Barnabas Samata, we found Judge Kisanga at the office,” retired Justice Damian Lubuva said on January 24, 2018, after Justice Kisanga bid farewell to the world. “As the senior lawyer, he welcomed us and assisted us.”

Retired Honorable CJ Barnabas Samatta added: “The late Kisanga was always quick in assisting someone eager to get comprehensive details on certain issues related to the legal profession.”

Similarly, retired Judge Joseph Warioba stated: “The late Kisanga taught me how to practice the profession in 1966. He was an expert in the field, always ready and willing to mentor others.”

Great legal mind

Against this backdrop, I found it worthwhile to craft this article in honour of this great legal mind 25 years after their encounter on the morning of Monday, July 13, 1998.

Robert Habesh Kisanga was born on Tuesday, June 20, 1933 at Mbokomu, Moshi. He obtained his primary education at Natiro Mission School in Mbokomu. As he was a brilliant pupil, it was not surprising when he was selected to join Ilboru Secondary School, Arusha. 

After passing with flying colours, he was selected to join the prestigious Tabora Boys Secondary School, where he was the head prefect. 

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He was thereafter one of very few Tanganyikans who were selected to join the Makerere University, then called ‘The Harvard of Africa,’ where he obtained his B.Sc (Ec) in 1961. He then proceeded to England, where he obtained his LLB in 1964.

Upon his return to Tanzania, Kisanga said goodbye to his bachelor days after tying the knot with Ms Maria Ezra Kiwelu in 1965 while working with the Attorney General Chambers as State Attorney. In 1970, President Julius Kambarage Nyerere appointed Mr Kisanga as High Court Judge.

Court of Appeal Justice

The Court of Appeal of Tanzania (CAT) was established by Act No. 15 of 1979, which came into force on August 9, 1979. The court became operational after the official inauguration by President Nyerere on October 22, 1979. 

Kisanga was consequently appointed CAT Justice by President Nyerere alongside Justice Francis Nyalali as the Chief Justice, Justice Abdullah Mustafa, Justice Lewis Makame and Justice Yona Mwakasendo.

Justice Omar Justice Omar Ali was appointed after Justice Mwakasendo’s death in January 1984. He was the first Justice of Appeal from Zanzibar to join the Court. The first female Justice of Appeal was Lady Justice Eusebio Munuo, appointed in 1987.

In 1992, President Ali Hassan Mwinyi appointed Justice Kisanga as the founding Chairman of the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance. In 1996, President Ben Mkapa Appointed Justice Kisanga Chairman of the MV BUKOBA Tragedy Commission.

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In 1998, President  Mkapa Appointed a Constitutional committee on Union matters chaired by Justice Kisanga. Justice Kisanga proposed a Federation system of three governments, a recommendation which irked President Mkapa, who hurled his insults at Justice Kisanga, who, surprisingly, did not retaliate but remained calm.

Justice Kisanga’s judicial adventure ended in 2008 after clocking the mandatory retirement age 75 for a CAT Justice. Upon retirement from the Judiciary, the highly- respected Justice mainly worked with the Media Council of Tanzania as President of Governing board.

Justice Kisanga breathed his last on January 23, 2018, at 6.30 pm at Regency Hospital at age 85. He was survived by his loving wife of 53 years, Maria, and their two children, Mr Amini- Mtoure and his wife, Maria and Mr Amani and his wife, Emmy and his grandchildren, namely Amisteph, Innocent, Anthony, Maria, Robert, Aron and Annamaria.

His death marked the closure of a chapter of a generation of CAT Justices. Among the first 5 CAT Justices, Justice Kisanga was the only survivor.

Justice Kisanga was involved in many landmark decisions during his distinguished judicial career. The most notable is that of Kukutia Ole Pumbun, delivered on July 23, 1993. This case established the right for individuals to sue the government without seeking its permission, as was the case previously.

An accomplished jurist

To those anchored in the past, Judges/Justices might appear as stern, intimidating, aloof, formal, detached and pedantic authoritarians dispensing justice from a privileged and elevated perch entirely unconnected to the real-life experiences of the people whom they are constitutionally and morally committed to serve through the court. 

Such persons would not have recognised the late Kisanga, for he was not that kind of a Justice; indeed, he was the antithesis of every component of that outdated caricature.

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I will remember the late Kisanga as a decent, humane, engaging, thoughtful, diligent and genuine man. He was a courteous and accomplished jurist. In the same vein, retired Judge Sirililius Matupa rightly stated on July 12, 2023:

“The late Justice Robert Kisanga was a very careful speaker. He used to say that a lawyer should always mind his mouth and think clearly before opening his mouth to speak. I will never forget that.” 

 The late Justice Robert Habesh Kisanga was and will, without any doubt, remain a towering figure in the Legal profession.

Zeal for the rule of law

Today is a quarter of a century since I met Justice Kisanga for the first time, and I will never forget him for, among other things, his willingness to assist a ‘Nyuka.’ Furthermore, his mastery of the law, impartiality and zeal for the rule of law has inspired many over the decades.

We should cultivate a culture of praising great men occasionally, like Justice Kisanga, not only when they retire or die. It has been five years since Justice Kisanga, a man of principles and integrity, departed. 

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Sadly, ever since, one finds very little or nothing written about this gigantic figure of the legal profession who left an indelible mark on the legal fraternity and the people across the political divide. We ought to change this.

The million-dollar question for those in the legal fraternity to ponder is: how many current High Court and Court of Appeal Judges assist ‘Nyukas’ when they appear before them for the first time?

“There are jobs in our society which can be done by undisciplined people and people whose personal integrity can be called into question,” Mwalimu Nyerere told a Judges meeting in Arusha in 1984. “Being a judge is not among them.”

Mzee wa Atikali is a writer based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He’s available at +255 754 744 557. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further clarification.

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