By Issa Aremu
Björn Beckman, (BB), the celebrated Swedish political economist. was laid to eternal rest last Friday, exactly a month after he passed away in Stockholm, Sweden.
He died at 81. He was as much a mentor, teacher as a comrade of mine. Indeed himself and his wife, Gunilla are like the Diaspora Uncle and Aunty respectively, that’s if they were not at home in Kaduna cooking and eating with us with my late wife, Hamdalat Abiodun.
In BB, I and many of his comrades in the labour movement that include Adams Oshiomohle, Jibril Ibrahim, Dr. Yahaya Hashim, Sokoto Muhammed, Salisu Muhammed, Yakubu Aliyu, , John Odah, Owei Lakemfa, Kayode Komolafe, Salihu Lukman and others saw intellectual integrity, alternative views, and rigor, friendship and generosity, brotherhood, not color and race.
Ideas undoubtedly unite humanity more than blood.
I learned how to cook and abandon my inherited patriarchal prejudice as a male child against the kitchen, thanks to the likes of Beckman and Yahaya Hashim who often took the lead in cooking while I was staying with hashim in Kano in the 80s.
Professor Claude Ake was a great African scholar Claude Ake who died on November 7, 1997, in the tragic ADC airline disaster. Ake just like BB nurtured our fertile intellectual minds in the late 70s as undergraduates of social science in Ahmadu Bello university, ABU Zaria and University of Port Harcourt where I eventually graduated, (no thanks to the discredited Ango Abdullahi VC dictatorship of early 80s in ABU!) .
Ake directly thought me political economy during my undergraduate days at Economics Department of School of Social Sciences, University of Port Harcourt (Unique Uniport!) in mid-80s. My greatest take away is in his original seminal work in which he audaciously damned social science as “Imperialism”
In my reflection on Ake’s indelible intellectual legacy on African development in 1997, I wrote that “It would not be 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 Beckman and his numerous collaborative comrades, in the 90s and up to recent times elevated and popularized political economy as a tool for understanding Africa development process even more than where Ake stopped. Beckman’s radical scholarship in Ahmadu Bello university was infectious and liberating, the climax the Karl Marx centenary conference in ABU, Samaru Zaria in March 1983.
Goal 17 of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 emphasizes partnership as a critical success factor to promote development and eradicate poverty. Very few global scholars had actually practised 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.
Beckman left behind volumes of original intellectual work on African development process, inclusive of the state and non-state institutions, namely organised labour, students’ movement and political parties. His intensive and engaging intellectual work was majorly about Africa. Africa has certainly lost another enthusiastic, optimistic and passionate scholar about the prospects of development and transformation, industrialisation, decent jobs creation, poverty eradication and popular democracy.
Two of Beckman’s works always capture my imagination: Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria, and Union Power in the Nigerian Textile Industry: Labour Regime and Adjustment. 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 organiser in Textile Union. Issues addressed in this 300- page book are so integrated that one cannot read one chapter without the other. Like other seminal works such as his Wheat Trap and Industry 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 the textile workers’ union, its experiences, problems and achievements. This is a two-decade long 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 aging 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 the union 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.
As we mourn the death of Beckman, the progressive world received the news of the passing of Ben Turok, another Africa’s leading thinker, optimist and activist of alternative inclusive development agenda.
Turok was also a trade union activist, editor, economic theorist, prolific author, philosopher and a staunch proponent of the later abandoned Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) in South Africa.
*Comrade Aremu is a Member of the National Institute (mni).