Björn Beckman (BB) (1938-2019): Tribute to an African Optimist (1), By Issa Aremu

Björn Beckman, (BB), the celebrated Swedish political economist was laid to eternal rest  last  Friday the 6th December, exactly  a month he passed away on 6 November, 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden. He died at 81.

He was as much a mentor as a comrade of mine. Indeed himself and his wife, Gunilla were  Uncle and Aunty abroad respectively,  that’s if they were not at home in Kaduna cooking and eating with us with my late late wife, Hamdalat Abiodun. In BB, I and many of his comrades in the labour movement, that include, Adams Oshihomole, Jibril Ibrahim, Dr Yahaya Hashim, Yakubu Aliyu, John Odah,  Owei Lakemfa, Salihu Lukman,   saw intellectual integrity and rigor, friendship and generosity brotherhood, not color and race. 

I learned how to cook and abandon my patriarchal prejudice against the kitchen, thanks to    Bjorn and Yahaya Hashim who often took the lead in cooking while I was staying with Yahaya in Kano in the 80s. Professor Claude Ake was a great African scholar Claude Ake who died on November 7th, in the tragic ADC airline disaster in November 1997. 

The late Claude Ake just like BB nurtured our fertile intellectual minds in the late 70s as undergraduates of social science. Claude Ake in a seminal work damned social science as “Imperialism” (see Social Science as Imperialism. the Theory of Political Development).

In my reflection on Ake’s indelible intellectual legacy on African development, I wrote that “It would not be an  an exaggeration to say political economy as a tool for explaining socio-economic dynamics of Africa almost ‘died’ with the political economist himself.” But the amazing continuous intellectual outputs of BB and his numerous collaborative comrades, elevated and popularized  political economy as tool for understanding Africa development process even more than where Ake stopped.

Goal  17 of the new United Nations Sustainable  Development Goals 2030 emphasizes partnership as a critical success factor to promote development and eradicate poverty. Very few global scholars had actually practiced remarkable partnership in scholarship in understanding Africa’s development as Björn Beckman did. He was at home in selfless collaborative intellectual work with others in understanding our world.

One can hardly add to the tributes by two of his collaborative partners in scholarship, namely Jibril Ibrahim (Life of Struggle and Friendship) and Yusuf Bangura’s Epic Battles in Radical Development Theory, Field Research and Praxis).  BB left behind volumes of original intellectual work on African development process, inclusive of the state and non-state institutions, namely organized labour, students movement and political parties.

His intensive and  engaging intellectual work was majorly about Africa. Africa has certainly lost another enthusiastic and passionate scholar about the prospects of development and transformation, Industrialization, decent jobs creation, poverty eradication and popular democracy.

Two of his works always capture my imagination:  Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria, originally published  in 1985 and reprinted in 1989, Union Power in the Nigerian Textile Industry: Labour Regime and Adjustment (1998).

The two works were in collaboration with his wife, Gunilla Andre. The “Union Power in Textile Industry” is a total commitment for me as an organizer in Textile Union. In 1999 I actually reviewed the book with engaging discussions and clarifications from BB when he visited in Kaduna. Issues addressed in this 300 paged book are so integrated that one cannot read one chapter without the other. 

Like other seminal works such as his ‘What Trap’ and Índustry Goes Farming’ anybody familiar with Beckman and Andrea will agree that this couple did it again with refreshing original findings and conclusions.  The subject matter is “NUTGTWN: it’s experiences, problems and achievements”.  This is a two-decade long (70s and 90s) study that covers the period of “Dramatic change” in Nigeria involving boom, burst and adjustment. 

From the rather “small picture of union power in textile industry, the author presents us with the biggest pictures of issues in societal development, industrialisation, production processes, power relations between the state and civil society  etc.  Which then makes this book a compulsory reading not only for unionists but all those interested in naughty issue of “development”.

The framework of analysis rests on controversial concept of labour regime. It deals with complex set of institutions, rules and practices and regulations that guide labour/capital relations. 

The finding is that in the textile industry, a “union based labour regime” characterised by domination and contestation is entrenched.  The story of “how it all began at KTL” in 1984 offers a ready understanding of what the union-centered labour regime in practice looks like.

A company confronted with multiple problems of ageing machinery, changing demand, competition for newer plants, smuggling, shortage of cotton materials and 100% increase in official minimum wage wanted to shift the burden on labour through shutdown and wage cut.

The union rose to resist this “nonsensical piece of non-sense” and beat the management to it with all the resources at its disposal including the police.  In the end the company was forced to accommodate workers’ interests in the course of the resolution of its crisis of production.  Every page of these 13-long chapters is a celebration of this union based labour regime.

The submission is that even in the condition of economic crisis, there has been “expansion” rather than “contraction” of union power in the textile industry.  The result is that in the work place, constitutional regulation of conflict and legality had replaced hitherto arbitrariness of employers. 

Drawing a bigger picture from this, the authors observed that the emergence of union power reflects the capability of Nigeria’s society to manage conflicts through contestation and consensus building, representation and mediation as well as contribution to the ‘democratic reconstitution of the state’.  Judging by the ways NUTGTWN had inadvertently compelled recalcitrant companies to adjust, the authors argue and convincingly too that ‘union-based regime is consistent with modernisation of Nigeria’s substantial textile industry, making it more productive and competitive’. 

This discovery is definitely news worthy today that unions are being presented as obstacles to development that must be repressed (or is it crushed?) at all cost, both by International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and some authoritarian states.

Issa Aremu mni