Björn Beckman: In Memorial, By Kabiru Abdullahi Yusuf
Björn kept an interest in his students well after their graduation. I vividly recall his visit to Sokoto, my first port of call after ABU. As a junior lecturer in the Uthman Danfodio University, I was lodged in one room in a ramshackle university guesthouse. But he shared it with me with good cheer.
Dr. Björn Beckman taught many of us political economy at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). This came with a clearcut Marxist perspective. Some of our other lecturers were also anti-establishment and even radical. But except for being passionate nationalists, I cannot link them to any particular ideological orientation.
Not surprising, we their students were also somewhat muddled up. We were full of youthful rebellion against both local and foreign exploiters. But besides anger and well-practiced rhetoric, we lacked the tools to analyse and fight the powerful forces at play.
Many of us were, and probably still are, what Björn will recognise but politely not name as petite-bourgeois radicals. We railed against the system, but could not think outside it. We knew something was wrong, but what was the way to put it right?
Let me not speculate about others and speak for myself. By my second year, I was in the central committee of the Movement for Progressive Nigeria (MPN), a students organisation, with a decidedly Marxist outlook. But at the same time, I was drawn to Western liberal philosophy, from the Greeks to the Romans and to the more recent German variety.
There was one man in particular whose writings I followed closely: Bertrand Russell. Some of you may remember him as the philosopher and mathematician, who also won a Nobel Prize in Literature. He was an establishment radical and anti-war activist, who challenged received wisdom, on God, love and political correctness.
I thought Bertrand Russell was the epitome of the enlightened intellectual. But Björn gently questioned the basis of my assumptions. Yes, he questioned the beliefs and practices of conservative Britain, but beyond personal heroism, for him, what were Russell’s ideas and methods for changing the status quo? Björn continued to tease me about my attachment to Western philosophers, until I began to see the futility in analysing all the problems of the world, without offering any concrete solution to them.
Björn was the kind of teacher who never let up in his interrogations, within and outside the classroom. But my most enduring memories of him occurred elsewhere. He was one of the few lecturers who took his students seriously enough to invite them to his small apartment for meals. I personally learnt about wearing seatbelts in his Volkswagen beetle. Even on short drives inside the Samaru campus, Björn would insist on the wearing of seat belts. I used to protest about that extreme sense of caution, but he would argue that the quiet, local roads were often the most dangerous ones.
Before younger comrades like Attahiru Jega acquired their own long-lived beetles, Björn’s Volkswagen was there for many of us. On his annual vacations, in the late 1970s, he used to park the car in front of our family house in Sabon Gari, Kano, before flying out to Sweden. He would hand the keys over to me, with instructions to warm the car up once in a while. I did my best to keep the beetle very warm, always remembering to wear the seatbelt!
Björn kept an interest in his students well after their graduation. I vividly recall his visit to Sokoto, my first port of call after ABU. As a junior lecturer in the Uthman Danfodio University, I was lodged in one room in a ramshackle university guesthouse. But he shared it with me with good cheer. I was then in my classical music phase. So in the morning while he was in the shower, I put on the music, playing a Beethoven cassette, not sure what he would make of this petite-bourgeois indulgence. When the cadences of the music began to waft into the bathroom, it completely broke his Scandinavia reserve. He obviously knew the score very well, because at the top of his voice, with complete abandon, he began to hum along until the end.
I think Björn was ambivalent about my foray into journalism. He could see that reporting truthfully, and commenting honestly, could do good to society. But he just wondered if such high principles could survive the rough and tumble of Nigerian publishing.
He closely followed the Weekly Trust coverage of the terrible communal killings in Kaduna in 2000. The newspaper was barely a year old then, but we had managed to put together a report that showed the gory and the ugly, but also the humane side of the conflict. He was often in Kaduna, where we were based, and where he was researching on the textile industry.
He was less impressed with the copious attention we gave to the politics of invoking Sharia law, first in Zamfara, then in other states in the North. Instead of direct criticism, he preferred to watch me go head-to-head with A.B. Mahmoud, on why a progressive newspaper would give so much coverage to religious revivalism. Mahmoud was a senior state counsel then, practicing his forensic skills on me. Björn would intervene to cool things down, but were he to be asked to deliver judgment, I had no doubt my case was lost.
Journalism is a strange beast. It is a partly intellectual activity, partly business, completely wrapped in the politics of the moment. We the insiders often say, if you do like what you see in the pages of your newspapers, you should change the world, beginning at your doorstep. But perhaps this is too simplistic and sarcastic. Journalists chose what to report or comment on, among thousands of possible topics. But there is a limit to subjectivity.
If a news medium fails to notice and report on local events and issues, it risks gradual irrelevance. We can and do report on events in Afghanistan and Japan, but it helps to connect them with the concerns of the local audience. The challenge is to be open-minded, balanced and when necessary, brave.
Fortunately fickle trends fizzle out, to be replaced by new ones. While good journalism should provide the background and context, a systematic assessment of the past is the job of historians. I am not suggesting a strict delimitation, but a newspaper does its job by keeping a daily and accurate date with history.
The times moves on, catching most of us by surprise. It’s hard to believe that Björn first appeared among us nearly 45 years ago. I personally lost contact with him in the last ten years. His trips to Nigeria were less frequent and I think more focused. A few lucky ones among us, visited him in Sweden, and enjoyed the serenity of his country home.
He has left us with strong lessons in humaneness, humility and hard work. While his students and those he mentored have all dispersed to different callings and climes, some common values of decency and public spiritedness have kept us in touch. But we too are aging and passing into quiet retirement. We should find a way to sustain this common bond and pass it on to the younger generation.
Kabiru Abdullahi Yusuf is chairman of the board of Media Trust Limited, publishers of the Daily Trust and Weekly Trust newspapers.