Björn Beckman, 1938-2019: A Life of Struggle and Friendship, By Jibrin Ibrahim
Professor Björn Beckman was important to us because of his deep commitment to African development. He immersed himself in the successive radical struggles of the 1980s and 1990s and beyond. He was a central pillar in the coterie of comrades who defined pathways for resistance to imperialism, neo-colonial and national exploitation and oppression.
Yesterday, friends, comrades, students and associates of Björn Beckman convened at the Nicon Luxury hotel for a Memorial Colloquium to celebrate his life. Comrade Wabba, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) president led the labour delegation, with Issa Aremu of the Textile and Garments Workers Union, to the event. Academics in attendance included Professors A. D. Yahaya (my teacher and mentor), Nuhu Yaqub, Adebayo Olukoshi, Ebere Onwudiwe, Ismaila Zango and so many more. In fact, a significant portion of progressives and activists from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s turned up at the colloquium and the whole ceremony evoked strong memories of the good old days when generations of young people fought for political, civil and human rights, rather than personal acquisition of wealth, which seems to be the only value today. Even Governor Kayode Fayemi set aside State duties and came to sing solidarity songs with workers. The chair of the occasion, Kabir Yusuf, came to confess his role as the secretary general of a revolutionary vanguard in his younger years. Only a person as strong and impactful as Beckman could convene such a massive outpouring of affection and nostalgia for STRUGGLE.
Björn Beckman’s wife, Gunilla Andrae and two children – Petter and Malin, were in attendance to witness how deeply so many Nigerians appreciated Björn, as we all called him. Professor Beckman was one of the most influential Marxist scholars who worked in Nigeria, where he was a lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University from 1978 to 1987. His engagement with Nigeria and Nigerians however lasted to the end. He had researched and taught in Ghana before his Nigerian sojourn and also developed many close friends and comrades in the country. Beckman, in his years of research and teaching, also developed a huge network of former students and comrades in many other African and Asian countries and his capacity to maintain relations, friendships and joint work with these networks, was one of the wonders of his rich and fruitful life.
For so many of us, Björn was above all a good family friend whom we had the pleasure of enjoying and appreciating for thirty to forty years. Our numerous families and his interacted closely over the period in numerous cities – Accra, Kano, Zaria, Abuja, Lagos, Ilorin, Yola and Harare. If I am to define one key trait of Björn Beckman, it was the value he placed on friendship. Friendship wasn’t even the core issue, it was his natural gift of great social skills. He remembered and related with all his friends effortlessly, had an encyclopaedic memory of all family members, and had deep love for all the children. But maybe it’s not just the social skills that distinguished him, since many people can develop them; it was that he genuinely loved his comrades and their families in an open, sincere and devoted way. I am still in awe at the depth of his love and devotion to all of us and the vast personal effort he made to maintain these.
When I was on a fellowship at his home Department of Political Science at the University of Stockholm, I was pleased to discover that his legendary commitment to friendship was not just an African phenomenon. Swedish students flooded his courses on political economy. There was intense competition by students to get supervised by Björn. I discussed with some of his Swedish students and their response was that he was not just an academic but was genuinely devoted to their personal and intellectual development and above all, sought to make them good people with values that go beyond material success. His life, therefore, was strongly marked by the fact that he valued friendship and invested enormous time and resources in maintaining these relationships. It is for this reason that for a lot of us, our key sentiment as we remember Björn, is the loss of a very close friend and confidant.
We appreciate Björn Beckman for his humanity, friendship and love for our families. His greatest impact on many of us was the way he oriented us to appreciate Marxist political economy better. My generation was already immersed in Marxist political economy by the time Björn arrived in Zaria, Nigeria in 1978.
At the same time, for Björn there had to be a basis for friendship; it was commitment to progressive causes. I had a feeling that he had some sort of ideological filter in his head when he met people. If he heard them talk of their ambition to be rich, popular, powerful and so on, his brain would filter them out as candidates for friendship. Life is an opportunity to help others, so those whose sole concern was self-aggrandisement were not deserving of his friendship. When, however, he met people who were passionate about the working-class struggle, stopping oppression of the peasantry, mobilising students for national development, they were filtered in and he sought to know and liked them.
We appreciate Björn Beckman for his humanity, friendship and love for our families. His greatest impact on many of us was the way he oriented us to appreciate Marxist political economy better. My generation was already immersed in Marxist political economy by the time Björn arrived in Zaria, Nigeria in 1978. I was then just starting my Master’s degree programme and considered myself well versed in political economy, in addition to being a veteran in the student’s progressive movement. Nonetheless, Björn electrified the learning of Marxist political economy with his vast knowledge of the classics and current literature. He was above all a profoundly knowledgeable Marxist theoretician, with a deep knowledge of its methodology. This enabled him to make all of us better students and teachers of the discipline. He had the capacity to guide his students to do research that was both empirically grounded and theoretically sound.
For four decades, Beckman played the role of revolutionary mentor, academic supervisor, guide for rigorous Marxist-Leninist analysis and link to Africanist and internationalist radical scholarship and action. He was an excellent academic supervisor but never limited himself to that role. Björn was a very disciplined person who worked hard for his students and associates virtually every single day. Not surprisingly, as in Sweden, everybody wanted to be supervised by him and he never said no to anyone. During his 70th anniversary, a Festschrift was organised for Björn in Stockholm, where his wider circle of comrades and academic associates came to pay homage.
Björn’s life work has been oriented at demonstrating how the crisis of the post-colonial state creates openings for democratic politics. An important pathway to democratic politics, he shows, has been organised around popular resistance to the structural adjustment programmes all over the continent.
Björn Beckman had one epistemological concern that guided his life work: He wanted his associates and friends to have a better understanding and appreciation of the African state. He was concerned that too much writing on the African state was superficial and descriptive. There were too many tales of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling classes and too little analysis of social forces and processes. He always told his friends and students that it is not enough to dismiss the state for its inadequacies; what is important is to understand what is happening. In so doing, there is a need to take the ruling class seriously. Our responsibility, he always said, should not be to insult the ruling classes but to understand how class forces were developing and how they were relating to the growing body of class organisations, employers’ and manufacturers’ associations, chambers of commerce, etc. The challenge, he always insisted, was to understand the evolution of alliances between domestic class forces with foreign capital and various forms of aid and foreign state support.
Björn’s life work has been oriented at demonstrating how the crisis of the post-colonial state creates openings for democratic politics. An important pathway to democratic politics, he shows, has been organised around popular resistance to the structural adjustment programmes all over the continent. His core commitment was that the evolution of class forces was presenting important opportunities for the emergence of popular democracy and progressives should not miss the train. His political standpoint was that we should stop lamenting about the state. Powerful ruling class forces, both domestic and foreign, are at work in support of state reconstruction. As these forces mould developments, our own focus should be to work with popular forces in their struggles against state repression. We must therefore focus our struggles on building democratic forces and developing a popular democratic strategy to reshape the direction of the development of the state in favour of progress.
Professor Björn Beckman was important to us because of his deep commitment to African development. He immersed himself in the successive radical struggles of the 1980s and 1990s and beyond. He was a central pillar in the coterie of comrades who defined pathways for resistance to imperialism, neo-colonial and national exploitation and oppression. By the same token, he was a determined comrade engaged in the struggle for liberation, workers’ rights and women’s rights. It is for all these reasons, and many more, that we congregated in Abuja to celebrate the life and work of our friend and comrade, Björn Beckman.