Bjorn Beckman, 1938-2019: A Life of Struggle and Friendship

Jibrin Ibrahim, Abuja, 12th March 2020

Today, we are gathered to celebrate a very good friend, mentor and teacher, Bjorn Beckman, who died peacefully in his home on 6th November 2019. 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 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 that country. Bjorn 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, Bjorn 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. His family house in Stockholm, their Stockholm guest house at Ljusterogatan, and their vacation houses on the Baltic coast, which grew from one to three as their children built theirs, were all open to our numerous family visits.

If I am to define one key trait of Bjorn Beckman, it is the value he placed on friendship. Friendship isn’t even the core issue, it is 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 over the depth of his love and devotion to all of us and the vast personal effort he made to maintain them.

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 Bjorn. I discussed with some of his Swedish students and their response was that he was not just an academic, he 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 maintaining these relationships. It is for this reason that for a lot of us, our key sentiment as we remember Bjorn is the loss of a very close friend and confidant.

At the same time, for Bjorn there had to be a basis for friendship; it is 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 is their self-aggrandisement are not deserving of friendship. When, however, he met people who are passionate about the working-class struggle, stopping oppression of the peasantry, mobilizing students for national development, they were filtered in and he sought to know and like them.

We appreciate Bjorn Beckman for his humanity, friendship and love for our families. His greatest impact on many of us was the way he oriented us to better appreciate Marxist political economy. My generation was already immersed in Marxist political economy by the time Bjorn 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, 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. Bjorn 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 Bjorn and he never said no to anyone. During his 70th anniversary, a Festschrift was organised for Bjorn in Stockholm where his wider circle of comrades and academic associates came to pay homage.

It is important to make the point that a lot of Bjorn Beckman’s work was done with his wife Gunilla Andrae. They were particularly interested, 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 is 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. Let us recall that 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”. Yet countries who want to combat food dependency develop value chains for local rather than imported staples. Today, the battle is to produce local rice to cut massive imports from Asia while the wheat trap remains our ambient reality.

Bjorn 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, Rotary Clubs, ‘Old Boys” associations, etc. And, of course, the apparatuses of the state itself, including the dynamics of the repressive forces, army and police force, as they got involved in operating the State apparatuses. 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.

Bjorn’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 organized 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.

Bjorn Beckman had 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. Beckman was a key player in the 1983 Marx Centenary Conference where a major battle developed across different Marxist and radical lines and schools branded by Bala Usman and Claude Ake, amongst others. Yusuf Bangura’s review of Bjorn Beckman’s epic contestations in radical development theory is, in this context, required reading. In 1987, the authorities of Ahmadu Bello University refused to extend Bjorn’s work contract for political reasons and he was obliged to return to Sweden. However, Bjorn’s engagement with academia and the radical movement in Nigeria never waned. At 75 years old, when he finally had the time to settle down and write the book, illness came and it took years to even diagnose his condition. Bjorn 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 diaries that could be mined for information and insights on the struggle for a progressive Nigeria.

Professor Bjorn 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 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. It is for all these reasons, and many more, that we are here today to celebrate the life and work of our friend and comrade, Bjorn Beckman.