By Jibrin Ibrahim
My good friend, mentor and teacher, Bjorn Beckman died peacefully in his home on 6th November. He was surrounded by his lovely wife, Gunilla, son Petter and daughter Malin as he departed. Professor Beckman was one of the most influential Marxist scholars that 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. I had the privilege of visiting him in April this year to wish him the best in the great beyond as well as discuss what to do about his Nigerian legacy. We spent the time with his family at their country house by the Baltic sea in the Swedish archipelago.
Bjorn was above all a good friend who I had been close to my family and comrades for over forty years. His family and mine have spent considerable time together both in Nigeria and Sweden over the period. He has great social skills and has had a huge network of friends all over Nigeria who he kept in close contact with over the period. He valued friendship and invested considerable time and resources maintaining these friendships. Its for this reason that a lot of us feel directly bereaved by his passing away.
My generation was already immersed in Marxist political economy by the time Bjorn arrived in Nigeria in 1978 when I was just starting my masters degree programme. Nonetheless, Bjorn 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 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.
During the numerous fellowships he secured for me at his base, the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University, I was astonished to see that he had other networks of students he trained both Swedish and other nationalities. He was a very disciplined person that worked hard for his students and associates virtually every single day. Not surprisingly, everybody wanted to be supervised by him and he never said no to anyone. During his 70th anniversary, a Festschrift was organised for him in Stockholm where his wider circle of comrades and academic associates came to pay homage.
Professor Bjorn Beckman was important to us because of his deep commitment to Nigeria. 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 that 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.
He and his wife Gunilla Andrae had particular interest from different angles in agricultural production and its value chains in industry. As Nigeria once again makes another effort at import substitution to produce the rice and wheat we import to eat, it’s worthwhile recalling their book – ”The Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria”. They traced the journey of Nigeria from self-sufficiency in food production in the 1960s to complete dependence in the 1980s. One Muhammadu Buhari, Head of State, in his 1984 budget announced increases in tariff except for wheat because as he explained, “bread has become the cheapest staple for our people (M. Buhari). Countries who want to combat food dependency develop value chains for local rather than imported staples.
Bjorn Beckman has always planned to write a book on his intellectual contribution, political engagement and his own direct participation in the radical movements that were active during his Nigeria tenure since 1978. In 1987, the authorities of Ahmadu Bello University had refused to extend his work contract for political reasons and he was obliged to return to Sweden but his engagement with academia and the radical movement in Nigeria never waned. At 75 years old, the time he finally had the time to settle down and write the book, illness came and it took years to even diagnose his condition. He therefore did not have the strength and peace of mind to write this important book that so many of his Nigerian comrades would have loved to see. He however left extensive dairies that could be mined for information and insights on the struggle for a progressive Nigeria.
Beckman was a key player in the 1983 Marx Centenary Conference where a major battle developed between different Marxist and radical lines and schools branded by Bala Usman and Claude Ake amongst others. Some of us self-defined as pure Marxist Leninists seeing others as mere radicals, but that’s a story for another time. He was an important adviser to the Students’ Movement and was really moved by the issues around “Ali Must Go” and the killing of students in Ahmadu Bello University in 1986. It was not surprising that he was forced out of the university one year later. Professor Beckman was also very engaged with trade unions and he and his wife did extensive research on the textile unions during the leadership of Adams Oshiomhole and beyond. Finally, in the post 1986 period, he worked closely with the Centre for Research and Documentation and Mambaiyya House – Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Research, both in Kano. Rest in peace Bjorn.